Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Winter 2008 Newsletter

Dearest Community,

I am writing this message to you from the most beautiful, pristine place, deep in the tropics of Brazil. My first visit here was 20 years ago and, amazingly, some things are still the same. Of course, many things have changed as well.

Going down memory lane has been a sweet experience colored with a tinge of melancholy. I have reconnected with a side of me that I had almost forgotten. Brazil is in my blood and my soul. Easily, I slipped back into the rhythm of this country.

The timing of this trip has been blessed by the order of the cosmos, including my encounter with old friends and dear teachers, Sharon and David from Jivamukti, who just happened to visit for a few days. We spent an afternoon together that never could have been planned in advance. But there we were, in the same place at the same time. Go figure!

Being in a place that is both familiar, but also, strange to the life I now live in the Bay Area has taught me much, particularly through interactions with the people, the animals and the land. Most strikingly and consistently, I have been faced with the pairs of opposites that the universe constantly presents to us, in order that we may glean whatever lessons we can !om these moments of precious time.

I would like to share with you some highlights from this trip:

I spent one week in Canoa Quebrada, a little village on the beach near Fortaleza. In Canoa Quebrada, a timeless and stark place of the north, the warm wind rules and the sand is as white as the snow in Switzerland. At a certain time of day, the surrounds are bathed in the warmest of golden hues and, generally, the colors all around are so deep and beautiful, it almost hurts!

The warm sea stretches endlessly, with bright turquoise waves that meld into dark grey. At a point in the distance, it seems as though the sea merges into the stunning blue of the sky.

Most everyone who lives here ends up walking a few miles a day just to get back and forth. You really can’t go anywhere in a hurry this way. Time is measured by the rustling of the palm trees instead of by the clock.

There is an interesting greeting custom here, initially amusing but perfectly sensible. In Switzerland, the customary greeting is three kisses on the cheek. In the States, it is a hug. But here, you literally take a sniff of the person you are meeting! The people who live here say hello and then proceed to take a little sniff off the side of your neck. It is hilarious, but also makes perfect sense, as you can verify with your nose how a person is really doing.

The opposites are alive and well here. On a drive from Fortaleza my friend Maciria and I saw five men, completely inebriated, swaggering along the side of the road, occasionally stumbling into it — a road upon which Maciria drove a staggering 160 kilometers an hour. Evidently, driving at a reasonable speed is not the custom in this part of Brazil.

Along these same roads, I saw donkeys behaving more like dogs, foraging through garbage and crossing the road whenever they felt inclined to do so.

I met Antoine, a retired fashion photographer from Paris who has been living here for the last 15 years. He shared with me the following joke based in Ceara, a poor state in the north of Brazil:

An old couple came into a restaurant and sat down. The waiter came over and asked the man what they wanted and the man ordered a cold guarana antartica (a popular and common drink in Brazil). Then he asked the waiter to bring another cup, claiming that he shares everything with his wife. So the waiter did. A moment later, the man ordered a sandwich and again asked for an extra plate because he shares everything with his wife. Then he began to eat. Soon he finished and the waiter noticed that the wife had not touched a thing, so he went over to comment to the man. But before he got very far, the wife showed her toothless grin and said, “Please, everything is okay, I’m just waiting for him to finish so he can give me the dentures!”

There are a few “nightclubs” in town. They are right next to each other and at night there appears to be a competition to see which venue can play the loudest music.

There is a reggae club, a lambada club, and, to my astonishment, there is a Swiss club, whatever that means!

Remarkably, there is no cover charge and there is no pressure to drink. Dancing and having a good time are the focus of these places and the people who are their patrons. This scene is an example of the thriving local culture, the people who participate in it, and how they actively work to keep things as they are. Apparently, a few years ago a foreigner had the audacity to open an expensive nightclub with a cover charge. He closed six months later because EVERYONE boycotted him. I laughed when I heard this story – in some ways the power of the people is strong in Brazil.

While spending time in this village, pretty much outside of the “real world,” there was much less need for structure. Everything flowed in a natural way, eliminating the tendency to create an imposing framework to manage the time.

There is a continuous harmony in Canoa Quebrada that everyone taps into pretty quickly. People move according to the water, the moon, the wind and the sun. Even the restaurants are affected by this natural order. They open their doors in accordance with the ebb and flow of the tides. Being held in this universal harmony creates peace in the system. The need or inclination to control, which most of us know so well, dissipates.

Rio de Janeiro and Petropolis
Petropolis is a little city up in the mountains and serves as a popular weekend escape for the cariocas, Rio’s locals.
On the way out of Rio we came across miles and miles of favelas. The stench emanating from these slums was unbearable. Throughout this journey, however, I intentionally chose to witness the misery, keeping awareness that the human mind tends to tune out pretty quickly when confronted with that much discomfort.

In Petropolis, I was introduced to a community-based educational facility for children and adolescents from the slums. Being careful not to affiliate with any political groups, which would mean closure as soon as the next party takes over, they have been successfully operating for three years. Although Fundacao Educandario Princesa Isabel do Juizado da Infancia e da Juventude da Comarca de Petropolis is a well-funded project, the dedicated coordinators are overworked. I was able to contribute to the community by teaching a yoga class for the staff and a couple of the children.

In addition to the usual magic that happens in leading a group through yoga practice, including the gift of immense gratitude that I receive in return, I discovered that, indeed, I could teach a class in Portuguese!

Apparently, I hit the nerve while talking about the potential burnout of social workers and change makers. This is exactly where these dedicated souls were at that very moment. Introducing a method of self-care vis-à-vis a spiritual practice made a lot of sense to them. Jorge, the leader of this foundation and his cousin Flavio, a student in San Francisco, said that nobody who he had encountered taught yoga as a simple and spiritual practice. Yoga seems to be perceived as a pastime for the Brazilian elite, similar to what is happening in the States. There was great satisfaction for me to provide a practice that showed these people the simplicity and profundity of opening one’s heart through yoga, in all of its accessibility.

Paraty and Sao Paulo – Hometown of Mauricio’s family
Another excursion brought us to Trinidade, a hippie village resting on some of the most extraordinary beaches I have ever seen, including a pristine shoreline with lagoons nestled against the remaining seven percent of coastal rainforest. One adventure took us to a natural pool with enormous stones, seemingly cast randomly by a playful giant.

To reach this wonderland, we trekked through treacherous rainforest paths before finally arriving at our Edenesque destination. The water was crystal clear, revealing an abundance of sea creatures. Several hours were spent snorkeling and exploring, watching sea stars and turtles swim below me in the beautiful waters. It was truly exceptional.

Next stop was Sao Paulo. There, I led a workshop for a group of wonderful people, speaking in Portuguese the entire time!

On the last day, Francesca, a student and friend from San Francisco and I were invited to dinner by Fabio. Fabio happened to be a friend and partner of Rogerio Fasano, restaurateur, hotel owner and, perhaps, the wealthiest man in Brazil. Had I known we were going to be regally wined and dined, I would have dressed accordingly! Again, the paradox caught up with us – from the poorest to the wealthiest in an instant!

This is what yoga is all about – living the paradox.

I have so much gratitude for having had the opportunity to connect with this part of the world again and to be able to bring yoga to all kinds of Brazilians, the wealthy, the poor and everyone in between. This is the work that needs to be done, regardless of class, gender, race, or economic status. I am also grateful for the remembrance that I thrive in teaching yoga to the peoples of the world.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Fall 2008 Newsletter - Grist for the Mill

Grist for the Mill

According to the Buddha, we can evaluate the quality of a society by observing the way in which its most vulnerable citizens are treated. If this is indeed an accurate determinant of our society’s well being, we are in trouble! So, how exactly do we treat those who are most vulnerable? Say — women, the elderly, children and those who have made mistakes and are serving time in prisons? How is it that most yoga practitioners in this country are women, yet the most successful, renowned yoga icons are mostly men? How about all the unpaid work that women do raising children and keeping house? And how are our children doing? Children in middle class and poor families are getting less and less of a chance at having a decent education these days. Children whose parents are forced to hold down three jobs in order to make ends meet (a fact that President Bush seemed quite proud of in one of his speeches), are suffering from inadequate care at home. Other vulnerable populations in our society include: the elderly, who are conveniently tucked away in old-folks’ homes; and today’s enormous prisoner population – who, once released, end up all too often back in prison. In part, this is due to the lack of opportunities for rehabilitation that would enable them to lead a normal life.

Perhaps looking at how we deal with our personal vulnerability and weaknesses can shed light on how our society got itself into such a mess. Mainstream society teaches us to hide our weaknesses and our vulnerability. Consequently, we have learned to spend our time and energy hiding, fighting or fixing these aspects of ourselves. When faced with our personal weaknesses, we find that, as in society, we are unprepared to manage what we have inside of us. We judge and treat our vulnerability viciously.

The Dalai Lama noticed this trend when he first began teaching how to cultivate loving kindness in the West. A practice that traditionally begins with feeling loving kindness for ourselves first, His Holiness was shocked by how many of us Westerners are judgmental and loathsome of ourselves.

Thankfully, there is a remedy to this! Yoga and related practices promote a different approach to managing these universally shared aspects of being human. Through Yoga, we can realize that our weaknesses are in fact a means to a deeper connection to ourselves and also to each other. Once we find ourselves walking on this path, we learn to recognize our vulnerability and weaknesses as grist for the mill. I propose embarking upon an exploration of the tendency to deal with ourselves so harshly. We begin by asking questions of ourselves, and answering them honestly. What is our habitual way of dealing with our weaknesses? Is our main strategy to hide them? Fight them? Fix them?

In our yoga or meditation practice, we can start to pay attention to what happens when we encounter our weaknesses. When we sit the body down in meditation, or start to mindfully breath into our body while moving, those weaknesses will show themselves quite quickly. Instantaneously, the body will respond based on how we have conditioned ourselves to hide, fight or fix.

Instead of expending so much of our energy in this way, we could just make space for their presence. In doing so, what becomes apparent is that in each weakness is also a hidden gem, waiting to be uncovered.

As an example, I would like to use myself. When I was younger, I was somewhat of an arrogant yoga teacher. Coming from a background in dance, the advanced yoga poses came relatively easy to me and because of this, I had little compassion for stiff and slow students.

Later, I suffered a number of injuries. Initially I viewed these as a bother and an obstacle to “true yoga,” a weakness of which I was ashamed. Finally, I accepted them, and listened to the message these injuries were bringing to me. The hidden gem was revealed: Humility, compassion and a deep connection with all those who suffer.

I also became somewhat of an expert in all kinds of physical injuries, since I had journeyed through most myself. Often our weaknesses are blessings in disguise, ideally leading us to tenderness, wisdom and compassion.

Another insight into this occurred for me many years ago during a weeklong activist camp with Julia Butterfly Hill. She gave a talk. As she came to a particular place in her story, she started to cry.

I immediately felt uncomfortable. There she was, exposing her vulnerability in public. I expected her to be embarrassed, maybe even pull away or stop talking. None of this happened — in fact, quite the opposite. Her message became clearer and stronger. She remarked that she always had to cry when coming to this point in her story, leaving me with the impression that this was a powerful person with a message who was unafraid to share everything, including her tears, to communicate that she really CARED!

This experience changed me. I realized that caring, which often causes our emotional vulnerability to arise, is a form of strength and not weakness. I also learned that when we reveal our caring, vulnerable selves to each other, we fuel our message. Imagine that as a society, we translated our vulnerability and weaknesses as strength and power, and used these new definitions to protect what is good, and, to step up, making even more good in our lives and therefore in our communities.

In the upcoming immersion that I will co-teach with my dear friend, Madhuri Martin, at Yoga Kula in Berkeley, it is my intention to create a safe environment in which my students can explore these very things. It is such a delight to watch people transform vis-à-vis access to the ancient teachings of Yoga and the Dharma, in tandem with receiving the loving support of a community that is learning together to use the incredible tools offered by the Yogic tradition.

I am excited to co-facilitate and witness another powerful group get in touch with who they really want to be! If you are interested in joining, please read the information below. There is one non-negotiable requirement — that is, I am asking for each individual’s full commitment!

Friday, May 30, 2008

Summer 2008 Newsletter

Dear Sangha,

I hope you are all well and happy. The conscious cultivation of happiness is perhaps the most radical practice that we can do in such a troubled world. I am engaged in just that, as I have recently moved into a beautiful house located in a sweet neighborhood in Berkeley. For the first time in many years I am living in a neighborhood where I can bike everywhere and go for a stroll whenever I have the desire. What a pleasure it is to not have to drive — to decrease my carbon footprint on this earth. Not to mention, the welcomed absence of nightly gunshots we heard from inside our previous home in West Oakland, some of which were literally outside our door, and, the occasional driver who tried to run me over when I went outside! I don’t think I have slept so well since I left Switzerland at the age of 20.

I don’t know why it took me so long to move out of West Oakland. Perhaps it was some underlying guilt about the privileges I enjoy, along with the belief that, “I can get by and make anything work,” which my beloved friend Julia Butterfly pointed out to me.

So lately, the theme appearing in my classes has been recognizing where in our lives we hold ourselves back, where we keep from moving into something greater which we have created for ourselves, and, how when we do allow ourselves to exist in our fullest form at any moment, we expand into a new level of being, and, finally, how to maintain this new space. It is so easy to come up with reasons for why we don’t deserve something we have achieved, even when it is a goal for which we have been striving for ages. As a result, we may sabotage good things that happen to us!

Yoga gives us the tools to shed light on these unconscious patterns, in which we all engage, and offers to us a way of breaking these habits. Yoga is like the proverbial wrench thrown into the wheel of Samsara, translated as the never-ending cycle of suffering. I am learning to enjoy the benefits of my own hard work, welcoming success into my life instead of shying away from it. However, I do not forget another facet of the practice that is so vital to my every day life – the social, or spiritual activism that yoga inspires within me.

When I reflect on my life, I see that engaging with my community in the form of volunteering has been a constant for me. For example, when I was living on the outskirts of the Morro de Santa Marta Favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, I was deeply involved with the people and the environment around me. Daisy, the woman who lived downstairs from us, often cared for kids from the slum while their mom or dad went to work. We cooked for, and fed those children.

Today, I continue to acknowledge and serve the varied communities around me. While Berkeley is a beautiful haven supporting and nourishing me tremendously, in the surrounding environs, there is much work to be done. This commitment to living with my eyes wide open to my community has led me to the most inspiring Karma Yoga practice at San Quentin Prison. Besides having a green card, which means I’m a “legal alien” of the United States, I am now also the proud carrier of a brown card, which gives me access to San Quentin without supervision! Every other week I teach yoga to Trust participants — 15 to 20 men in San Quentin serving life sentences — to help them with physical discomfort, health issues and, of course, to offer spiritual counsel.

My incredibly talented friend and filmmaker, Tamara Perkins, is shooting a documentary about the Trust, a program at San Quentin that focuses on rehabilitation and re-integration of the men in prison. The trailer is quite moving. Please take the opportunity to see the group of men (outside, I call them affectionately “my guys”) to whom I have been teaching yoga:


May you be well and full of happiness, and may you find the fulfillment you deserve, Katchie Ananda