When I arrived in Ghana, the whole experience was a bit overwhelming – both via the fact that here I finally was, after eighteen years away – eighteen years of maintaining the intention to come back, as well as the fact that my experience now was so strikingly different from that of each of my three arrivals in the past. First in 1997, when I came to Ghana on a study-abroad program while in college; then when I returned two years later, in 1999, seeking a life and future here; and finally on my last trip to the country in 2000, when I returned shortly after receiving the news of my husband’s very sudden and unexpected passing from this world… each of those times… I stepped off the plane and directly into the warm, welcoming, evening African air – onto those stairs that are rolled up to the plane for disembarking. The air felt amazing and refreshing and just so very welcoming – a big warm “welcome home” smacking me in the face each time. After stepping down the stairs and… I think taking a bus to the airport building itself(?), I would walk through the airport delighting in its lack of air conditioning (as I’m usually freezing in airports or any other air-conditioned building) and its lack of… rush. I have memories of it being small and warm and not very brightly lit. Things felt easy, laid-back, and… different (from the West), as I passed through Immigration and Customs…
This time… I experienced none of that, except for the lack of rush, the ease of Immigration and Customs, and the general laid-back attitude of the people. The airport was like… a “regular” airport – it felt pretty much just like the European airports I had just been passing through in Edinburgh, Munich, and Lisbon, except smaller. It had a regular jet-bridge to get us from the plane into the airport. It had air-conditioning. It had fluorescent lights. It was CLEAN. It had clean, modern bathrooms that looked just like any European airport’s bathroom. And this was all a little confusing (though I certainly didn’t mind the nice clean bathroom).
As I waited for my ride outside (still at least an hour of car travel to go, out to Kokrobite), finally enjoying the very warm African air, plenty of the men working at the airport spoke with me, and I learned that this is actually a totally new airport, that the old airport is now only used for local air traffic – within Ghana. Once I finally got picked up by the caretaker of the AirBnB I had booked, it took ages to get out of Accra; everything is extra busy right now because of Christmas, as loads of people come to the city to shop or to be with family, etc.… I was also told at the airport that Kokrobite, too, would be very busy now, and that there would be music and parties at the guesthouses every night, etc. – which are the kind of things that I never enjoyed about Kokrobite in the past… Keep in mind that when I lived here before, Kokrobite was just a landing point. I came here (after not liking the farm where I started out my journey back in ’99) because it was a place I could study dance that was outside of the city (Accra) – back then it had a hotel that doubled as a drum and dance school. But after a couple weeks it was clear that I was not actually at all fond of Kokrobite itself, and my whole “real” life in Ghana was life out in the bush – outside of the village of Kokrobite. My husband Koro and I had a very private and isolated experience together; once we were together, we very rarely went into the village. And we did not plan to stay around these parts for too long – our plans for the future involved a move up North, to his home village, in the very rural, traditional, and fertile Brong Ahafo region (the perfect place, Koro assured me, to make the organic farm that I intended to have).
But back to my arrival… Finally fully out of the city and the immense exhaust fumes with which it is filled (hello diesel fuel and no emissions controls), we took the “old” road to Kokrobite, as opposed to the supposedly super nice new road, which Justice (my host here at the AirBnB, while the English woman who owns the house is away) said he never takes because it is always too backed up with traffic. So this was the same old road I used to take… but, as I had indeed imagined, it looked nothing like before. First of all, it was paved. Second of all, there were quite a lot of other cars on it, whereas in the old days it was always pretty empty. And thirdly, the entire way out to the village, the road was now lined with little shops and kiosks that had not been there before. I was not surprised, but it was completely unrecognizable.
My first night here at my AirBnB in Kokrobite (a marvel in itself – that I found an AirBnB out here) was hard. My throat and nostrils were burning from breathing the highly-polluted air of Accra that whole time we were stuck in traffic, and the air even here in Kokrobite was – and is – extremely smoky. It seems at its worst at night, and honestly at times it really feels just like, or possibly even worse than, the smoky air we recently experienced in Santa Cruz during all the horrendous fires happening around California. Of course, I always remembered the smell of Ghana as a somewhat smoky smell – way stronger in the cities, but everywhere… it’s a mixture of foods being cooked, most often over coal braziers, AND… much worse, the burning of trash – plastics and all. Well… back in 1999ish, my senses were nowhere near as sensitive as they are now, my diet back then (simply vegan) being so very much heavier than it is now. …And with the moving towards the whole Pranic Nourishment thing… air quality is by now pretty darn important to me. My friends who were in Guinea last year warned me about this, and I knew it would probably be a bit of an issue for me, but… wowza. Yeah, it’s bad. It is really bad.
And back to that first night… the music. The recorded music, BLARING. Yes, Kokrobite (which had just gotten electricity shortly before my arrival in 1999) is already in full party/celebration mode for Christmas. And it was the start of the weekend. And I like quiet…
I reminded myself that my first night somewhere new often involves a bit of a rough transition, tried not to think too much, and then also decided that if I do nothing else here besides write, and make my requisite visit to the site of my old home, to see what is there now, and to feel what I feel, I will be a happy girl. After all, I have felt “behind” on writing work for ages, for months and months now have wanted nothing more than uninterrupted time to myself to focus on the writing work – not only to make progress with the sharing of the writing, which I have felt called to do for some time now, but to get deep into the writing itself – and just be able to be with myself in this intimate way… Honestly, in the couple of months before my departure, I was most looking forward to this small piece of my potentially five months abroad – these two weeks in Ghana – because they are two weeks ALONE, without any major agenda or schedule, which for me can only mean, hallelujah… WRITING RETREAT!!! (And let me tell ya, fast-forwarding a bit, I am enjoying it!)
Again, back to that first night… as much as I encouraged myself to try not to think too much just yet… to first give myself a minute to adjust… I couldn’t help it – the thoughts came. I might not have given them much consideration or weight, but there they were, coming and coming, that first night in Ghana – and the following morning, and into the early part of that first day here. And these thoughts were all centered on how different my experience was now – not just externally, but internally.
I think probably everyone who signed up to receive these emails, these blog posts, knows a bit of my story with Africa – the fact that I fell in love here, married a Ghanaian man, lived with him in a shack out in the bush – without water or electricity, and then, after eventually returning to the States to make some money for us – to fund the plans we had for our future in Ghana, became a sudden widow at the age of 24, when Koro very unexpectedly passed from this world (due to mysterious causes). I have written a whole memoir about the experience, and I really hope to have it published, so that those of you interested in reading more about that whole time of my life can. But for now, it’s enough to know the basics, and the fact that, back then, I only wanted to live in Ghana. I was ready to leave the America in which I grew up (suburban, middle-class, Midwestern America) far behind me – I had become quite turned off by the general culture of consumption by which I had been surrounded; had become interested in sustainable living, intentional communities, and eco-villages while in college; and then had completely fallen in love with the Ghanaian culture during my first trip here, which was during my final year of college. That first trip to Africa was life-altering, and it involved a very transformative spiritual awakening. In part, this came from my exposure to and fascination with the traditional religion here (including its ceremonies involving drum and dance) as well as from eventually hanging out with hard-core Rastas in Accra; but I believe that it was simply the God-consciousness I experienced all around me, in everyone I met, that perhaps played the biggest role in this awakening. Whatever their religion (mainly Christianity in the South, Islam in the North, Rastafarianism as a minority mostly in the South, and traditional religions everywhere – and usually mixed into all religious expression as well), the Ghanaian people all simply seemed to have the Divine in their minds, in their hearts, in THEM – as a constant of daily life. And (especially as I was emerging from the spiritual void of my very mainstream suburban American upbringing) this was what I most loved about the Ghanaian culture. …After dropping out of the academic program with which I came (and proceeding to have a bit of a crazy ride exploring Ghana on my own), I eventually decided to return to America and finish school – but mainly just in order to wait till I was ready to become a wife and mother before returning to Ghana, because by the end of that first trip, this seemed the only real option for a girl my age who wanted to live in the country and assimilate into the culture. (And I had no interest in being a volunteer, student, tourist, or any other kind of Westerner who found a way to be here for a stretch – I was in for the whole shebang.)
…When my husband Koro passed, I was beyond devastated. I was broken. I felt I had lost everything – not just my husband/partner/best friend/other half, but also the future I had with him, which was my whole life; I didn’t see anything for me back in America, other than my family, most of whom, at that time, I was having issues with (stemming from the difficult time they were having understanding or accepting the whole desire-to-live-in-Africa thing). …When Koro died, the only thing that I felt remaining for me was the Divine. God/Jah/Allah/the Divine One Within – whatever you want to call it – that was simply all that remained.
Life changed drastically for me after losing Koro. I used to be such a dreamer. I was so good at it – not just at having grand dreams/visions for my future, like a family and farm in Ghana, but even fantasies about all the minute details (especially in the two years it took me, after that first, life-altering trip to Ghana, to ready myself for the realization of these dreams). I had a very clear vision for my future, shaped by the cultures to which I had been adapting – both the Ghanaian culture and also the conscious culture within which I found myself in British Columbia, Canada, after college, where I was learning to garden organically and help care for beautiful, healthy children. …After Koro passed, all of that changed. Besides ONE sort of dream that formed about going to Guinea, which will be discussed in a later blog post… I stopped dreaming. And besides the far-fetched fantasies in which I indulged during my first year of mourning, about Koro actually still being alive somewhere… I stopped fantasizing. I also stopped having a vision for my future. Life became about service to the Divine – just follow whatever divine direction I receive, do whatever I feel divinely called or inspired to do; and eventually the basic structure of my life became …to simply do whatever I did that helped me to realize/experience the Divine manifesting through me – to help me realize/experience my Divine Self.
Dance. Craft. Write. Those were the first things that kept me going after losing Koro.
Around those former Ghana times – during, just before, and just after, I used to use medicinal herbs and fungus to help me experience the Divine. Then I discovered raw foods and dietary cleansing and found that through a drastic change in diet, I no longer needed those medicines to gain the expansion of my consciousness. And that fact, combined with the health factor – with wanting desperately to find a way to stay perfectly healthy so that I could live in Africa again without getting sick (because yes, I had come very close to dying from malaria once before…), were what got me started, back in 2001, down this road of dietary cleansing that eventually led me into Pranic Nourishment and all THAT. The ease of having the physical body in tip-top condition, as a constant, is a HUGE and wonderfully joyous aspect of the whole Pranic “diet,” or even of just a minimal liquid or fruit diet; but to me the much greater and more important part of it all is the CONSCIOUSNESS we can access – the consciousness that naturally comes – from the shifts involved with this path; and I’d say that, ultimately, that is my biggest reason for getting into it. After all, all we really have in this life is our consciousness…
…Then came the yoga. Though it started (in 2003) simply as a way for me to keep my physical body in shape for my West African dance classes, eventually… after years of daily practice, and I believe especially, for me, after years of pranayama and the regular practice of the Advanced Series (Ashtanga’s “old” 3rd and 4th)… I have found that this, too (go figure), really does help a great deal with the growth of the consciousness, with the realization/experience of the Divine Self (just like they say it does!). And with teaching the yoga, too… as to why I do it… though I always felt I would share this practice that has had such a profound effect on me – even back when I felt the effects mainly just in my physical body, what really cemented the deal was when I first began to get more serious about it (in good, sweet North Carolina) and felt the Divine coming through me in the teaching – just like with a good dance experience – feeling the ego step aside as the Divine takes “me” over and passes through “me.” I love that sensation, that feeling that it’s not “me” – the ego – doing the teaching, but that the teaching is passing through me, and beyond it being one of the major ways in which teaching feeds me, it is what tells me that yes, I should indeed teach. (Though I must admit that lately it’s mostly my sweet and dedicated students who tell me this, with their love and appreciation…)
Lately it’s the writing that has most been helping me to experience the Divine, and there is so much more to say on this subject that I have begun a whole other blog post about it, so will not spend more time on this here! I could also expound a bit on why I do the drum and dance, as these activities, too, for me, center around the experience of the Divine, but as I’m sure there will be more said on that later as well… enough on all this for now – I think you get the idea of why, in my post-Koro reality, I generally do the things I do.
And I am sharing all of this with you now, here in this particular post about my arrival in Ghana, in order to help explain that… on my first night and morning back in Ghana… my thoughts and reflections included the fact that I am no longer a 23-year-old girl seeking a settled life (husband, family, farm) in the culture with which I had fallen in love. Though I am essentially still the same girl that I was then – and really that I was even as a child… so much has also changed for me… in the way I live my life… and in the way I perceive things, and understand things. And this, it seems, is as it should be – now as a 42-year-old woman-girl, I would hope that some growth and evolution would have further developed me during the course of all this time away.
Ever since my first year away, I always thought I would be back in Ghana, or at least somewhere in West Africa, within a year or two of whatever present moment I found myself in. For the first few years after I left, it seemed that I would go in the coming winter – until something would invariably come up, or I wouldn’t have the money quite organized. After a few years, when I started with the yoga and decided to spend the next winter on Maui, to study with a particular senior teacher living there, it became “not this winter but next winter.” Every year. Literally every year since I left eighteen years ago I have thought that I was no more than a couple years away from a return to Africa. And eventually, after quite some time… there was this big question mark involved with this thought: would I want to live there again? And, too, as I became closer with my parents over the years, there was a sort of pressure attached to this question – which I know formed through their fear of the answer being a resounding YES. ...Africa had always been the escape-plan in the back of my mind – in case things got too difficult or unbearable in America, with the lifestyle, or the culture; in my mind, in my memory, in my past experience of it… Ghana was at least an affordable and easy place for me to live, where I also loved the culture and got to experience so much continual personal growth…
Eighteen years have passed. And there is so much that has remained the same for me, during my time away, including my preference to live simply, and ideally in a place that I not only love but that also challenges me and propels me to grow and evolve – which has all been so much of the draw of being in Africa… But now it also seems that so much has changed for me since I was living in Ghana. Back then, I really had zero interest in a life in America. Since then… a life in America eventually developed. And I have accepted that – I don’t resist it happening anymore, like I believe I did for many years post-Ghana. When I returned to Santa Cruz in 2012, I dedicated myself to living there for at least four or five years, just to see what would happen if I did indeed stay put somewhere for that long (my previous record being a whole two years, also in Santa Cruz). And though I do feel, after my many years of the semi-nomadic life, that I tend to eventually get stagnant when I stay put for too long a stretch, without some rather interesting travel in there, some experience of another culture or another place to challenge me or move me or shake things up and spark some growth… I do love the life that has developed for me in that sweet bubble we call Santa Cruz. And I know this is mostly due to the wonderful community that has developed for me there, both the drum/dance community as well as the yoga community, and the wider community of random friends and acquaintances – all of whom make Santa Cruz my home. I had none of that when I was in Ghana eighteen years ago, starting a life for myself here.
As I mentioned, all I really saw for myself back in America after I lost Koro – other than the potential for education, because by then I knew I wanted to at least study a bit of permaculture and yoga – was family, with whom things were rocky at the time. Now, settling into my first night in Ghana, my thoughts also included the fact that… nowadays… having easy (relatively easy) access to my family is much more important to me than it was back then. My parents were much younger eighteen years ago, and coming so recently out of the experience of having them there for me all the time as I was growing up with them, I honestly didn’t care so much about being able to see them every so often – it just wasn’t something I thought about. Now… it’s not just that my parents are getting older, which certainly is a factor. It’s also that… my mom and I are extremely close – even much closer, I think, than we were when I was 23 years old, which was still plenty close – this has been a lifelong thing. But since then we have had some experiences together that have sort of cemented our relationship as… partners, of a sort. We check in with each other daily; we’re there for each other; we’re a team. And with my extended family as well, which includes quite a lot of special people… while I have always known and appreciated that I do have such an amazing family, I think that perhaps as I am getting older I am cherishing my time with them ever more. And this is all to say that… unlike before, I can no longer see just living the rest of my life somewhere in Africa, without at least a very regular back and forth to the States to spend time with my loved ones there.
And finally, my thoughts that first night and morning here in Kokrobite also included the fact that… Africa doesn’t just mean Ghana anymore. When I first came here in 1997, and then in 1999/2000, Ghana was my only exposure to West Africa, and its culture, and its music and dance – and it was a wonderful introduction to African culture, all those years ago. But since then… Guinea, and Senegal, and Mali – my drum and dance teachers in the States are all from these countries. And as for the music and dance… I will talk about this in a later post, when we reach the Guinea stage of the trip, but for now I will just tell you that I have loved the drum and dance I found from Guinea so much that I have always been hopeful about enjoying spending time in that country, where I am headed, for potentially four and a half months, just after Ghana. I realize I have no idea if I will like Guinea, or if I will love it as I have loved Ghana, but I might, and I hope I do, because I know that, so far, at least since my first trip to the continent, I have always craved time in Africa, as part of my life in general, and because Guinea is much more relevant to the life I have finally created for myself back in the States.
That first night, morning, and afternoon in Ghana… while I acknowledged that I felt open, as always, to whatever the universe and the Divine might bring my way, to whatever direction in which I felt led to go – while who knew what would happen during this stay in Ghana… I felt… so far… that Ghana was my past, and that this trip would be a laying-it-to-rest. It’s not even so much that I wanted to come here, I knew, but that I have felt for so many years now that I needed to come back, simply to feel whatever I feel – just to be here and experience the place and the culture again, and just… be with myself and feel. I have known that my previous thoughts of “a life” here had gradually been left behind, over the years – that thoughts of a long-term “life” anywhere, in fact, have not been on the table, either – as planning too far into the future completely stopped upon losing Koro, and the resultant change in the way I approached my life – which involved letting go of so much desire, including the desire to have a certain kind of future.
…Still, though… all that being said… at the same time… I also must admit that I did love it here so very much before that I have always felt like I at least needed to give it a chance to take me, in some manner, again…
* * *
My first day here in Ghana was restful and contemplative – all these thoughts and reflections swirling around in my head, and coming out on the page, as I lounged on the big bed in my room at the AirBnB. As I wrote away, suddenly the background noise of recorded music (and nothing good) was broken into by some live drumming. Hallelujah! It filled me with energy, and eventually motivated me to stop what I was doing and finally step off the property of the AirBnB and out into the world. …And as soon as I started walking down the red dirt road, surrounded by Ghanaians… I got a huge smile on my face. It just felt SO GOOD! To be here, to see Ghanaians all around me… to feel my body moving after the long journey and the long rest… to feel my independence in this country where most people speak at least some English – to be able to walk up the road and easily communicate enough to buy some fruit at some of the kiosks now there (one of the changes that actually makes it so much easier to be here now – no more making trips to another village quite a ways away to get to a market, like I used to have to do)…
After dropping off the oranges, pineapple, and watermelon at the AirBnB, I also took a quick walk down to the beach. …The ocean’s water was warm on my feet. And I was in an area of the beach familiar to me from my arrival in 1999 (though it all looks different, now totally lined with structures – but the one guest house that existed back then, my point of reference, is still there). And the ocean was… just beautiful. Walking along the beach, I felt my past here, and Koro, more strongly, just as I often do when walking along the ocean at West Cliff back in Santa Cruz. I stopped for a moment to stand still and gaze out at the water, before turning around to make it back to my room before the disorientation of dark – conscious of how very swiftly night comes here, so close to the equator… And looking, in my stillness, at the immensity of the water… I felt my heart so fully. Not that I felt this or that – any particular way, but just that I FELT, my HEART. As if I had indeed left it here, all those eighteen years ago, and now here it was, waiting for me, greeting me, joining what had always remained inside me. …That sure felt good.
A friend recently asked for a contribution for a book he’s writing on the “Why To” of yoga practice. Here’s what came through:
When a friend showed me some yoga poses just after we graduated from college, in 1998, they felt good, physically, and so it only seemed the intelligent thing to do to begin doing them regularly. I knew nothing about yoga at the time – growing up mainly in Omaha, NE, in the mid-’80s to ’90s, I’m really not sure I had ever even heard of yoga until near the end of my college days. After college, I became extremely nomadic, mostly working on organic farms in exchange for food and shelter (WWOOFing), and while I had very little money to spend on classes, whenever I found myself somewhere with a free community yoga class, I would drop in and pick up one or two more things.
This is how I started down the path of yoga – so simply, and that simplicity has never changed. I love my yoga practice; I generally find the approximately three hours a day that I currently get to spend in meditation, asana, and pranayama quite heavenly. I do these things because I enjoy them, and it has always been this way. They feel good, as they should. As I have heard said before by some senior teacher – or maybe many of them, “if it doesn’t feel good, you’re not doing it right.”
In 2001, I spent a couple months as an apprentice/intern at the EcoVillage Training Center on “The Farm” in Tennessee, an old commune from the ’70s now turned community. As part of the apprenticeship, we were able to take yoga classes at no charge at the community yoga studio, where the most challenging class, which I preferred over the rest, was called “Ashtanga.” Later I would realize that the class was more “Ashtanga-based” – it was not a strict following of the Primary Series; but what I took away from that class were two things: #1) the word Ashtanga – that this was the style of yoga that I liked; and #2) Surya Namaskar A and B (Ashtanga’s sun salutations), which I learned well enough to remember, and each of which I began to do a few times every morning.
In my first weeks of practicing Ashtanga’s sun salutations (and nothing more than these), my arms and shoulders were killing me!!! I had so very little upper body strength back then. Growing up, I was always very skinny (despite the colossal amount of food I generally consumed) and weak, as well as completely un-athletic – typically one of the very last kids picked for teams in gym class. The only sport that I got into was horseback riding (jumping and dressage) – which, for me, took more strength of will than physical strength. I rode from about age 9 to 17, and as I was never taught to stretch before or after riding, I also became extremely stiff during this time.
About a year and a half after starting to practice the sun salutations, I was working in a raw foods restaurant in New York City, with a waitress who was an Ashtanga teacher. It wasn’t until the very end of my five-month stint in NYC that I made it to one of her classes. This was the first time I saw the entire Primary Series being practiced, and I was blown away – I think it must have been seeing Supta Kurmasana that really shattered my mind. I bought David Swenson’s Practice Manual the next day, and I took it with me to the farm I was heading to in Costa Rica, where I had lived once before, and where, I found upon returning, they happened to have just built a yoga platform. On January 1st, 2003, I took my Manual out to the platform and began my daily practice of the Primary Series.
I liked Ashtanga because it was active – not nearly as active as West African dance, which by then was both my primary physical and spiritual practice, but much more active than any other type of yoga I had ever found. And I liked it because it involved a set series of postures; I liked that I could learn the series and then practice on my own, meaning that I could take it with me wherever I went and didn’t need to always be in a class. As for classes, too, I liked that I did not have to listen to continual instructions, or watch someone, in order to be led through what to do, and that I could advance at my own pace – for me, the Mysore class was the perfect way to learn (and, eventually, teach, as I generally prefer to keep the talking to a minimum).
By about five or six months into my daily practice, I knew I was ready for a teacher, that I needed to be pushed further within the Primary Series or start learning the Intermediate Series, that I couldn’t go further on my own with just the Practice Manual and occasionally dropping in on a class. I researched each of the teachers in the old picture shown in the first few pages of Swenson’s Manual and then signed up for a workshop with Nancy Gilgoff, the only active teacher from that original group who was female. By the end of a powerful two or three days with her, I had decided to travel to Maui the following winter to study with her – and, as it turned out, with her assistant Casie, who took over the classes while Nancy was traveling. On January 1st, 2004, I was on a plane headed to Maui.
INTERMEDIATE/SECOND SERIES – HEALING – PHYSICALLY AND EMOTIONALLY
Whereas Primary Series had felt like a way to keep my body together, to keep me physically fit and able to safely do the other physical activities in my life, Intermediate Series was very plainly HEALING me. For a few years before I began the Intermediate Series, I was visiting chiropractors all the time, putting my out-of-alignment back back in order. Once I began to get strong in Second, I never went to another chiropractor.
But now I also began to access the emotional body. The reason my back was so “broken?” Well… a little back-story on me (no pun intended)… A couple years before I began my Ashtanga practice, I had suffered the biggest trauma of my life thus far, becoming a widow at the age of 24, losing not only my (Ghanaian) husband, after being given less than a year with him, but also the sweet, simple life in West Africa (my dreamland) that went with him. What I saw as my whole life and future were suddenly, quite unexpectedly, gone, as was my best friend and other half – which, of course, was the worst part. In the following year of profound mourning, I had stored a great deal of my grief and pain, which I was not ready to deal with, in a certain spot in my upper back; and this spot hardened, layer after layer – eventually becoming numb, as I also worked for about five months as a cashier – stuck behind the cash register in the same repetitive motions for eight hours a day (at a new health-food-store chain called Whole Foods)…
As the backbends in Second Series began to strengthen the muscles in my back, getting them to the point where they could hold my spine in a more comfortable position – a more proper position for functioning in the world, they also dislodged the emotions stored in that physical, knotted-up spot. I was told that moving into Second Series typically brings out anger or sadness, or both. For me, it was pure sadness. Tears and tears and tears and more tears… And some of my ribs began moving – moving out of place before they could move into a more proper place – and the whole thing was really quite painful! But so very necessary – and by then I thoroughly trusted the practice and whatever process it was going to put me through. And thank goodness I had found this healing space on Maui, where I felt so supported – in the yoga studio, in the ocean (which always helped tremendously during those physically painful times), and in Nancy’s and Casie’s hands – which I also always trusted completely.
In my first couple years of practice, there were times when I would miss my practice for a few days or maybe even up to a week or so, due to travel or some other life event, and by the end of that week or so, my body would be feeling it – in particular, my back pain would return. But I soon realized there was more that I was missing than just the asanas that seemed to be putting my body back in a proper, non-painful position. I missed the breath. The quality of my breath soon began to feel different without the Ashtanga practice and its particular breath. And I began to see a piece of the truth behind what my teacher had been professing – that breath is the most important part of this practice. Then pranayama came into the picture (following Second Series), and the quality of my breath changed immensely. It wasn’t long before I felt I simply could not take a deep breath if for some reason I missed a day or two of pranayama.
By now, in 2018, 15 years into my daily practice, my understanding is that it’s not just a matter of “breath,” but it’s prana, it’s life-force, it’s vital energy, and that through this practice, we are learning not only to take it in and refine it, but also to direct it within our bodies – the physical body as well as the emotional, mental, energetic/subtle, and spiritual bodies that are so intricately entwined with the physical. The more we do the practice, it seems to me, the more conscious of the prana we become, and the better we can become at harnessing and directing this vital and incredible energy that is the source of life itself… Wow – pretty big stuff!
So here we go, bringing prana, life-force, vital energy, into the body through the breath, spreading it through the body as we open the body’s nadis – energy channels, via the movement of the breath/prana within the postures… meanwhile gaining more and more interesting postures as we advance along… accessing ever more nooks and crannies in our bodies (and not just our physical bodies)… waking up ever more of our Selves…
THE MAGIC OF ADVANCED A/THIRD SERIES
For me, Advanced A, or the “old” Third Series, feels like magic – and always has, even in my early days of practicing it when it was SO CHALLENGING! Advanced A has so clearly had the power to completely transform me; if I’ve started off the practice feeling unwell for any reason (not enough sleep, dietary mishap, etc.), Third will have turned that around before I know it, and by the end I’ll be feeling amazing again, my entire body charged with energy. (And what better way is there to walk through your day?) I have experienced this countless times over the years. And yes, to a certain extent, I have experienced this with any series in the Ashtanga syllabus, but with Advanced A, for me, the feeling tends to be much more pronounced.
It has also served to make me strong like never before; on a physical level (though I suppose also, simultaneously, branching out to all the other levels), Advanced A has helped me tremendously with developing my strength. Once I had started to do West African dance on a regular basis, a couple years before I began my Ashtanga practice, and was stretching before and after dance class, the flexibility had begun to come to my body pretty easily. But the strength… for me that took much more time to develop. A great deal of Third was hard in the beginning. And the fact that eventually, after some years of practicing it generally three times a week, it became not hard can still feel a bit surprising to me. Watching other people in the Maui yoga shala doing certain parts of Third, I used to think… no way – I cannot see myself ever being able to do that. …But this is the power of practice. You do the practice and you change, and your body changes; the practice develops you. It can feel quite miraculous, but it actually makes perfect sense.
Advanced A has also taken me into deeper levels of healing the wounds in my back. Just as I had this experience with the Intermediate Series in the early days of practicing it, I have also had the experience of some degree of back pain/discomfort returning if for some reason I’ve been slacking on my practice of the Advanced Series. On an emotional level as well, Advanced A has helped to facilitate more “letting go” of past trauma – coming along with not just the further opening but the strengthening of that wounded spot in my upper back – and with the bringing of ever more prana into the area, as some of the postures have provided me with a way to gain deeper access.
Looking back, I think that for me, the main effects of starting a daily practice of the Primary Series were that it started to get the body in shape and realigned, and it started to develop the breath and the movement of energy. Starting on Intermediate Series began to really open the energy body for me, to “clear the nadis,” as they say – to clear or open the body’s energetic pathways for the prana to traverse. And, of course, it began to strengthen my damaged back, and all of this also resulted in a hearty dose of emotional cleansing. …As for Advanced A? Besides the dramatic strengthening of the entire body, all I’ll say is… MAJOR MOVEMENT OF ENERGY. And while these have been the most notable, or noticeable, effects, meanwhile, all of the series, always utilizing Ashtanga’s signature breath-with-sound, have subtly been working on calming the mind…
FALLING IN LOVE WITH ADVANCED B/FOURTH SERIES
After about six or seven years of practicing Advanced A generally three times a week, and by then feeling quite strong with it, I began to feel interested in Advanced B, the old Fourth Series – the final set series in the “old-school” Ashtanga syllabus. For one thing, I was curious about what it would do for my body (maybe even deeper levels of healing in my back?); but my biggest reason for wanting to do it, if my teacher felt me capable and ready for it, was to keep Advanced B from dying out. I knew of only one woman who was definitely still practicing it at the time (an amazing and beautiful badass of a woman, incidentally), and she was in her 60’s and not a yoga teacher – and therefore, I thought, would most likely not be passing it on. It seemed that all the other folks in my teacher’s generation who used to practice it in their younger days were no longer practicing it – or teaching it, and that outside of my relatively small “old-school” Ashtanga community, the younger generations of Ashtanga practitioners who made it to the advanced series were all learning the “new-school” way (in which the old Third and Fourth have been divided into more series, as well as switched up into a different order of postures – an order that generally seems much less sensible to those of us still practicing the old way). At that time, my teacher – one of only a few senior teachers, as far as I know, still teaching the advanced series in the old way – had only successfully passed Advanced B on to a couple of people, and that was decades before and I had no idea if those women were still practicing it. …So I really felt strongly that if I was able, I should do all I could to keep my beloved “old-school” tradition fully alive.
…I had no idea what a gift Advanced B, the “old” Fourth Series, would be. I fell so instantly in love with it, from the very first day of trying just the first piece of it, that I soon felt like I was having an affair – cheating on my beloved Third Series!
While I had seen the previous three series working on my physical, emotional, energetic, and mental bodies, for me, Advanced B finally clearly tapped into the spiritual body. …While for so many people yoga was what they considered their “spiritual path,” I had never felt that way about it, and I had never strongly felt the “spiritual” side of my yoga practice – at least not more than in the way that any of my practices have a spiritual element to them, which really they all do… Perhaps it was because I already had established West African dance as my most spiritual practice by the time I started the yoga that I never had felt the yoga was my “spiritual practice;” the dance had always so strongly and clearly tapped into the spiritual body, making my spirit soar, giving me my most easily-accessed and straight-forward experiences of blissful Union with the Divine One, that everything else paled in comparison. …But with Fourth Series… The best way I can describe its effect on me… was that it reached down into the deepest discovered levels of me – into that Divine I – the Self with a capital “S” that dancing and drumming had always accessed so much more easily… it found its way to reach down into this deep Divine level of Me, and then to pull it out/up/forward/backward, inward/outward/surround-sound/all-around… to encase me, fill me, shine forth from me… and calm me… It was so calming, this Fourth Series. And I have always been an extremely CALM person, life-long, but even for me, such a calm person, wow… this calm feeling that started to come to me within both the practice and the aftermath of Advanced B… I liked it. I liked it a lot. And I still like it a lot. I don’t know whether this calm, peaceful feeling that this series brings to me comes from its particular postures themselves, or from its design of intense, strength-inducing postures followed by either calm, meditative postures or intensely deep stretches… or whether it’s just from the calm and ease and grace and peace that naturally come to us when that Divine aspect inside radiates through us – that come to us when we experience our Divine Nature… But whatever the cause, every single time I do it, which is generally twice a week, Advanced B is such a gift, a prize – it really feels like one of the greatest gifts I have ever received in this lifetime.
SELF-REALIZATION IS THE NAME OF THE GAME
From my very oldest practice for knowing the self, writing, through all my practices… I feel that essentially it’s all Yoga – it’s all Union; it’s all about Consciousness, Self-Realization. Whether it’s feeling the Divine take over and move my body in dance class, shoving the ego out of the way as I am united with the rhythm, the music… or whether it’s feeling the music pass through my own body, as I play West African rhythms with a group of other drummers, all of our different parts clicking together in Union within the same groove… or whether it’s feeling the Divine flow of words spilling forth onto the page, as they use me as their vessel to manifest into the world… or feeling the Divine flow of creativity as I contentedly work on some sewing or textile project… or whether it’s feeling the Divine Prana filling me and moving me as I do my yoga practice, moving through me and subtly expanding my consciousness… it’s all a piece of the puzzle of my own journey into Self-Realization.
This is Yoga – this Union with the One, this Self-Realization, this knowing of, and living with – being, the Divine Self. There are countless ways in which we can come closer to ourselves, to our Divine Natures, countless paths we can take, practices, etc. For me, walking through this lifetime, it wasn’t the yoga that first led me to the Divine – I first found the Divine, within me and within all I witnessed around me, during my first, profoundly life-altering trip to Africa, immersed as I suddenly was in a God-conscious culture. And so I was never seeking anything spiritually with the yoga practice – it just felt good physically, so I kept with it because that seemed the intelligent thing to do. And over all these years, I have found it to be one of the most essential ways for me to keep my physical body functioning well (proper rest and diet being the only two factors I have found to have an even greater impact on me). Over time, I have also seen the yoga help me to heal old wounds; certainly I have seen its calming, clarifying effect on me; and perhaps what has lately come to have the greatest impact on me has been its contribution to the development of my awareness and use of prana… All in all, eventually the yoga practice became one of the most significant practices or tools that I have welcomed into my life – to help me find or remain in balance, to help me heal and evolve, and ultimately to bring me closer to the Divine.
It can be hard to gauge the effects of a daily practice you have done for years (a mere 15 for me, as I write this in 2018) – it is like a mother not noticing how much her toddler has grown in half a year because she is witnessing/living the growth on such a steady, subtle level every single day. But I will say that, within two or three years of daily practice, and continuing on through the present, I could feel the following effects. Physically, I simply can’t imagine being comfortable in my body, as I walk through my life, without the asana practice. I can see that, through this practice, I have been learning how to hold/inhabit my body, as I move through this world. And I have been learning how to breathe, how to more fully access and use my lungs – which also amounts to learning how to take in more of the prana all around me. Mentally, I know the meditation and the pranayama, along with the asana practice, work wonders for me – I have felt the difference in the quality of my mind, my thoughts, my focus, when, at times, I have missed a couple days of any of these elements. Emotionally, I know the practice has helped me evolve – I have experienced it, mostly through the spontaneous sobbing – and the resultant feeling of “letting go” – that has often sprung from me in the midst of my asana practice (predominantly in the early years of developing the Intermediate Series). The practice has also certainly served to increase my awareness of the energetic or subtle body, and it has helped to remove blocks that get in the way of the free flow of energy within it. …And as for the spiritual body? …To me it seems the spiritual body doesn’t need any help – it is so clearly perfect as it is, always; but I suppose the practice can help reveal that fact. If nothing else, it seems that getting those other major bodies more in order and alignment – “in good shape” – is what we need to do in order to let the Spirit, our Divine Essence, be realized, experienced, and shine forth.
Physically, emotionally, mentally, energetically, spiritually… the yoga practice has made me so very much stronger than I imagine I would have been without it. And it has helped me to feel… whole, and together, and… just… how I am. It is a gift for which I am ever thankful.
Finding Our Way: In Response to Some Recent Exposure to the Greater Ashtanga Community… (June, 2018)
The following is what came through me after reading the two posts linked below, which I highly recommend reading. Though I’m not in the habit of sharing my thoughts or writing so publicly, something is inspiring me to share now – perhaps it’s the raw courage it must have taken for all of the people involved in these posts to share their own stories, and the connection and inspiration I felt from reading them…
Being exposed to the information in articles like these, I feel thankful that my Ashtanga education was cloistered away on Maui, within a small, loving, supportive, ragtag community, and isolated, for a long time, from the now vast Ashtanga community out in the world. I feel thankful that I was always taught that this particular practice is about the breath (as well as the natural development of the bandhas (energy locks), and the movement of energy in general), and not the asanas (postures); thankful that I was taught that my own practice is my best teacher; that I was taught that the first priority in any posture is to not be in pain – to find a way to get out of pain if you are experiencing it; and that meditation was encouraged (for everyone). I feel extremely thankful that I had already found, long before finding Ashtanga and beginning a yoga practice, the Divine One Within, and that I already knew that I know myself better than anyone else can know me, that only I alone could figure out my own unique path through this life, or how to live it in the best way. I feel thankful that I sought out a female teacher, knowing that would work best for me; thankful that I found, straight-away, the very gifted teachers that worked so well for me – not only in the senior teacher I sought out, but also in the one I was lucky enough to discover was her assistant in her home studio, as well as her substitute there during her many travels. And I feel ever so thankful that I was taught, by these two women, in Ashtanga’s “old-school” style. I feel thankful that I have never cared about authorizations or certifications and so certainly did not pursue that route. I never went to Mysore (nor felt much of a pull to go), only ever practiced with Pattabhi Jois in a workshop in San Francisco near the end of his life, had no personal relationship with him, and only knew him through the many stories of my teacher, who was one of the first Westerners to begin practicing with him, back in the early 1970’s. (Back then, as she has described, classes were generally comprised of only four to six people and were taught quite differently from how the whole scene became when the population exploded, moving from a handful of Westerners studying with the Jois family in Mysore to hundreds of Westerners.) Aside from my deep gratitude for the fact that Pattabhi Jois developed and shared this particular practice that I love so much, I feel the lineage to the Jois family in my own practice only through my main teacher’s deep connection to Pattabhi Jois, and through my own studies with his son, Manju – who left Mysore and stayed in America at his first chance, who also still teaches in the “old-school” manner that I have found to work so well for me, and who has always seemed fun, filled with good humor, easy-going, and lacking in dogma. And for all this, too, I am now feeling thankful – for all the recent drama surrounding Pattabhi Jois is hard enough to get one’s head around without having had a personal relationship with the man.
Above all, I feel thankful, so very, very thankful, that this particular practice did come into my life, because it has helped me heal and evolve and get strong, and because I just plain ENJOY it so much.
I’ve recently been working on a little article/essay for a friend on the “Why To” of my yoga practice, for a book he’s writing, and it has made me think about this so much – why I do it, why I love it, how thankful I am for it. I also have been feeling thankful that he asked me to contribute, this old friend from my yoga community/family, because in the past year and a half or so, I have felt a bit… excommunicated from this special group of yogis of which I was always so happy to feel a part. This feeling has eventually arisen in the wake of the dissolution of my relationship with my primary Ashtanga teacher. To me, from my perspective, this ending of our 13-year relationship seems to have stemmed from me needing, as always, to follow the guidance of the “Guru within” – the most knowledgeable and true guide of all; to walk my own course – live my own lifestyle; and one major aspect of that lifestyle – diet (an admittedly “radical” diet for most people to comprehend) – not fitting into what my teacher believed to be appropriate or even safe for this particular practice (no matter what I may have found to the contrary in my own experience over the past 15 years of daily Ashtanga practice, including 11 years of “Advanced” series practice – decades of practice behind me certainly not, but I don’t exactly feel like a newbie either…). Because of my need to live in a way that works for ME, my need to take responsibility for my own health, and listen to my own body, to do what’s right for me personally, using my own knowledge of myself and what I have experienced to work for me over the past twenty years now of increasing consciousness around dietary changes, etc. (but also perhaps because of misunderstandings/communication issues, hurt feelings, and my deep-seated need for total, and admittedly sometimes tactless, honesty and openness when communicating with someone, especially someone important to me, and especially on a topic important to me…), I lost not only one of my yoga teachers, but also, I feel, my place in my yoga community (though certainly not my close friends from that community). And this makes me feel like I have lost my voice. Hence the deep appreciation for this writing assignment from my friend – and perhaps also this impulse I feel now to share this post so publicly, something I am by no means in the habit of doing…
…Until I began to do some traveling with my teacher, my Ashtanga education always took place in such a sheltered little world on Maui that when I finally did start to see some of what was happening out in the wider world of Ashtangis – with people so often getting injured, and with the “new-school” way of practicing and teaching and all that involves (people being held in Primary Series for so long, an apparently increasing emphasis on the postures in general, etc.), I was truly shocked. I remember being at a workshop with David Williams in Chicago, about seven years into my practice – I think it was my first time “out in the wider Ashtanga world;” and when he said that the practice should feel good, that you should feel better and better with every breath, it was a revelation to the vast majority of the people in the room, many of whom were now expressing how very thankful they were to be “given permission” to enjoy their practice, and to not hurt themselves. I saw then that a lot of people were having a very different experience with their practice than I was; that not everyone who practiced this yoga – or any kind of yoga – enjoyed their practice was the revelation unfolding for me.
And so eventually I felt the importance of spreading what I considered “the old-school way” – this no-dogma, teach-to-the-individual way of practice that felt so good, that allowed for so much flexibility regarding how an individual will actually manifest/express the practice, and that I could see had so much potential to help people heal and grow and evolve, as I had seen it help me… And I don’t mean to say that these things cannot be found within the “new-school” tradition (with which I really have had no personal experience), or within any other system of yoga – we all just have to find what works for us as individuals. But within the realm of Ashtanga, my beloved and joy-filled “old-school” way and lineage definitely seemed greatly underrepresented, and when I went to workshops with my teacher “out in the world,” there seemed to be many people getting hurt in the “new-school” system and consequently looking for an alternative…
…But now? Now that I feel I no longer even have a place within my “black sheep” of a yoga community (the “black sheep” of the “black sheep,” I suppose – as many in the wider yoga world seem to consider the Ashtangis to be “black sheep” in the first place…)? …Now I’m finding that I don’t feel I care about any of it. Now I only know that I love my practice – which I certainly have not lost, which I am ever-thankful for, and which only seems to be getting stronger and ever more enjoyable as I continue my daily practice on my own, in my home (nothing new to me – home practice, as I have always practiced alone at home outside of the many visits with my teachers). And I find myself continuing to teach simply because I love my students, and they keep coming back for more; and because, yes, I do still enjoy the exchange of energy I experience in the yoga room; and because, yes, this practice has helped me so much that I do feel it’s the right thing to do to share it, if there are others interested in learning it. But… while I certainly have no desire to change anything concerning the particulars of the way I was taught to do or teach this practice in its “traditional, old-school” form… I am finding that I no longer feel like it is important for me to be a representative of the “old-school” way or of my particular teachers and lineage, that I no longer feel the call to make the “old-school” way known and available to a larger population of the Ashtanga-practicing world. Now I just do my little part and trust that everyone will find what they need to find – whatever works for them.
…And now, too, as I write this, I find myself questioning what a “lineage” even means – what it amounts to. A list of people to be remembered and honored and for whom to feel grateful? A spirit or teaching or Guru coming through a line of teachers? Yes, if we are benefitting from a practice, then we are blessed by the sheer existence of the lineage through which it came to us… but do we tend to place too much importance on our ideas or feelings concerning that lineage? …Let’s not forget that the Guru resides within all of us, and if it has not been realized yet, then it is waiting to be discovered, and any teacher should ultimately just be assisting his or her students to find it. …These ideas we get about lineages and this school or that school and what is the “proper” way… these ideas that can so often seem to fracture our communities… what significance does any of it have when compared with the real inner workings of Self-Realization? It all leads to the divine One; and ultimately that everlasting and omnipresent One is all that really matters.
When I read articles like those I have linked above, and get exposed to some of what’s happening in the wider community (which doesn’t happen very often)… it reminds me of why I never liked organized religion, why, as an adult, I never felt to be a part of one. It’s not due to a problem with the Divine itself – or in the case of a system of yoga, with the practice itself, but a problem of, or stemming from… hierarchies, egos, dogmas, human fallibility, perhaps the whole thing just getting too large-scale, etc., etc. Human stories, human problems.
…And I am so thankful that none of that interferes with my actual practice.
What reading these articles/posts also reminded me of – especially as I learned a bit about whom the authors were and saw that they have been practicing and teaching Ashtanga yoga for all these years, despite their withdrawal from the Mysore community and the stories they have now shared… is how I have always seen traditions as living, evolving organisms. Traditions last over vast periods of time because there’s something in them, some root, that consistently works well for the people performing/practicing/using them; but they’re not stagnant. To remain alive – to keep from dying out and eventually becoming forgotten, they must be put into living practice, must manifest through living individuals – and this is why traditions must naturally (though perhaps imperceptibly) evolve – because each individual is unique and humanity is always evolving. Change and evolution seem to be in our nature – it seems that to grow and evolve is what most of humanity is generally here to do. And how can traditions not naturally grow and evolve along with the humans and the cultures that are using them? As we take from them the good they have to offer us and give back to them by keeping them alive and sharing them with others, we meanwhile must also live our unique lives. Whatever we might find to help us in our own healing and growth, whatever we decide to pursue or practice amongst the myriad options now available to so many of us privileged beings, we ultimately have to use the tools we come across in a way that works for us as individuals, in our own personal and perpetual path of evolution, as we all simply find our own way.
…For years I tried my best to teach from the source – to pass on the practice unchanged by trying to learn every minute detail I could – always taking my notes, recording and remembering it all, which teacher said what and when, what of this is coming straight from the mouth of Pattabhi Jois and what is coming from the experience of which one of my teachers (and has that teacher had any other influences outside of pure Ashtanga?)… And always I would reference my source when providing instruction to one of my students – because, after all, who am I? What do I know? Better that it should be coming from a senior teacher, someone “deep in the lineage.” …But when the (unintended) split from my main teacher occurred – or after it occurred, really – after I realized I could not abandon my students, whether or not my main teacher felt I should be teaching… eventually, after some time – and after going through some of my process of grieving the loss, I stopped wanting to reference her, or any other teacher for that matter, so very often, started to want to teach more from my own experience as well as that of my teachers. And I think this, too, is only natural – to want to share our unique selves. As individuals with different life experiences, we all have our own unique offerings. I want to be me and no one else; and I want to share and teach from that place of fully being myself.
We all have personalities, deep-seated beliefs, the myriad experiences of our lives informing us, etc. – all those things that give us our unavoidable subjectivity. Pattabhi Jois was the first teacher through which this particular practice came to us, but any teacher in the following generation, all the teachers who sprang from that source, although they might do their best to teach the way he taught them, to not make any changes but to keep the practice in its “pure” form, from the source… all they have to share will pass to their students through their own filters – how can it be any other way? We can try to keep the practice as “pure” as possible, but to me it seems that our notion of purity is perched precariously atop a slippery slope, that maintaining a tradition’s “purity” can only be a slippery affair, that change (perhaps imperceptible change) is unavoidable as traditions get passed down from one generation to the next. How many details or subtleties get lost in translation – not only in translation from one language or culture to another, in the many circumstances of traditions crossing cultures, but even in the “translation” of one person’s mindset or understanding to another’s? We all have our unique mental filters that all information will pass through – both on its way into and on its way out of us. …And while we take the root of the tradition and we keep it as is; and while we can honor our teachers and continue to teach the way they taught us (for those of us lucky enough to have been taught in a way we found to work well); as we pass something on, as it comes through us, there will also naturally be things we share from what we have learned on our own, through our own practice. Some of the most helpful information my teachers have passed on to me has come to them through their own experience with the practice – not from some acquisition of knowledge from “the source” as Pattabhi Jois, but from “the source” as an inner knowing, an inner experience, “the source” as the Guru within. “Your own practice is your best teacher.” Again, I am thankful that is what I was taught. I still find it as true as ever.
In closing, while I might feel that in the end our lineage is not what is of prime importance – that it’s doing the practice that matters, and the Self-realization that matters, that experience of finding and knowing and living with the Guru within, the Divine One within… I do continue to give thanks after every single practice for my particular teachers, and for the lineage of teachers back to whom I can trace the blossoming of this practice that I’ve been gifted; and here, too, I feel to end by saying, again, that I am so thankful for the school, the teachers, and the community within which and from whom I had the privilege of learning this practice.
Aharona Shackman has used writing as her primary practice for connecting with the Self pretty much since she learned to write. With the commencement of this blog, she is now beginning to practice the sharing of some of her writing...