Malas for Haiti: One bead at a time

I’m not afraid to admit it—I’m drawn to pretty things. I’ve struggled with the tug of materialism since childhood. Here, have a new [whatever], you’ll feel better.

So when I went to India for this first time as part of my long-time-in-coming transition from over-educated, well-heeled young professional to over-educated, emerging-inner-hippie suburban yoga teacher, I fell in love with a set of mala beads because they brought out the color in my eyes. And because a wise man told me those were the right stones for me. And because it’s what yogis are supposed to buy in India.

But when I held the cool beads in my hand, I felt a pulsing energy, something powerful and grounding. I was drawn to them. They represented for me the start of a long path to begin to fill a spiritual void that I had been carrying for many years, the genesis of my decision to travel to India in the first place.

I have to admit, however, despite bringing home several sets of japa mala beads that I dipped in the healing waters of the river Ganges, I still have yet to settle into the daily mantra and meditation practice that I know is a vital part of my spiritual journey. But I am at peace with the fact that I will get there in my own time.

And the beads still play a very important part of my practice of yoga, reminding me that this journey must start slow—one bead at a time. Right now, I’m engrossed in the practice of being present, not getting lost in the lure of every shiny object that floats by, not getting distracted by the inner critic that likes to remind me I’m a good-for-nothing yogi because I can’t manage to meditate and chant every morning.

Mala beads took on a new meaning when I embarked on the Global Seva Challenge in collaboration with Off the Mat, Into the World, to raise funds and awareness for sustainable relief efforts in Haiti. This is another practice that for me has seriously tested my edge. I’m good at spending money and supporting other people’s causes. But I am challenged by asking for donations, by finding my voice to champion a cause I believe in. By connecting with others in a meaningful way rather than always choosing an easy yet sheltered road. And especially by not letting a big intention and a big goal—raising $20,000 for Haiti—make me feel small, doubting, and powerless.

So, I decided to make malas. . . . Because I find something so powerful about a strand of 108 little beads hanging around my neck, whether I’m meditating with them or not. It reminds me to focus only on the present repetition instead of the 107 beads that lie ahead. To not let the big goal overshadow each tiny step to get there.

Every mala that I sell, every small request that I make—asking a friend or a complete stranger to support my effort or buy a piece of jewelry—brings me one step further along on my journey. But the beads also help me remember to stay unattached to the material goal of the challenge and the dollar signs that go with it. It’s all about the journey, and it’s all about the intention: to serve, with no view towards the outcome, simply out of compassion and deep love. I am humbled by the innumerable gifts I have been given in this life and the opportunity to share them.

As I travel simultaneously on my own inner spiritual journey and outwardly as a leader in this incredible effort for Haiti that is so much bigger than myself, I am learning about yoga in a way that I might not ever experience it on my mat.

And for those who buy the malas I have lovingly made, one bead at a time, in a process that is itself much like a meditation, I hope they will find the same path to peace that I have. One bead at a time.

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Selflessness: Mama Bonite and the Jacmel Children’s Center

Donations for To Haiti With Love and the Global Seva Challenge will support several incredible projects in Haiti. One is the Jacmel Children’s Center. In a rural community outside Port-Au-Prince, hundreds of children who were orphaned by the earthquake are living day-to-day, by the selfless service of local community leader, Bonite Affriany. “Mama Bonite,” as the children call her, feeds and educates more than 275 children everyday. Most importantly, she provides these children with love and support that many do not get anywhere else, but even so then they must return to their tents or the streets.

Yogini and Off the Mat leader Lisa Rueff, along with her husband, are spearheading a project to build the Jacmel Children’s Center, a property that would house many of the children Mama Bonite cares for, as well as providing education, art opportunities, and refuge to many other children and serving as a gathering place for the community.

Off the Mat co-founder Suzanne Sterling, who recently traveled to Haiti, wrote of her journey: “Every Haitian I met was extremely proud of their country and their people and expressed the need for empowerment through employment. . . self sufficiency as opposed to another hand out or another temporary shelter.  In other words, they were asking for our assistance in their long term vision and sustainability.”

That’s what the Seva Challenge is all about. Please support To Haiti With Love so the Jacmel Children’s Center can become a reality. Read about the other incredible partners and projects we are supporting.

Another Year Younger

It’s my birthday. There, I said it. And I’m not even ashamed to tell you how old I am (31), although my mom might wish that I hadn’t. And although, obviously, I’m getting older, I feel a bit like I’m getting younger this year.

I’m not really one for New Year’s resolutions, but birthday resolutions seem like a better approach. Another year of me… what will I do with it?

Here are a few things that are on my list:

  • Keep discovering my purpose and living it every day.
  • Take the time I need for self care and inner reflection, every day.  And do a better job of listening to my inner teacher.
  • Breathe.
  • Step off the ledge into something new and exciting, and know that the universe will catch me. (So I guess I’ve already started with that one… I couldn’t have timed my big transition better.)
  • Plan less, live more.
    And a brief interlude for a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson (courtesy of Tiny Buddha): “Most of the shadows of life are caused by standing in our own sunshine.”
  • Teach yoga to kids.
  • Breath some more.
  • Raise $20,000 for sustainable relief efforts in Haiti and travel there next year to put words into action.
  • Connect more with my community, those I know and those I don’t. Meet new people, every day.

So there you have it. Just a few small items to start with for my new year. It’s not surprising, though, that most of the things on this list make me feel younger just thinking about them. That’s the great thing about birthdays – you can take what you need from them. And this year, I need to know that the sky’s the limit.

Here’s to big dreams, new adventures, and starting right now.

Making malas for Haiti

Yesterday I got together with my amazing partner in the Global Seva Challenge, Christy (www.christy4haiti.com), and the lovely Carol of Coco Yogini, to make malas. Christy and I decided that we would make handcrafted malas with a unique design that invokes Haiti and the seva challenge journey, as part of our fundraising efforts. They will be more meaningful than t-shirts or other products we could sell, especially because we’ll be making them ourselves.

You can’t buy these beauties yet, but I wanted to give you a little preview of our mala-making adventure. Christy and I both consider ourselves to be pretty crafty, and I did quite a bit of jewelry-making and metalwork when I was younger, so I was thrilled to dive right in. Carol, who sells beautiful hand-knotted crystal and pearl malas online and in local boutiques, was kind enough to donate her time for the lesson. We worked hard, but had some laughs and a lovely time chatting and knotting, knotting and chatting.

Christy fashioned a bracelet, I created a smaller mala, and Carol worked her magic on a larger mala with some custom touches. Here’s the gorgeous mala prototype that I created:

And here are Carol and Christy, hard at work on their creations:

By the way, in case you aren’t familiar with malas, they are a form of prayer beads, used in yogic and Buddhist meditation practices to count repetitions of a mantra (a word or phrase that is repeated as part of the meditation). A traditional mala contains 108 beads, symbolizing a sacred number in Hindu spirituality. Check out this web site to learn more about malas and the meaning of 108. Malas also just make beautiful jewelry!

Look for Malas for Haiti, coming soon to a web site or boutique near you!

Flowing with asparagus

Flowing with asparagus

A view of the spring garden

I live just outside of a major city, drive my (hybrid) car nearly every day, and generally live what could be considered a modern, urban lifestyle. But I have committed in a few small ways to staying connected with the rhythms of the earth, despite the flow of life in the twenty-first century.

A couple of years ago when we purchased our house, we decided to uproot most of the grass in our backyard and replace it with wooden frames filled with rich, dark soil. With a few gardening books, some basic tools, and a lot of sweat, tears, and lessons learned, we have managed to grow a bounty of greens, carrots, beets, radishes, cucumbers, tomatoes, beans, and more. Believe me, you don’t really know what a carrot tastes like until you pull one out of the ground, brush it off, and take a bite. It’s heaven.

But for me, what’s more important than a handful (or sometimes, on a good day in July, a bowlful) of fresh food is the opportunity to connect so intimately with the ground – the earth – and its sustenance. When as part of our modern flow, we can simply grab a bag of dirt-free, pre-carved carrots or a bright red tomato when it’s snowing or – the horror – asparagus in September, it’s hard to stop and remember how the whole process is supposed to work. It’s an incredible exercise in mindfulness. And I really like getting dirty!

I adopted a tradition a few years back related to asparagus in particular. It’s unquestionably one of my favorite vegetables, and it’s characteristics make it the holy grail for me. It shoots out of the ground in mid-April and appears for maybe six fleeting weeks at our Saturday morning farmers market. And with few exceptions, this is the only time we eat it – and we eat it voraciously. This past weekend, as we walked into the market in a cold drizzle, there they were – the first beautiful green bunches. I bought two big round bunches and we sunk our teeth in last night. It was heaven.

The first asparagus of the season, waiting to be devoured

Admittedly I buy lemons, bananas, avocados, and some other decidedly non-local produce throughout the year. But there’s something magical about a vegetable that’s not supposed to grow except for during this very brief period, and the rest of the time is forced out of the ground in the southern hemisphere and flown many thousands of miles to reach my grocery store. It just wouldn’t be as delicious in April if you could eat it all the time, and so I choose to only eat it when the earth tells me I should.

I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who thinks about vegetables as much as I do. Maybe you never find yourself contemplating mindfulness in the context of asparagus, and that’s fine. But I invite you to find yourself a little bit of dirt, even if it’s just a pot, dig your hands around in the soil, and learn something about how the food you eat grows (by the way, you can’t grow asparagus in a pot, and even if you plant it in the ground, it takes three whole season before it produces any edible shoots). Even if you can’t grow your own food, go out and meet some farmers. And set an intention to be a bit more mindful about what ends up on your plate and how it got there.

I have lots more to share on this topic, so stay tuned for reports from the backyard garden and the role of carrots in my daily practice of yoga. In the meantime, if you do head out to the farmers market and pick up some asparagus (DC folks, now’s the time!), here’s my recommendation for cooking it.

Basic Grilled or Roasted Asparagus

  • Hold one of the asparagus stalks firmly and snap off the thick woody end – it will tell you where to break it. Repeat with the whole bunch.
  • Brush the spears with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
  • Grill on an outdoor grill until lightly charred. Alternatively, you can roast in the oven on a nonstick baking sheet at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes, or until tender but still crisp.
  • Serve immediately. Savor every bite while it lasts!

Waking up to being

My yoga practice is a work in progress. For me, the most important foundation of this practice is being yoga. Sounds easy, right? Wrong. This is also the part of my yoga practice I am least likely to perfect in this lifetime, no matter how many times I come into handstand or hanumanasana, no matter how many deep breaths I take. These things help, of course. But being yoga – off of my eco-friendly rubber mat and out of the serene setting of a yoga studio – is so much more.

Being yoga means awakening fully to our inner wisdom – that all-knowing divine teacher within. When you find this guide, you become more attuned to others and the world around you, the impact of your every step, and the ways in which we are all connected. There is no other, there is just “we.” And every breath I take affects the breath of my neighbor next door as well as my neighbor on another continent, worlds away from my daily existence.

This is a bit of a scary proposition, I know. You’re probably thinking, I can hardly worry about myself and what I’m going to eat for lunch today. How do you expect me to think about the impact of every decision on every other human being on the planet (there are nearly 7 billion of them, by the way), let alone trillions of animals, plants, and the earth itself? It’s just too much.

I said it was “practice,” remember? We won’t all get it right most of the time. But if we don’t try, I’m afraid we’re all doomed. Let’s start here. Margaret Mead’s famous quote rings true: “Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

This blog marks the beginning of an old yet new journey for me. Over the next 8 months, I will work with committed people in my community of friends, yogis, activists, and citizens to raise at least $20,000 as part of Off the Mat, Into the World’s Global Seva Challenge. If I succeed, I will have the opportunity to travel to Haiti early next year to put seva – conscious, spiritual, selfless service – into action. OTM’s challenge is an extraordinary chance to help the people of Haiti, working with grassroots organizations on the ground to help rebuild that country in a sustainable way.

But I am also not ashamed to admit, this is an incredible moment that the universe has set before me, to practice yoga in a new way with each breath I take for the next 11 months. There will be opportunities for very practical experiences – overcoming obstacles to make large fundraising events come to life, regaining some of my forgotten french-speaking skills, learning about the history and culture of a troubled yet vibrant country. But there will also be countless occasions to step back and consider the impact of my own suburban yogi lifestyle on people I have never met but with whom my existence is inextricably intertwined.

There is a lot more than money standing between me and this trip of lifetimes. I fully expect to face down my own fears and demons on a daily basis, whether manifested from within or in the voices of others. But I’m armed with love and community and ready for whatever lies ahead. There will be a lot of yoga, and a lot of breaths, between here and there.

Please visit this space for much more about my journey to Haiti, as well as musings on yoga and living awake through a mindful and sustainable lifestyle.

“The moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never have otherwise occurred. . . unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would come his way.” ~ Goethe