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Saturday, 27 December 2014

The Sage Next Door: a Trip to Jersey and Beyond

Written by Lisa DiFalco
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       Since I have moved back to New York, I have felt a little lost and disconnected. It takes an adjustment to move and then to move yet again- even if the final territory is familiar. In an effort to make some positive changes in a somewhat muddled and distracted state, I signed up for a weekend retreat. It was easy enough to make reservations for the Yoga and Hiking Weekend at Mohican Outdoor Center. I received my online confirmation and my informational packet. I packed the suggested items on their list in preparation for the upcoming activities and possible weather conditions. No list could have prepared me for that weekend.

       In hindsight, it is pretty funny. People go to far flung monasteries in Tibet in search of a spiritual awakening. I stumbled upon it in Jersey of all places with no such intentions at all.

       I am no yogini but no complete novice to it as well. This weekend was about Kundalini yoga- all focused on the breath. One instructor, named Megan, was dressed from tip to toe in white. I initially met Megan at the first evening’s get together at Blueberry lodge. She is a plump, shiny-faced lady with long straggly white-blond hair. She sat on the sofa and spoke energetically as the weekend’s participants munched away on cookies. Her blue eyes connected to you as she spoke. Every time she was around, I noticed how magnetic she was- how others would pause in their conversations to listen to her. Her joyful spirit simply pulls you in and it was a lovely thing to be around. 

       During our first full day, while our cross-legged selves sat in the creaky boat house, she told us a story. There was an experiment using injured vets that had lost their limbs and healthy participants. Both groups had to do yoga. The healthy group did the postures completely. The injured parties did what they could and imagined themselves doing the postures perfectly even if the reality was quite different. When studied, it was found that the vets received the same benefits as those who were able to fully engage with their physical body. Their brains activated similarly to the control group because of this mental focus. By extension, no matter where we were in our personal practice, we should envision ourselves doing everything- postures and breath work- perfectly. I realized that for me Kundalini yoga was about acceptance. I accept myself as I am but visualize my best self and intentions. I think that this can be applied to our approach to living as well. Acceptance becomes our gateway to other experiences, allowing ourselves to respond and not react and to genuinely hear ourselves and others. Thank you for that first little drop Megan. 

       I met Megan again as I was quickly doing my New York stride along the graveled path from point A to B, or in this case from the Boat house to the lodge. She smiled her bright smile, brought her hands together in prayer position and ‘Sat Nam-ed’ me. I slowed and greeted her as she explained the significance of the phrase. ‘Sat Nam’ is used as a greeting to recognize the spirit within another – the awareness of another soul. ‘Sat Nam’ also can be interpreted as ‘Truth is my destiny’. I Sat Nam-ed the little guru back, not realizing the depth of awareness and recognition to come.


 

       When I tried to sign-in at the lodge upon arrival to Mohican, I first saw Ken. He is a cheerful senior who was talking too much to the smiling employee while I attempted to patiently wait behind him. He wasn’t the clean-cut type but more of the comfortable type with pokey salt and pepper hairs creating the beginnings of a beard. As I signed-in I didn’t think further about him but when we were to hike on our first full day I found out more. He is a naturalist and was offering to give a talk and walk about water and the area. I had already chosen another option. That day I started seeing him in the parking lot. On an overcast day with intermittent sprinkles, he had the trunk door wide open, exposing wood sticks. At times, he held them. As I would frequently walk through the lot and his van was close to my car, we got familiar. The superficial niceties were soon done with. I found out that his father was poor but would always help others. Ken had been active in the community and in politics, at times building homes and doing for others. He felt compelled to do for others and the greatest compliment he has ever received was when he was told that he was like his father. 

       Now remember the sticks? This ‘stickman’, as he calls himself, finds these forlorn friends scattered in the woods. He strips, carves and creates on these fortunate few. He sees the knotholes and defects and makes hiking sticks like the “Marsh Mojo Maker”, breathing new life into each old branch. What I didn’t notice until he of the twinkling eyes divulged it was that he had had an accident. He does this with one complete hand. The other had no fingers. We had a number of deep talks and on the last day he felt compelled to gift me one of his creations. As we hugged and he shook my hand with both of his, I just thought of his wonderful generous spirit, ever-young and willing to connect. When I walked off with his stick and a little of his DNA, I was really touched by who he is and his gentle, giving nature.

      The Appalachian Trail cuts through the Mohican Outdoor Center lands. The trail runs from Georgia to Maine; many serious and not so serious hikers transverse this long path. One such hiker ended up in our kitchen. Around 7pm, I was walking towards the kitchen and dining area in our lodge. I see a new young face. She was a bit bedraggled with blond shaggy hair and a large red hiking pack. She was a sturdy example of a relative novice who decided to be a solo hiker along this path. Jason, one of our members and a young Brooklynite, announced to all around that she, the new face, was a new member of our group. I was in the main area, overheard and thought “Huh?” as everyone had already signed in. 

AMC 8 2014 Yoga Hiking Week

       Jason had been exploring and had just happened upon this hiker waiting for friends to pick her up. She had been to the emergency room the night before and was waiting for a pick-up at Mohican from a friend that never arrived. She had been waiting for hours when she met Jason. He found out about her problem. Jason brought her into our lodge. This generous member offered up the spare bunk in the room. The hiker was able to recuperate a bit because of a moment when two strangers met and one helped another in need. She left the following day, hopefully refreshed and armed with antibiotics and general goodwill. I was once again taken by the support shown from one person to another. They were not friends or family but one had seen a way to help another selflessly and simply had done it. I just don’t see enough of that in the world, do you?


 

      Finally, as part of the workshop’s closing activities, we were cleansed with sage, or ‘smudged’. The intent of smudging is to rid oneself, others, or your home of negative energy and to clarify. As one passed through the air, one saw and smelt the charred sage. The herbs filled the air and clung slightly to one’s clothes. We then culminated in a “Breath Walk” exercise. For 4 minutes we walked with a special breath pattern while barefoot outside. This would increase our awareness and help connect us with our surroundings. We did this and first were allowed to speak and later walked in silence. I walked in socked feet uncomfortably aware of the gravel, rocks and moist earth. I was aware that I really like my sneakers. I carefully walked toward the end of the group. I walked with the group down paths and finally to a clearing of benches surrounding a burnt out campfire, black and gray surrounded by wet green vegetation. The whiff of the burnt blackened wood caught one’s attention upon arrival to the space. We finally sat on the benches. There were fewer members at the closing than at the beginning of the weekend as some explored independently. Those left were females ranging from their 50s to their 80s. 

       The leader, Patricia, passed around a “talking stick”. This stick was slim and held by a participant, feathers jutting from the top. We had 2 minutes each to share our thoughts or to remain in silence as we held the stick. I suddenly felt shy as I was the first one up and chose the latter. Other participants shared or declined. Some topics were: the importance of a woman’s natural role and of making a home, increasing self-awareness and associations to color and smell. The colors seemed sharper and the smells evocative of fond memories. The last member brought me to tears. We had had a gong experience earlier wherein the instructor hits a gong and makes various sounds while you are in silent meditation. 

       This last participant shared a Buddhist philosophy on the 7 Gongs and her experience. The first of the 7 Gongs dealt with acceptance and forgiveness. This was the hardest step as we feel resistance and sometimes pain from different situations and the effort to go past that moment. I find this difficult at times as I want to change or fix situations that are beyond my control. Forgiveness is just as difficult when one has been hurt or wronged. The last gong addressed second chances. This member was profoundly moved during the gong experience, she felt like the gongs had placed her in another state of mind. As she had lain on the mat, letting the reverberations run through her, she thought ‘Let this be my second chance.’ My eyes watered. Don’t we all need to allow ourselves another start or to give one to another? I know that I would not be where I am today without the possibility of second chances. It was a significant share for me. It brought me full circle from the idea of acceptance that came up initially during the Kundalini practice to finally new opportunities that we can allow ourselves and others to have. We have the key to unlock our own door and allow a new experience in.

      I had signed up for a hike in Jersey. I received so much more. A trip is when we bring ourselves to a new physical location. Usually, we can expect to snap a few pictures and have some laughs. This experience caught me off guard. When I was open to receive, something other happened. My cup had been almost empty before and others came to fill, to inspire, to give and to awaken. I saw and encountered people who generously gave in word and deed with little intention of any return. People made a choice to stop, to connect and to be open to the experience. 

AMC 8 2 14 Yoga Hiking Week 

©Lisa DiFalco

Last modified on Wednesday, 31 December 2014