Saturday, February 25, 2017

Sivananda Ashram, The Bahamas

My name is RikkiLynn Shields. I am a sophomore English Major with a Religious Studies Minor, and from January 7th to the 14th, myself, a group of 11 other girls, and Dr. Stephen Kaplan traveled to the Sivananda Ashram in The Bahamas. (Sorry for posting my blog here a month late)

To prepare for this trip, we read four books, and wrote four papers, so arriving at the ashram and seeing the reading come to life was breathtaking. For the past week, myself and 11 other girls from my college have been waking up at 5:30 a.m. everyday to the sound of a bell that woke up the entire ashram. If you didn’t wake up at 5:30, have no fear, another bell followed at 5:45. By 6:oo we were all in morning satsang. Satsang is a sacred gathering, and here we meditated, chanted, and listened to lectures– and then chanted some more.

Morning satsang was immediately followed by yoga overlooking the bay. Every morning it was the same thing: breathing exercises, followed by sun salutations and plenty more asanas, before we finished with some more breathing exercises, body scans, and a quick meditation. By focusing on our breathing before and during yoga, executing the postures was much easier, and much more worthwhile. Rather than focusing on yoga the way that it is seen in a mainstream society today, we practiced yoga much more authentically. Our postures were more focused on our breathing and mindfulness than they were on who was more flexible or stronger than the other person.

After yoga, we had our first two hour break. During this break we usually ate, relaxed, and soaked up as much sun as we could. A week without meat may seem insane for anyone who loves chicken or steak, however the food at the ashram made it very easy to adjust. Brunch usually consisted of vegetables, salad, soup, and some sort of grain; along with bread, peanut butter, fruits, oatmeal, and sometimes yogurt. For dinner, we ate even more vegetables, salads, and grains, along with either potatoes, pasta, or even nachos one night. Adjusting to vegetarian food wasn’t as hard as I thought– until I began thinking of chicken nuggets. However, the thought came and went, and once it slipped my mind I was able to completely appreciate and enjoy the wonderful food I was consuming. Not to mention, the bread was homemade, so you can only imagine how good it tasted everyday.

 After brunch we began our Warriors at Ease class. The Warriors at Ease course was unlike anything I have ever experienced. The course is meant to help veterans cope with PTSD, sleep problems, and other troubles they face after war, using the healing powers of yoga and meditation. The trip to the Ashram began when our professor took the veterans from our college here to take the course. However, although this time the trip was for non-veterans, we were also able to take the class.
Robin Carnes, a co-founder of the organization, spent the week with us for two and a half hours a day teaching us techniques of breathing, meditation, and self-realization. From silent meditation, to exercises that had us jumping all around the room and shouting louder than ever before, not only did we learn about our friends in the class, we also learned a lot about ourselves.
When we began our session with Robin, she introduced us to Inner Resource Meditation. With our eyes closed, we began by envisioning a place we feel most safe and comfortable in. Then, we began to really visualize this place, pointing out colors, sounds, smells, feelings, and other things we saw and felt when we’re in this place. I immediately thought of being at home with my family and my boyfriend, watching television and laying on the couch. As simple as that sounds, that is my happy place, and since I was away from the ones I love, thinking of them when I meditated made me feel comfortable, and safe.
We were given a folder from Robin that included facts about stress, healthy sleep guidelines, and a sheet with all of the practices we did in the class. Along with practicing different forms of meditation and breathing exercises, Robin also discussed a variety of topics with us, including mindfulness, the human nervous system, the nature of the mind, learning to respond to our feeling, and witness awareness. Robin also introduced us to the sanskrit word “sankalpa” which means “being born from the heart.” Sankalpa is our core values, our mission, or purpose; our qualities, strengths, and what makes us feel in harmony with ourselves.
After spending almost everyday with Robin, we went over a sheet of quotes that she also included in our folders. The one that stood out to me the most was,

“Your experience of your life is not based on your life, its based on what you pay attention to.” –Gregg Krech

Having the opportunity to take Robin’s Warriors at Ease class opened me up not only to different forms of meditation, but also opened me up to understanding and appreciating myself much more than I ever have before. This week, I learned to cope with stress and worries that previously had the ability to ruin my day. I learned what makes me feel good, and what makes me happy. I learned that simply focusing on my breath during times I am stressing, or even times I am thankful, make all of the difference.
Warriors at Ease is a fantastic organization, and I am forever grateful to have been given the opportunity to work with Robin. It is quite astounding how  yoga and meditation can make such a difference in your life. Warriors at Ease has already helped over 100,000 veterans cope, and they continue to help more and more everyday. I encourage everyone reading this to visit for more information on the organization– I promise you won’t regret it.
After Warriors at Ease, we were given a longer break before our usual class discussion at 5. During the break, my friends and I were able to explore the ashram, and the surrounding areas. Sometimes we would walk down the beach, others we would fight the current and swim in the ocean. On one of the day’s, we took the speedboat over to Nassau to walk around the town. However, most of the days we spent relaxing on the ashram. The ashram was full of beautiful murals and signs that were all hand painted by karma yogi’s living there.

Along with the art, the beauty of the ashram wasn’t limited to paintings of Hindu gods. The art around the ashram also included statues of Buddha and Mary, which I found amazing. Nowadays, people tend to focus on our differences much more often than focusing on our similarities. A painting at the ashram solved this problem by simply saying, “God is one, the names are many. There is no higher religion than love.” The fact that a single religion can show it’s respect and appreciation to another religion by not only by chanting to their major figures, but also displaying their statues is breathtaking. Our differences is what makes us unique, and our similarities is what brings us all together. This week made me come to realize that my god is your god, and your god is my god– and rather than becoming separate because of religion, we must all must join together.

After dinner at six o’clock, we had an hour to rest before our night time satsang. The first 25 minutes of satsang were spend in silent meditation, reciting our mantras to ourselves. I began reciting the mantra, “Everything I need is within me” to myself during this meditation. During meditation, when I wasn’t focusing on my breathing or reciting my mantra, I would usually reflect on my day, and all of the thoughts that went along with my manta. After meditation, we began our chants– not only praising Lord Krishna, but also giving praise to Mary, Moses, and Buddha.
When we finished with our chants, either the Swami’s from the ashram or doctors would lecture us on topics including the science of yoga, yoga and sleep, and even the Bhagavad-Gita. The lectures were too interesting to not pay attention to. It is fascinating how important yoga actually is, and how beneficial it is to live a truly yogic lifestyle. Although it seems full of many hard adjustments from a traditional, fast-paced New York City lifestyle, it seems to be worth it in the end. As long as you are happy, and mindful– that is all that matters.
By the end of this trip, not only did I learn a few more yoga poses and meditation techniques, I also learned a lot more about myself and the world around me than ever before. I learned all about myself, and what makes me feel good, and what makes me happy. I learned to reflect on the things I am grateful for, and the things I sometimes forget to show my appreciation to. I learned how to relax when I’m feeling anxious or stressed out. I learned how little you need to be happy, and how guidance from a divine intelligence is something spectacular that we should all try to take advantage of.
Just like The Bhagavad-Gita, we are all Arjuna, our god is Krishna, and the war Arjuna is forced to fight symbolizes our own lives. Everyone has a war going on internally, and the only way to face life properly is to not run from this war. The battles we face all throughout our lives push us to rise spiritually to our true identities, and forces us to make allies with the life affirming sources inside of us. Above all, this week I learned the benefits and true purpose of yoga.
Compared to the yoga I’ve practiced at home, the yoga at the ashram was much more meaningful, and valuable. This week, I learned that yoga is so much more than just holding a headstand for as long as you can. Yoga is so much more. Yoga is about breathing and poses– but also about mindfulness, meditation, chanting, and devotion. A true yogic lifestyle is about cutting our meat, alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco. A true yogi has a strong sense of self-awareness, and a strong sense of mindfulness that they continue to work on improving everyday.
Yoga does not deserve to be limited to just poses, or even limited to be practiced by certain people. Everyone deserves a good quality life of peace, harmony, and a greater understanding of who we are, the world around us, and what our destiny is. In the sixth teaching of the Bhagavad-Gita, Lord Krishna tells Arjuna, “When his mind is tranquil, perfect joy comes to the man of discipline; his passion is calmed, he is without sin, being one with the infinite spirit.” In other words, if you can’t control your body, you can’t control your mind.
This week has given me exactly what I need not only begin this new semester, but also start this year. I am in love with my current mindset, and I plan to continue cultivating it everyday to make my life better than it ever was before. By simply gaining the knowledge I did by studying abroad at the ashram, I feel rejuvenated, refreshed, and ready for anything. There is so much out there, and so much to learn. And I am forever thankful to have been given the opportunity to study at the ashram.
Although I am no longer practicing yoga and meditating at the ashram, I promise to take my knowledge and techniques of yoga and meditation with me everywhere, and practice them as often as I can, and share them with everyone willing to listen– and I couldn’t be happier.

Om Shanti, Om Peace!

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Friday, February 3, 2017

Discover the World: Italy

Hi everyone!

Pope Francis at Vatican City, Italy, February 1, 2017
My name is Melissa Gallardo and I’m a sophomore studying with St. John’s University’s Discover the World: Europe program. With SJU, I have the incredible opportunity to study abroad for 5 weeks in Rome, Seville and Paris for the Spring 2017 semester. I’m currently in Rome, Italy at the SJU campus, which is in the heart of Rome. I’m a 20-minute walk from Vatican City and I’ve already seen Pope Francis at the Papel Audience! 

I’m heading into my 3rd week in Rome and I’m absolutely in love with the city. When I decided to study abroad in 3 countries, I didn’t know what to expect and wanted to go into each country head on. When I arrived in Italy, I had a total culture shock. I could not read a single sign after I got off the plane. In the United States, I’m so used to seeing signs in English and Spanish but in Rome, it was all Italian and I didn’t know how to form a sentence. Luckily for me, I know the basics of Spanish and I’ve been able to pick up Italian phrases and words quickly.

Panini Run, Vatican City, Rome, January 24, 2017
At SJU service-learning is a substantial part of the study abroad program. Right away, I knew I wanted to take up as many hours as I could to help the poor. After my L.O.V.E. Guatemala service trip with MC, I found a passion for service and wanted to continue my journey abroad. In the last three weeks, I’ve been fortunate enough to participate in Panini Runs, similar to Midnight Runs in the U.S., and bring sandwiches and fruit to the homeless that are near Vatican City. I spoke with a homeless French man spoke about his time in Nice before his wife passed away and lost work. He’s been homeless for 8 months and has no family or resources to help sustain his life. Stories like his drive me to help poor and the less fortunate.

Colosseum, Rome, Italy, January 19, 2017 
While studying abroad in 3 countries I'm taking 1-2 courses in each city for 5 weeks each. In Rome, I’m taking Moral Theology and the Marketplace, In Seville I’m taking Introduction to Islam and Monuments of World Architecture and in Paris I’m taking Religions of the World and Economics of Poverty and Income Inequality. As a Religious Studies minor, I’m so excited to take so many religion courses abroad! My Moral Theology and the Marketplace class discusses how Catholic Social Teaching plays a role in economics and in the workforce. What I love most about being a Religious Studies minor is that every course I take is completely different. It’s a whole new topic that I’ve never seen before and I’m always learning something new. I not only do I learn about people’s religious beliefs, I get to learn and experience how religion plays a role in the family, society, government and the international community first hand.

My study abroad experience is blossoming. I am stepping out of my comfort zone and into a world I knew existed, but never thought I would experience. I’m introduced to several new cultures that I would never fully immerse myself into in the U.S. It’s an academic, personal and professional experience that I truly enjoy. My study abroad journey is just beginning and I can’t wait to see what’s next.