Slowing Down….. Answers will come :)

Getting back to life in the states. I didn’t want to leave my house. My boyfriend and I just bought a house and it was being worked on for months. It was almost finished before I left for Africa. Getting back home was incredible. For the first time in a while, I could truly see all the beauty in my life and the world around me. Africa with its red rich earth is the land of magic and transformation. I can just say that I have felt like a caterpillar in so many area’s of my life and this trip helped me pock my wings out of the cocoon and start to soar and shine my true light. I feel an enormous appreciation for clear skies, water, food, friends, family and work. I realize how often I have aloud myself to look at the glass half full. I think as a society we are constantly pointing out what isn’t right, instead of everything that is right in our lives. WOW! Everything is right and as it should be…. Trusting in the universe and the process even when it’s difficult.
That’s the hard part….. I think we have to work at it every day for the rest of our lives, if we are lucky enough.

Patanjail talks about non- violence, truthfulness, integrity and non- attachment. The laws of the universe. Unaffected by time, place, birth or circumstance…. it can and is at times so challenging. How about non – violent with words and actions in our daily lives. I have been reminded while in Africa to be open, loving, non- judgement and kind to all, even when I get pissed off. Which can be often, when I’m in my shit.

I notice how protecting are hearts can be so easy to fall into. Not taking chances, not loving and trusting in are selves and one another. I remember Seane telling me once that we can’t feel pity. We must see the heart, the soul. Not to get caught up in the story. To just be and have compassion and be willing to love under any circumstance. Thank you for those words and thank you Africa for challenging me on so many levels.

This journey has brought me to my knees in many ways. Witnessing my first birth, and it taking place in Uganda, the miracle of life. I still can’t believe I had the honor and privilege to be part of such an intimate experience. It happened so fast, like Davian said “There was no baby and then there was a baby” I still haven’t absorbed it all…. Words, sometimes it’s OK to not know. I am still letting it all settle. I will say this;

Life is an opportunity, benefit from it.
Life is beauty, admire it.
Life is bliss, taste it.
Life is a dream, realize it.
Life is a challenge, meet it.
Life is a duty, complete it.
Life is a game, play it.
Life is a promise, fulfill it.
Life is sorrow, overcome it.
Life is a song, sing it.
Life is a struggle, accept it.
Life is a tragedy, confront it.
Life is an adventure, dare it.
Life is luck, make it.
Life is too precious, do not destroy it.
Life is life, fight for it.

Mother Teresa

Thank you, SEVA Challenge, Africa and all the wonderful woman I had the honor to share this journey with.

Love, Light & Peace,



Freedom Song by Suzanne Sterling

If you can walk you can dance, if you can talk you can sing – Zimbabwean Proverb

We have been here in Uganda for close to two weeks now and I am in utter bliss!  Throughout this entire trip, each time we make our way to our destination, we are greeted by profoundly joyful songs and dances.  The 20 women chosen to become staff at the Birthing Center created a welcome birthing tunnel of sorts and as each of us danced our way through the greeting lines we were sung to and strung with copious necklaces made of the paper beads that are such a strong part of the commerce and sustainability of this place.  Then as we gathered in the straw thatched round “community house” where community meetings are held and decisions made, we were treated to songs in Swahili and English with each woman introducing herself by singing her name and as the dancing began some of us were plucked out into the center to tie around our waist the fur covered bustle that is made to enhance our behind and shakes like a giant lions tail.  And we in turn sang back …a song we had sung together in yoga that morning…a reminder to be present to the gifts around us…”see through my eyes, sing through my voice, open my heart, to the beauty of the world.”  As we arrived in the Shanti Uganda village for a bonfire and feast under the stars, another procession by the women and children playing plastic water jugs for drums and smiling as they welcomed us into the dance.  Then I brought out my own drum, at first playing with the children as they gathered around and then finally gathering the whole village into a snakelike spiral dance that erupted into applause and celebration.  Later that evening, as I sat by the fire, I tried my own hand at the water container drum and sang with the 15 or so local children, improvising and exchanging nonverbal melody lines in the universal language of sound.  At the New Hope School, a more formal line of boys and girls comprised a chorus that sang a well rehearsed welcome song in English and that stuck in our heads for days “for our God is good and allowed you to come… we are happy to see you today!”  And finally at the Building Tomorrow site, the unforgettable sight of 150 children gathered to meet us and all taking turns at playing whatever rhythm I banged out on the drum right back to me – most with an amazing and natural sense of timing and rhythm.  That same number of kids following Seane and Nikki as they contorted their bodies into the funniest of yoga poses and remembered long sequences of dance moves as led by Victoria (who is now “reinspired” to bring dance to children).  Every day in so many ways, we were surrounded by this unselfconscious expression of the life force and joy of using our bodies and voices as instruments of beauty.  As a musician and teacher I have dedicated my life to helping others find their own voice and feel safe and empowered enough to give it form…and I come up against the fear, self consciousness and perfectionism that keeps all of that truth and beauty stifled and silent.  I have worked to release those critical voices inside of myself and to help others to truly appreciate the joy that comes from creating art in each moment.  I am not talking about the Art that we buy and sell and which must be packaged and sold to the over saturated ears of western culture but the sheer joy of allowing sound and movement to come through us.  The sheer sensuality and aliveness that lies at the heart of each of us…an innocent and childlike voice, a voice that can express the full range of our human experience without thought to how it sounds and with only a willingness toward how it feels.  This, in my opinion is our birthright and this is what brings us closer to our own divinity and this is how I wish to celebrate life in all its glorious complexity and this is what I love.  I will never forget sitting on the red earth of Africa, surrounded with laughing children as we sang song after song into the starry skies together.  More real, more alive and more truly grounded than ever before.  My hope is that every child (and every child inside every adult) can find their own song and know the freedom that can come from allowing that song to be sung – into the beauty of the world.


Complex, Confusing and Contradictory…

This is my experience in a nutshell: The Ugandan culture is complex, confusing and contradictory.  Parts of it are endearing, warm and wonderful; others I can’t even begin to wrap my head around.

On this trip, the OTM Uganda Seva Challenge group traveled pretty extensively through the cities and countryside villages, and what grabed me most is the resounding spirit of a resilient and strong Ugandan people.  I have witnessed extreme poverty, deadly pandemic disease, ungodly sanitation, as well as toxic air and water quality, yet wherever I went, I also noticed an underlying authentic joy, trust and a richness in community that I actually yearn for in my own community at home.

That said, there is a very strange dynamic; a juxtaposition of customs and morals.  Some of what I’ve heard and observed that exemplifies this is below.

A local land owner and village community chairman (kind of like a Mayor) called Sam,  told our group about the incredible Central Ugandan customs and rituals to honor the dead.   Ugandans will often exhaust everything they have for funerals, even going without eating,  to honor their dead. There are days and days of sacred pomp and ceremony. As Sam explains the rituals, I am filled with a sense of awe.  I think: ‘Wow, in States its typically a 2 hour viewing, then a couple of songs, a prayer or two, a few kind words and done.”

In contrast, I’m told that in Uganda there is stigma and dishonor in being widowed.  A widow is often chased off the land she rightfully inherits, and is forced to surrender everything after her husband dies.

Another example. One of our amazing guides and guardians for this trip was an Ugandan man named Joseph.  He is the Country Director for Building Tomorrow, the international NGO  which builds schools for vulnerable children all over sub-Saharan Africa.   As our group was returning from an excursion one night, we noticed that for the most part local shopkeepers leave their goods outside rather than locking them up indoors.  Joseph explains that the goods left out won’t be stolen because there is a community agreement about stealing.  If the thief is caught, community members, not police, go after the perpetrators.  Men caught stealing are beaten, while a female thief is forced to walk down the street naked after community members rip the clothes off her back.  As he told me about the community agreement my first thought was:  “There is no way that anything left unguarded outside a store in LA or New York would be there the next morning, no way!”

However, this is the same Uganda where it is common and customary for a woman to be a chased by a man and if she can outrun or outfight him, she wins her freedom, but, if he physically overcomes her, she is raped and forced to become his wife.

One more.   The able-bodied men, woman and children of Gayaza Village sing and pray as they haul wheelbarrows, carry bricks on their heads, and build walls for their Building Tomorrow/OTM community school.  Again, I think: “In my town, this is done by a company that has little connection to the actual community. How incredibly cool would it be to have community members working on our local schools.”

Yet, although up to 65% of people in communities like Gayaza Village have HIV – men, women and children known to have the disease are often humiliated, shunned and disgraced. Further still, this is the country that has introduced a law so punitive towards homosexuality that some human rights groups say that it would allow authorities to imprison and even kill homosexuals.

Yes, this culture is complex, confusing and contradictory.  However, the more that I think about it, I recognize that there is a good probability that statement is true for all cultures.

And then I re-member my yoga.  Yoga classes around the world often begin and end with the greeting Namaste’.  For me, namaste has become so much more than a nice word or greeting.  It is a way of being, a foundational way of life that invites me to find God in every moment, person, event or circumstance – even the complex, confusing and contradictory ones.    That’s what the mystics of old did and those of today do.   So that’s what I practice –  right here, right now – even though, I often can’t explain, don’t understand and many times don’t succeed.    However, in every cell of my being I know that in the words of one of my favorite teachers “everything happens exactly the way it is suppose to happen in order for our souls to transform.”  So I just keep doing what I know to do – practice.


“Looking Back” – My Final Blog

Twenty hours ago I departed from the Entebbe Airport in Uganda and I’m still one flight away from home. As I sit here in the Newark airport Starbucks I’m filled with a flood of emotions and memories: the joy of being only hours away from seeing my family, the sadness of leaving so many behind, the smiles of the Shanti Uganda women in Kasana who danced and sang for us, the looks in the eyes of the HIV/Aids positive children at the New Hope orphanage when we said good bye to them, watching my fellow seva challengers work so hard in the mud and rain side by side with the men, women and children of the surrounding villages to help build a school through Building Tomorrow.

Going to Uganda through The Off The Mat Into The World 2010 Seva Challenge was a little like doing a strong shot of Tequila. It was fast and furious, incredibly powerful and once it began there was no turning back. And like downing a strong shot, while I felt the initial jolt of the experience immediately, I have a feeling that my strongest responses are still to come. Not only am I certain that we made a difference in the lives of so many, but that I gained invaluable insight into myself: both where I shine and where I need to continue to work to break down the walls that keep me from truly stepping into my own power, my own truth.

I look forward to the days, weeks, months, and perhaps even years that I will spend digesting these past 2 weeks. I know that the ripples of this experience will carry me to new and beautiful places filled with the deep waves of joy and inner peace that can only be felt through our continuous efforts to serve others and to serve the God that dwells within each one of us.

If anyone out there reading this blog is trying to decided wether or not to participate in next years 2011 Seva Challenge, I would like to put in a strong vote for, “Do It!”. The process of fund raising can be difficult at times but as Krishna teaches us in chapter 2 of the the Bhagavad Gita:

“On this path of Yoga, no effort is wasted and there is no failure. Even a little effort towards spiritual awareness will protect you from the greatest fears”

In other words, any amount money and awareness you raise will carry with it them karmic seeds of positive change both for the recipient of your efforts and for you. Take that first step. Make the commitment to try and see where the universe leads you.

May Peace Prevail,



Is there really any hope at New Hope School?

New Hope School is an orpanage for HIV+ children, and it is located in Entebbe, about an hour outside the capital of Kampala. The school itself has nearly zero resources. Right now they only have 1 teacher and few administrators to serve the needs of the 80 children ranging from toddlers to teens. There is one big classroom, that has long group desks, and 1 blackboard that is in very bad condition. I cant imagine that it is easy to write on and to be able to use for lessons, but Im not sure how much that matters as I didn’t see any chalk around anyway. They also have a few small rooms as well, all with dirty cement floors and walls, the biggest is the dormitory that house bunkbeds that are 3 high. I realized quickly that there were not enough beds for each child to have their own, and that many are sleeping 3-4 in one bed. The stench from the dorm was pretty bad, and the reality is that the younger ones wet the bed, and there is no one and no way to clean or sanitize the mattresses. Not to mention none of these kids get regular baths, and when they do rinse, the water is not clean. The bacteria and germs that fester in there no doubt lead to serious illness. Like most HIV+ people whose immune systems can not protect them, it is the secondary diseases that are deadly. Of course nutrition and clean water for drinking are also a huge problem here, but what makes this place so different from the other places we’ve been working is the debilitating lack of love, appropriate touch & affection these children are deprived of.

 With a portion of the funds that we raised (clearly OTM knows how to stretch a dollar…right?) we purchased new mattresses for the dorm, we bought a variety of seeds and helped them with the garden so that they will have better nutrition and more sustainability, two water filtration systems so that they can have clean water for drinking & bathing, and school books because education is the only chance these kids have of surviving.

 Our mission for the day was to present them with these gifts but more so to play with them, to shower them with the love and affection they so desperately want and need, but never do they get. We brought so many fun activities including jump ropes, 20 some soccer balls, a huge parachute, we did yoga, and danced and read books. We split the kids into small groups and rotated them through so that they each had a chance to play with all of us and to experience all of the activities. While all of that was going on we also painted a beautiful mural on the wall of their “library” (I use that word generously as they dont have many books), applied a fluoride treatment to their teeth, that have never seen a dentist (we also left toothbrushes & toothpaste) and we took a picture of each child. This was really cool, as these kids dont have mirrors let along pictures and many have NEVER seen themselves. So we printed out a headshot of each beautiful child and put it in a plastic frame for them. It was a delicious experience. Each little face wore a unique expression. Some were ecstatic, others more reserved yet some of them wore bright smiles for the moment but you could see the loneliness in their eyes.

 I bounced around and did all the activities, then settled in the picture room to read with the kids while they were awaiting their turn for the photo. At first I was just reading to them, but soon I realized they wanted to read to me. They were very excited to practice their reading  and to prove to me that they were “good” and I soon had a group gathered around. They were sitting on my lap, squishing in on both sides hovering over my shoulders and even sitting in front and reading upside down. In a chorus we read aloud, and I walked them slowly through any words they didnt know. I made a point to touch them all, to rub their backs, to look them deep into the eyes, and to tell them how smart and wonderful they are. Typically this is what ones parents do, but unfortunately for these kids they dont have parents. The day was a great success, and the children had a fabulous experience, laughing, playing and having the time of their lives.

 Before long, it was time for us to leave. We still have a few more places to work while were here, so just this one day was all they got. We gathered the whole crew together, our group and all of the children to take group photos and to say goodbye. By this time I had two young ladies who has attached themselves to me, one holding each hand and not letting go. They had been with me all day long and I knew that my attention was meaningful to them. I walked them over to a small bench under a tree (one of the only small places in the entire yard that actually had some shade) and I told them that they can make something of their lives. I told them that they were smart and beautiful and that if they study hard, and focus on their education that they can create a good life. I hugged each of them really really hard. I told them to hold me tighter and we took a few very deep breaths together as we embraced as though that would allow my love to penetrate deeper into their souls. When I released the hold one of my ladies looked directly through me, tears beginning to stream down her face, and she told me that she needed a _______. ( something I didn’t understand). I asked her if that meant a teacher and she shrugged and said “not really but yes, we need someone to show us”. What she was asking me for was for someone to love & take care of her. And to that, I had no answer. My bus was waiting, and I had to leave. As we pulled away, they all stood outside watching us drive away. They didn’t chase the bus laughing and waving like the other places we had served on this journey. Instead they looked very sad. They know, as well as I do, that they will never be adopted. They will not get to university. In fact once they reach a certain age, they are to go back to their villages that have no jobs waiting, with their limited education and no resources. They will marry and have babies. They will struggle and will continue the cycle of poverty & disease. The women, many will be raped, others will work tirelessly until they eventually die of HIV or during childbirth. The men, they will be so dis-empowered by their inability to provide for their families that many will turn to violence or addiction. It will be a miracle if even 5% of the innocent faces that we saw today actually get out of this situation. These kids dont get the ARVs (HIV medication), no one is going to pay for that. This was just too much for me to handle and once we pulled away I lost it. The emotion came up so strong and so fast that my entire body began to writhe with pain. Chest convulsions, runny nose, inability to take a breath. I couldn’t pull it together. WTF????? This is not fair. These innocent children do not deserve this. I am a spiritual woman, and I can usually see the upside, the beauty, and the grace. But right now I just cant. We just frickin drove away and left them all there to suffer unloved. I know that we helped to make their life experience a little better. I know that the garden and water are invaluable, that the mattresses will greatly improve their conditions for a while and that the books will offer the only chance they have. But what doesn’t sit right in my heart is that we came in for 1 day and showed them what it feels like to be seen, loved and cared for. Then we just left. I honestly dont know if it was kind or just plain cruel to do what we did. I know that our intentions were in the right place, but I just dont feel good about it. I bet that those kids are going to cram into their new beds tonight, and lay there thinking about us, wondering if we’ll ever come back. But we wont. I keep thinking about the guest registry book that we signed and the column that asked for reason of visit. All of the entries on the 2 pages before me said they were there to “drop off their children”. There wasn’t a single visitor. Not one! The reality is that these kids know abandonment more than any other feeling. And we just came in and did the same damn thing. I know most people think it’s better to have loved and lost. But after today I’m not so sure. I guess if you really look at the big picture, I’m a 35 year old woman who has never been married and has no kids. Perhaps I’ve always disagreed with that cliche’.


Happy Valentine’s Day!

Today was a “rest day” for us to personally reflect on the happenings of the trip thus far and to prepare ourselves for our final three days of intense work.  We had a 2-hour long yoga practice in the morning, and Seane gave us a lot to think about.  In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, she brought into question how we’ve been showing up and expressing love in our own lives, before and during our experiences in Uganda.  How will we carry our new ideas of authentic love back to our everyday lives?  What do we need to accept about our past in order to truly let go and love bigger?  A lot of people had an emotional release.  It took me a while to get there, but eventually, with the help of the Beatles playing in the background, I did.  I realized that I’m still holding onto a lot of the sadness of 2009—the death of several loved ones.  The fear of death itself.  I’m always making acute adjustments in my perspective so that I can better handle this fear, but it keeps showing up again and again in the faces of the women and children I meet here in Uganda.  Despite their contagious joy, my sadness lingers.
The women and children here do not latch onto their traumas and circumstances.  They are constantly releasing emotions through passionate song and dance.  Perhaps the men are so aggressive because they do not engage in these traditions.  Most Ugandan men are addicted to alcohol, drugs, sexual abuse or power.  They are acting out because, like most Americans, they are not moving the negative energy out of their bodies naturally.  I can certainly relate to their struggles, and am so grateful for the support systems in my life that encourage the release of tension in my heart and in my hips every day. 🙂
I found out last night that I am the youngest woman on this trip.  I am the baby.  There are several life lessons that I have yet to experience, and I must remain patient with myself.  I cannot be so critical and hard on myself.  I must love myself and trust in my deepest truths to continue to love and serve others effectively.  I think this will be my mantra for the decade.
Today, I sat and took the time to remember all of the great loves of my life.  My very first valentines—Mom, Dad, and Grammy.  The crushes, the necessary heartbreaks.  My beautiful companion, Christopher.  And especially, today, all of the 23 women here with me in Uganda, sharing an experience that will bind us together in love forever.  You are all my valentines and I thank Spirit for this incredible opportunity to serve.
Thanks for reading,

There was no baby and then there was a baby

From Feb 11

I can barely feel my hands. Today I helped birth a baby girl. I feel a very deep vibration.

 The image of 5 women holding one as she was going through the process of bringing a life into the world is one that is going to stay with me forever.

The following is an excerpt of an email I wrote to my mom…I hope she doesn’t mind but its probably the most real reaction I am going to get down…

I helped birth a baby today. It made me want to talk to you. and when I say I helped birth a baby I mean I saw everything and was holding her leg when the baby came out. It was the most intense thing ever. I cried.

It was so weird – there was no baby and then there she was all slimy and gross and crying and being manhandled and held upside down by her feet. The mom who was 17 years old and named Myriam was 8 centimeters when we arrived at the birthing center (um, I thought we were just going to be getting a tour) and she was in labour and we helped. Sarah who is on the trip with us is an actual doula and there was a lady getting a c-section so she went in to help in that room and we (me heather and amanda) worked with our mom. We held her hands and helped her walk around outside, tried to get her to stretch and squat, drink water. She was scared. Sarah had a wicked bag full of tricks…lotion and oils and stuff that really seemed to help but when it was time, well, right before the time time, she was on the floor and I had her head in my lap and my hands under her shoulders and there were 2 more women on either side of her and we were all basically holding her. She didn’t know us and we didn’t know her but I felt so connected to everyone…and everything. It wasn’t pretty or easy but then there was a baby…I feel like my soul is vibrating a little.

When we left mama was doing okay – she asked for a coke 🙂

The whole thing made me think of you and I hope that you felt supported and safe when you were going through and that someone was holding your hand. And that someone gave you a coke afterwards.

So, I can’t seem to stop crying. The reality of giving birth in Africa has many shocking things but I am going to leave this one here…

peace and love (esp. to all moms everywhere)

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