Care of the Soul
Allison Parr-Plasha and I dated long distance for about three years while she earned a Master’s degree at Case Western. Most of the kids were with me during the week then some would go see their mom on weekends and I would visit Allison in Cleveland. This arrangement eased the kids into the idea we would be getting married in the future. I loved seeing Erie in a rearview mirror! Don’t get me wrong, Erie has been a great place to raise children and support my yoga studio for over 19 years which began in 1998. However, broadening my world view by traveling enriches my understanding of other perspectives. And I loved being with Allison in Cleveland!
Allison has a strong core value around travel and she became the perfect companion for adventure. My adventure opportunities began to unfold in ways I never could have imagined. In the past 23 years. We have been to Jamaica, Mexico, Guatemala, Spain, Ethiopia, Canada and many places in the US. Prior to this, my only international travel was Canada. She had already backpacked all over Europe for 6 months. I had backpacked in Allegheny National Forest!
We traveled to Cape Cod, Toronto, Chicago, New York City and other places. We went to the Catskills and visited the Sivananda Yoga Ranch in Woodbourne, NY just a few miles away from the Muktananda Ashram (Siddha Yoga). These two ashrams could not have been more different. The ranch had cows, old Catskill facilities and hatha was practiced in a barn. We helped the Swami and staff prepare lunch in the kitchen. We listened to a talk, chanted and meditated. There were a few people. By contrast, the Siddha ashram was palatial and large with many buildings and a large outdoor pavilion with thousands of practitioners.
I was not attached to the Guru anymore, but I felt it was important for Allison to experience the place and meet Gurumayi since this was an important part of my history. She met her but did not “feel” anything unusual. She enjoyed the chanting and especially the food. She thought the vegetarian cuisine and desserts were some the best she had ever enjoyed. I agree. I have been to many ashrams, retreat centers, and vegetarian restaurants and it was at the top of my list with the Greens, Sikh and Hare Krishna restaurants in big cities. I enjoyed being in the Nityananda Temple again and then I was ready to go. I wanted to go back to the simplicity and purity of the Sivananda ranch.
Travel is soul food and sometimes great body food too! It feeds my soul like buying flowers or hiking in the woods. Allison and I share other core values like education, self-growth, becoming more conscious, creativity, dancing and enjoying culture in its many splendored forms like art, music, literature, science, history and film. We are curious about life and others. We especially enjoy the fine art of conversation. These core values feed our souls.
Thomas Moore wrote a great book I was reading during this time, titled Care for the Soul. It focuses on paying attention to how different moods or emotional states are ways the soul is speaking to us. A feeling of anxiety or depression might be a soulful expression of dissatisfaction in one’s life. Instead of taking prescriptions, alcohol or drugs to numb and avoid uncomfortable feelings, it is being with them to discover what the soul needs.
Maybe what is going on is feeling trapped in a marriage or job. Maybe it is not living our core values. Maybe it is being afraid of change or the fear of the unknown. It is difficult to gain insight into emotional problems if we don’t feel them. He also explains how to connect with the sacredness around us. There is beauty all around us if we have the eyes to see it.
You know the saying, stop and smell the roses. How often are we aware of the beauty and wonder that surrounds us? I know when I am caught up in my thoughts I miss it. I know if I am obsessed and possessed with the pursuit of name, fame, image, success, accolades, materialism, sensory stimulation, and hedonism, I miss the riches around me.
I have had seven children and many direct opportunities to be with them from the ages of 2 to 7. They have noticed the smallest creatures, plants, and flowers that I might walk right by or trample. They have slowed me down. Looking at luminescent green lichen on the bark of a tree is my kind of soul food. What is yours? I grieve when children lose their capacity to notice and wonder at life. I saw a tween the other day miss a rainbow because he was looking at his smartphone. I hollered hey there’s a rainbow. He looked up, shrugged and looked back down. I hope they will restore their connection to the sacred someday. I hope they don’t go crazy for things.
To learn about Thomas Moore, go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Moore_(spiritual_writer).
Drumming was also feeding me at the time. I had joined a men’s consciousness-raising drum circle group. I started a band called Sangita (that which integrates song). We were a percussion based improvisational group. Usually, there were three hand drummers, electric bass, flute and vocalese (wordless melodies). At times, we were augmented with cello, saxophone, and electric guitar. We would start by meditating then begin with a rhythmic groove then the instrumentalists would share solos. Sometimes I read poetry. It was a throw-back to bohemian times.
We practiced on Sunday nights at my home replacing the Satsangs. This was my new Satsang. Satsang can mean gathering with like-minded people or keeping the company of the truth as defined by the group. It was fun, risky and had little commercial viability. We were not a bar band blasting covers. We played at some festivals, libraries and the one café that was in Erie at the time. I was good with that. It was an experiment in mindfulness and deep listening. It was an opportunity to create intimacy through sound with others.
However, other members wanted to make money and develop a more commercial Santana type approach. I supported that for them but it did not resonate with me as a vocational or avocational choice. Teaching yoga was a much stronger yearning. After a few years, I dissolved the band and blessed the musicians who wanted to try different projects. I am happy that some who started with me have continued to make a living playing music.
Meanwhile, I was working as a copywriter at an advertising agency and eventually as marketing director at a retirement center. These jobs were not my passion but they put food on the table. In addition, I had been freelance writing since 1975 and continued primarily with the local newspaper but also occasional magazines and other papers. I had several teens and tweens living with me and helping me with keeping the home ship shape. The court had declared me to be the “primary custodian” for the children and wanted them to stay with me but I also agreed to shared custody and open visitation rights with their mom.
I was quite busy with work, the band, and my family but found time to continue with Raja, Karma and Jnana Yoga and meditation. Japa (repeating a mantra during the day) and Mindfulness were my regular practices because I could integrate them into my life. Mantra Yoga has been my most consistent practice for over 40 years in addition to meditation and reading Yoga philosophy. I practiced postural yoga as needed to help me prepare my mind and body for meditation.
I was teaching yoga in a few public places. There were a few other teachers but no one was certified. I wanted the feedback and support from experienced teachers to assess how I was doing. I began to research yoga teacher training schools. Again, this was before the days of Yoga Alliance and the boon in schools. I was drawn to Kripalu, Sivananda Vedanta, the Himalayan Institute and Integral Yoga(IY).
I chose Integral Yoga because they had a strong connection to improving health. The founder Swami Satchidananda’s teacher, Swami Sivananda was originally a doctor. Satchidananda influenced the work of Dr. Dean Ornish, Dr. Michael Lerner, Dr. Oz, Dr. McLanahan and many others. Ornish’s reversing heart disease program and Lerner’s work with cancer modeled the lifestyle practices at the Integral Yoga ashrams. Lerner developed the Commonweal Cancer Help Program. It is a week-long retreat.
Swami Satchidananda was also a leader in the global ecumenical movement. My roots in ecumenism were supported by his teaching that “Truth is One, Paths are Many, Let us Live in Love and Light”. I was aware of him since he gave the invocation at Woodstock. If you recall, I had found the IY beginner level sequence in a book and was attempting to teach it back in 82. Their Hatha was also very grounded in the teachings of the four major Yoga’s: Bhakti, Jnana, Raja, and Karma.
I had visited his ashram in 91 on the way to Cape Hatteras and fell in love with the location and the ecumenical all faiths Lotus Shrine for meditation nestled next to the James River and the Blue Ridge mountains. It felt right. I appreciated that IY has a Guru but there is no pressure to become his devotee or disciple. In Siddha Yoga, you are not welcome to participate, if you do not choose Gurumayi as your Guru. In Yogaville, you can be atheist or practice any religion and even have other Gurus and all are welcome. I knew I would be back someday.
I also assessed my fellow-citizens of Erie as needing more support in becoming healthier through conscious healthy lifestyle choices. The IY lifestyle was proven by Ornish to reduce plaque in the arteries preventing heart attacks and bypass surgery. I felt I could have more impact with their holistic meditative style than offering yet another version of exercise.
At that time, yoga trainings were residential and at least a month long. Who would watch my kids? How could I afford it? It was now 96 and we were getting married in June. Allison had graduated from Case Western and was looking for a job. I had just been laid off and was looking for work too. It was the summer of love, hope, and anxiety. I was frantically looking for work in marketing and advertising and freelance writing in Erie and other cities to supplement my unemployment. Our love sustained us during this challenging time and has sustained us through many more. A friend told me about a local man who was starting a community college and was looking for a marketing director. I landed an interview.
He was a genial and kind man. I got the sense he had the gift to know the strengths in people and provide the guidance to support them in making a difference in their communities. I began to sell my marketing skills but then he changed the conversation to ask me about my core values. This led to his question, what do you want to do with your life?
I passionately proclaimed I wanted to become certified as a yoga teacher and develop it as a respected profession. I explained where I wanted to go and how much it would cost and in less than two months a new training was being offered. Before I left, he wrote out a check for me to go! In return, he asked me to develop a yoga based stress management program he could use in his college and help him with projects until I could establish myself teaching yoga. I gladly accepted his offer.
I cannot say enough how grateful I am for this “angel” in my life. In that moment, my life was changed and thus many people have told me I have changed their lives with yoga and meditation. We might call this a coincidence or synchronicity; fate or good Karma. I felt the love infused force of grace in my life. I knew in my heart this is what I was born to do. I couldn’t put it into words but I felt this as a child in Cincinnati roaming the woods to escape the tension in my home. I felt it as a teen when looking at pictures of Yogi’s at the library. I felt it in that moment as if my entire life of accumulated experiences and education were singing from every cell of my body with a resounding YES, YES, YES! I went home and wept with joy. I could barely contain myself.
My other angel, Allison was excited for me and completely supportive. She has always wanted the best for me and has never wanted anything to get in the way of my dreams. She agreed to manage the house and my sometimes-challenging kids, who were there, while I was gone for a month. Given the circumstances, I like to think of her as Saint Allison!
It was the fall of 1996. I was heading for Yogaville, Virginia to the Integral Yoga Satchidananda Ashram for a month. I had quit coffee and was a regular vegetarian. I was practicing IY Hatha every day. I was reading books for the training. I was feeling great. I felt a lot of love from the universe for my soul. Love is the greatest soul food and I was uplifted by my love for Allison and her love for me. I couldn’t wait for the next adventure to begin.