Blood Memories book

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My Story

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“Who would prefer the jingle of jade pendants if he has once heard stone growing in the cliffs.”

Around the age of 15, I first read those words of Lao-Tzu in the Tao Te Ching. My world was California—San Francisco of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s—endless golden days of experimentation and searching, where the possibility of ultimate transformation seemed as real as the sun gleaming over the blue Pacific. It was there that I first began to walk the path of yoga. Many years would pass, however, and many trials and challenges would test me to the limit before the pieces started to fit together and the power of yoga became a daily reality in my life.

In 1968, I met Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a great Indian teacher who initiated me into the practice of Mantra Yoga, a form of meditation which brought much joy and peace into my life during the many years I practised it regularly. Eager for a deeper understanding, I studied Eastern Philosophy and Religion at UC Berkeley, and began a life-long programme of self-study into a variety of spiritual traditions. A Catholic priest introduced me to various Buddhist meditation practices. A Native American woman showed me the power of Earth Wisdom and the magic of elemental energies. The mountains, the forest, the ocean became my teachers too.

During this time, I had yet to discover the incredibly transformative power of asana practice. I was studying dance, having returned to a childhood passion after a too long hiatus during my early teenage years. Daily (and sometimes twice daily!) ballet class was my routine for years, and I had no energy left for another physical practice—so I thought. But as I look back on it, releasing body and breath into the splits after a long ballet class, surrendering what was left of my mind to the minute sensations inside and outside my body . . . .  I was coming to yoga asana intuitively. Or maybe yoga was coming to me???

Yet life was already so full.  Ever since school, I was firmly ensconced upon the academic path as well. I loved books and learning. With an insatiable curiousity for just about everything, particularly that which was esoteric or outside the mainstream of tradition, I read widely, stretching always the prescribed boundaries.  Nevertheless, I ended up obtaining a BA from UC Santa Cruz in Literature (English and French) and afterwards an MA in English.

The spirit of adventure kept me moving too, unable to settle either physically or mentally. I lived in Scotland for two years and Paris for one, a vague kind of wanderlust fuelling a search for I knew not what. There was even some discussion with friends in Paris about an overland journey to India through the Middle East . . . "What might have been" . . . stirred something deep, a yearning so palpable. But it never happened.

Romance did, however, and life took some sharp turns, landing me squarely back into my place of origin. I even spent a few years teaching English in the same secondary school I had attended years before. Back to that place where the spiritual quest had first seized my attention and wondering, wondering . . . What happened???  What next????

When I was pregnant with my first child, I began to practise yoga according to the teaching of Jeannine Parvati Baker, an independent midwife, Indian-trained yogi and mother of five children. This yoga very much in tune with the Moon energies—inwards, conscious, receptive, fluid, yielding—helped me channel the powerful forces of labour and give birth naturally and joyously. All three of my children were born at home, with independent midwives attending. I remember each birth as an incredibly high experience of altered consciousness, an out-of-body union with the ground of life. Childbirth opened something in me. The whole experience was an awakening of the highest order, deeply yogic.

Under the surface, certain threads were coming together and shifting things I could not yet articulate. The yoga asana I had started to do, the meditation that was sustaining me always, the perenniel philosophy of India, the example of certain Catholic priests and nuns and theologians (of the visionary California variety), and the wisdom of my midwives (who understood the spiritual dimension of birth and assisted me always from a place of love) . . . . All this was forming a unity that I was just beginning to perceive.

The birth of my second son released an overwhelming surge of energy. Just weeks after he was born, the need both to reconnect with the creative power of birth and to share my yogic experience of birth with others propelled me onto a new path. I turned to my midwife, Annie Fuller, who had also become my friend. Independent midwife, shaman, energy healer and visionary, Annie lived and taught from the place of deepest truth. She became my mentor. With her I studied to become a Childbirth Educator and Labour Coach/Doula, and soon began to teach classes myself, integrating yoga into the work I did. I also studied traditional midwifery with Elizabeth Davis, pioneer midwife of San Francisco in the tradition of Ina May Gaskin. Elizabeth wrote a wonderful book, “Heart and Hands: A Guide to Midwifery”, and was my midwife for the birth of my first son.

I apprenticed with Annie for a year, attending homebirths with her (and my  breastfeeding baby as well!) around the San Francisco Bay Area. Ignited as I was by that creative birth energy, it was a very high time indeed! Understanding was beginning to develop in my hands too, a new thing for me and hard to trust at first, but a good antidote to my often overactive intellect. For more experience, I volunteered as a labour coach in the local hospital and witnessed first-hand the various medical approaches to birth.

But another sharp turn sent me across the Atlantic once more, this time to Ireland, which has been my home since 1991, a destiny I can only understand as the incredible gift of karmic forces unfolding from intelligence far greater than mine. Those first years in Dublin were a time of profound peace. Held by the rain and darkness as if in a cocoon, I settled into a simplicity, quietly integrating the various strands of spirituality that had been my life and passionately walking that sometimes difficult road of my own awakening. During this time, I began to write. Soon a novel was taking shape, and the writing of it became an all-consuming passion, the story-making process itself a profound experience of awakening and integration. Published in 2008, Blood Memories explores various themes of spiritual awakening through the lives of four generations of Italian-American women.

During a visit to Annie in California in 1998,  an incredible Shamanic Soul Retrieval rekindled my fire for the quest, lifting the darkness of some very old pain and opening my inner eye to the possibility of fresh vistas. The benefits of this experience manifested quickly in my life. A daily home practice of yoga asanas, training in shamanic practices, and the study of Buddhist psychology were the fruits. For four years, I travelled to England regularly to stay at the Buddhist House of Amida Trust, an order of Pure-land Buddhists. Immersed  in the life of the community, its practices and teachings, I learned so much from Amida, integrating in a deep personal way the experience of psychotherapy and counselling from a Buddhist perspective. Shamanic practice became a part of my life too. I continued to work with various teachers, both in England and the States. But the spirit work itself became my principal guide, as the direct path of shamanism resonates deeply with my independent spirit.

However, for me yoga is the theme that holds everything together, integrating as it does the spiritual, physical, psychological and energetic. As Sri Aurobindo said, "All life is either consciously or subconsciously a Yoga."  It has been so with me, all the various strands of experience leading to an ever deeper awareness of the truth yoga reveals. Gradually, my ears tuned, and the "stone growing in the cliff" became a subtle music apparent in the gaps of quietness.

I have experimented with different styles of practice and trained directly as a teacher in three traditions, Ashtanga, Iyengar and Sivananda, each approach adding something different to my understanding. From the nearly three years I spent doing teacher training with Elizabeth Connolly in Dublin, I gained a profound respect for the precision of the Iyengar practice. Sivananda Yoga, which I first encountered long ago in San Francisco, I love for its inclusiveness, particularly its emphasis on bhakti. I am particularly grateful for the time I spent in the Sivananda ashrams, in Quebec, Kerala, and Uttarkashi, for the hours of soul-lifing kirtan, and for what ashram living taught me about discipline and surrender.  Shortly after I discovered it, though, Ashtanga-Vinyasa became my personal choice of practice and major passion.

Why? Because for me, it worked! On a physical level, the imbalances of strength and flexibility in my body leftover from my dance training began to change, freeing joints and muscles and releasing the pain of old injuries. Subtle and not so subtle changes happened in my life as well—greater energy, patience, tolerance, understanding and JOY. On a spiritual level, something was happening, something big. Every morning, my day was beginning with a strong and deep Ashtanga practice, so that an unmistakable grace was infusing the rest of my day with a radiance. I had come full circle—the meditation I learned from Maharishi and the words of Lao-Tzu now supplied with the rocket fuel they needed to get me somewhere.

For years, I could not get enough of Ashtanga. I travelled abroad to study with many senior teachers, Manju Jois, Graeme Northfield, Nancy Gilgoff, David Swenson, Danny Paradise, John Scott and others. For three years, I did four to six week summer intensives in Greece with Graeme and Leonie Northfield. I did teacher training with David Swenson. I also went to India to study directly with Pattabhi Jois, returning often to work with him and his grandson, Sharath, and staying for months at a time in Mysore, close to the source of this powerful tradition. By his words as well as his presence, Guruji reinforced in every way the spiritual dimension of practice. I am blessed to have received this understanding through the direct touch of the Master.

In 2007, my practice expanded into a new direction again. For the first time in years, I wanted to explore other styles of practice. In Mysore, I studied first with Venkatesh, a traditional teacher of yoga and Vedanta and master of back-bending. Then I met Vinay Kumar, an amazing yogi and teacher with extraordinary wisdom for one so young in years. Vinay taught me his own practice, called Prana Vashya Yoga. For five weeks in Mysore, I studied with him intensely (6 hours a day!). My own practice has not been the same since. Though I still practise ashtanga regularly, I also draw from other sources. Mostly, I practise intuitively, incorporating different poses, different sequences, different qualities into my daily practice. Krishnamacharya, guru of Pattabhi Jois, developed different styles of practice to suit the particular needs of different constitutions, different times of life. That spirit characterizes my approach to yoga today.

During these years, my exploration of the deeper dimension of yoga continued as always. In Mysore, I studied Ayurveda with Dr. Anil Kumar and the chanting of the Sutras with Dr. M.A. Jayashree. Through Distance Learning, I studied with Georg Feuerstein PhD, foremost yoga scholar, Sanskrit translator and author of over 30 books, completing a two-year course in Yoga Philosophy, History, Literature and Tradition and a one-year course in the Classical Yoga of Patanjali. For me, the learning never stops!

But there is a point where the gathering of knowledge may be counter-productive . . . In 2009, destiny led me on retreat with a truly accomplished yogi, a realized master in the classical sense of Patanjali, radical in his adherence to tradition and completely outside the mainstream of  commercially viable approaches. He challenged me in ways I had never been challenged before.  I am still reeling from that experience, not sure how it will all integrate . . .

Yet the guiding voice of wisdom which presides over everything for me is that of Ramesh S. Balsekar, my spiritual teacher and revered guru. Searching for a true master during one of my first visits to India, I went to morning satsang with Ramesh in Bombay. His teaching riveted me as never before. I can only compare the experience of looking into his eyes to that of falling in love. I returned to Ramesh every time I went to India, spending many weeks at a time sitting at his feet in morning satsang and sometimes returning in the afternoons for private conversations. It was during one of those afternoons that Ramesh accepted me as a disciple and said I could call him my guru.

Through Ramesh, the deepest truth of Advaita Vedanta takes shape. With crystal-like clarity he speaks, truth articulated straight from the heart of an instrument through which enlighenment has happened! In language both eloquent and contemporary, often startling in its uncompromising honesty, he clears away so much spiritual confusion. His understanding is profound beyond words, yet also utterly simple. As I listened to Ramesh, then went away and let the teaching settle, and later returned with more questions, always his penetrating responses dispelled my doubts. My devotion grew as over and over I witnessed his compassion, his kindness, his humility, his absolute resistance to claiming any personal power.

Gradually, the understanding in me deepened and deepened. Though I still feel devastated by his passing from this life on 18 September 2009, the grace of the Guru is a treasure I'll have with me always. I can close my eyes and in an instant I am back in his sitting room in Bombay, embraced by a perfect peace--as palpable as the sweat streaming from my forehead.

As a teacher, I want to share with all who come to me the joy, peace and understanding that yoga has brought to my life. My approach is flexible and non-dogmatic, drawing from all the traditions and teachers who have graced my life. I strive to help others walk the path of yoga—in whatever form is right for them. Ultimately all aspects of my work are about one thing: transforming suffering into joy. True joy--which is based not upon the bittersweetness always present in the flow of life, but upon the peace and harmony stemming from unbroken connection to the Source--is the gift of yoga. It is that joy which transforms life into a wondrous celebration of light, love, creativity and planetary vibrancy; into a grateful surrender to the Sacred Cosmic Dance which is everything.

Om Shanti

Read My Story: Part 2

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Jaya Ganesha Pahimam!

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