August 19, 2011

East meets West: What shamans and yogis know

I stepped out of yoga class on a Sunday morning bathed in sweat and Shakti. I walked passed the blooming plumeria tree whose fragrance graced me and into the shining South Florida sun.

I was grateful. Not only to the shala, yoga guide and myself for going to practice, but to the shaman in Brazil and the ayahuasca I drank that put me on the path of meditation and yoga. My life is better. And because of that I hope to make other people’s lives better as well.

Before I took the trip to Know Thyself  in Bahia, Brazil, in May 2010, I was a meat eater, drinker and womanizer. I felt empty. I chased highs that didn’t last and left me feeling lower than I did in the first place. I thought yoga was for women and meditation for monks.

Now I see women for their beauty, wisdom and strength. I practice the path of peace, love and happiness through a vegan diet, vinyasa yoga and vipassana meditation.

Peace, love and happiness do take practice after living a toxic lifestyle.

They’re a practice because I have to undo all the unnatural behavior patterns of the past and liberate myself. And through healing myself, I can heal others. We are all one. So when one link in the chain transforms, the others will follow.

I’d heard about ayahuasca in high school but I didn’t know how to find a shaman without trudging through rain forests and hoping to find a good one who’d serve me the “Grandmother medicine.”

Shamans use a mixture of plants to make ayahuasca, called “the vine of souls” because it’s said to transport you into the spirit world, which can be key to fixing problems in this world.

In today’s age, you can find a shaman on Facebook. That’s how my brother, who took the journey down with me, discovered Know Thyself. It’s the perfect organization to help you journey into the spirit world because of small groups and individual attention.

It’s located in Vale do Capão, in the Chapada Diamantina region of Bahia, where an abundance of butterflies spend their days.

Leo, the shaman, is well versed in the sacred medicine and starts off with chakra and iridology readings to see what the individual needs healed. He told me my heart had to be opened. I knew he was right, and I had to go all the way to a forest in Brazil to start tearing down the wall.

We started each morning with a yoga practice led by Paul Mallon, who runs Know Thyself. He’s a yogi and former London pharmaceutical salesman who quit the rat race to help humanity. After I was able to hold my first crow posture I was hooked.

The postures look cool and make you feel good but as any quality yoga instructor will tell you, yoga is about breathing and quieting the mind. Not about postures. The postures strengthen and detoxify the body but without meditation, it’s just acrobatics.

A true yogi also sits quietly, following the breath in meditation every day.

It was in Brazil that I started to shed my old self and start along the path to buddha nature. We all can get there. We all will get there, eventually.

Ayahuasca tastes disgusting, like Guinness run through a sewer pipe. After a double shot of the thick brown stuff we sat and waited for it to come on. Just as I was feeling cold sweats and was about descend into fear…the music came. Leo and his warrior wife Claudia called in the spirits with their music. Love filled the room. It’s the only thing that matters. And it was everywhere.

The forest opened its eyes and looked at me. I was she. She was me. We are all part of the golden spiral spinning out into eternity. We are all buddhas. But we’re so disconnected that we need to get ripped out of the old world to remember the world of love.

Ayahuasca will do that for you. I was grateful.

There were two other sessions during our 10 day journey, one of which showed me suffering in its purest form, suffering just for the sake of suffering. Perhaps I was just killing some demons who didn’t want to leave.

The ayahuasca lessons aren’t always clear. That’s because the best lessons are not understood intellectually. But by just taking that spiritual journey, the answers become part of your being.

That’s how ayahuasca works. When I got back home, I had no desire for booze, women or meat.

I joined a yoga studio. But still, I felt something was missing. I was grateful to the plant medicine for putting me on the path but now I wanted to find the heaven within on my own.

The good people at Know Thyself pointed me to vipassana meditation. The meditation technique, passed down from Gotama the Buddha, is a 10-day silent course taught by S.N. Goenka—who is a sage in his own right.

Vipassana brought me deep inside my mind, beyond dimensions of time and space. Old memories cropped up, old sins cropped up. I forgave and felt forgiven.

Like ayahuasca, vipassana meditation takes you to deep levels of torment. But from that is born supreme grace. The challenge is to keep that in your daily life—through practice.

The ayahuasca retreat introduced me to yoga and the meditation rounded it out.

Meditation gives me a new appreciation of yoga class, which is a wonderful counterpart to sitting in silent mediation. Yoga postures are not enough to purify the mind and body. Only silence can do that.

Silence is the sound of the seventh chakra. It is the language of God.

Without ayahuasca opening my eyes to that, it seems I would have still been a barfly wasting this precious gift of life. The purpose of which is to love. We’re born with that but, for most of us, it’s beaten out through misguided institutions and the misguided authority figures in our lives who propagate them.

But there is a way out. And it’s not one of texts or lectures. It’s one of experience—an experience that shows us who we really are.

The awakening doesn’t come easy. But when it does, it’s all that matters.

Vipassana Metta Chant


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