“You’re not beautiful anymore,” was the obnoxious, guttural response out of my stepmother’s mouth the first time I shaved my head. I was fourteen years old. My outrageous sense of self-expression had been bubbling underneath the surface for at least a year or two prior. I sewed studs and patches onto clothes that my parents were notorious for throwing in the trash. I listened to loud, fast, political punk music. I read zines about DIY culture. I had already been questioning my assumed gender identity for years. I knew at a very early age that I would not grow up to the conventional, long-haired, well-behaved Christian housewife that my parents hoped I would be.
The same day that I shaved my head for the first time, I rode my skateboard down the street to see one of my best friends who lived in our neighborhood. I knocked on the door, and when he opened it, the first thing out of his mouth was, “Jesus Christ.” He convinced me to let him re-shave my head, because clearly my first attempt at shaving on my own was atrocious. He smiled and laughed while trimming my hair. Once it was finally a “clean” shave, it felt acceptable at the very least to my skateboarding friends.
The names that the kids called me at school were ridiculous, but it never phased me. One day, the principal of the school approached me about my hair. “One day you will have to conform,” he said. I shrugged, turned my back, and walked away. Conforming was never my cup of tea.
Punk culture was my sanctuary. I was free to express my politics, sexuality, fashion, music, whatever else was on my mind in an environment with accepting, like-minded comrades. I had no other place in my life at the time that felt safe to express myself freely. My conservative, Christian family was clearly disgusted by my life choices, and any attempt on my part to explain or express myself to them directly ended in psychological (and sometimes physical) abuse. My parents’ church was no more accepting. My peers at school called me names, at times even attempted to start fights with me, to the extent that I often found myself in detention for various, unsavory social interactions. Where else could I feel safe as young, agnostic, queer, politically-conscious woman?
My punk community became my home.
Fast forward a couple of years. I was waiting tables at a health food cafe in my hometown. My coworker Billie invited me to a yoga class with her. I honestly had no idea what yoga was at the time, but I said sure, why not. I remember enjoying the class thoroughly, but the most powerful shift that I experienced was at the end of class during savasana. I vividly remember lying on my back, staring up at the ceiling, and thinking to myself, “I want to feel this way all of the time. And I want to help other people feel this way, too.” I sincerely believe it was the first time I had ever experienced a deep, parasympathetic state of relaxation in my mind, body, and breath. It was in that moment during my first savasana that I vowed to become a teacher of yoga.
Before discovering yoga, the only way I knew how to subdue the emotional/mental effects of my toxic, abusive household was to be inebriated. Drugs and alcohol were the only ways I knew how to cope with the incessant fight-or-flight response I experienced every single day. Practicing yoga was the first time I had ever felt as if maybe there was a way to cope with the circumstances of my life without getting high or drunk with my friends. The practice of yoga gave me hope at a time in my life when I had nothing left to hope for, no direction, no purpose in life.
Two years after my first yoga class, I moved out of my parents house, and into the infamous 309 punk house in Pensacola, Florida. I attended my first Hatha yoga teacher training, and enrolled in massage therapy school. At this time, I was only 18 years old. I was still such a young punkling at heart. But my attitude towards life had shifted. I was less angry than I used to be. I felt more comfortable and at ease in my own skin. I felt hopeful that I could recover from trauma, substance abuse, and depression. Furthermore, I felt hopeful that I could help others to heal from their own experiences through the practices of yoga, meditation, and alternative medicine.
It’s been 14 years since I became a healing arts practitioner. I still listen to The Cure, Joy Division, and plenty of other music from my punk years, but it’s not really about the music for me anymore. It’s not really about fashion, either (although I do still rock the shaved head, sometimes). It’s about knowing that my fundamental beliefs and values haven’t changed (despite the extent of my personal growth and transformation as a spiritual practitioner). At this point in my life, punk is more about the way of life, above all else.
Unfortunately, I still often struggle to strike a balance between these two worlds, communities, and belief systems in my life. Many of my punk friends are judgmental, or even critical, of my spiritual practices. Vice versa, I have worked at plenty of yoga studios and spas where my hairy armpits, tattoos, and shaved head were frowned upon. I dream of a world where these two parts of my life can intersect in both of my social and professional circles seamlessly. That dream world may not exist anytime soon, but I can still cross my fingers that someday, it will. In the meantime, my only hope is to continue to accept myself for who I am, and to continue to explore this intersection in my own life of punk, activism, and yoga.
In my own mind and heart, karma yoga is the perfect intersection of yoga and punk culture. Karma, meaning “action,” in this context refers to the pursuit of liberation by practicing “yoga off the mat.” It is a means of awakening, healing, and transformation that does not occur from simply meditating in a cave in the Himalayas. It is through performing actions that alleviate the suffering of others that you achieve both personal and collective liberation.
One of the reasons I was attracted to punk culture to begin with is the expression of personal freedom. In yoga, this pursuit is obtained through different methods, yet the end goal is the same. To experience freedom in our minds, in our hearts, in our lives, in our families, in our societies, in our world. I have been an activist and community organizer ever since I was a teenager, but it has only been the past few years that I began to consider my practice of yoga and my passion for social justice as having any point of intersection. Honestly, I think punk and yoga philosophy have more in common than most people realize. So, what if there was a way to achieve both ends through the same means?!
Last week, I arrived in Yangon, Myanmar to visit a friend and to renew my visa for Thailand. My friend was organizing a benefit show to raise awareness about sexual assault and harassment in the Yangon punk and club scene. I arrived at the show, said hello to my friend Kyaw Kyaw, and found a place in the crowd. It felt nostalgic above all else, as I rarely go to punk shows anymore. I mean, let’s face it. I’m a single, working mother, living in the jungle in SE Asia with little to no “night life” on a regular basis.
After the show, Kyaw Kyaw introduced me to a few of his friends. He introduced me as “a punk yoga teacher.” I am almost 100% certain that no one has ever introduced me as such in my entire life, but to my own surprise, it was incredibly heartwarming and validating. I smiled at him, bowing internally in gratitude for the moment in which I felt, perhaps, that I had found a place, a time, a circumstance in my life where punk and yoga collide.
I am eternally grateful for all of the ways in which punk culture, activism, and yoga have uplifted me, nourished me, and saved my life (often from myself), more times than I can possibly remember. My hope is that I may continue to inspire others through my life, through my work, and through this journey of accepting my true Self.
Last but not least, #uptheyogapunks.
Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu
“May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words, and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and freedom.”
As I finish packing up the remnants of our nearly vacant, beloved farmhouse, bittersweet memories flood my consciousness of the past six years of our lives. A treehouse that was never entirely built, chipped paint on most of the walls, a long list of land chores undone, piles of unfinished house projects -- reminders of a life spent being too busy to fully, and to simply, live life. Our empty home mirrors a chapter of my life that continues to feel incomplete by my lack of presence in it. It is the beginning of the end, and the beginning itself of a new chapter: the desperately overdue, first and only sabbatical of my entire life.
My daughter and I lived out of my car and on various friends/families couches in the Florida panhandle area until my daughter was seventeen months old. Until one day, when I finally said to hell with it all, threw a giant hiking pack (mostly full of diapers) on my back, my daughter in a sling on the front, hopped on a Greyhound bus to North Carolina, and never turned back.
We have moved easily a dozen times since stepping off that Greyhound bus in 2008. It wasn’t until 2013 that I was able to owner-finance my first home in Leicester, just a few minutes away from Asheville, NC. Needless to say, it has been the only place we have ever really called “home” my daughter’s entire life.
Despite working multiple jobs, often 50-60+ hours a week, and saving everything I could, my daughter and I have lived on the brink of crisis the majority of her twelve years of life. No matter how hard I worked, no matter how much money I made, no matter how many promotions I received, it was still never enough.
Between being a single parent, working more than full-time, and managing a community homestead the past six years, an eventual burnout was inevitable. I had anticipated it for years, but felt like there was nothing I could do to prevent it. I couldn’t stop taking care of my daughter, I couldn’t stop working, and I couldn’t stop paying my mortgage.
Until one day, I decided that I had to stop, because literally, my life depended on it. My physical and emotional health became too fragile to continue at the pace that I had run myself into the ground the past thirteen years.
So, for the first time in my entire adult life... I am taking a sabbatical.
I am still battling the socio-economic guilt of it all. The guilt I feel of leaving my job, the guilt of not being able to answer my loved ones concisely when they ask “when are you going back to work?,” the guilt of watching the bills pile up without knowing how they will be paid. Except, of course, for my blind faith that someway, somehow, my daughter and I will make it through. We always have, and I have no logical or sensible reason for describing how or why. We just have, always.
Regardless, I believe with every ounce of my heart and soul that I deserve this time to heal.
It’s time to begin a new chapter of life for myself and my daughter -- a chapter of slowing down enough to enjoy the simple things in life, a chapter of loving and nurturing myself as much as I have always done the same for so many others in both my personal and professional lives, and a chapter of forgiving the unforgivable.
“Unwillingness to forgive keeps the heart closed.” -Anodea Judith
Through my own prayer/meditation practices, and with the guidance of my mentors/teachers, it has become abundantly clear that forgiveness is the stepping stone from this chapter of life into the next. It is in the practice of forgiveness that the process of letting go, and beginning anew, occurs from within. Forgiving myself for the mistakes I have made. Forgiving myself for hurting others along the way. Forgiving others for the hurt they have caused to me.
Several months ago, when this realization first dawned upon me, I began to ask myself how in the world could I even begin this process? I was grieving miserably, and it felt as if there was no hope, no forgiveness, no forgetting in sight. It’s as if the deeper the grief, the deeper the hurt, the deeper the sorrow, the more unattainable forgiveness seems.
Over the years, I have stumbled upon various forgiveness practices that I will share with you below. It is through these practices that my process is beginning to unfold. Yet, I continue to remind myself that forgiveness is on its’ own timeline. There is no rushing the process allowed. It simply happens when it happens... although, your diligent practice, encouragement, and patience for yourself certainly helps.
Forgiveness takes practice, and what I am sharing with you below are simply recommendations for this practice. Practice over, and over, and over again, until your heart is finally free.
“For most people, the work of forgiveness is a process. Practicing forgiveness, we may go through stages of grief, rage, sorrow, fear and confusion. As we let ourself feel the pain we still hold, forgiveness comes as a relief, a release for our heart in the end. Forgiveness acknowledges that no matter how much we may have suffered, we will not put another human being out of our heart.” -Jack Kornfield
Ho'oponopono means “to make right.” It is a traditional Hawaiian practice of reconciliation, forgiveness, and energetic clearing. It is part of a wider spiritual philosophy known as Huna, which in itself contains various practices to attain forgiveness and healing. Ho'oponopono is both an internal practice and a traditional way of healing external relationships with ancestors, loved ones, and divinities.
The internal practice shared with me from my teachers can be used as a prayer or mantra. It personally feels most effective to me when I feel as if I wholeheartedly believe that I am ready and willing to forgive someone. If the intention feels fake or insincere, the practice feels incomplete. Sometimes, it also feels difficult for me to utter the words “I love you” if they do not feel appropriate at the time. It’s difficult to describe this succinctly, but try to think of it as “divine” or “universal” love if the personal, interconnected feeling of love is too hard to imagine.
The prayer is as follows:
1. I’m sorry.
2. Please forgive me.
3. Thank you.
4. I love you.
Though simple, the effects are profound. Traditions across the globe believe in the effectiveness of these statements in our daily relationships. Even if you are unable to say these words to the person directly, imagine them sitting in front of you as you say them aloud or quietly to yourself.
This is only one practice of the vast, wider philosophies of Huna and Ho'oponopono, and I encourage you to study these practices more in-depth with a knowledgeable writer/teacher for more specific instruction and tangible results in your practice.
“An echo of this Huna teaching is to be found in Matthew 18:22, in which Peter asks Jesus whether it is sufficient to forgive seven times any man sinning against him. Jesus replies with the Mother's greater tolerance stressed, not that of the Father: He says that forgiveness should be offered ‘seventy times seven times.’” -Max Freedom Long, an excerpt from the book Huna: Growing Into Light
Buddhist Forgiveness Meditation
I have personally cherished this practice for many years, as it recognizes the many layers of forgiveness needed within others and ourselves. I also appreciate how this particular practice recognizes how much suffering we have caused to both others and ourselves is unintentional.
The meditation is as follows:
1. I forgive myself for all harm I have caused to others through word, thought, or action, knowingly or unknowingly.
2. I forgive all others for all harm they have caused to me through word, thought, or action, knowingly or unknowingly.
3. I forgive myself for all harm that I caused to myself through word, thought, or action, knowingly or unknowingly.
I personally prefer expressing these statements aloud, but of course they can be expressed internally/silently, as well. Again, I encourage you to seek a qualified teacher for more specific instructions in your practice.
“Believe that you can redeem horrible acts by your own vulnerability. Let go of anything that separates you from other human beings. In so doing you honor all those lost. Your act of forgiveness holds their story in its highest possible glory. And you honor life itself. There could be no greater legacy.” -Phillip Moffitt
Four Steps to Forgiveness
I stumbled upon the book “Four Steps to Forgiveness” by William Fergus Martin one day while researching Huna. It offered a practical, logistical process to me that felt immediately appropriate for my journaling practice.
He also separates the ideas of forgiveness and reconciliation. For years, I have misunderstood this concept within myself, and it was life-changing to read his interpretations on this subject:
“Reconciliation is a process of re-establishing our relationship with someone. Reconciliation is often part of forgiveness, but it does not have to be. Reconciliation is really a separate and distinct process.
Forgiveness is unconditional and always possible; reconciliation sometimes needs to be
conditional and is not always possible.”
The four steps to forgiveness listed in his book are as follows:
1. State who you need to forgive and for what.
2. Acknowledge how you feel about the current situation.
3. State the benefits you will get from forgiving.
4. Commit yourself to forgiving.
This process has felt the most helpful for me in writing, but it also gives us a guideline for how to apply our intentions of forgiveness in our daily lives.
“Forgiveness gives us the freedom to stay and the freedom to walk away.” -William Fergus Martin
Forgiving the Unforgivable
There are those of us who have experienced pain and suffering beyond what feels forgivable, and there are those of us who have caused pain and suffering to others that may also be conceived as unforgivable.
Does this mean reconciliation or forgiveness is entirely impossible?
My personal practices have brought me to the belief that it is possible with our personal choice and intention to let go of the harm that has been caused, while not forgetting the injustice that has occurred. In fact, this realization has inspired me tremendously on my path to forgiveness, because it allows me to recognize that letting go is possible even if the harmful word, thought, or action is entirely unforgivable in itself. It is then the other person, and yourself, that must be forgiven -- not the deed itself that caused you this suffering.
Buddhist teacher and author Phillip Moffitt describes this process of letting go:
“In these personal situations the challenge is just the same as with a national tragedy. You first act to find your own safety, then you act to stop the person from continuing the violations. These outer actions are followed by the hard work of loosening the grip of the experience on your own emotions. Initially it may seem that there is nothing you can do -- it happened, it was awful, and your life was ruined. But, gradually, after telling your story again and again, you realize it's not the circumstances of the trauma, or even the perpetrator, that's hindering you from moving on. It's you who are clinging to the trauma in shock and hurt.”
I believe that forgiving the unforgivable is both possible and necessary for our personal growth, for our collective healing, and for a global transformation towards a future of reconciliation, healing, and justice.
While on sabbatical, my intention is to continue these practices of forgiveness, and any other practices necessary to let go, reconcile my past, and create a new, intentional vision for my future.
During this time of transition, my hope is that my friends, family, and loved ones will accept my plea for forgiveness of any unintentional hurt I have caused to them during my time of suffering. I also hope that my loved ones will understand that my practice of forgiving myself and others is in process, and while partially incomplete, is entirely sincere.
In particular, there is someone I care for deeply that I know I have hurt tremendously… and anticipate that she may perceive my words and actions as unforgivable. My hope is that someday, someway, somehow, she will receive this message, and know that I am sorry with all of my heart.
In all of my prayers for forgiveness, please know that I have asked for yours the most.
“To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.”
-Mary Oliver, from the poem “In Blackwater Woods”
It was an especially humid February day for the island of Koh Samui. Rain, unseasonal that time of year, was in the air. Only moments before, I had participated in my first ever karma clearing ceremony. I sat quietly absorbing the thoughts, feelings, and indescribable sensations of that experience: the chanting, the incense, the fresh flowers, the variety of tropical fruits, the presence of a shamanic healer, and the bowl of ice cold water that she poured over my entire body at the end of the ceremony. The entire ritual was performed by Eve – the Thai shaman woman who would soon inspire me to give birth to my new name, Su-maya.
“It’s too much water,” she said, referring to my given first name. “You need more power. Like Parvati.” I made a puzzled face. “Poverty?” I asked. I clearly misunderstood her accent. “Parvati, wife of Shiva,” her partner chimed in from across the table. “Shiva, Shakti, Shiva, Shakti…” Eve’s words were mumbled as she continued to repeat the names of deities. I could sense the uncertainty under her breath.
“You are lost, hopeless, and holding onto a deep sadness,” she said to me. “Ganesha says it will get better soon. Keep holding on a little longer. You teach yoga?” “Yes,” I said. Not that I needed to respond to any of her questions, anyway. She already knew all the answers.
“I am jealous,” she said. “I can see it. You will travel around the world teaching. You don’t need much money. You just need to survive. It will be a good life.”
I will always remember this day as one of the most surreal experiences of my entire life.
I walked down the street and hailed a taxi back to my guesthouse across the island. I was exhausted. The accumulation of sleep deprivation over the past five weeks of travel was heavy. I fell asleep delicately holding a necklace in my hand that I had purchased the day prior for a special someone in my life. One hour later, I woke up from my nap, drank some tea, opened my laptop, and did exactly what any proper Millennial would do in the midst of an identity crisis. I made a post on social media about changing my name to Parvati.
That facebook post received more comments than anything I have ever posted in the entire history of my social media usage. The feedback ranged from positive to negative to mediocre. The topics included: intentions, professional vs. personal acceptance, western vs. eastern names, the five elements, the meaning of Parvati, choosing a Celtic goddess vs a Hindu goddess, finding a name that aligns with my ancestry, the meaning of my given name, changing my name vs adding a name, various manifestations of the Divine mother, and more.
This conversation was both necessary and cathartic for me. I felt conflicted about changing my name to Parvati for many reasons, but I understood the meaning behind what Eve said to me. It was time to for me to embrace my own personal power. It was time to for me rise above the watery-ness of my emotions and stand tall and firm like the “daughter of the mountain” (the literal translation of Parvati).
The search began for a new name. My intention in that moment was to find a name that embodied the meaning of Parvati without the obvious, exclusive relationship to a Hindu goddess. It felt important to recognize and understand the meaning of what Eve suggested about my name. Yet, it felt equally as important to make this transition with a deep awareness of the topic of appropriation. I researched names on the internet for countless hours before stumbling upon Maya – an alternate, but rarely used name for the warrior goddess Durga, who is another manifestation of Parvati (and the Divine Mother).
I felt an immediate connection to the translations of Maya. The very first Vedic translation I found was “extraordinary wisdom and power.” I also discovered that Queen Maya was the name of the Buddha’s mother. I reflected on the particular thread of the social media debate where I realized that it would be difficult to accept a name exclusively connected to either Vedic or Buddhist philosophy (as they have both so greatly influenced my life over the years). I immediately loved how Maya seemed to embody this connection to both traditions.
However, I continued to be conscious of the fact that I was hesitant to invite a new name into my life that felt exclusively tied to South Asia. As I continued to research Maya, it became apparent to me that this name has origins from literally across the globe: Mexico, Central America (Mayan civilization), Australia, Japan, Nepal, Greece, New Zealand, Germany, Brazil. It is currently one of the top one hundred names for young girls in United States, Canada, UK, Australia, Belgium, Norway, and Israel, among other countries. Mount Maya is a Japanese mountain named for the mother of Buddha. In New Zealand, “Maia” (same pronunciation with different spelling), means “courage or bravery.” In the Nepali language, Maya means “love.”
I was delighted by the idea of having a name that embodied a global, cross-cultural connection to these ideals. Yet, I came across another translation of Maya that left me feeling uncertain. One Vedic interpretation of Maya is that of “illusion.” According to this philosophy, Maya is our false perception of Divine Consciousness (or God or whatever name you give to this entity). I continued to sit with this interpretation, and in time began to feel that the name Maya itself was incomplete.
Yet another Vedic translation insists that Maya is Shakti, the yin or feminine aspect of Divine Consciousness. Maya is believed to be a manifestation of the Divine Mother, in addition to Durga and Parvati. I felt a strong sense of connection to the idea of embracing a Divine Mother identity into my life – especially in the wake of finding my own personal power while still grieving the death of my mother just over a year ago.
My last night on the island of Koh Samui was spent eating massaman curry and watching the sunset from a beachside restaurant. I asked the man next to me, “You know about heart kwan? When the heart spirit leaves?” He replied, “Yes, I know.” I then asked, “What is it called when you ask the heart spirit to come back after it leaves?”
“Su kwan,” he said.
The word su in Thai means “to invite.” In Sanskrit, it is a prefix that adds a positive connotation to the word that follows it. It can mean great, benevolent, or even beautiful. Su continued to appear in my interactions and conversations for the next several days of my journey in Thailand. This word held an especially significant meaning. I had been asking myself this question the entire six weeks of travel while writing my first book: how do you find the missing pieces of your heart kwan?
The answer to this question was su kwan.
The way to find your heart spirit after it has been lost is simply to invite it back.
Su-maya is my invitation to the Divine Mother consciousness to return to my life. Su-maya is the benevolent mother that I no longer have in the physical realm – but will infinitely have access to through meditation, prayer, and practices, and in my connections to my mother and her mother and all of the many great mothers before us. Su-maya is remembering that I am not lost without my mother. Su-maya is remembering that my ancestors still walk beside me every single day. I am strong and benevolent and wise because of the support of my ancestors and the support of Divine Mother consciousness.
I continued to reflect on yet another thread from my social media post about choosing a name from my own ancestry. I have zero connection to my father’s side of the family. I know that my mother was vastly Irish and Cherokee, but I had little to no relationship to these cultures/traditions during my childhood. I certainly had more of a connection to the Cherokee side of my family than the Irish side. Yet, was it more appropriative to choose a Cherokee name considering the limited, personal connection I have with that aspect of my ancestry?
In many ways, I chose to invite the Cherokee side of my ancestry into my life whenever I legally changed my last name to Owens. I was raised by an abusive father and changed my last name intentionally to my mother’s maiden name as a teenager. Owens is the last name of my Cherokee grandfather, my mother’s father. I also reflected on how my mother’s middle name was Kay. Donna Kay Owens was her full name. I decided at some point in my name-changing process that I would continue to use K. as my middle initial. It is both short for my given name and phonetically the same as my mother’s middle name. In this way, I feel that I have made space in this process for inviting my ancestry both into my name and into my life in a deeply meaningful way.
After returning home to Asheville, it became urgently necessary to create a space for a name-changing ceremony. On a cool, sunny March morning, I packed a bag full of candles, flowers, fruit, tarot cards, pictures of my mother, a pearl necklace that I wore in my sister’s wedding, and one very special earring.
I drove out to a waterfall in Candler near the Shiva temple. It felt significant to be in the presence of Shiva consciousness for this ceremony after hearing Eve mumble the words, “Shiva, Shakti, Shiva, Shakti.” I unpacked my bag and arranged my altar at the base of the waterfall. I called in the four directions – North, South, East, and West. I created an intention to have my ancestors present with me as I invited this new name to my life. I wrote a letter to both my mother and father, set them on fire, and let the ashes wash down the waterfall. I pulled one card out of my goddess tarot deck – a deck that I’ve had in my possession for over seven years including goddesses from various traditions around the world – and of course, the card I pulled was Lakshmi.
I gave my Lakshmi card her rightful place on the altar. I sat in prayer for only a few minutes before my hands and toes began to feel numb. There was still snow on the grass surrounding the waterfall. It was cold and gusty that morning, and I felt a sudden, physical necessity to bring the ceremony to a close.
I set fire to two beeswax candles gifted to me by my co-parent (chosen family). I watched the candles burn for several moments before picking them up and immersing their flames into the flowing water beneath the altar. I got up, stretched my arms and legs, and stood as tall as the daughter of a mountain.
I said, “My name is Su-maya.”
I left an earring, a necklace, and dried rose petals on the altar of the waterfall as I walked away in the snow. I felt my mother walking next to me. I felt her mother, and her mother, and her mother, too.
“Maya, meaning the power of creative illusion, or Matrika in Kashmir Shaivism. She is the feminine polarity, the Yin side, and she produces the hologram for the Oneness as the Observer that dwells in the Heart.
This Heart is not the physical heart that pumps blood around your body; it is the seat of consciousness in your being. The Observer within you remains connected to and united with the Oneness; it remains pure - untouched by any act good or evil.
The Observer is the ATMA/Soul or Spirit/Purusha.
Identify your consciousness with that Observer within you.
You are That. Tat Tvam Asi.
You have always been that. Remember.”
-V. Susan Ferguson
Two weeks ago, I began the heavy, cathartic transition from traveling in southeast Asia to daily American life. I left a tropical island full of breathtaking cliffside beaches, coconuts, and sunshine and came home to children dying in school shootings, a long list of bills unpaid and responsibilities undone, and ultimately the rude awakening that I am still living here in the US - an oppressive, capitalist society that was mocked by nearly every foreigner I met abroad. Even the taxi driver who drove me to the airport on my last night in Thailand was cracking jokes about our current state of affairs. I tried to laugh, but the effort wasn't genuine. The heaviness of going back home began to sink in as I boarded my flight home to America, after six magical weeks of studying herbalism, practicing Zen meditation, volunteering at a refugee center, and writing my new book while relaxing on a beachside, umbrella-covered armchair.
The heaviness became even more dense after a few days of being home - it finally sunk in that I was assaulted two days before leaving Thailand. It had not even fully hit me until I undressed in front of my physician one week later to show her the physical injuries still left behind. While ultimately, I am simply grateful to be alive, the physical injuries are a ruthless reminder of the inevitable experience of being perceived as a woman (remember how many of us said #metoo?). The rude awakening of being back home in America became less of a dull roar and more of a silent, muffled scream. I came home to the realization that ultimately the effects of patriarchy and capitalism are on an epidemic, global scale, and that no amount of time spent on a beautiful, tropical island will erase this brutal reality from our minds and hearts. There is no escape but to overcome it entirely.
I have felt conflicted for days about who to tell or how to tell this story. The person I love has essentially gaslighted and ghosted me ever since I reached out to her directly for support. I have told a small handful of friends, but they are busy with their own lives despite how supportive they have tried to be. I have scrolled through my phone countless times wondering who to call. On a few occasions I have called old friends, listened to the phone ring, but then hung up when it went to voicemail. What do I even say on a voicemail these days?
Eventually, I let go of looking for support externally and looked deeply within myself. I have been practicing meditation every single morning (despite not feeling physically well enough to practice asana). I have been focusing on heart-opening meditations from the Purna Yoga tradition in addition to various journeying/energy clearing techniques that I learned from one of my first spiritual teachers. I have been eating a Vata-pacifying diet complete with plenty of kichari and ghee. I have been taking herbal rasayanas such as shatavari kalpa, adaptogens like tulsi rose tea, and various herbs for my physical injuries such as turmeric and guduchi.
Healing myself physically feels like the most pressing step forward right now. However, my work in the world does not stop there. The path of the bodhisattva is ultimately to live in service to all other sentient beings until we are entirely, collectively free from suffering. I know that healing this world doesn't end with me.
The bodhisattva tattoo on my back is nearly a decade old at this point. I studied Buddhism in college and have been reading modern Buddhist authors such as Thich Nhat Hahn, Pema Chodron, and others since high school. The philosophy of the bodhisattva resonated with me at an early age for a reason. These sentient beings represent a way of life that I have lived for much longer than I have even known about their existence in Buddhist philosophy: living on Earth for the sole purpose of liberating all of humanity from suffering. A being who is vastly discontent with everyday life, awake enough to see that there is no joy in the material world, yet continuously walks through life with innumerable arms representing all the sentient beings they will serve in their lifetime.
My experience volunteering at the refugee center on the Thailand/Myanmar border reconnected me to this philosophy that has felt so kindred to me for years. I spent two weeks giving ayurvedic massage/herbal bodywork treatments to women and children in need, teaching refugee women how to perform these treatments for each other and their children, and writing a business plan for a future wellness program at the refugee center. Simply being present for the other women and children who have experienced so many of my own struggles, as a single mother and domestic violence survivor, was deeply healing and awakening for me. It was a much-needed reminder that when I am living in service to others that my own problems often pale in comparison. It is when I am living in service to others that I am reminded how being so deeply in touch with my own suffering has allowed me to develop the compassion necessary to be fully present and awake for others as a healing arts practitioner. It is when I am living in service to others that I realize how deeply our global suffering (and ultimately, our global healing) is interconnected.
A separate, but parallel philosophy in yoga that mirrors the Buddhist path of the bodhisattva is known as the practice of karma yoga. It is the philosophy that practicing seva, or selfless service, to others is a form of spiritual prayer - and ultimately a path to liberation itself. This path requires us to act in service to others without any attachments to the fruits of our own actions. The Bhagavad Gita, one of India's most beloved texts on the subject of karma yoga, describes Krishna's plea to Arjuna:
"The meaning of karma is in the intention. The intention behind action is what matters. Those who are motivated only by desire for the fruits of action are miserable, for they are constantly anxious about the results of what they do. At the beginning of time I declared two paths for the pure heart: jnana yoga, the contemplative path of spiritual wisdom, and karma yoga, the active path of selfless service. The ignorant work for their own profit, Arjuna; the wise work for the welfare of the world, without thought for themselves."
The bodhisattva is often described as the "warrior of compassion," which is an imperative component of the path of service. Often our own suffering leads us to indefinite anger, fear, and grief. While these emotions are appropriate and necessary for a period of time (especially after a traumatic event such as assault), eventually these emotions must be transformed into compassion - the deep understanding and acceptance that the suffering we feel is often deeply connected to the suffering of so many others in this world.
My inner work right now is to continue to develop this compassion arising from my own personal suffering. My work is to develop compassion for my attacker. My work is to develop compassion for the person I love who can't/won't be by my side right now. My work is to continue to reflect deeply on how to transform the anger, fear, and grief that I have felt these past two weeks into the compassion that is necessary for our world to change – a compassion that encompasses a deep understanding for both the causes of suffering and those fighting to survive it.
Every single manifestation of capitalism, patriarchy, and all other forms of oppression that we face require fierce, steady, relentless compassion. A fierce gaze into the depths of the suffering of every single person on this earth is necessary. It is not true compassion if anyone is left behind. We are in this fight together.
The time for "warriors of compassion" is right here, right now.
In honor of my renewed commitment to the path of the bodhisattva, the focus of Yoga Shamana is now shifting to make space for even more karma yoga in my own private practice. In my own mind and heart, there is no difference between service and the work that I do for a living. My focus right now is to simply clarify my intentions for how my professional life reflects my own personal values. It is due time for my healing arts practice and my path of karma yoga to become unified as one.
Effective as of March 1st (which falls on my birthday), all Yoga Shamana rates for private sessions are transitioning to a sliding-scale, donation basis. Plans are already in motion for various community-based programs in collaboration with The Yoga Service Movement to provide free and donation-based wellness classes, workshops, and private sessions. A powerful vision for aligning both my political and spiritual beliefs is finally manifesting into reality. My sincere intention is to live in service, as a warrior of compassion, from this day forward.
Every single day.
"It is thus: If I wish for happiness,
I should never seek to please myself,
So it is that if I wish to save myself
I must always be the guardian of others.
Therefore, free from all attachment,
I will give this body for the benefit of beings;
Thus, though many blemishes afflict it,
I shall take it as my necessary tool.
And now, as long as space endures,
As long as there are beings to be found,
May I continue likewise to remain
To soothe the sufferings of those who live.
The pains and sorrows of all wanderers -
May they ripen wholly on myself.
And may the virtuous company of Bodhisattvas
Ever bring about the liberation of beings."
-"A Flash of Lightning in the Dark of Night: A Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life," by the 8th century poet Santideva, translated by His Holiness The Dalai Lama.
On top of a quartz mountain, in the middle of nowhere Appalachia, was where I learned how to be alone. Living on a yogic ashram was a rich, informative, and experiential journey into a culture, a system of beliefs, and a way of life that I did not appreciate fully until after I had left. Although I never aligned myself completely with the faith and beliefs of the ashram, simply being there in itself was enough to change my life forever.
In the winter of 2015, I accepted a full-time position as the lead therapist at the ashram, two hours away from my home in Asheville. I had already been commuting there once or twice a month, for almost a year prior, to work as an ayurvedic bodywork therapist and panchakarma technician for sporadic special events at the center. The promotion required myself and my daughter to relocate to Boone and to live on-site at the ashram. My intention was never to live there forever. I knew that it was a temporary decision that would help achieve very specific financial and professional goals in my life. Yet I never imagined how isolated, alone, and afraid that I would feel after moving to the top of that mountain.
I gave my absolute best to my new job and to creating a sense of community with my co-workers at the ashram. Most of the ashram employees lived off-site, but there were a few of us who both lived and worked there. These were the individuals that I saw and interacted with most frequently. We worked together every day and saw each other in passing. We sat next to each other for lunch at the dining hall and attended yoga and meditation classes at the center together. Many of those individuals were devotees -- devoted followers of the the guru who founded the ashram.
I never became a devotee personally, but I certainly gave a sincere, concerted effort to studying the teachings of the guru. Over the course of that year, I read a number of Guruji’s books, watched the first several hours of a video series commentary on the ancient Vedic text The Ashtavakra Gita, and listened to a few of his audio CDs. I attended meditation classes on Sunday mornings, which were partially guided by a recording of Guruji teaching his signature meditation techniques. I also sporadically attended satsang -- a practice similar to kirtan -- which included live music and devotional Sanskrit chanting. Both the meditation and satsang were followed by discussions, led by devotees, on the teachings of the guru. The guru also came to the center twice a year, and I always made time to sit and listen to him speak in my evenings even after putting in 10-12 hour days at work.
But I never fully felt myself or at home at the ashram, no matter how diligently I studied the teachings, how often I made time to be social and friendly with the others living there, or how intentionally I tried to alter my lifestyle to mirror theirs. I often found myself alone in my ashram apartment, wishing for a deeper sense of connection with those around me and really, really missing my friends and community back home in Asheville.
I spent more time alone in that ashram apartment than I have in any other comparable amount of time in my entire adult life. I filled this alone time with my studies in ayurveda, daily practices of yoga and meditation, eating a sattvic (yogic/vegetarian) diet, taking a daily regimen of ayurvedic herbs, and practicing daily dinacharya (yogic self-care practices such as tongue scraping, self-massage, etc.). I took better care of myself than I ever had in my entire life. Not to mention, I lived in a lush apartment, with gorgeous mountain views, and (on paper) had the best job of my entire career. So, why did I feel so miserable there?
I did not fully realize the answer to this question until after moving back home to Asheville. However, I began to understand it a couple of months before leaving the ashram, while studying the teachings of Dr. Vasant Lad, the internationally renowned Ayurvedic Doctor and founder of The Ayurvedic Institute. I was reading about ayurvedic remedies for depression in several of his books that I own. I read about herbal remedies, such as dashmoola, tulsi, and brahmi. I read about oiling the head and the feet before bed with sesame oil. I read about specific yoga practices, such as sun salutations, that can benefit depression. I read that depression in itself can be related to either vata, pitta, or kapha (the three doshas or body types in ayurveda), and that the diet must be balanced within the individual first and foremost.
Above all else, the teaching of Dr. Lad on depression that still sits with me is that “Psychologically, one factor that sustains vata depression is loneliness. Try to spend more time relating to people; it will help to lift the depression.”
On my last day at the ashram, my ayurveda mentor at the center gifted a book to me that was written by the guru. Inside the front cover of the book she wrote, “Dearest Kymber, may God and Guruji bless you. Hope that you find a lot of answers in this book - I did.”
I did not start reading this book until yesterday. One of my most favorite quotes of this book so far is this one: “Suppose you could have all the success in the world, even become the richest person or the most famous person, but have no love in life. Then life would not be a success. Life would appear to be barren. From every angle we come to the same point that all we aspire for in our life is love, a Divine love, a love that is ideal. The purpose in life is to flower and bloom in that ideal love.”
My heart was longing to bloom. It was longing to bloom in love and connection with those around me. I was longing for a kind of connection that creates sparks when you look into someone’s eyes, or when you finish the other person’s sentence in mid-conversation. I was longing for the kind of intimacy that you feel when you share something vulnerable about yourself with close friends. I was longing for honesty and integrity, in the way that we can tell each other anything and everything, and trust it will never leave the room. I was longing for compassion and deep understanding, for a feeling that the person sitting next to me was listening to me without passing any judgment. I was longing so deeply for all of it.
Yet I was also longing for something even deeper. My heart was longing for love and connection with myself. I wanted a deeper connection with my soul. I wanted to experience the “Divine love” that guruji speaks of in his teachings.
The way to cultivate this connection is through meditation. It is through sitting still and simply listening to the dialogue within yourself. It is by accepting and understanding whatever comes up for you in this process no matter how difficult it may be. I wholeheartedly know and understand, from years of personal meditation practice, that it certainly comes with its fair share of discomfort. The practice is truly worth the many fruits of life that it brings.
I know now that the discomfort I felt with being alone was only a reflection of the discomfort that I felt within myself. Yet I needed to be alone in order to experience this stillness and connection within myself. I needed to be alone so that I could sit and listen to what my spirit required in order to feel nourished, supported, and whole.
The few of those living at the ashram who befriended me during that time will live within my heart always. Their presence and support during such an intensely isolated time of my life means more to me than I know how to describe. While those friendships may no longer be a part of my life, or are perhaps more distant than they once were, the depth and meaning they gave to that experience is infinite. I am eternally grateful to all of you. You know who you are.
The art of loneliness is knowing how to value its presence. It is knowing how to honor loneliness as intentional time and space for self-inquiry. It is the art of balancing the sacred, personal space with the sacred, interpersonal connections with others. Lately, I have been craving this kind of loneliness now more than ever.
Years ago, my mother lived in a house that was only a short walk away from the beach. The path began with an enchanting boardwalk, made of broken handrails and creaky steps, through a dark thicket of swampy woods, that led down a bluff to a bay, and then to a quaint, narrow beach. I often visited this place alone as a teenager and it was one of the very few places I could call a sanctuary. It was a place for comfort, introspection, and quiet contemplation not available to me at home, at school, or anywhere else in my life at that time.
I recently visited this beach for the first time in well over a decade. The boardwalk, as usual, gave me the chills; but this time, in an inviting and familiar kind of way. I finally reached the edge of the coast and sat down at the altar of the mother water. I touched the sand and felt the grains slip between the webs of my fingers. I took slow, deep breaths of the humid salt water air. I stared into the horizon. Into that place where the sky becomes ocean and the ocean becomes sky. Where everything else turns into nothing. I was home.
I picked up a small branch off the ground and drew a line in the sand. Placing the stick down next to me, I continued to gaze at the line I had drawn. This line was intentionally placed between myself and the people, places, and circumstances in my life that were preventing me from healing from the sudden, recent passing of my mother. The time had finally come. I had reached a point in my life, yet again, where my heart was deeply longing for a life-altering, cathartic shift in my perspective. I realized that the present way of life was no longer serving me the way it once did.
Perhaps you have shared a similar experience of self-realization before? The experience of deeply knowing, in every cell of your being, that the time has come for you to heal.
I have come to this place many times in my life, over and over and over again. And each time I come to it with a little more gentleness, more friendliness, and more curiosity – and a little less fear of the inevitable change that I know lies before me. The process of healing and transformation becomes slightly easier each time we begin a new chapter.
But, if this healing process is new to you or still feels uncomfortable after more than one attempt, how do you begin to lean into this gentleness and curiosity? How do you let go of the broken handrails that make you feel afraid of stepping onto the path of the dark and strange unknown - the same path that eventually leads you to a place of light?
The first step is the process of drawing your own lines in the sand. What is preventing you from beginning your own healing process? First, we must identify the kleshas, or obstacles, that hinder us from manifesting these necessary positive changes in our lives. In yoga philosophy, the kleshas are an inevitable and necessary part of our path to healing. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali says that these obstacles arise in order to “make us understand and express our own capacities.” One of the most difficult obstacles on my own personal path has been raga, or attachment. In order to fully heal, often there is something else in our lives that we must let go. But if our healing process is important to us, then sacrificing some part of ourselves becomes worth it when it means that we find ourselves whole and fulfilled in the end.
The next step in our healing process is tapas, the yogic practice of self-discipline. Once we have identified the obstacles on our path, then we know where to begin making slow, but steady positive changes. While instant, miraculous healing is found by some, for many of us our path to healing requires a daily, long-term commitment to taking better care of ourselves and our emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual needs. This kind of commitment is daunting to most, myself included. A daily yoga practice is not easy to commit to for many people. Even a small handful of dietary changes can throw a relatively healthy person for a loop in their daily lives. But the discipline that you develop during these early stages of change comes through creating new habits. Do something once, then a few times, and then a few more times. New habits become less of a “chore” and more like… a daily practice of healing self-care. A daily practice that requires your persistent focus and dedication. This is the yogic practice of tapas.
Finally, allow yourself to admit when you need help along the way and ask for the support you need to heal. Our ego will often tell us we don’t need help or that no one knows how or wants to help us. But it may be as simple as asking a friend to help you cook a healthy meal once a week. Or asking a loved one to try beginning a new meditation practice with you, and sitting quietly for 5-10 minutes together once a week. Taking small steps in the beginning can help prevent you from feeling overwhelmed and giving up on your journey of healing completely. Of course, at times we may require additional support and/or support from a qualified professional. But even the smallest doses of help and support can radically change the way we feel about ourselves and the quality and timeliness of our healing process.
I invite you to draw lines in the sand with me. Lean into the gentleness and curiosity of this process. And remember, these lines don’t have to last forever. We can erase them, and draw new ones any time we realize that they are no longer serving us. This journey will always be there for us, as long as we are willing to let go of our attachments, make a commitment to our practice, & ask for help along the way.