Awakin Calls » Maya Breuer » Transcript
Maya Breuer: Yoga teacher, community activist and leader
Aug 12, 2017: Listen to Spirit and Take Action
Guest: Maya Breuer
Moderator: Amit Dungarani
Host: Angela Montano
Welcome to our Awakin call. Every Saturday we host conversations with guest speakers from all walks of life; speakers whose personal journey awaken and inspire our innate spirit of service.
Thank you for coming together to plant seeds for a more compassionate society.
Amit: Well, good morning, good afternoon, and good evening depending on the part of the world that you're calling in from. My Name is Amit Dungarani and I'm really excited to be your host for this week's Global Awakin call. Now, every story is the beginning of a conversation whether it's with ourselves or with others... Across time and cultures, stories have been the agents - a crucial transformation in part because they have the power to change our hearts and minds.The purpose of our weekly calls are to share stories from the lives of incredible change makers from around the world.
Through thoughtfully guided conversations with them, our guest speakers share their personal stories and inspire us through their actions, their experiences and their insights. Our hope is that these conversations will plant seeds for a more compassionate and service oriented society while serving to foster our own inner transformation. Behind each of these calls, is an entire team of service space volunteers whose invisible work allows us to hold this beautiful space. We are thankful to them and to all of our listeners for helping co-create this call.
Today, we're grateful to have a remarkable guest speaker with us, Maya Breuer, whose personal story, passion and beauty to the way that she approaches life as it had a tremendous impact on so many people. We thank you again for joining today's call and as we do each week, let's start with a moment of silence to anchor ourselves and in this space - a moment of silence please. Thank you. So welcome again to our weekly Awakin call. Today in conversation with Maya Breuer. Here's how today's call will work - in a few minutes our lovely moderator for today, Angela, will introduce Maya and engage in a dialogue with her and then at the top of the hour we'll roll into a Q and A in a circle of sharing and we’ll invite all of you to share your questions and reflections. Our theme or our title for this week's call is to “Listen to Spirit and take action.”
We are grateful to have Angela Montano for our moderator today. For those of you that don't know her, she's an International Spiritual coach and prayer counselor devoted to sharing the utterly transformative power of prayer. Her work provides spiritual insights that change the way people perceive their circumstances creating a shift that opens up a whole new world of possibilities. In many ways, Angela’s work seems to complement the work that Maya is doing. Maya has devoted her life and her work to take action to serve her community and the greater good through healing of the mind body and spirit so we can position ourselves to serve others. We're asking our callers this week to reflect on the theme question, “how are you being called by Spirit to take action?” and “what is the community that you seek to serve?” So Angela please feel free to share your reflection and I'm going to have your answer lead right into an introduction to Maya and the opening of your conversation with her.
Angela: Thank you so much, Amit and hello everyone. I'm so excited about this gathering that we're getting to be present for. As I was doing my research and gathering all these amazing facts about Maya and her contribution to the world, a story came to mind and it's a story of three monks - these three monks are off on a search for Nirvana and one monk comes to a wall and he climbs the wall, he looks over and lo and behold, there is Nirvana; its love peace joy harmony and he just dives in. And he is enjoying Nirvana.
Now the second monk eventually gets there. He also climbs the wall and gets up and looks over and sees it but instead of jumping in he calls to the third monk, "this way, this way - come this way!" So that third monk comes up and when the second monk sees the third monk climbing up the wall, he goes ahead and jumps up. And, then the third monk makes it to the top of the wall and sees Nirvana, sees the peace, sees the joy, sees the harmony and then he climbs back down. And, the second and the first monk are like, "Hey! where are you going, where are you going?" And he says, "I'm going back to get everybody else."
And that story, to me, personifies Maya Breuer - she has made her life's work about going back and fetching the others; fetching her community, fetching the rest of us. Her list of accomplishments are quite impressive. Maya Breuer is a yogi. She is the founder and creator of the Yoga Retreat for Women of Color that is offered annually at the Kripalu Center of Yoga, a retreat that has been occurring for the past twenty years. She is also president and co-founder of the National Black Yoga Teachers Alliance (nonprofit) created to support and provide opportunities for black yoga teachers. In addition to that, she is founder and director of the Santosa School of Yoga based in Providence, Rhode Island where she lives. She has a powerful mission of teaching the practice and the philosophy of yoga to renew spirit and achieve positive outcomes for healthy living. Her work has been published in Yoga Journal magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Ebony..
Shaken by the deaths in recent years due to violence and especially police violence within the black community, Maya has now also co-created an initiative titled, “Yoga as a peace practice”. This was launched in May of this year in Oakland, California and will be in Massachusetts and Brooklyn later in the year. This is just some of the many things she's done. So this fascinating inquiry we have today - how are we being called by spirit and how to take action - Her motto is to listen to spirit and take action.
So, I welcome you Maya - thank you so much for being here! I want to start off with you talking to us about listening to a dream you had and how that began your journey. I was just reading Lynne Twist’s book, The Soul Of Money, this week - she tells the story about these Bangladesh women in this community who have a dream that there is an underground lake and in the society that these women live in, they don't speak at community meetings. Through a series of circumstances, Lynne is able to meet with these women alone, who speak about the dream they had. The men did not want them to dig for the lake because they didn't want the women doing that work and they didn't believe the lake was there but Lynne Twist and her group was able to convince the men to allow the women to dig; they dug for the lake and it was there and it all came from a dream, a dream they had. You too had a dream, a dream that you were visited by your grandmother in a dream and I'm just wondering if you might start there and tell us about that to start our conversation.
Maya: Sure and thank you so much Angela for introducing me and welcoming me. This dream, which I think really was the touchstone, the beginning of me moving through life, was after I had traveled to India and studied there for several months. I was trying to figure out what steps I would take to do, to be a part of of the world or to use all that I had learned about yoga and meditation and self love and self-awareness. So, in a dream, my grandmother, who was a woman's woman - you know, she loved to cook, she loved childrearing, she loved her church community, and she came to me, she actually sat on my bed and she said, “Be you, teach women, look at the women”. From that I began to look at how women like me were so challenged.
At that time, I was living in Rhode Island and I have three three children - two are adults now, one has passed - but it's looking at the challenges of living. How do I integrate all of these wonderful things into my daily life and now that - like the story about the monk - it really was that feeling within me. Now that I've got this down, how can I sort of reach back and share it with others?
I had long been studying at Kripalu and doing seva there. I was initiated at that yoga ashram also by Amrit Desai when he was there. So, Kripalu seemed like just the place for me to really try to bring something together although I started right in my classes, having women come to breathe, to do yoga, to move their spirit, to have share circles, but it all did start with a very simple dream which was so like my grandmother. There was no hoopla, no craziness, she just came in sat down and I just knew that she was telling me what to do. So, my work began with women who looked like me and that was African-American women and it broadened out to women of color.
Angela: So, how did you come to yoga in the first place, because I am getting the feeling from things I've read that you kind of looked around the room and you didn't see other people who did look like you in the yoga circle. I'm just saying how did you come to yoga.?
Maya: I started yoga about thirty years ago, maybe a little more and there were challenges in my life. I had a brother who was had been diagnosed with the AIDS virus and I had another brother who was very challenged with his life and I had been diagnosed with cancer. Everything was spinning around me. A friend of mine said, "You need to go on a retreat." I had no idea what a retreat was. I'd never heard that word except in terms of backing away from something, but I didn't have any awareness of it as, like a time to rest, renew and relax. I took her up on the idea and explored Kripalu. Then I went there and it actually was my second experience with yoga but something shifted within me and I felt like my heart was open, I was actually in a position called Bhujangasana, the Cobra, when I have this experience of feeling, this is exactly what I need. I started practicing that day and I have been pretty focused and dedicated to my own personal sadhana since then.
Angela: Well, that was a very radical move, isn't it? You've got the three children, you're caring for your brother with the AIDS virus, you've been diagnosed with cancer and to choose, to go on a retreat...that's such an opening, especially when you said you barely even related to that word at that time.
Maya: No I didn't, I didn't know. I knew retreat only as backing away or backing up. I didn't...I had never really known about people doing things like going on retreats. I hate to express my ignorance but it wasn't in my community, we didn't talk about that. So when I got into the world of yoga, and it took me several years because I was helping my brother for several years while he was very ill...he did pass away, and I got myself healthy and strong but through that whole time I'm doing yoga, and I'm going to my brother. My brother was in California so I became bi-coastal, spending more of my time in California with him than in Rhode Island. I'm bringing him crystals and I'm chanting...and my brother was a physician...and he really was of another mind and thought that what I was doing was pretty out there but once everything calmed down and I was well, I was then been able to explore yoga more in depth and study it so that it would nourish me while I went through the grief and continue to raise my children. And now I'm teaching...so, I'm teaching a little bit here, a little bit there but everywhere I go, there are no people who look like me. That was what it was like when I started.
Angela: And that feeling of no people looking like you, can you describe that...what that's like in a room where no one looks like you and how did you get from whatever that feeling was to wanting to effect change?
Maya: Well, I was aware of all the challenges that my people had in terms of health and I could just look at people in my family and my church community who suffered with hypertension and diabetes and obesity...different maladies...and I knew from my studies in my own experience that my body was becoming whole, I was not having the issues that I had prior to the yoga and I felt this would be valuable for black people to learn yoga...but there were many many years when I couldn't get them to listen to me either, because it seemed very out there this...
Angela: What kind of reactions would you get?
Maya: Well, I would get people being very resistant, down right refusing to participate in something I'd offered...or several times I was called to speak at different events, church events, and people were upset that I was chanting ohm...so, it was very challenging in the earlier years and I nursed myself with my spirit. I used the yoga, the tenets of yoga, the practices of yoga, the breath...I learned to nourish myself. So even though I didn't see people who looked like me, and people didn't respond to me in a very positive way, Spirit kept me going because I felt there was something...there was a knowledge that I needed, it was an experience that I needed to make myself whole. As I was getting whole I knew I had to share everything that I had learned. And it took some time.
Angela: Yes, yes, it's so interesting and I think many people on the call can relate to this. You've had something that you know will serve and help others, and whether your knowledge relates to being of service to planet earth, related to the environment or social justice or whatever your service is, you know, that gap between what you sense will be of value to another and then enrolling to experience it, to see for themselves, it takes a great amount of fortitude for that. I get the feeling as you talk some part of you knew you were on your path. Is that true or false?
Maya: I think it is sort of true, part of it is but I think my awareness of self and my awareness of my path has been revealed to me as I move through life. I also had the support of yoga and the way it manifested here, meaning when I started thirty something years ago, people thought I had lost my mind. Why are you doing this yoga? What is it? It's very strange...then yoga became popular.
So over a decade I am still banging on doors trying to get people of color and African American people to become involved and become aware. And then there was a shift in our culture and people began to understand that this was a helpful practice for health and well being. And studies began to be done. So it was like I had a wind - I got lifted by life; by people’s awareness , by the media, by everyone saying - " Oh Yoga , Yoga, Yoga", and so it opened up opportunities and doors for me to stand in my yoga.
Angela: So it helped that your community was hearing yoga from other voices and - Oh that's what Maya has been telling us!
Maya: Yes - and it was like they were now open to it - but it has been an amazingly slow process. Getting to the place from where I see no black people in yoga; or people of color for that matter - to a place where we hold a conference and have - use the largest space at Kripalu - which is their main chapel - because we have so many people in attendance who are black yoga teachers. It is quite a journey, from my experience, to look and say " oh my goodness, look at this! "
Angela: `And the idea that this yoga retreat for women of color has been going on for now 20 years - its well established - like you said, you are using the bigger space- I have heard it said that people overestimate what they can get done in a year but they underestimate what they can get in a decade. Can you speak to what kept you going - as you said it was so slow - you know people thought you were crazy - this is so out there; 'why are you OAMing in church! " Can you tell us to help us have that kind of backbone - where we stand for our purpose in that way. What can you - can you speak to us about what supported you to keep going?
Maya: I think it was the way I was raised. I was raised at my grand parents - we were in a Hebrew family who were very religious. And I had a deep - and I still do - a deep sense in that " God is" and that 'I am supported'. And that I can stand in my truth. So once it is revealed to me then I have strength. And that is not to say that " oh everything has been perfect and that it goes perfectly along" - no I am not saying that. But I think that its my strength and my awareness, my experience with Yoga. My body has been my laboratory. And my ability to still my mind and be able to focus. All those are treasures that come from practicing yoga and being conscious and aware of your breath. So we have this tapestry happening now - so now the culture shifts - and now people are wanting yoga. I am standing in my truth and allowing myself to learn more , to practice more. And that is the combination- the spirit that helped me say " Oh - well lets do this. Lets try this."
Angela : Beautiful. I find that really an interesting statement. "God is. I am supported." So for people who don't relate to that word "God" - for some people just even that word is off-putting. Different people have different negative experiences through religion- i hear you also use the word 'spirit". If you had to use other words - how would you describe that which convinces you "you are supported". Because if you know we are supported in the work we are called to do, chances are we will continue it. Even when it is challenging. So how does one tap in to "support" - in the inner realms as you are describing it.
Maya: I don't know if one can overtly tap into it - but i think if one could - it would be through the breath. I like to say "God is!". But really "breath is!", "Spirit is!". So those people who are uncomfortable with "God"; if they can believe in the energy of their life and stand in that- but its very challenging for people who have no foundation. And I think one of the things that yoga can do - if you practice just a little- it can begin to calm and centre and enable you to see what you need to stand for. And what you need to walk away from. You can substitute any word that pleases you. "Earth is! ", "Life is ", " Breath is!" and let that be your platform. It does not have to be God. I think the whole thing boils down to practice. You have to have a practice in order to have life flowing. For me that practice is breathing and yoga and meditation. And now my practice also is Jnayana Yoga - which is the study of yoga philosophy. And all of those things keep me taking small steps on this path - for my life and my dharma - which is you know - sharing this experience that i have had - to make myself whole.
Angela : Beautiful. I love the phrase " believe in the energy of your own life". Because when I hear that and I think about the energy of my own life - I know it is more than I can take. It is more than the limited idea of my life. The energy of my own life - I am not making my heart beat right now - thinking it - its just happening. And so I think it is very powerful. And when you say "practice breathing". And - we are always breathing. Or we would not be sustaining life. What do you mean by "practice breathing"?
Maya: You know we breathe and it is an involuntary action. But if we are conscious of our breath and we are inhaling and taking in breath and then allowing ourselves to release the breath, it gives you a sense of peace and calm and meditation. Inherent in the breath is a meditation that was given to everyone. So when I take a breath in I am saying - I am saying a little prayer 'So" and when I exhale I am saying "Ha" and that is sort of a gift to everyone. If people can be conscious that breath is a gift and we stay aware of the in -breath and the out-breath - as a practice. We can't walk around all day and say "Oh my Lord - I got breath - I am going in, I am going out" - I am not referring to that. But taking a few minutes to sit and be still and follow the in-breath and the out breath; really helps to centre and ground one.
Angela: Beautiful. So you are saying on the in-breath we might say to ourselves within "So" breathing in and on the out-breath we say "Ha" and that might be a simple breath practice that someone listening could do right now, or today, that would serve them in quieting themselves to listen- to spirit - which is what your mantra is - listen to spirit - and take action.
Maya : Absolutely. The other thing is - once you get that deep calm and that centerdness , you know the action can be just like - going into your room and cleaning your kitchen. It maybe that is something that you need to do. The action may be - you know - taking care of something that has to be done. It is not always an altruistic or big action. Care of the self is the action. Once we can take care of ourselves then we are able to move. And most people when we grow up we are not really taught about self. We are taught about cleanliness. And doing things like that. But we are not talking about this self as a body of spirit. And just awareness of the breath - just with simple yoga practice - that will help one to be in spirit.
Angela: You know I am so moved by your work with both the annual retreat and the yoga retreat for women of color, offer through Kripalu, your black yoga teachers, the alliance, serving your community, your yoga studio, your School in Providence... and I want to turn our attention to is the yoga as a peace practice. This initiative that you begun and really inspired by your own, I guess I want to call it pain, related to the violent within the black community especially police violence. Tell me about this initiative and how we can be part of it.
Maya: The yoga as a peace practice is the first initiative of the black yoga teachers online. My partner and co-creator of The Black Yoga Teachers Alliances, Jana Long, was talking about the violence and the fact that no one is doing anything about the aftermath of violence. What happens to people after the loss of a loved one? What happens to the community when it's been two, three, four shootings? What happens to the people who have to live there, go to work there, go to sleep there? So yoga as a peace practice is an intervention for those people to address the impact and the trauma that people go through with violence, and to address it with the contemplative practice of yoga. Not just yoga postures or movements or sun salutations but actually to look at some of those things that are never taught in the world today regarding yoga.
So what we've done is made that part of the black yoga teachers initiative and we started with funding from the Urban Family Foundation to offer a training. We kicked open at our pilot city and we were there in May at the Impact Oakland Hub and we offered a training to teach people these different practices that they can integrate either into their personal lives, shared with their families. But more importantly, one of our objectives is to reach yoga teachers so that they can incorporate this into their teachings when they're teaching communities where there has been violence.
Angela: This is so powerful because I have heard that much of the violence that occurs in our world is the result of untreated trauma in people's lives. The violence is an unmet need from a prior trauma and if that trauma can be treated, not only is there healing for those who are victims of violence, but also hopefully there is a prevention of future violence.
Maya: I think that's very true. Our objective it is to really get people started on a journey that is more self-reflective and introspective. We teach how to meditate, how to use some of the tenets of yoga like the Yama, the Niyama and specific Praniyama breaths so that people can integrate just a little bit of this into their lives. Perhaps that will change their ways if they happen to be the perpetrator or it can dissuade them and help them heal from whatever it is.
One of the things that struck me recently- I was reading an article by Reverend Al Sharpton and he had catalogued all the mothers who had lost children to gun violence like Trayvon Martin. He was also talking about how powerful they were- Oh! It was this past Mother's Day- and he was telling their story and talking about how they created this, they created this foundation, they went and reached out and they did this. Nowhere in the article did he talk about how they took care of self. As I mentioned earlier, we are not taught that, but I think through yoga as a peace practice we can reach these people, whether it's people who suffered at Sandy Hook or whatever, by bringing this to these cities and communities. People can learn how to be more self reflective. Maybe there is some healing in creating a foundation in your child's name or something, but we want to teach other ways so everything's not so exterior but about self.
Angela: This is so interesting because there's so much focus on the outer and you've created things in the world through all your initiatives, your organization and your school. You've put it out there, you're putting out the teaching and yet it's all serving, having a rich and somehow robust connected inner life out of which a person experiences greater peace, greater joy. That's a really interesting balance to seek to strike. I can think of people in my world who have been on a profound inner journey throughout their life and it's about loving themselves and knowing themselves; it's all about themselves. At some point, when it's that navel-gazing or when is that narcissism, because it doesn't express outer or is that enough? A person at peace versus those that are focused on social justice and making a difference out there? It sounds like you're doing the end in both.
Maya: I think what we're trying to say through yoga as a peace practice is that we can offer suggestions for contemplating different practices. We can offer training to people so they can learn how to become still. This nourishes the self and the spirit and helps people heal from the trauma of violence. The person who has spent a lifetime or many many years studying self, there are generally people who have that kind of time and privilege when many people out here are really hitting it hard. The contemplative approach to life or going within is something that's more of a luxury. What we're trying to do is reach anybody, even if someone's been going within for years, perhaps through the yoga as a peace practice, they can find a practice that they can share with others to help someone else cope with the aftermath. Perhaps I live in a community where there's violence and taking yoga as a peace practice, or someone bringing it to me, can teach me how to have more awareness of self, more ease with my breath, and a way to communicate and be in dialogue with others. When we did our last yoga as a peace practice training at Oakland in July, one of the women who was in the training, who was a yoga teacher, said that she needed help sleeping because of the gun violence in her community and how it interfered with her life. Now this was a teacher but she lived in a community where there was much violence. Another woman stated that, even though she's a teacher, her difficulty was that her son had been killed seated in the car at her front door. I think this is an initiative where the time is now because there is nothing helping people deal with the aftermath of violence.
Our objective is to take this to the cities where there's been violence and people are struggling to recover, for example in South Carolina where they recently had the church violence. That's one of the places we would like to go to teach teachers, social workers and even police officers who'd like to join us about a contemplative approach to yoga.
Angela: And this is such powerful work because I'm hearing your grandmother as I'm listening to you.
Maya: laughter Yes you are.
Angela: I'm hearing 'love one another', 'take care of each other'. I feel like, with all due respect to all men and male energy, that a lot of times it's about, 'Well, what are we gonna do, do, do, to prevent this in the future?' 'Why does the policy change?' 'What are going to be the rules of law?' And yet you make such a powerful point: those who have suffered the violence are left in the abyss of that drama and we can bring the activism there. It speaks so much of what Gandhi suggested, be the change. If you can bring peace to the mother whose son was shot in a car seat right outside the front door of the home, if you can begin there that is the rippling effect, I feel, change the world.
Maya: Thank you, and with this being an initiative of The Black Yoga Teachers Alliance, first and foremost, we're going to get black teachers and we've already started that out, teaching this practice in their community. It's not exclusive, we'll train anybody in any of the cities that we select. But I think it can become an antidote to what people are struggling with, which is the aftermath. Many people suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder because of violence. Violence takes many forms; gun violence is one thing and police violence against black people is one thing, but there's also violence in the home. I've heard so many stories and the two presentations that we've done to professionals that it almost takes my breath away when I think about what I've heard that's happened in the home of the person who we think would have the most strength.
You get me fired up Angela
Angela: Even as this is your peace initiative- your yoga as a peace practice- it comes as an initiative from your Black Yoga Teachers Alliance?
Maya: That's correct.
Angela: And yet anybody can come of any color, you're saying.
Angela: I'm curious about this because for years and years and years I've been using the term African-American, like I would never call anyone 'black', like I thought that was what we don't do now. And yet you use that term freely and I'm confused; what am I supposed to say? I guess I'm Caucasian, I'm a lot of things but I appear whitish.
Maya: I think it really depends on the person. Most black people are referred to as African-American in this country and many more people are starting to say we're black and brown people. I can't say what the correct thing is; I use both. I can say oh, he's African American, he's black, he's brown... I don't think that's a big thing to concern yourself with. When somebody speaks up to you and says. 'Oh we don't like being called that.' it's like' OK glad you told me.' People say to you don't call me black, like, OK I won't.
Angela: These ideas are inspiring and I love this idea of being moved from within, listening to spirit, taking action; how did you finance this and have money to live as you did this. How did you design this life? Or I understand in a way it seems like it unfolded organically but I want to know some of the nuts and bolts of how you've done it. Even having the confidence to say I'm creating this. I want to know how you financed it and what you would say to someone who maybe seats with their good ideas but doesn't take action and what would you say to help someone move into action.
Maya: The first thing I say to anyone who I'm talking to about how to make it in the Yoga world, I say don't quit your day job. Anyone who wants to be led by spirit or go on a path, you still have to pay your rent and make sure that you have all that you need. I've always been a professional woman before I got into yoga so when I was first doing yoga I was professionally employed and doing different types of work in human resources. When I got into yoga more of a as a full time Yogi I developed the teacher training program and that has been a mainstay for me training and certifying teachers which I started in 2002. That's a pretty effective way to bring in an income if you've got a few training teachers.
I've been able to support myself but I have not felt 'Oh Lord, how can I do this?' I just get out here and try. With the yoga as a peace practice we're seeking funding but we've been lucky enough to get funding so we could offer several of those and now we are preparing, because we are a nonprofit, we're continually seeking funding. I raised my children and they all went to college and did very well but I always had a job.
Angela: What I'm hearing you say, you do what you love the money will follow, but don't depend on what you love to support.
Maya: Yeah, you've got to be smart you got to look at it and say, well, I am making eighty thousand dollars so I'm just going to quit that- how my going to live? You have to build bridges and figure out how to sustain yourself and then you can do the good.
But I didn't have a job. I had something I was doing but I can't remember at this time. I've been a consultant on national studies, I've written articles. I've just been finding a way to just stay afloat, you know? You know, I mean I could win the lottery or something, I don't play that often, but that would be fabulous thing. But I like a simple life. And I think that helps when you want to live simply and you're not striving. Someone had a 50,000 sq. ft. home, one of the big stars, you know, that's not my goal.
Maya: I think the thing that I've been is practical. I think people have to be practical as they move spirit and move to action. The undercurrent of that is a practical way of being, so you don't hurt yourself.
Angela: That's powerful. I read that you feel that the studying Yoga in India was a great inspiration. At that time all those decades ago, you learned that everything is possible, and you still believe that is true today. I want to know, why and how do you sustain that inspiration? And I'm going to add one more thing. You said you have three children and one has passed. I'm assuming that's been grief you've experienced personally. How do you through your own experience of personal grief continue to serve the world as you do?
Maya: I have to tell you that I loved my son. His name is Marc Fears, I called him Marco. In 2011. I don't know how to describe what I went through but I had to be laid down. It was a terrible experience. He died from a health issue. But what I did, was I had to break down and get back up. I didn't try to say this wasn't the biggest thing I ever experienced, I just fell down. And then I had to use the things we talk about in Yoga as a peace practice. I used that to knit myself back together. So there was this long pause when I was trying to get back on my feet when my dear son passed away. That makes me really think, if I had to go through what I went through, how do other people get off the floor? I was on the floor literally, I could not move, I could barely breathe. I knit myself back together, with over time: with breath, with movement, with the love of those around me. And just keeping at it. It was about a year, that I was not really at my - you know, the way that I am in the world - I had to really experience the grief. And it stopped me in my tracks, to tell the truth.
Angela: I'm so moved that one of the first things the first thing you say is that you left yourself break. That you had to lay yourself down. I think so many people try not to allow that, in that the heart breaks open. You broke and then you knitted yourself back together.
Maya: Yeah, you know it's probably a life long process. Massaging and knitting this so I can be. But, you know, I really believed in spirit and I believe, for me, in God. I asked for help and it came through. Slowly I was able to resume my life as it had been.
And you know, I don't know if I'm ever going to be the same. I don't think you could be. But I'm standing and I'm being and I'm doing. Honouring my son, through what I do. I had a dream [chuckles] the other night, it was so wonderful. In my dreams, I got up and looked out the window. And in my yard, there is no basketball court but it looked like one. My son was playing ball with his son. It was all a dream, it nourished me so much. I do have a grandson that he left, who is now nine. That spirit will sustain you, cuz I think, just these little visits with him when I get to see him which is not often. You know, that nourishes me. That helps me tuck and gurd myself and continue.
Angela: Again, it's an example of you allowing yourself to be nourished by the unseen world.
Angela: That world of spirit, that world of dreams, and you're able to take with what you gained from the unseen. Be it with the work you do, connecting with your breath and bring it into the world. As you're nourished, then you nourish others.
The last question I want to ask before we turn it over to Amit and any other questions that anyone has. As Amit said, one of my passions is prayer. I think of prayer as a practice like yoga as a practice and meditation as a practice. So many people think of prayer is only for the religious, if they're not religious, they assume that prayer is not for them. In the simplest way you can speak about it. I read this in some of the articles written about you, that you believe that people need to be taught how to pray. How do you pray? And what does it give you for your work in the world?
Maya: Well...first I'll say, I'm a praying woman. I will pray in a minute. I really will. I just think it's very powerful. I've experienced relief like I prayed for help when my son died. I would wake up saying, "Lord help me", and I'd be able to just stand up. I've prayed for people - I get emails and calls, "oh can you pray for me?", and I'm like YES!! While I was in India, I studied prayer for seven days with some priests. And they taught me different ways to approach prayer. And it's just simple you know. You pray, like God is your friend, or the spirit is your friend or the spirit is your lover or the spirit is your parent, your mother or your father. There's nothing fancy about prayer, it's just recognizing there is something greater. And that greater, whether it's God or Buddha or Gandhi, or anybody can help you through whatever it is you're struggling with. I believe prayer is very powerful. I learned to pray when I was very young. Prayer was something that we did in my family, three times a day, when I was younger, we'd stop and we'd pray together. I'm your girl for prayer.
Angela: Beautiful, beautiful. I heard someone say recently, just the word HELP. The acronym HELP: Hello Eternal Loving Presence. Like...Help is a prayer by itself. And you've taught us a lot, Maya, in really mining the richness of your inner life, your dream life, your connection to spirit. And then from there, not only healing yourself but bringing that opportunity for healing to the world through all your initiatives.
I think of that proverbial stone in the river and all the ripples. I mean we can't even begin to calculate the ripples that have come from that within you that said, “yes”. When you had that dream with your grandmother that said, “Be yourself and do your work with the strength that you are as a woman. So thank you so much, Amit I want to turn it over to you. I’ve so appreciated this opportunity to speak with you and share this conversation.
Amit: It’s beautiful just to be the fly on the wall and listen to such a wonderful conversation. Right off the bat I want to share a couple of reflections that have come in. One from Anna Dunwell who says, “Maya was my yoga mentor, she inspired me to go into the African African-American community to serve and I'm grateful for her direction as I continue to seek to serve young women and men and older people, encouraging them to live in joy.”
And another another similar reflection from Sylvia Nugent who says, “Maya is my yoga teacher and mentor. You're such an inspiration. Following your recent advice of direction, steadiness and balance for my family, full time work in higher education, and part-time yoga out reach to the community of color that I serve. Thank you for the reminder.”
Amit: So beautiful and I'm sure there are countless number of people whose lives you've touched over the years. We really appreciate you taking the time today to speak with us and to share about your life your experiences. One question that had come up for me and part of it's just my own personal curiosity, growing up in an African American community what was it like for you to immerse yourself in small village in Gujarat. It was a different environment, different culture, and you were there for three months. I'm just curious what that was like for you?
Maya: Oh good question. Thank you I mean you know it was exactly as you said it was foreign and I can remember when I first got to India, I was startled by the expanse of it, you know how huge the airport was and then once I was in a village, seeing the numbers of people that would be in one spot, you know I mean it's like I go out my door now there is no one. you know maybe one person walking down the street I didn't have that experience in India there were always people. Large groups of people and even though the village, Kabirohan is the place I was in -- a very sacred place with a beautiful ashram, but it was just the numbers of people that struck me, but then you know in India, I was trying to tell someone that the smell of India is absolutely magnificent because you have dung, the spices, the milk, there were a lot dairies near where I was. It’s a magnificent smell. So I immediately became intoxicated you know.
But the I was there to practice and study so I was able to live a yogi lifestyle with before sunrise meditation and going to temple every day for chanting, and doing yoga and having lectures from profound teachers.
But it was it was a quiet time for me, at that time my kids were older, but I hadn't been alone and I was truly alone and that was an interesting experience to not discuss with anybody, “well what are you going to do now?” or “what did that mean?” or “look over there” because I was truly alone. not that I didn't have associates but I was alone and I had never been truly alone before. And that was the most fascinating thing. And I was able to have a few amazing experiences with spirit that I can’t really talk about but I had some experiences there that let me know that I was right about what I thought about yoga and how powerful it was. I loved the people the colors, the temples, especially the clothes were fabulous! Even the poorest people looked fabulous to me. And I visited homes, I really became a part of the village that I was in.
Amit: Have you gone back since then?
Maya: I haven’t. I don’t know that I’d have the strength. I was much younger. And it’s quite an arduous task to be in India. There’s no fancy anything where I was. So my daughter recently said, Ma we should go to India, so maybe I will be going. It was fascinating and I am so pleased that I got to do it.
Amit: That’s wonderful. And now, just listening to you -- yoga has become such a part of our mainstream culture here there are so many different forms, so many different reasons people partake in it whether it’s a spiritual practice or for health and mental balance or strength and flexibility or to try something new. But as a practitioner and someone who has truly immersed herself in this what has yoga come to mean for you personally?
Maya: It’s my life and my existence. There is not a moment that I am not connected to my sadhana. Sadhana is practice. So my sadhana happens when I wake up, because I am conscious of who I am. So I live and breathe in yoga. Every piece of me has been impacted by the practice of yoga. So my chest is my lifting and my feet are firmly planted, I am grounded. My heart is open. All of those things are me, but they’ve been impacted by stilling my mind and allowing myself to be aware of my breath. Because I do that in my daily life -- I am yoga. Yoga is me.
Sort of as an extension of this - in the ServiceSpace community there’s a lens towards creating inner transformation for ourselves and others. I’m curious, with you becoming yoga, how has that transformed you in your other roles whether it’s as a mother, a sister a friend, a community spiritual activist?
You know I think that the thing that’s been revealed to me is there were things that I knew about myself and all of them can stay. I can continue to be practical, and to be a friend to my friends and to be a lover to my husband and a householder.
Maya: I can still be myself. Like I don't walk around like "I am yoga." I don't act like that. It's like "I'm here." I'm in service in my community. I cook; I dance; I live life. But this is what we are suppose to do. You know what I mean?
I think when you wake up, then you can be who you were suppose to be. I feel like I am me. So I live full and rich. I think what has impacted me is the awareness, the practice of my breath, the study of yoga, and then the sadhana of living. And looking at things with the lens of the sutras or the teachings. So everything is impacted by what I have come to know within.
But it hasn't made me strange or odd. That is what I'm trying to say.
Amit: It certainly doesn't come off that way either. I'm going to go to one of our callers right now.
Kozo: Hi, my name is Kozo and I'm calling from Cupertino. Maya, thank you so much for sharing this beautiful journey with us. I'm just feeling the spirit, put it that way. So thank you.
You mentioned how when you first started bringing yoga into the black community that there was some resistance there. But I'm also wondering if...I see you sitting in this liminal space between these communities that don't usually rub shoulders. I'm wondering if you had resistance from the other side. What I mean specifically is you mentioned how your grandmother came back to you or you talk a lot about spirit or connecting with spirit. I'm wondering if that wasn't accepted in the yoga communities? Or you talk about the prayers that you do. It's a different kind of prayer than yoga. I'm wondering if your cultural background ever didn't mix with the yoga background.
Maya: Thank you that is an interesting question. And you know, it is interesting as I ponder it. I have been a teacher at the major conferences which are predominantly, mostly 90% caucasian. You know the Omega Institute as well as Kripalu and the Yoga Journal conference. And I found that being myself is easily accepted in the dominant--I don't know if it is still the dominant culture--in the caucasian culture. In that, people are receptive to the manner in which I teach, the way I coach the teachings with my personal experience and anecdotes.
So I think that is very interesting that the resistance that I have received, that I don't receive today, came from trying to bring yoga into the black community. Am I answering your question?
Kozo: Yeah, yeah. It is interesting how there was resistance on one side and on the other side there was acceptance. I'm just thinking about when you mentioned your grandmother coming back to you that is a big thing for Hawaiians. Hawaiians have what we call our kapuna or aumakua, and they come back to us even though they have passed many, many years ago. I was just thinking about one of my Hawaiian elders who went to a Buddhist meditation retreat and he said, "Oh, I'm having visions. My grandfather came back."
And the meditation teacher said, "That is all illusion. Don't pay attention to that."
And he said, "No, in my culture that is not illusion."
You know and it is like. No - In my context it is not an illusion; when your grandmother comes back in a dream, that's real; you know the dream world is actually more real than the waking world and so I am just...obviously prayers are different; and seems to me that the prayers you were raised with are different than the ones that you practised in India.
Maya: Right absolutely. Well you know, it's really funny - my theory is been open to all the prayers once I learn that you know that there's a word - Tatwathatwe - I am that I am. And, that same those three things - "I am that I am". Three or four words it's the same thing in my religion I mean in my - the way that I was raised it by God says that "I am that I am". And I'm in India studying and they're saying Tatwathatwe - "I am that I am"; I'm like well I am totally OK here you know. I am never having that. I'm OK here; all of this is good, because; I had yeah I'm into it, like, what am I doing? You know I'm a Jewish woman, black Jewish woman and what am I doing here? Am I going to hurt myself you know. But now you know the more I study the more I learn that there is but one true. And that's that's how I'm living you know; and you know, if I do prayers, you know, I was just always by myself and if people said things they never said them to me, about the way I would chant or present things or do what I do. So I'm grateful for that.
Kozo: Thank you for being a vanguard and for being in that space that not too many people occupy. Thank you for that.
Maya: Oh you're welcome.
Amit: Thank you Maya for the fantastic exchange. Really appreciate that and again for anyone else that would like to ask a question or share a reflection, you can push star six or e-mail us at Askservicespace.org. My another question is, from what I have been hearing, that you have been talking about the power of yoga, the power of prayer and I was curious about the role of the power of circles of sharing play, in your retreats and gatherings, especially as it relates to the experience of women of color or just people of color and you know what it brings about in terms of you guys healing.
Maya: Oh thank you thank you yes.
I started my first retreat and in my mind it was important that I have a circle. So I spoke with a good friend of mine. Her name is Strong Oak and she's a native American woman and I decided that I wanted to have something that would support us; women of color, to speak our truth; because the circle was just not like a good times circle. It's a circle where we can we can stand in whatever it is that come up because by the time when I am at these retreats, by the time, I leave the circle, twenty four hours have passed or maybe a little more; so people have shed some of their outer skin. And things start to bubble up; so we actually used native american talking stick that can be passed around and women share their truth. And I experienced women just talking about everything, because we go; I go out of my way, to make sure it's a sacred safe space. And. I just think the circle is very powerful and when you're in a circle with one hundred women of color it's like nothing I have ever experienced. And you know the voices. We had one experience, several years ago, where the woman, in the center of the circle, just began to weep, and a woman in the outer circle, began to go into some type of spasm or movement. I moved to the woman, who was moving, because, I thought she was having a seizure. When she came out, she looked at the woman in the circle and began to speak to her. And it turned out that the woman in the circle her family had been killed in a coup in I don't know the country right now, but her family came through.
Maya: When she came out, she looked at the woman in the circle and began to speak to her. It turned out that the woman in the circle, her family had been killed in a coup in - I don't know the country right now - but her family came through and gave this woman comfort, to this woman who was sitting in the outer circle. So, this circle experience with the work that I do has been very amazing...and I've seen people let go, release...get an emotional healing from being in the circle. So, I use that talking stick to give women permission and to give us the...to set that standard - we are here to hear one another.
Amit: That's beautiful. Thank you for sharing that. I guess one of the other things that I was curious about is, along this journey what sort of things have surprised you? I'm sure there have been a number of things that have really stood out whether it's the way things have impacted you or the ripple effect that you've seen from your work whether in your retreats or within the community, with the black yoga teachers...
Maya: Yes, one of the biggest - I don't know if it's big - surprise to me is that the development in the black community of yoga teachers, how many people there are who are really educated, powerful teachers and are working all over the world. So, that's surprising to me that...you know, when I first started this journey, I didn't know what would be but so this is really happening in my lifetime. And I am an elder now in this community of black yoga teachers. And that's very surprising to me that now there are people under me who are really flourishing and being supported and nourished by teachers like myself and Krishna and John and Dr Gail Parker. We are the elders who are able to support them...the younger women and men...more men coming through. That's been surprising to me. It's like a dream or a vision and now I see it and I'm living it and a part of it.
So, I don't know if that's the biggest thing because I've seen so many things with people just growing and changing...allowing the spirit to be in their life and not settling for just a B flat life...you know, B flat...I'm a jazz singer and B flat is sort of like just basic...so, you know that life...like you go to work, you go home and we're not going to...don't venture in. I have seen people go within and come out and that is an astonishing thing.
Amit: Given we are getting towards the end of our call, how can we as a larger ServiceSpace community support you in your work?
Maya: Ok...well, it's a very good question. I think that ServiceSpace as an organization weaves together ways to support without a lot of traditional funding or monies. So, I think anyone who would like to lend a hand with what we're doing with the Black Yoga Teachers Alliance, we are really seeking someone who has the savvy with social networking to support us. In addition of course, we're seeking funding so we can take the initiative, to various cities in the United States. People who have a special skill or acumen and they'd like to give us some time, that would be very amazing.
There's so many different things...I can't name all of our needs but I know having someone help us with this social networking would be a boon to what we're trying to do.
Amit: I appreciate you sharing that. We will find different ways to get the word out, toward the greater community and hopefully someone will step up to serve that need.
Maya: That would be wonderful and then anyone who wants to send a big checks will take them. We are 501c3 nonprofit so you'll be able to write your donation off and it would go to a real good cause.
Amit: Angela I wanted to turn it to you for a minute to see if you have any closing thoughts or closing reflections before we move to our minute of gratitude.
Angela: I just have one...and I so enjoyed listening to your questions Amit and listening more and learning from you Maya...and I'm just thinking about the state of the world today, and you know all the things we see in the news, and what advice would you give people to remain centered and steadfast in their own service commitment through various things that maybe really shaking them, shaking the world right now. What is your...how would you speak to that for everyone?
Maya: Ok...thank you. No, I think that the most important thing for everyone is to - my grandmother used to say mark time...or hold the fort is another way to think of it. It's like, the world is tumultuous right now and the most important thing we can do is be still and have faith. I don't even want to name all the things that are happening in our world that are very upsetting but I have such faith in God...and to guide...for me, I believe in the Lord and I trust Him...and I trust Him...what's going to happen and then, I take care of what I have to do...because we could easily all drop the ball and hide under the covers but that's not what I intend to do. I intend to continue with my work and ask that I be led and I just trust God is looking out for this world and will help us somehow become stable again but everyone had to go to get their feet in the dirt and breathe...get out in the dirt...and that will ground you...and even if you don't call God, God you can just say I trust earth, I trust God, I trust Buddha and breathe and that's going to sustain us.
Angela: Beautiful...thank you.
Maya: You're welcome.
Amit: Really appreciate it...Angela, thank you her doing such a marvelous job of moderating today and Maya, really, really appreciate you sharing the personal stories and insights. I know that we had a lot of callers. We really enjoyed hearing from you today. One of the things that we like to do at the end of each call is to hold a collective minute of silence and gratitude, and then after that, we usually will open up the phone line for a quick second to do a gratitude out loud for a thank you. So, if we can first start with a minute of silence and gratitude, that'd be great.
Thank you. Thank you for listening to a recording of Awakin calls. To access archives, visit us at: www.awakin.org and to get more involved, volunteer at www.servicespace.org.
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