Meeting Amma

June 15, 2010

In 1998, while studying and traveling in India, I had one of those chance meetings that changed the way I saw the world. After an intensive course study in Yoga and Vedanta in Kerala, one of my dorm mates invited me to join her on a journey to Cochin to visit a woman she knew and loved there. My time was not otherwise booked, so I decided to tag along. I’ll never forget the wild  ride through the lush, jungly streets and hearing the Indian version of “Macarena” on taxi’s radio.

I knew nothing about the woman we were going to meet. The taxi dropped us near a river where we took a wooden 10 person ferry across. There was a certain buzz all around as dozens of others were crossing the river in small ferry boats. I remember the light and a sense of clarity in the air. As we sailed cross the river, an interesting building came into view- all pink with colorful embellishments- and huge. My intrigue grew deep as I wondered where this boat was taking us.

Getting off the boat, we stepped into a small city of its’ own with a clear culture unlike anything I’d ever experienced. There were people everywhere, thousands of people. Some were milling around carrying plates of food, others were waiting in lines, very long lines. Yet, despite their waiting, no one appeared impatient or irritated. In fact, they all seemed quite at peace to be waiting.

We checked into a room in one of the buildings, approximately 10 stories high. The accommodations were humble, simple and clean. Previously, I thought we’d be staying in a room at someone’s home! This whole journey would prove to be one big exercise in shifting perspectives quickly and going with the flow.

I recall wanting to inquire with my travel mate about what was happening all around us,  but I did not feel like talking. The serenity of this new place had started to seep into my cells and I knew I could trust the situation. Within a couple of hours, we found ourselves waiting in one of the long lines. I assumed we were waiting for food, but this assumption was also put to rest as people began bringing plates of food to everyone standing in our line. As the servers offered food to my friend and I, they asked where we were from and we replied,  “the US.” They immediately took back our food and began to usher us with great kinetic energy and purpose through the crowded lines, through the front doors of the beautiful pink building I had seen from the river.

As soon as we entered the doors, time stopped and a completely new kind of space was revealed. We were in a great hall filled with song and packed with many people. The attention of all of these people was directed toward the other end of the hall before us. As I gazed in that direction, my eyes took a few long moments to focus in on a flurry of activity surrounded by brilliant light. A few moments later, the woman we had come to meet slowly came into focus. There was Amma.

Only one other time in my life had I ever seen anything similar to the vision of Amma. The first time I laid eyes on my husband, I could hardly make out his physical form due to the luminosity all around him. I always thought this was an effect of the love hormone! When I first saw Amma, she was truly a ray of light.

After this brief moment of revelation, our ushers continued to navigate us through the sea of people, all waiting to meet Amma. As we approached the stage, our attendants whispered to us that Amma liked for American visitors to be brought quickly to the front of the line so that we did not become to annoyed with all of the waiting! What compassion.

The next thing I knew, I was on my knees in Amma’s arms. Not your typical first time meeting kind of hug, but a hug that lasts a lifetime. Amma wrapped her generous arms around my body and patted my head  while she rocked forward and back, whispering in my ear,”Om, Om, Om, Darling, Darling, Darling.” (Atleast that is what I think she said! Perhaps the “darling” part was actually some Sanskrit word that I had yet to learn.)

After what felt like several minutes of embrace, she firmly held my shoulders and looked directly into my eyes. Her smile penetrated my heart. Amma placed her forehead to mine and recited a mantra, then she gave me a Hershey’s kiss and let me go. The attendants were right there to guide me to the next post, a cushion on the floor about 3 feet from where Amma sat. I was told to stay there as long as I would like.

I do not know how long I sat and watched Amma embrace people. Time was very different in this place. They say time slows down near dense objects, like pyramids. There was some sort of time warping effect happening near Amma. She never tired of singing and hugging and sharing her massive love. I had never seen anything like this before.

Later that night, I joined a group of travelers on the rooftop of the ashram. The rooftop was a kind of outdoor temple in the stars. I sat in the cool night air, feeling very fortunate, and reflecting on my experience. I remember an overwhelming feeling that if I could embody even a tiny portion of the unconditional love and compassion I had felt from Amma, my life would truly transform. I thought about how, as a teacher, I sometimes get frustrated with student’s behavior. What if I could meet frustration with just a drop of this powerful kind of love?

Amma did not ask for anything in return for this gift. She did not request that I do anything, believe anything, commit to anything at all. Yet, through this experience, I came to see the power of love in a whole new light.

Love, without strings attached. Love with no judgement. Love everyone. Love the people we don’t understand. Love the people who frighten us. Love and love and love. This was the lesson I learned during my few days at Amma’s house.

Amma is in Los Angeles this week and my heart goes aflutter each time I read someone’s Facebook status update that they are going to see her for the first time or the 15th time. I have seen her here in Los Angeles once since that first meeting in India. Personally, I do not feel called to see Amma each time she visits. I feel very full from my experience with her. The lessons of love she taught me will continue to challenge and guide me throughout my life, as they have done for the past 12 years.

We all have the potential to love on the level of Amma and fortunately there are countless people and experiences to mirror this possibility to us. I believe that through great mutual trust we can be mirrors of love to each other.

*To learn more about Amma and her incredible humanitarian work, visit http://www.amma.org/amma/index.html Amma has raised millions of dollars to help people in need, including those who suffered the earthquake in Haiti and the hurricanes in the Gulf Coast regions.

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Yoga Treasure Box

June 8, 2010

Last Thursday night, I drifted into sleep reflecting on the past 12 years I’ve had the pleasure of teaching yoga at a dear andwonderful pre-school in Hollywood called The Walther School.  It was the eve of our last class before I take maternity leave. I awoke the next morning with this inspiration from dream time; a teaching structure to complete the school year with a review and allow each student to express their learning with the group.

The class opened with reminding the students that this would be our last yoga class together. We could all go on to practice yoga with other circles, but this would the final time that this unique group of people would be together in yoga. I told them that we were going on a special treasure hunt to find a yoga treasure box. First, we built boats (Navasana) and sailed the seas, rowing and searching. Next, we flew like dragonflies (Virabhadrasana III variation) high above the land. Then, we even drove imaginary cars and trucks all around town in search of the prized box. (“Driving” is basically sitting with legs outstretched forward, holding an imaginary steering wheel with both hands, and “walking” forward and back with the sitz bones and legs. Great way to stimulate lower body awareness and gain some lift on the sitz bones for spinal extension).

After all of the traveling to far away lands, we needed a rest. So, while the children were in Child’s Pose relaxing, I placed a beautifully jeweled treasure box in the center of the circle. Of course, when they rose up from Child’s Pose, the room was alive with excitement: “There it  is! We found it!”

“Would you like to see what’s inside,” I asked and received a resounding affirmative response. After building their excitement a little more, I slowly opened the box and sloooooowly pulled out a beautiful crystal and rudraksha mala. I explained to the children that our circle is like a mala wherein we are all treasures connected by a common bond. The bond that connects us in our kindness and teamwork. I also explained how a mala works for Japa meditation and what a mantra is. Yogin’s use the beads in meditation. We say one mantra, or affirmation, per bead and make our way around the whole necklace. A mantra is a set of words that helps us connect to our selves and be calm. Together, we created a 3 word mantra to use through out the class: Ocean, Sand, Sailboat.

Next, we passed the mala around the circle. Each child placed the mala around their neck and went to the middle of the circle to share a treasure they had learned in yoga this year. Some shared poses, breathing exercises or simply memories. When students shared restful poses, we whispered our mantra to hold our attention. Another idea is to make a quicker pass of the mala around the circle and say the mantra once per child.

This simple exercise was a great way for me as a teacher to check in on what students have learned and what they value from their learning. It also gave us a chance to honor each and every student for the jewel that they are. I tried this one with two different groups of children. For one group, the mala helped to hold their attention quite well. The other group was a little distracted by the mala, but the exercise still held value.

This exercise could be modified for older children and teens by skipping the opening treasure hunt and presenting the mala at the beginning of class.

In closing, I’d love to share a huge amount of gratitude to The Walther School for over a decade of dedication to their yoga program! To Dr. Gloria Walther, Brenda, Laryl, Zilda and all of the teachers, parents and children….my love and appreciation are yours always.

This past weekend I had the great pleasure of facilitating our Yoga Skills for Youth Facilitator’s Training at Project Butterfly in Los Angeles. We had a full circle of powerful teachers willing to spend yet another 20 hours learning new techniques, gaining perspectives and deepening understanding of how to integrate yoga into schools and other venues for youth. As always, I am impacted by the level of dedication teachers give to their craft.

All too often, teachers bear the burden for what’s wrong with our education system. Now more than ever with the No Child Left Behind Act, teachers are held accountable to the success or failure of students, at a seemingly higher level than anyone else involved in the great big mess that our education system has become. Should teachers be held responsible for what occurs in their classrooms? Oh yes, without a doubt. However, public schooling has gotten to a point where teachers are told exactly what they must do and then they are punished when those plans don’t work.

In other words, we no longer ask teachers to bring their brilliance and creativity to the classroom. We don’t ask teachers to light the sparks within their students. All that we ask is that teachers prepare their students to pass a standardized test. It’s simply not enough. Today, a teacher’s time is filled with paperwork and technical, logistical tasks, rather than creating curricula alive with possibility and learning. This weekend, I was reminded of how fortunate we are as yoga teachers because we are considered “enrichment specialists” and are able to function in a slightly less controlled area of education. As yoga educators, we enjoy the privilege of caring for the well being of our students on all levels, not just academic. Educators know that learning is never just academic. Real learning happens when a child’s needs are met on social, emotional and physical levels.

How did we reach this place where teachers are expected to be technicians of information rather than inspiring guides to greater depths of understanding? How is it acceptable to society that we, by and large, compensate teachers so poorly when they carry such a critical load for us? What is necessary to uplifting the field of teaching and empowering teachers to take back their classrooms?

I do not know the answers to these questions, but feel a strong need for public dialogue and debate surrounding these issues. With all of the wars, oil spills, and political mayhem, it is easy to sweep this issue under the rug and allow a select few to determine to trajectory of education. However, perhaps our global problems are actually intricately linked with the quality of education we provide our citizens. Are we developing critical thinkers and problem solvers or do we simply ask students to report back to us what we have given them?

To all of the teachers who manage to keep the fire alive and educate with fervor and passion, thank you, you are the lights of our world. There are many schools and teachers who refuse to give in to the low standards being set by many policy makers. There are certainly schools and teachers that make it work. And how many more could make it really work if we lifted the heavy, oppressive iron of one-size-fits-all cookie-cutter curricula and asked teachers to enact democracy in the classroom, to give everyone a voice and to allow students, parents and communities to participate more fully in the education process? That would require a great deal of trust. Perhaps we can shift some of the  trust we’ve placed in wall street, oil companies and government officials toward our dedicated teachers who stick with the job no matter what and give selflessly to our children everyday.

What do you think?