Art by Ashley Kircher
Weekend Immersion into the Meaning of Yoga
The air was humid and warm, but as raindrops began to gently sprinkle down and cover us in their dew, a mild chill set in. There are certain types of experiences that, as you approach them, you know that they will change you. As 200 strangers stood in line at the Omega Institute registration kiosk, it was as though we collectively sensed that this would be one of those transformative life experiences. Some of us were students, many of us teachers, but all of us on a journey into the heart of the path of yoga.
The Omega Institute has been home to innovative and experiential learning geared toward personal and social change since 1977. This particular weekend, Omega brought together more than 20 of the nation’s top yoga instructors for its annual Being Yoga Conference Retreat—a weekend jam-packed with classes, workshops, meditation and lectures. Amidst its 195-acre campus and immersed in the fresh air, sound of chirping crickets and the pristine greenery of the Hudson River Valley, a group of us stood awaiting a weekend that promised work, play, personal growth and an exploration of the meaning of Being Yoga.
After registration and a dinner made of whole, local, delicious food, the entire group came together to share in a warm welcome, sitting in the beautiful Main Hall to set intentions for the weekend ahead. As the sun set and the moon rose, we gathered closer to listen to Yoga Stories: The Path of Yoga—tales and reflections from seasoned teachers about their path of yoga. Some teachers shared stories dear to their hearts. Sharon Gannon told a story about a little tea miracle in India. Rev. Jaganath Carrera shared a story about guardian angels and the importance of cultivating compassion, “compassion,” he said through his long, white beard, “requires a relationship with pain.” We tend to push away suffering and yet, it is that very suffering that has the power to bring us together, “when we break down our walls, we begin to experience each other.” Beryl Bender Birch spoke of the power of paying attention. “I can’t teach you yoga,” Birch opened with, “because yoga is an experience.” Her advice was simple, “Pay attention—” doing so keeps us firmly rooted in our true selves. Darren Rhodes shared how in his path, yoga invited him into situations that brought up weakness in order to create empowerment. “Yoga,” he said, “got me in the ring with myself.” Rhodes openly shared about his anxieties regarding public speaking and teaching, and yet how his path with the practice led him down the very road he feared most. He asked, “What is yoga inviting you to be challenged by?”
After introspection, connection, and a brief meditation guided by Elena Brower, applause and cheers ensued and was promptly followed by the soulful and magical kirtan from Masood Ali Khan. By the end of this heartwarming evening, we were all ready for bed and ready to be up at the break of dawn for more exploration, inquiry and practice in the path of yoga. Exactly how this short yet intense journey would unfold was yet to be decided—having to choose from workshops such as Tapping Into the Flow of Grace by Desiree Rumbaugh, to Colleen Saidman Yee and Rodney Yee’s workshops on Backbends and Hip-Openers; from Kaline Alayna Kelly’s The Sacred Dance of Thai Massage to Sharon Salzberg’s workshop on Lovingkindness, I was pleasantly overwhelmed with myriad options and overcome with gratitude for what was to come.
Admittedly, I’d come to the conference not only to cover the event as a writer, teacher and student of the path of yoga, but it was an opportunity to connect to my own inquiry and journey. It was no coincidence that the conference was taking place on the anniversary of one of the deepest losses in my own life, and that here I was, presented with an opportunity to not only sit with, but practice, learn from and interview teachers that I had looked up to over the last decade of my yogic life. The synchronicity continued—many of the workshops offered dealt with grief, loss and bravery in the face of suffering including Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa’s meditation on Developing Courage and Rev. Carrera’s Why Me? Solving the Riddle of Suffering. But I wasn’t alone in my journey.
On Saturday morning, a group of about thirty of us sat around Seane Corn as we discussed the experience of loss in her Yoga for the Broken Heart workshop. Death, breakups, unemployment, aging… it was all there, raw and beautiful. One thing was true, despite our stories, despite how each one of us had gotten there, we had all experienced a similar pain and in that space—regardless of past or present, regardless of the fact that we were all strangers—we were united. Together, Corn encouraged each of us to sit with the burning of our hearts. Tears streamed down almost every face as Corn moved us through our second, third and fourth sun salutation. As we reached our hands into the sky in a gesture of devotion to the highest, and as we swan dove down, we were symbolically releasing our sorrows as offerings towards the Earth.
“Yoga doesn’t allow you to bypass your big feelings, your traumas; instead it invites you to go straight into them, and so the things I most resisted, I had to eventually deal with them,” Seane Corn told me later in person as she spoke of her own journey with the practice. Corn is the National Yoga Ambassador for YouthAIDS and the founder and co-faculty of Off the Mat, Into the World training taking place at Omega in July of 2013. As an activist training activists, Corn has been committed to using her platform and yoga as an instrument to educate thousands and raise millions of dollars for causes such as human trafficking, and the South American rainforest. She spoke further on the topic, “that’s the challenge of the practice, but also its gem. It forced me to shift my perception, to heal, and that created more space for love.”
That was certainly one of the themes in the exploration of Being Yoga; a shift occurs when yoga becomes something we embody rather than something we do. “We tend to want to be doing all of the time,” Manorama, internationally recognized teacher of Sansrkit, yoga philosophy and creator of Learn to Pronounce Yoga Poses, said. “We come to learn through the practices of yoga that if our doing is always doing with no grounding, it is much less effective than if we are first grounded in being and act from that place.” And just what does it mean to ground in being? What is at the heart of “being” rather than “doing” yoga? “Yoga is union,” Manorama continued, “We have to study what union is. Where is the union? Next time you have a great conversation and you really connect with someone, afterwards, ask yourself ‘what brought about the union between us?’” Manorama emphasized. That union is ever present, it’s everywhere, all of the time accessible. Manorama shared, “for me the change [within myself] came when I realized there was no separation. It’s about grounding in who you are and bringing all of yourself to the table. It’s about grounding in the infinite. This is yoga, the experience of union.” Manorama currently teaches in the The Fundamentals of Yoga Club™, a Teleclass that delves deeper into the subtler aspects of the practice of yoga.
“Being yoga is a fluid process; yoga is a state of being that is in us all the time. Then we engage in a set of practices that help create the causes and conditions to reconnect and recognize that state of being,” echoed Cyndi Lee, founder of OmYoga Center in NYC, lecturer and author of books including Yoga Body, Buddha Mind (Riverhead Trade, 2004) and the upcoming book May I Be Happy (Dutton Adult) to be released in January 2013. While it may sound somewhat mystical and philosophical, it all really comes back to earth when you look at it closely enough, “Pay attention; be embodied,” Lee continued, “What do you feel? One way of understanding it is to keep coming back to the present. What’s the present moment? Because it’s already gone. It’s not holding on to the present moment, but riding it.” She paused. “Being yoga is being open hearted, being grounded within every situation, and working with whatever is happening right in front of you, engaging fully with what’s there.”
Through the workshops, lectures and my private meetings with these teachers, individuals who have devoted countless hours of energy, effort, attention and devotion to the practice of union, to the exploration of its different methodologies, the message seemed to be uniform throughout: yoga is an experience that is lived out through embodiment, through our daily lives, through our bumps in the road. There seems to be something almost magical, and definitely healing about the practice of coming home to what’s here in the present moment—whether the vehicle for that is asana, backbends, arm balances, twists, or whether it’s breathing techniques, kirtan, Sanskrit or seated meditation. Sharon Salzberg, international meditation teacher, cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society, author and lecturer said it best, “no one practices meditation to become a great meditator—we practice to have a better life… we all have the capacity to be more at peace and happier and more connected…so… why not?!”
Perhaps that’s the real question: why not? What do we have to lose? We are, after all, already here, already united. Yoga teaches us that the destination is the journey itself, that the present moment the only moment, and that our bodies and our breath are our anchors. To this point, the words of Cyndi Lee will perhaps always stay with me, “Keep it real. Keep it simple. Keep it real simple.”
For more information on Omega programs and faculty bios, please visit the Omega Institute website at eomega.org
Tatiana Forero Puerta is a writer, yogi and teacher. Tatiana has studied Religion and Philosophy at University of the Pacific, Stanford University and New York University. Tatiana works with yoga teachers and private clients teaching yoga, philosophy and nutrition. Her writing has appeared in Assisi Literary Journal, Religion and Psychology Research, and JOY: The Journal of Yoga. She can be contacted through her website: www.tatianafpuerta.com