The Yoga of Mantra CD Release & Free Chant: Saturday, Sept. 1

Monique Parker & The Bhagavan Patanjali Goddess Choir

From Top Row, L2R: Debby Halpern, Raquela Moncada. Middle Row: Martha Flanders, Monique Parker, Whitney Lake. Bottom Row: Elisabeth Martin, Julie Cortopassi.

Svastha Yoga Institute wishes to invite the Taos community to participate in a FREE afternoon of Yogic and Vedic Chanting on Saturday, September 1st, from 4-5:30pm at AwarenessWorks Feldekrais Studio located at the Northstar Plaza in El Prado: #65 Highway 522, Suite C.

The event is to celebrate the release of Monique Parker’s first chant CD entitled “The Yoga of Mantra: Call and Response Sanskrit Chants,” which includes members from the Bhagavan Patanjali Goddess Choir, a group of seven Taos women who have all either completed or are currently enrolled in the Yoga Teacher Training Program at UNM-Taos. The Bhagavan Patanajali Goddess Choir consists of: Martha Flanders, Julie Cortopassi, Elisabeth Martin, Raquela Moncada, Debby Halpern, Whitney Lake, and Tessa Cone.

Mantra yoga is the cornerstone of traditional yoga practice. It has been said that mantra is supreme among all disciplines, and that by reciting mantras we achieve and accelerate the awakening of the divine spiritual forces within.

The Director of Svastha Yoga Institute and the Yoga Teacher Training Program at UNM-Taos, Monique Parker said call and response chanting with a teacher is one of the oldest and most sacred traditions on the planet. “The word mantra in Sanskrit means “mind protection”.

We chant sacred sound vibrations to protect ourselves from the disturbances that arise from our own minds. Basically, we open the heart and focus the mind as a way to tap into our innate state of peace,” Parker added. The program includes classic yoga invocations as well as popular peace chants from the Vedas. These universal sounds and vibrations are chanted to bring unity, peace, prosperity and harmony to all.

There will be handouts so participants can follow along, as well as CDs available for purchase. Please bring a pillow or blanket to sit on. AwarenessWorks Feldenkrais studio is located 4/10 of a mile north of the intersection of NM highways 522, 150 and 64.

Parker was named one of the Remarkable Women of Taos in the Health and Fitness category. She launched Svastha Yoga Institute, the U.S. affiliate school of Svastha Yoga & Ayurveda in Chennai, India earlier this year. “My teachers A.G. and Indra Mohan gave me their blessings to continue to share the Sri T. Krishnamacharya lineage, the father of modern yoga, here in the US,” she added.  “My hope is to attract people who live busy city lives and who want to deepen their practice—to come to Taos to experience the richness and depth of not only the ancient teachings, but also the beauty and peace that Northern New Mexico affords.

For further information, please contact Monique at 575-586-1229 or monique@svasthayogainstitute.com.

How Yoga can help Veterans with PTSD

by Monique Parker

Of the 3,218 veterans residing in Taos County (not including those who’ve served in Iraq and Afghanistan), 40 percent or more may be living with post-traumatic stress disorder and personal traumas. According to Michael Pacheco, Veterans Service Officer for the New Mexico Department of Veterans Service in Taos County, that number is likely greater when you add recent veterans of the middle eastern wars.

What is PTSD?

What used to be called shell shock or Battle Fatigue Syndrome, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is frequently defined as “a normal reaction to an abnormal event.”

While psychotherapy and counseling have proven to be effective in treating PTSD, the meditative and physical aspects of yoga can help reduce symptoms which range from insomnia, irritability, and hopelessness to anxiety, the inability to concentrate, and difficulty in maintaining close relationships.

Michele Beuttel, a clinical social worker at the Taos VA Clinic reports, “Any meditative technique which brings the mind and body together, focusing on breath helps the nervous system settle down. Patients can be taught to observe their thoughts rather then they are their thoughts. Eventually, they can regain control of intrusive thoughts that contribute to a sense of hyper vigilance, which they perceive as threats to their safety or to the safety of their loved ones.”

As a complimentary therapy, yoga doesn’t cost a lot, has no side effects, and doesn’t require a prescription. And it can be adapted. “Many veterans have physical limitations,” adds Beuttel. “Yoga can be adapted specifically for them. It’s an opportunity to get the body and mind working together. It’s also an opportunity for community.”

The hidden wounds of PTSD are too often addressed through self-medication or substance abuse. As many as 30-50 percent of people who live with PTSD use drugs and alcohol to numb themselves from depression or anxiety. “Yoga provides an alternative, a natural way for veterans to reclaim their lives,” says Debby Halpern, a licensed clinical mental health counselor in Angel Fire.

Trauma Sensitive Yoga for Veterans

Halpern specializes in trauma sensitive yoga for veterans and their partners. For over twenty years she has counseled people in public service: military, firefighters, and law enforcement officers. From 2009-2011, she provided counseling for and taught Svastha Yoga to veterans and their partners at the weeklong veterans retreats at the National Veterans Wellness and Healing Center in Angel Fire.

In 2010, Halpern traveled to India to study yoga psychology with A.G. and Indra Mohan. “When I learned about the vrtti-samskara cycle it all made sense,” says Halpern. “Everyone—not just veterans—is caught in a cycle of old unconscious patterns that can rise up from out of the blue. It’s particularly debilitating for veterans because when that old memory, or samskara, gets triggered it reinforces painful emotions and thoughts that never seem to go away.”

The Role of Latent Impressions on the Mind

According to the Yoga Sutras, the authoritative text on yoga thought to be at least 4,000 years old, mental unsteadiness is the root of our problems. As the instrument of perception, the mind perceives the external world through the sensory organs: touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound.

Whatever actions we do or experiences we have creates conditioning upon the mind. Yoga calls this conditioning or latent impressions samskaras. For the majority of us, the future is an extension of the past because the samskaras are constantly giving rise to thoughts and emotions (vrttis) without our awareness or conscious control. Therefore, we constantly and unknowingly reinforce our conditioning in either a positive or negative way. This closed loop cycle is called the vrtti-samskara chakra or wheel.

Because the mind and body are intimately linked, the vrtti-samskara cycle affects our physical body and it’s functioning. The Yoga Sutras goes on to state that freedom is possible through physical exercise (asanas), breathing, and meditation techniques, which help to oppose the negative thoughts and feelings, while bringing the physiological systems of the body back towards homeostasis.

Hope and Healing

Monte Doeren of Questa served two combat tours in Vietnam and has since studied and practiced Eastern philosophy. “Meditation has helped me get to where I’m not combative about everything. There’s not so much of that feeling that I’ve got to watch my back,” says Doeren.

Doeren and his wife Carrie Leven attended Halpern’s workshop for veterans and their partners last month. “We’re being more appreciative to each other, saying thank-you,” Leven says. “We’re getting back to what we originally appreciated about each other.”

Halpern has worked with other couples that live with PTSD, including Vietnam veteran Steve Oliver and his wife Janet. “After forty-three years of marriage, we came to yoga to help rise above the pain and confusion of PTSD,” says Janet. “The physical exercises have helped Steve to manage the bone pain he experiences from Myeloma, which he developed as a result of his exposure to Agent Orange.”

“The good news is that there’s hope,” says Halpern. “Through personal effort, yoga offers us an opportunity to reduce physical discomfort and change the way we respond to stimuli.” By consistently practicing yoga or meditation veterans and their partners learn to directly oppose the latent impressions, thereby creating new, healthy thought patterns.

Pranayama or breathing exercises and simple movements are the first step in learning to reconnect the body/mind. “The body carries trauma. With PTSD there’s a disjoint between the cognitive self, one’s emotions, and the body. You have to rebuild trust with your body,” adds Halpern. “The way to start is through the breath. If you wake up in the middle of the night, breathe. It’s the foundation for quieting the mind.”

On using yoga techniques, such as meditation, Doeren warns, “The harsh reality is that no one will give it to you. A lot of people don’t want to do self-improvement. But if you do want to better yourself—and get better—you’ve got to be willing to do the work.”

Halpern offers weekly Trauma Sensitive Svastha Yoga for Veterans at Santosha Yoga on Wednesdays from 2:30-4pm. Cost is $72 for 6-classes or $15 drop-in. She also facilitates a workshop for veterans and their partners called “Trauma Sensitive Svastha Yoga for Veteran Couples”. The next one is September 8 at Santosha from 1-5pm. Cost is $120 per couple. A sliding scale is available.

Interested veterans can stop by the Department of Veterans Service in Taos to pick up a pamphlet on Halpern’s classes and workshops. Pacheco is encouraging. “Yoga’s a good thing for some of these guys,” he says. “If the wife can talk them into it. They listen to their wives. Then they can go as a couple.”

For more information contact Debby Halpern at 575-377-2514 or jdhalpern@msn.com.

*First appeared in The Taos News on August 16, 2012

 

Unplug and Treat Yourself to a Yoga Vacation

By Monique Parker

The beautiful group of participants from Taos, NM and Tuscon, AZ at the 2011 Mandala Retreat.

I often think of the world today—where a vast majority are plugged-in and information is as plentiful as clean air and water used to be—as “the quickening”: that momentous movement toward some unknown destination of more, more, more. It seems that just about everyone I know is multitasking with aplomb, juggling responsibilities, taking care of others, and, for good or ill, staring into a myriad of devices geared toward making our lives easier and more connected.

But the reality is that our fast paced lives also carry a price tag of chronic stress and a slew of related symptoms, such as adrenal fatigue, insomnia, digestive issues, headaches, muscle tension, and anxiety, to list a few.

Even those of us in good health can only live the “all work and no play” mantra so long before it leads to a madness of sorts, where you feel off-centered, irritable, disconnected, and questioning what’s important.

One of the best ways to unplug and recharge is a yoga retreat. If you’ve been craving rest, peace of mind, a broader perspective, beautiful surroundings, and delicious food, then consider treating yourself to a yoga getaway. A yoga retreat not only energizes physically and spiritually, it also offers practical tools that you can take home and incorporate into your life, thereby extending your vacation. Some retreats include excursions and recreation, others spa treatments. Many are built around the ancient and still relevant teachings of yoga.

Here is a sampling of getaways offered by local teachers both nearby and abroad in exotic destinations.

Mandala Retreat Center

The Mandala Center in Des Moines, New Mexico

In the upper eastern corner of New Mexico, situated on the slopes of the Sierra Grande Mountain, overlooking the Capulin Volcano National Monument is a non-denominational spiritual retreat called Mandala Center, named after the universal symbol for wholeness and balance. Each summer I facilitate a Svastha Yoga Immersion, combining twice daily yoga sessions, hiking, yoga nidra (deep guided rest), chanting, meditation, and lectures on personal practice. Whether you need to embark on a new wellness path, or delve more deeply into your existing yoga practice, this retreat helps practitioners develop a “yoga habit” that you can take home and integrate into your life. The next retreat is August 8-12 and includes meals and lodging. The early bird rate has been extended until July 23. For more information, visit www.mandalacenter.org.

Ojo Caliiente Mineral Springs & Resort

For those on a limited budget or who can’t afford time away from work or family, a trip to Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs and Resort is the perfect solution. In less than an hour’s drive, you can leave obligations behind for a day of pampering you wouldn’t find in town. Spa therapist and yoga teacher Doug Gilnett, LMT encourages Taosenos to take a break. “You can spend a whole day out here and feel like you’ve been on vacation. At Ojo, nobody’s going to tell you to hurry up and relax.”  Monday through Thursday Ojo Caliente offers two yoga classes each morning at 9 and 11 am, led by UNM-Taos trained instructors, Gilnett and Elisabeth Martin. You can stretch and soak for the special price of $25, or if you splurge on a spa treatment of $100 or more, admission is free. For more information, visit: www.ojospa.com.

Costa Rica Yoga Vacation

Aura Garver of Aura Fitness leads annual yoga treks to Costa Rica. These retreats combine yoga with kayaking and hiking, tempered by ample time for relaxation and meditation. Surrounded by the rainforest, participants eat local cuisine and enjoy a vacation that strikes a balance between playful adventure and renewal. “A major component of these getaways is encouraging women to take time out for themselves and life’s hectic pace for a week,” says Aura. “It continually amazes me how fast life moves. More and more we need to consciously create time for nurturing so that we can be our best selves.” Aura’s next yoga adventure is scheduled for April 20-27, 2013. For more information, visit www.aurafitness.com.

Vaidyagrama Yoga & Ayurveda Vacation

Shirodhara treatment at Vaidyagrama in Southern India

Next summer I will be taking a group to Vaidyagrama Ayurvedic Village (vaidyagrama.com) on the outskirts of Coimbatore in Southern India for two weeks of authentic ayurveda and yoga. If you would like to experience the 5,000 year-old Indian healing system, inclusive of daily panchakarma treatments, restorative yoga, yoga nidra, daily prayers, chanting, a private apartment with verandah, lovingly prepared vegetarian meals, and twice daily doctors visits, then please inquire with me for more information. Travel will be in either May or June of 2013.

Published in The Taos News on July 19, 2012

From Rags to Ragas: How I overcame PMS

By Monique Parker

The Curse

PMS: it’s been derogatorily called “the curse of womanhood”, and for those of us regularly plagued with premenstrual symptoms the term is apropos. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, over 85% of women who menstruate experience at least one Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS) symptom each month but don’t require treatment since their symptoms are mild. I however, fell into a subset of women (3-8 percent) who experienced a more severe and disabling form of PMS, termed premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD).

Ever since I started menstruating I had not one, but a whole gamut of PMS symptoms that appeared a week before my period and lasted until the bleeding started. Each month I suffered through my obligations: meetings, travel, and teaching with little-to-no sleep, low energy, headaches, apathy, muscle pain, mood swings, bloat, binge eating, anxiety, hot flashes, and nonstop cramping. This was, I thought, normal.

It wasn’t until my 200-hour yoga teacher training with A.G. and Indra Mohan (and their son Dr. Ganesh Mohan, who is both an eastern and western physician) that I learned that Ayurveda, India’s 5,000 year-old holistic medical system, viewed PMS as an imbalance of the doshas, the bodily humors that make up one’s constitution: Vata, Pitta, and Kapha.

Women in India supported during Menses

In India, a woman’s menses is a highly respected cycle of interconnectedness with nature, and specifically, the moon. Women are encouraged and supported by those in their household to rest and take on a lighter load during their monthly cycle. Hearing this was music to my ears! Imagine an ideology that lies in direct contrast to how Western culture views a woman’s needs at her time of natural cleansing. Certainly my soldiering on in spite of my monthly discomfort was one of the reasons why my symptoms endured.

Xeno-estrogens Exacerbate PMS

Another potential reason for PMS that Western women should be concerned about is exposure to environmental toxins: food additives, pollutants, birth control pills, and pesticides. Once these “xeno-estrogens” enter the body, they create a hormonal imbalance, imitating estrogen and leading to a slew of symptoms and conditions. Besides lifestyle and dietary changes, Ayurveda recommends Panchakarma, the detoxification and rejuvenation process used for thousands of years to treat disease and bring the body back into balance.

Vaidyagrama: The Wisdom of Ayurveda

Earlier this year I traveled to India to see the Mohans and decided that while there I would to treat myself to a couple weeks of Panchakarma. One of my companions, Liz Kruger, an Ayurvedic practitioner from Pahrump, Nevada, inquired with an instructor from the Ayurvedic Institute of America as to where we might find authentic and traditional Ayurveda. This led us to Vaidyagrama, an authentic Ayurvedic village on the outskirts of Coimbatore in Southern India.

Vaidyagrama means “a true healing village”: it is both a hospital and a learning center, but to call it either would be limiting since it is much more. It is an ashram, and a temple of healing—a community in harmony with nature and its neighbors; a green and eco-friendly space built upon the principles of Vastu Shastra—India’s version of feng shui. Vaidyagrama is a coalition of doctors, therapists, staff, and local villagers who have come together to share their gifts with patients from all over the world so that healing, learning, and transformation can take place. It was one of the best ways I have ever spent a vacation.

Not only did a four-week upper respiratory infection that I picked up in Mamallapuram disappear, in the process of surrendering to my detoxification plan, it seemed as if my potential as a person—my reason for waking up each day—heightened. I grew lighter in mind and body. My attitude softened. My heart opened. Sleep deepened. Muscular aches and joint pain dissolved. I felt as though my nervous system both rested as well as purged years worth of waste.

Ragas: No more Singing the Blues

Because my period arrived during my treatment plan, I was given castor oil purgation as part of my overall therapy. I was also sent home with a three-month supply of herbal medicine, and one additional castor oil purgation to be taken on the first day of my next period. I am elated to report that for the past four months, since returning home from India, my PMS symptoms have abated. To my surprise, my period now simply arrives, quietly, and without warning—for the first time in twenty years! Although it would be easy, it’s not worth lamenting over the lost years spent suffering from PMS. Instead I hope to encourage women to seek out this ancient tradition for help recover a healthy menstrual cycle.

If you go…

At Vaidyagrama each patient has her own private apartment and verandah overlooking a garden. Ninety percent of the materials used to build the facility are natural—from stone floors and mud walls to water-based paint and bio mass briquettes for cooking. The center started with three barren acres—no water and no plants. They have since grown to twenty acres, planted more than 8,000 trees, including soap nut from which they produce natural cleanser for washing clothes and floors. Over 150 of the 5,000 herbs used at Vaidyagrama are now grown on the property. And it has only been three years since they opened their doors.

Every day consists of morning and evening prayers; herbal medicines; three delicious vegetarian meals based on the six tastes—sweet, sour, salty, bitter, astringent, and pungent; two daily doctor consultations; one external body treatment; yoga nidra—a “sleep-like” guided meditation, and evening satsung where patients can ask questions about Ayurveda. Because doctors and staff are actively involved with each patient’s experience, the atmosphere at Vaidyagrama feels like a home away from home.

Twice daily my physician, Dr. Hari Krishnan, ended our consultations by placing his hand on his heart as a gesture of the spirit of humanity. If only all healthcare professionals did this, not only would it improve allopathic medicine’s bad rap for poor bedside manners, patients might also be more inspired to heal.

I plan on returning to Vaidyagrama with a group next year so that I can share the wisdom of authentic Ayurveda with others.

Published in Elephant Journal on July 5, 2012

 

Getting Older & Better with Yoga

Cathi Kroon retired as the manager of Interpreter Services for Yale-New Haven Hospital in New Haven, CT, and moved to Sunshine Valley three years ago with her husband Chuck.

by Monique Parker

The pursuit of happiness is something we all share. Yet as we grow older, the things that used to make us happy no longer top the list. Happiness in youth may come from achievements and acquisitions, but in mature adults the strongest factor of psychological well-being is good health.

A research study at Ohio State University polled people between the ages of 60-90 on life satisfaction. The results weren’t surprising: seniors valued good health, retirement money, and mobility (the ability to get around and maintain a level of independence).

Nobody likes to be ill or in pain, yet most of us associate the symptoms of declining health with getting older. Yoga can be beneficial in the prevention and maintenance of health issues related with old age. As a complementary therapy yoga can help reduce and eliminate symptoms—including pain that comes from muscle and skeletal problems. Here is an example of how one of my students found relief.

Last August Sunshine resident Cathi Kroon showed up at one of my yoga classes at Questa Fitness and Health. For two and a half years, Cathi experienced debilitating pain in her right hip that gave her fitful sleep, woke her in the morning, and worsened throughout the day. Regular activities like driving, playing piano, walking around the house, and anything that required her to bear weight worsened her condition.

Cathi demonstrates Parsva Uttanasana, an asymmetrical forward bend, with therapeutic support.

Refusing to live with pain, Cathi, sixty-seven, saw her primary care physician several times between the fall of 2010 and 2011, the first two visits resulting in physical therapy referrals, as he didn’t think arthritis was culprit. Cathi faithfully followed her physical therapy regimen, but never got permanent relief. She also passed up the pain prescription offered by her doctor and opted for an over-the-counter lower dosage to help moderate the pain and inflammation. “It dulled the pain to the level of ignorable and would serve to help for two to three days. Then it would come back,” she said. “I just didn’t want to take it forever.”

Cathi also followed a strength training routine and did aerobic exercise throughout the week, but her pain persisted. “After my first yoga class I was sore. I found neglected muscles I wasn’t using in my other exercise,” she said. “I decided that yoga would present me with a new approach to personal sustainability.”

Since starting yoga Cathi’s pain occurred less often, and as a result she required analgesics with decreasing frequency. “I lucked out the day I walked into Questa Fitness and discovered the level of yoga taught there,” she added. “When the facility closed I got high quality yoga that went beyond the cookie cutter postures by having Monique develop a specific course of action.”

When Cathi started yoga seven months ago she only dreamed of performing Parivrtti Utthita Trikonasana.

She returned to her doctor and was referred to Matthew Harrison, M.D, a physiatrist, who diagnosed her condition as trochanteric bursitis, inflammation of the fluid-sac at the outside of the hip. Dr. Harrison recommended more physical therapy and suggested a steroid injection, which Cathi deferred taking. “I also declined PT because I didn’t feel it was effective,” she said. “I asked him if I might pursue yoga therapy since after two months of classes I was beginning to notice steady improvement.” Dr. Harrison provided recommendations for me to use in designing her practice. He also conjectured that acupuncture might help.

Cathi can now sit pain-free. In this chest opener she works within her range of motion.

Cathi practiced her exercises twice daily for several months. Her routine consisted of modified asanas, similar to what she did in physiotherapy (but modified for her skill level), with the addition of exercises that developed core strength and better posture. We also incorporated yogic breathing coordinated with movement and awareness, and ample rest after each yoga session.

It was important that Cathi had a practice that not only addressed her issue, but that also fit into her lifestyle. She also received several Reiki sessions with Reiki Master Bill Terry and acupuncture treatments with Oliver McCrary, DOM, which she feels contributed to her well-being.

Cathi did Dvipada Pitnam to strengthen her gluteus, hamstrings, legs and spine.

I’ve since met with Cathi two more times to adapt her practice, making it more challenging. Whereas Cathi couldn’t balance on one foot six months ago, she can today. She can also now sit on the floor in a crossed-leg position, without discomfort. And her posture has improved. “For the first time in three years I’m pain-free. I stopped taking pain meds, but continue with my practice,” Cathi said. “Getting older is not about disability or riding around on a scooter. There are things, like yoga, you can do before it ever gets to that.”

Published in The Taos News on June 21, 2012

La práctica del yoga: beneficios y accesibilidad

by Teresa Dovalpage

El yoga es una práctica que cuenta con más de 5000 años de existencia. Pese a su antigüedad, tiene mucho que ofrecer a quienes vivimos en el agitado mundo de hoy. Y lo más importante, es una técnica accesible para todos los que estén interesados en ella.

“Cualquiera puede practicar yoga, no importa la edad que tenga ni el estado de su salud,” dice Monique Parker, directora del Instituto de Svastha Yoga. Parker lleva diecisiete años practicando yoga; además, co-fundó y dirige el Programa de Certificación de Profesores de Yoga en UNM. En febrero de este año fue nombrada una de las Mujeres Extraordinarias de Taos.

Clase en el Gimnasio de Questa

“Como instructores, siempre comenzamos en el punto en que se encuentra un individuo, de manera realista,” dice Parker. “Trabajamos para alcanzar una meta específica, ya sea mejorar la fuerza o la postura, reducir la escoliosis, aumentar la amplitud de movimiento o la flexibilidad, o reducir la presión arterial en lugar de tratar de lograr una forma ideal, como las poses avanzadas.”

Para Parker, las posturas perfectas no son la meta. Lo más importante es obtener algunos de los muchos beneficios que el yoga ofrece. Entre ellos están el aumento de la eficiencia cardiovascular, la calma del sistema nervioso gracias a la reducción del estrés y la ansiedad, el incremento de la eficiencia respiratoria, la normalización de las funciones gastrointestinales, la paz mental, la reducción de los dolores crónicos y el acrecentamiento de los niveles de energía.

Consejos de Monique para las personas que nunca han practicado yoga:

• No tengas miedo de intentarlo.

• Busca un instructor calificado que trabaje con principiantes, que entienda la mecánica de la respiración y que sepa adaptar las poses y hacer modificaciones individuales para que incluso alguien que tenga malestares o problemas específicos pueda experimentar los beneficios del yoga.

• Las sesiones personales son increíblemente valiosas. Piensa en el yoga como una forma de fisioterapia. Una sesión privada permite al instructor concentrarse en tu cuerpo y en las metas que te gustaría alcanzar.

• A medida que envejecemos todos tenemos que mejorar nuestro equilibrio y desarrollar la fuerza en nuestro núcleo central. No siempre tienes que practicar poses invertidas ni otras posturas complicadas para obtener resultados fenomenales.

Parker se refiere a una de sus estudiantes, una mujer de 80 años que llegó a una clase de yoga restaurativo que ella enseñaba en el Gimnasio de Questa ¡con un tanque de oxígeno! Parker hizo algunas adaptaciones para esta señora, que resultó ser una de las estudiantes más dedicadas que ha tenido. En un período de cuatro meses, la alumna mejoró notablemente su fuerza, flexibilidad y capacidad respiratoria.

“Fue realmente inspirador,” dice Parker. “Otras dos mujeres, una de sesenta años y otra de setenta, también asistían con puntualidad a las clases semanales. Una no podía sentarse sobre los talones, pero con práctica y paciencia, en seis meses, se le estiraron los tobillos y las piernas hasta el punto que logró hacerlo apoyándose en una almohada. ¡Para ella fue una gran hazaña!”

La otra estudiante había tenido dolores insoportables en las caderas y los glúteos por haber trabajado treinta años como transcriptora médica. “Después de diez meses de yoga tiene menos dolor y hace poses que sólo se había atrevido a soñar antes,” explica Parker. “Ha ganado en fuerza y flexibilidad. Su postura y movilidad también han mejorado significativamente.”

En cuando a su propia experiencia, el yoga, dice Parker, le salvó la vida. Ella trabajaba de diez a doce horas al día en Silicon Valley, y en un momento dado viajaba una vez al mes por asuntos de negocios.

“Tenía dolor de espalda constante por el uso de la computadora, el transporte de equipaje y del equipo de grabaciones de vídeo, ¡y el uso de tacones altos!” comenta. “También tenía problemas digestivos, escoliosis, una hernia recurrente y el estrés de mi carrera.”

Por otra parte, Parker padecía episodios de depresión, insomnio y estrés postraumático, consecuencias del abuso doméstico que sufriera en la infancia. El yoga la ayudó a mejorar la postura, la digestión y la fortaleza en general.

“Además, me dio coraje para intentar cosas nuevas y correr ciertos riesgos en la vida que no hubiera corrido sin ayuda del yoga, como dejar mi carrera y todo lo que había construido para realizar mi sueño de mudarme al suroeste,” dice. “Lo más importante fue que me ayudó psicológicamente. La respiración estilo yoga y la meditación me han fortalecido la espina dorsal emocional y me han dado confianza en mí misma para enfrentar los desafíos de la vida con más aplomo. Me siento apoyada por una fuerza divina, a la que muchos llaman Dios, que me sostiene en los momentos difíciles y me permite ser un apoyo para los demás.”

Published in The Taos News June 2012

Mental Floss: The Secret of Yoga

Chanting the mantra Omnamah to steady and focus the mind

By Monique Parker, E-RYT

Every dentist on the planet advocates the use of dental floss to clean the teeth and reduce the risk of gingivitis. Yet the American Dental Association (ADA) reports that only 12% of Americans do so each day. Why so few, especially when we know that flossing is good for us?

Most everyone brushes, but doesn’t floss because it seems tedious and time-consuming even though a good flossing takes less than two minutes.  Those of us who make a habit of flossing not only have healthy gums, but also have stumbled upon a relic as old as the Vedas. And that is this: if you perform an action with regularity that is both healthy and positive, it eventually becomes habit-forming, whereas if you forget to do it, you actually miss its benefits.

What does this have to do with yoga? Everything.

Dental floss is to the teeth what mental floss is to the mind. Let me state it another way. Just as dental floss removes plaque buildup that causes cavities, mental floss cleans the debris (thoughts and emotions) that arise in the mind and which are responsible for our words and actions—most of which are compulsive.

It’s no wonder then that yoga is the oldest psychology on the planet. It’s primary aim as a methodology for self-realization is to help us get control of our thought processes so that we are not slaves to what runs through our mind on a regular basis.

If you think you are excluded, than I invite you to start paying attention to your thoughts as they arise during the day. The results may surprise you. There are millions of thoughts, and the majority of them happen involuntarily, just like breathing. All of us, no matter what age, sex, race, color, economic status, education, etc. are guilty of thoughts and feelings that are prejudice, fearful, egocentric, hurtful, and desirous.

My teacher, A.G. Mohan, is fond of saying, “Thinking is a behavior.”

Not only is thinking a behavior, it is THE behavior more than any other that effects us either for good or ill. Thinking determines how we treat ourselves. It is responsible for what comes out of our mouth, and conversely, what we put in our mouth. It is the source of our health or disease in relationships. And it is the root cause of all our happiness or unhappiness.

And yet, how do we clean the mind?

Yoga offers a tool, like dental floss, that when practiced daily leaves us feeling mentally clear, more discerning, and less reactive. I like to think of it as Jedi Warrior Mind Training: learning to harness the force within by concentrating the mind on a single object.

A mantra is a word, sound, syllable, or group of words that when recited, either aloud or silently, imposes a thought on the mind to the exclusion of other thoughts. Mantra also activates and accelerates the awakening of the divine spiritual force within. Originating from the Vedas, mantra yoga is the cornerstone of traditional yoga practice.

Mantra is Sanskrit for “mind protection”. The root “man” refers to mind, and “tra” to protection. Thus, we recite mantra to protect ourselves from our own minds.

A person who can exercise mental self-control to the point where they can consciously refrain themselves from gossiping, or saying something that may hurt someone else, or obsessing about a particular person or situation, is truly masterful. This individual has the key to peace of mind.

Here’s how to do it: Pick a word or sound that helps you relax. It could be “ma” as in “mother”—the one who is always there to support. Or it might be “amen”—so be it, or simply “Om”. I like to use “Om Namaha” which simply means “not mine” or “let go”. Every day recite your mantra…try it for just three to five minutes at first. Notice the mind’s tendency to wander. Keep bringing it back to the mantra.

During the day, if you get agitated or find yourself obsessing about something, stop and repeat the mantra. Do it in bed before you go to sleep. If you have mala or a rosary, say the mantra with each bead.

With practice the mind will quiet. In time, you will come to miss your mantra practice should you skip it. This mental floss is your prescription to experiencing the miles of peace already inside you.

*Published in The Taos News on May 10, 2012

Photos by John Fullbright

Take Back Your Mind Share

By Monique Parker, E-RYT

Like most kids growing up in the 70s and 80s, I was weaned on television and a smorgasbord of popular sitcoms. On any given night of the week my family tuned in to our favorite TV shows: The Love Boat, M.A.S.H., Happy Days, Taxi, and The Cosby Show.

Ask any American over the age of thirty-five and they will likely remember an episode from one of these sitcoms during this era. For this reason TV has left an indelible imprint on the collective consciousness, much as the Internet and cell phone apps have done over the last decade.

Although I have not watched television in over twenty-years, what enchanted me the most about it were the commercials. The clever jingles. The sixty-second storyboards. The unforgettable characters: Spuds Mckenzie and the Energizer Bunny. Wendy’s wildly popular and rhetorical question, “Where’s the Beef?” that former Vice President Walter Mondale borrowed during a 1984 democratic debate. And, of course, the humor. Specifically, the psychological effect that humor has on persuading consumers to buy.

Because of commercials, I had aspirations as a teenager of working in advertising. On Sunday mornings my mom used to cook a big breakfast, and I would use my captive audience to try out commercials I had created while my family ate together. “Pan in. Voice over,” I would say, peering at them through my finger framed camera.

I dreamt of moving to New York City where I would become a TV commercial writer. That fantasy ended when I realized that I didn’t want to sell dog food at the sixth grade comprehension level. Creative humor was one thing, but manipulating children and contributing to the illiteracy of our nation while making money for the powers that be was another thing altogether.

So instead I became a high tech copywriter in Silicon Valley and wrote about products whose technology I would never quite understand. If I thought writing at the sixth grade level was bad, this was worse. Tech writing was suffused with acronyms, annoying buzzwords, and overused jargon, such as “seamless”, “cutting edge”, and “solution”. As in TV advertising, the end goal was to capture MINDSHARE in the consumer’s psychology.

During this time I came to practice yoga, seeking relief from long hours sitting in front of the computer in a position I came to call “computerasana”. It was not uncommon for me to experience backaches, eyestrain, tight psoas muscles, poor posture, headaches, and digestive issues. Although I began studying yoga for its physical benefits, it is yoga’s contribution as a psychology that kept me committed to the discipline all these years.

Students quiet the mind in Monique Parker’s class at the AwarenessWorks Studio in El Prado, NM.

Yoga recognizes that the external world is not in our own hands. That the only thing that we can change is what happens inside of our own minds: how we think, what we say, and what we do. Most of the time we do not understand the source of our problems. But we react to them. We perpetuate them. And then we wonder why we are getting the same results.

Most of us are slaves to our own minds, and more specifically, to our senses. Advertisers recognize this. That is why they spend millions of dollars in order to dominate our psychology and congest our mind space with the presence of products and services that we don’t want or need, hence the term “mind share.”  This mass manipulation is happening on an even larger scale today with the prevalence of cell phones, the Internet, and the million and one stimuli vying for our attention.

This stimulus overload often leads to compulsive thoughts (I want more, better, different!), a chronically stressed state, and a perpetual seeking for something that will gratify us, if only for a little while.

The 5th limb of ashtanga yoga (meaning 8 limbs or eightfold path) is pratyahara, or the practice of withdrawing the senses. You don’t need to be on a yoga mat or in front of an altar to do this practice. It begins with where you put your attention.

If you suspect that you spend too much time in front of the TV, on the Internet, connected to an android phone, or in an environment that leaves you feeling depleted and agitated, than take some time to unplug. Draw your attention away from objects outside of yourself. To do this stop what you are doing, close your eyes, and watch your breath. When thoughts arise, simply allow them and re-direct your attention to your breath. Do this several times a day. This is the first step in taking back your mindshare.

*First published in The Taos News on April 19, 2012

Photos by John Fullbright

The Role of Svastha Yoga in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Written by Deborah Halpern, LPCC

Edited by Monique Parker

Steve and Janet Oliver find that sharing a yoga practice brings them closer together.

I attended my first Yoga class at age twenty-two and have now enjoyed a yoga practice for over forty years.  In 2007 I was introduced to what felt like the most authentic form of yoga I had ever encountered. My teacher, Monique Parker, who now directs the yoga teacher certification program at the University of New Mexico-Taos, offered something called Svastha Yoga. Her mentors, the originators of Svastha Yoga, A.G. and Indra Mohan, were long time personal students of the legendary yogi Sri T. Krishnamacharya. Because Svastha Yoga is primarily about developing a state of internal peace and secondarily a form of physical exercise, it fit perfectly with my work as a psychotherapist. I have now been practicing Svastha Yoga for close to five years. After completing a course in 2010, taught by A.G. Mohan called “YOGA Psychology for Personal Transformation,” I realized that yoga can help war veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and also help those who care for them.

Two years ago I got involved with weeklong Healing and Wellness Retreats offered in Angel Fire, New Mexico for veterans and their partners suffering from PTSD.  There is more awareness today that veterans need help with the devastating symptoms inherent in PTSD.  Including an intimate partner in the healing process is significant, helpful, and powerful for both partners. Partners can be spouses, parents, children, siblings, gay partners, or a close friend committed to the vet and to their healing.

At first I functioned as a psychotherapist at the retreats, offering counseling to couples.  During the second retreat I introduced a daily yoga practice as an option for those interested, while continuing my role as counselor. After the third retreat, based on feedback from the vets and their partners, I shifted my responsibilities from that of psychotherapist to directing a yoga program where a daily asana practice was available, as well as “couples yoga.”

Couples yoga consisted of releasing old painful behaviors, attitudes, and feelings while focusing on the positive in the relationship between the veteran and his/her partner. We used communication exercises, counseling skills, and guided imagery to replace old habits that no longer worked in the relationship or in their lives.  We also used the tools I had learned through yoga, such as pranayama, meditation, chanting, and asana. We would begin and end each session reciting “Namaste,” with the couples looking into each other’s eyes, holding hands and saying together: “I honor the place in you in which the entire universe dwells. I honor the place in you, which is of love, of truth, of light and peace. When you are in that place in you, and I am in that place in me, we are one. Namaste.”

After 43 years of marriage, Steve and Janet share a heart-centered place to help rise above the pain and confusion of PTSD.

I realized that couples needed to reconnect with each other from a loving place, the original heartfelt place of their relationship, which has been covered up by the traumas of war and subsequent PTSD.  At one of the retreats I met a couple, Phil, an Iraqi veteran, and his wife Diane, who worked at and enjoyed a very solid and loving marriage. After sharing “Namaste” on the first day of couples yoga, Diane turned to me and said, “This is the first time in eleven years, since the day we were married, that we’ve held hands and looked into each other’s eyes.”

The aspect of yoga that can give hope back to those suffering from PTSD is a psychological principle right out of the Yoga Sutras where it refers the “samskara/vrtti cycle.”  Samskara in Sanskrit stands for latent impressions and memories. Vrtti means thoughts and emotions. What happens when we’re caught in this cycle is that an old unconscious memory can rise to our consciousness out of the blue. That memory, or samskara, often triggers an emotion, vrtti, which can then cycle back to ignite a latent impression, samskara, which in turn, gets more thoughts—vrttis swirling up into our consciousness.  Suddenly we’re going in painful emotional circles and living in the PAST with no connection to today.

For veterans old war memories can rise from the unconscious. Such memories can trigger extreme emotions that force them to revisit traumatic war experiences from years ago. Suddenly they’re living in the PAST with no connection to today.  This experience is called PTSD.  In yoga it is called the samskara/vrtti cycle.  Since yoga is “an action that quiets the mind” and helps address the samskara/vrtti cycle, it’s easy to see how many veterans could benefit from quieting their minds through yoga.  Once the mind is quieted, inner peace can again become a cherished part of life and PTSD can be controlled.

How yoga helps with PTSD

What are the ingredients that help vets overcome horrific, emotional responses to life after being trapped in a deadly fight to survive? The power of yoga lies in its simplicity and adherence to some very basic practices:

1. Asana Practice

2. Pranayama Breathing

3. Meditation/Chanting

In the west, the emphasis on yoga often lies within the asana practice, thought of primarily and valued greatly as a form of exercise. Granted, exercise is important in balancing a healthy body and life, but in yoga the exercise functions to support the most important aspect of the practice: quieting of the mind.

Steve practices yoga to help manage the bone pain that he experiences from Myeloma, which he developed as a result of his exposure to Agent Orange.

How does an asana practice function in quieting the mind?  Asana means “to sit”. We do an asana practice so that we might be flexible and strong enough to sit while engaged in pranayama breathing and meditation as the primary avenues for quieting the mind. When we do pranayama and focus on the actual physical mechanics of the breath, we are forced to experience our body and ourselves in the moment. The physical mechanics of the breath consist of inhaling through the nose and feeling the air expand the chest to the front, sides, and back while filling our lungs to capacity. Pause. Then we exhale by contracting our lower abdominal muscles, right below our navel, and exhale all air from our lungs, again, through the nose, until our lungs feel empty. Pause again before beginning the next round of inhaling.

Meditation can be experienced silently or verbally by repeating a mantra or by chanting to help focus and quiet the mind. One meditates within the cycle of the breath that is already established as the foundation of the practice. Then, while still being aware of our physical breath, if we simultaneously meditate, then our mind is doubly engaged in our body, in the moment.  When we are in the moment, in our body and in life right now, we are NOT stuck in the past, as we are when overcome with PTSD.

It is amazing how powerful pranayama can be for someone battling the effects of PTSD.  Joe, a Vietnam Veteran, came to my “couples yoga” class extremely agitated and raging with anger.  He was upset about his Veterans Administration (VA) benefits and felt he was being ignored and denied benefits for which he qualified. Feeling he had been lied to, he was irate that his call for help was being disregarded and that his life was meaningless to the federal government. This was so much more painful because it is the same federal government that had robbed him of his youth and happiness forty-five years before.

Since Vietnam, his life has been hell and he was furious!  Other vets in the class tried to empathize and reason with him about how to deal with the VA office. Their attempts to help Joe were to no avail. His rage escalated and his control waned as if he was gearing up for a fight. I was afraid an innocent victim might be caught in his dangerous crossfire if something wasn’t done immediately. I knew it was imperative for Joe to calm down. Not sure he could hear me, I suggested that the whole class participate in pranayama breathing as a way for everyone to get grounded and as a way we could help Joe with his problem.

Luckily, Joe complied, although with skepticism. I believe he was so desperate for help that he’d have tried anything if there were a chance for relief. We practiced pranayama. To my amazement I watched Joe’s clenched jaw relax and his white knuckled fists gradually open with each breath. At the end of a round of breathing I asked everyone to slowly open their eyes and tell me how they felt after experiencing the exercise. Joe, looking astounded, gently shook his head and shoulders and with newly focused eyes said, “What just happened?” Then in disbelief, announced, “That was amazing!”

I felt that Joe had left the hell that was consuming him and returned to his own senses and his body. I no longer feared the potential of Joe’s violence and experienced him as the decent and sane man that he could be. All this was attained from just breathing in a conscious and focused way.

The beauty of pranayama is that it is incredibly effective, costs nothing, doesn’t require a prescription, and causes no negative side effects. It’s a gift for someone desperate to find relief from the debilitating and demeaning effects of PTSD. It’s also important to help vets realize that PTSD is a normal reaction to the very abnormal and horrific experiences of war.

Through breathing and meditating, supported by an asana practice, a person can work toward being free of the shackles and disturbances of the mind.   The accumulation of old emotional debris can begin clearing out and a long forgotten and natural space within, a space we were born with, can be rediscovered. It is in that calm inner place where peace and serenity still reside. Over time someone can connect with the truth of who he/she is. In essence, a person who has long suffered from PTSD can finally come home.

Namaste.

Debby Halpern is a master’s level licensed clinical mental health counselor (LPCC) who has been practicing yoga for over forty years. She staffs the National Veterans Wellness and Healing Retreats in Angel Fire, New Mexico. She received her yoga teacher certification from the University of New Mexico-Taos and teaches yoga at the Angel Fire Resort in Northern New Mexico. Debby specializes in yoga and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, working with veterans and their families.

 

 

Vaidyagrama: The Wisdom of Ayurveda

The healing hands of Vaidyagrama: AyurvedaOf all places to return to after nearly two months in India, I am grateful that it is Taos I call home. For simple, yet profound reasons I consider the Northern New Mexico environment to be “life support” for those of us who not only value, but require a quality of life beyond the accoutrements and clamor of urban life.

By Monique Parker, E-RYT

Of all places to return to after nearly two months in India, I am grateful that it is Taos I call home. For simple, yet profound reasons I consider the Northern New Mexico environment to be “life support” for those of us who not only value, but require a quality of life beyond the accoutrements and clamor of urban life.

Taosenos are innately drawn to live in harmony with nature just as the ancestors of the Taos Indians were drawn to this valley a thousand years ago. Here our wealth lies in environmental capital like clean air and water, beautiful landscapes and views, four distinct seasons, and a slower pace of life. Perhaps this is why the vision of Vaidyagrama resonates so profoundly with me.

Dr. Ramdas (& daughter), Monique Parker, Dr. Ramkumar, and Dr. Hari Krishnan

One of the highlights of my trip was experiencing the traditional system of medicine practiced in India for more than 5,000 years. For two weeks I became part of Vaidyagrama, an authentic ayurvedic village on the outskirts of Coimbatore in Southern India.

Vaidyagrama means “a true healing village”. It is both a hospital and a learning center, but to call it either would be limiting, as it is much more. It is an ashram and a temple of healing—a community in harmony with nature and its neighbors; a green and eco-friendly space built upon the principles of Vastu Shastra—India’s version of feng shui. Vaidyagrama is a coalition of doctors, therapists, staff, and local villagers who have come together to share their gifts with patients from all over the world so that health, healing, learning, and transformation can take place. It was one of the best ways I have ever spent a vacation.

Monique Parker receiving shirodhara

Not only did a four-week upper respiratory infection that I picked up in Mamallapuram disappear, in the process of surrendering to my detoxification plan or “panchakarma”, it seemed as if my potential as a person—my reason for waking up each day—heightened. I grew lighter in mind and body. My attitude softened. My heart opened. Sleep deepened. Muscular aches and joint pain dissolved. I felt as though my nervous system both rested as well as purged years worth of waste products.

Ayurveda is comprised of the words “ayus” meaning life and “veda”, which refers to a system of knowledge. Thus, ayurveda translates to “the knowledge of life”. According to the “Charaka Samhita”, one of the oldest and most authoritative texts on ayurveda believed to date back to 400-200 BCE, “life” is defined as “the union of body, senses, mind and soul.” Ayurveda’s intentions are to heal the sick, maintain health in those who are healthy, and to prevent disease.

Martha Flanders and Monique Parker planting jasmine before departure.

At Vaidyagrama each patient has her own private apartment and verandah overlooking a garden. Ninety percent of the materials used to build the facility are natural—from stone floors and mud walls to water-based paint and bio mass briquettes for cooking. The center started with three barren acres—no water and no plants. They have since grown to twenty acres, planted more than 8,000 trees, including soap nut from which they produce natural cleanser for washing clothes and floors. Over 150 of the 5,000 herbs used at Vaidyagrama are now grown on the property. And it has only been three years since they opened their doors.

The six-taste daily vegetarian lunches at Vaidyagrama…Mmm!

Every day consists of morning and evening prayers; herbal medicines; three delicious vegetarian meals based on the six tastes—sweet, sour, salty, bitter, astringent, and pungent; two daily doctor consultations; one external body treatment; yoga nidra—a “sleep like” guided meditation, and evening satsung where patients can ask questions about ayurveda. Because doctors and staff are actively involved with each patient’s experience, the atmosphere at Vaidyagrama feels like a home away from home.

Kerala astrologer Mahesh Panikker, Monique Parker, and Aparna Sarma, Vaidyagrama’s Manager.

Now that I am back in Taos, many things remain with me: a balanced ayurvedic diet; a more refined lifestyle with daily routines such as warm sesame oil massage and before-dawn pranayama; less propensity for negativity; a greater awareness of the affect food has on my digestion, and last, but not least, something I did not expect from my doctor.

Twice daily at Vaidyagrama my physician, Dr. Hari Krishnan, ended our consultations by placing his hand on his heart as a gesture of the spirit of humanity. If only all healthcare professionals did this, not only would it improve allopathic medicine’s bad rap for poor bedside manners, patients might also be more inspired to heal.

*First published in The Taos News on March 15, 2012