Yoga and Transformational Experiences at the Anglican Studies Program Retreat

Interestingly, I have met in the past two years in India two long-standing Christian ministers, both of whom have been practicing yoga for decades. The conversation and sharing has been so rich and insightful.

Along with other synchronicities I will explore later, these meetings led up to my co-facilitating a retreat this past weekend at the Galilee Retreat Centre in Arnprior with a group of twelve in the Anglican Studies Program at St. Paul’s University in Ottawa, aspiring to be ordained as priests. Rev. Kevin Flynn asked me to co-facilitate this retreat about a year an a half ago, and since then, we had been discussing ideas for the retreat which settled to a very experiential program including morning yoga practice, and various Transformational Experiences, and discussions about diverse contemplative and mystical practices in our lives. Firstly, the group was incredibly sincere and open, and many of us shared interests and expertise in history, literature, education, social action, music, rare books, and manuscript restoration, as well as of course theology and religious studies and practices. So, the experience was so rich on many levels.

Quite a few people who knew I was heading to this retreat, or saw my post prior to leaving on Facebook, expressed interest in knowing how the weekend went. It has taken me a week to be able to even contemplate writing this piece. And perhaps I will have to come back to it again later, but today being Sunday, I have been inspired to share a little bit about it today.

Firstly, I must say that upon arriving at the Galilee Centre, and taking a few breaths of fresh air on the breeze off the majestic Ottawa River, scented with the aroma of huge heritage pines, I felt I was in for a grounding stay, supported by the elements of creation. That night, after a Kripalu-style getting-to-know-you activity with matching pair discussion slips for partners to find each other with words such as ‘ritual’, ‘transformation’, ‘practice of silence’ et cetera, we enjoyed a lovely service in the chapel. Behind the altar was a large arched window overlooking the river. That evening, led by Kevin, we sang by candle light, sparse, mystical phrases, ”Come light of light into my heart. Come spirit of wisdom into my heart”. At this point, the richness and the coming together of contemplative traditions that we were embarking on, was already so palpable. Such that going to bed that night in a very clear, retreat room with single bed, desk and chair, I felt buoyant, lifted up by spirit in nature, spirit in community, and spirit in joined voices and silence. And also a deep gratitude for all of those things, as well as being able to facilitate in this way.

On Saturday, after yoga and prayers, we shared porridge and broke our silence with a very social breakfast. The rest of the day unfolded with ritual, sharing and the discussion of contemplative practices. I am so glad that we began with the journey of the walking of the labyrinth. The centre has a beautiful, large, flat labyrinth which consists of grass and inlaid bricks to mark the path to the centre of the labyrinth. Four diagonal directions were marked with benches, and from the entryway one looked out to a statue of Mother Mary and the river beyond. The practice of labyrinth walking is very similar to a walking meditation, which I often lead. The walking is slowed to promote mindfulness. We synchronized the breath also with the movements of arms and legs. The added bonus of the labyrinth is that there is a centre to the journey, and to the healing contemplation. And on the way back, a kind of integration of the experience in which we focused not only on the healing, but on ‘bearing witness to each other’ as we journeyed back out of the sacred space together. For me, this was one of the most profound experiences of the retreat, and got so much to the heart of what I feel contemplative practices have to offer.

Later, we discussed common elements of such practices in diverse traditions, such as silence, slowing down, singing or cooperative movements or dances, rhythm and repetition. I gave some examples of each on a handout, and will offer a snippet of that here.

Experience or Ritual: The facilitator, and possibly the group will co-create an experiential activity. An experiential activity is any process or inquiry that causes the participants to gain new insight about something simply from engaging with the group and the process/space created by the ritual. Facilitators can design experiences or activities to demonstrate philosophical or spiritual concepts, or help participants get in touch with states of union between body, mind and higher mind, and to connect with states of wonder, bliss, absorption or devotion. These might include:
• Slowing down to enter a more intuitive and receptive state;
o Through deep breathing or patterned breathing,
o Slowed movements or gestures (including mindful eating activities),
o Moment of silence or witnessing
• Collective singing and observing its effects;
o Hymns,
o Mantras,
o Devotional songs,
• Use of rhythm and repetition;
o Recitation of short repeated phrases,
o Repeated movements like circle dances or Sufi dances, Tai Chi etc.
o Drumming,
o Walking meditation, or Labyrinth walking,
• Visualization or harnessing of attention;
o Meditation on an icon or chakra,
o Prayer with an icon, or meditation on the heart of Christ,
o Candle or full-moon gazing,
o Moment-to-moment mindfulness,
o healing circles,
• Soaking in nature and/or reflecting on the primordial elements;
o Evoking the directions, elemental rituals like fire/water rituals,
o Canoeing or kayaking,
o Gazing at uniform fields of vision like vast, still lake or clear blue sky,
• Formal religious rituals like Holy Communion or visiting stations of the cross.

I also mentioned new scientific research on how cooperative movement and collective singing/chanting cause us to release oxytocin and thereby have a bonding effect helping us feel connected as a group, but also causing us to feel greater oneness with All-that-is. Secondly, we spoke about research in education such that movement enhances the ability to concentrate. This helped to demonstrate the inner wisdom of rituals involving slowing but not stilling completely, the use of rhythm and repetition, and cooperative movement and song. And so we brainstormed examples of these, perhaps not all in wide use, from our traditions.

After this very rich discussion of the doorway of silence, breath, mindfulness and repetition of ecstatic phrases, we practiced anuloma viloma and meditation. As many of you know, I usually perform these practices with the Ham-so mantra and am a big proponent of bi-syllabic mantras. For this context, we used an Aramaic ‘mantra’ which is said to have been used by Jesus, meaning ‘Come Lord’, which was also 2 syllables: Maranatha. This also felt like an amazing coming together of cultural or tradition-specific components to create a wonderful inter-faith experience that I really do feel helped to create safety and accessibility to a practice, a doorway to mystical/contemplative experience.

In conclusion, the retreat offered me an opportunity to again experience (after all my travels and years living in other countries), that having a chance to get to know someone from another tradition, and explore the many points of commonality, or the common human experience and how we journey through in unique but comparable cultural ways, removes distance and the un-known, and brings us together to the enrichment of all.

If I could put in a note here – I have long been a proponent of more inter-cultural and inter-religious studies in schools. It is more exposure and understanding that will help us in society and community building, not less. For this, I am excited about doing more such work on universal rituals, and also blending rituals as an educational, inter-faith experience, and also introducing people to the yoga tradition who already have a primary identification with another faith.

Other Experiences of the Past Year

Last winter at the Ashram, we had an Ash Wednesday ceremony led by Robert Bryant, an Episcopal minister from Portland, OR, who was in teacher training at the time. It was held for anyone who wanted to join in, and took place in the garden with ash anointed from that morning’s fire puja. This was a very moving experience for the 7 or 8 of us who participated, I believe in part because it allowed us to freely practice a sacred ritual within the sacred space of another tradition. As such, it signaled that we do not have to divide things up and sector off parts of ourselves. I feel that this is the way of the future – understanding and exploring diverse spiritual practices from historical and current human culture, as well as understanding these and other more secular mindfulness practices are hugely beneficial to our physical, mental/emotional and spiritual/inner wellbeing.

The Yoga of Motherhood

I had the pleasure today of attending a discussion at the Yoga Festival Toronto about yoga in the modern world.  The dialogue turned for a moment to the idea that we do not have to liberate ourselves from worldly concerns like our jobs, our families and our lives in society in order to do yoga.  In fact, we can view everything we do as a part of our practice, contemplation and being of yoga.  This is the Karma Yoga that Shri Krishna speaks of in the Bhagavad Gita.  Karma Yoga is not just when we do volunteering (seva); it is the bringing of yogic wisdom and being-ness to our daily situation, our daily actions, “the inaction in action”, the quiet and evenness we bring to our interactions with others and the task at hand.

As a mother of two young children, I find that this is the main way that I find yoga in my daily life.  I am brought face to face with the need to accept/cherish/savour my situation, and my phase of life as it is, rather than harkening for the free-time and practice time I had before I became a mother.  For example, I notice that if I am in the sandbox with my children, thinking about a yoga class I was not able to go to for lack of a babysitter, I am not present, I suffer the feeling of regret and isolation, the children sense my distraction and act out.  On the other hand, I notice that if I freely let go of clinging to yoga classes or events I am not able to attend, I have fun in the sandbox, there is a rich feeling between me and the children, and we have more meaningful interactions with the people who are present with us in that moment.  Of course, this works better for me if I ensure that I regularly get some of the quiet time and yoga restoration I enjoy.  Having had truly present moments with the kids then allows me, when I do get to a yoga class or meditation meeting, or lecture, to let go of any recriminating thoughts about  having gone out.  Yes, savouring simple moments with my kids has proven to be a very powerful form of yoga.  I have found it a grounding, inspiring, slowing, loving relationship.

Being a mother who runs a yoga organization from home also constantly demands that I grow, stretch, move in-and-out of different roles, and that I have very clear boundaries about the ever creeping encroachment into family life that technology can bring about, especially for those who work from home.

Motherhood is the perfect parallel of the balancing act that we are engaged in as yogis actively involved in the world.  At some point in our engagement with this wisdom tradition (or any other for that matter), we are likely to feel a tension between active practice and contemplation, engagement with family and society and retreat, the desire to do only things that are overtly connected to yoga, and the recognition of the richness that comes when we live yoga through our other passions and with and in a wider society.  As modern yogis in particular, we often strive for regular retreat and periods of cloistered practice, as well as active engagement in family life, community, work, culture etc.  In a parallel way for mothers, there is often a palpable, if unexpressed, tension between the act of mothering, and the act of mothering ourselves, between the nuclear world of our neighbourhood of parks and schools and kid-friendly activities, and our world of pre-baby friends, adult conversations, quiet dinners out, yoga classes just for us…  While some moms delve head-long into a “kid-centred world” giving up all of their own activities, others (like me) may actively resist the separation of kid and adult worlds and set out to find a mythic half-way zone in which they can continue to do all the things they used to do, by simply bring their children.  While I have adored slinging or backpacking my children through art galleries, Paris cafes, kiirtans, to my lectures, and yes, even to meditation classes, there is just no getting around the fact that every once in a while it is more relaxing, sane and enriching for everyone if the kids go to the park and I go to a lecture on yoga history on my own.

When we are active in the world, there is always more to do, more to get involved in.  When I compare my involvement with that of my single friends or colleagues without children, and see their level of time commitment as superior, without recognizing the different phases of our lives we are in, I am in an internal conflict.  When I compare my yoga practice on the mat or cushion before kids and now, I question myself.  Measuring, quantifying, judging, analyzing, these are common ways to hear people speak about yoga nowadays.  The practice practice is seen a somehow superior to the attempt at moment-to-moment beingness, which cannot be so neatly quantified.  Even Karma Yoga seems to be neatly tied up in volunteer hours, external acts of activism, etc.  Being a mother of young children has given me another opportunity to step back and observe our addiction to accolades, concrete acts and identity.  Serving our own children, though a long-term and intense daily commitment, is often not valued as a social service.  And certainly I have been asked by fellow colleagues when I’m going to get back to a more “regular yoga practice”.  In the spirit of Karma Yoga, seeking skill in action, I surrender absolutely to my own daily balance of savouring my children, nurturing myself, working for a yoga organization, and engaging with art, literature, friends, family, and society.  It is enough.

copyright Chetana Panwar 2010

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