- By Sannyasi Paramjyoti Howe
May and June at Ishtadev Niwas, are the greenest months of the year. The rains and warmer temperatures bring a rare lushness to the forests and meadows of this otherwise arid grass land. Wild flowers of all sorts bloom and bring out a whole host of pollinators and other wildlife, especially birds which sing their songs of spring and the air is heavy with the scent of pollen, and flowers. Amongst this sensorial magic we at Niwas begin to grow our years bounty.
This spring has been about game changers in the garden. We have our tried and true crops like garlic, tomatoes, onions, and carrots, and some experiments, like the luffa gourd and urad dhal, but the real change is in the systems. Watering has always been an issue on out dry little hilltop. It is hard to keep the soil wet enough. Raised beds which work wonderfully elsewhere don’t hold the moisture and crops suffer. So this spring we invested in an irrigation system. It consists of both drip style and small emitters that water with precision and efficiency. What use to take hours of us going plant to plant with a hose, or using sprinklers that water a large area that includes walking rows and everything else, is now as simple as turning on the well pump and watching everything get watered all at once with less waste. So far the difference in the garden is dramatic. Another, more experimental, system is the sunbelt woven plastic that covers the bed with holes burned into it for the plant to grow in. The idea is that it keeps moisture and heat in the soil and deters the weeds, so far it works, but we will see how the plants like it. The overall idea is efficiency which hopefully leads to increased productivity.
There also has been a theme of never give up. After a long hard winter and a late may frost the garden and grounds suffered a few casualties. Some trees looked to have not survived, and we all but lost the ground cherries. How ever in the last week it seems things are more resilient than we expected. Most of the ground cherry plants that were lost in the frost have re-sprouted and the trees we thought we lost have some green leaves, though at the base of the trunks. In the end it is never a dull moment on the grounds and in the garden at Ishtadev Niwas.
- By Caitlyn Borowsky, Student & Karma Yogi
What have we been up to so far this Spring at Niwas?
Planting, dreaming and preparing Annapourna Garden.
We began this season with planting onion seeds in mid-February followed a few weeks later with a variety of flowers. So far, we are grateful to be nurturing four types of onions, three varieties of lavender, viola, lupins, ornamental oregano, two varieties of snap dragons, portulaca, asters, chilli peppers, and petunias. On the Piscean New Moon we sowed the seeds of basil and tomatoes, which will become delicious Niwas tomato sauce in the last weeks of Summer.
In addition to planting and tending to the seedlings, we are thoughtfully setting the garden and ourselves up for success for the growing season. We are not only tending to the Land in anticipation, we are also tidying up our own actions and energies to make space for the manifestation of abundance and beauty, so we may spend this next cycle offering from a place of simplicity and full-hearted love.
We are preparing the garden beds to hold and nurture new life by clearing the remnants of last year’s crops and using those remnants to feed the compost which will cycle back to the Earth. Currently, 'Niwas feels much like a space of transformation, regeneration and preparation. Personally, I am am feeling Spring’s frequency of optimism and opportunity, especially as I walk through Annapourna Garden, hearing and dreaming of the possibilities that are on the horizon.
The Awakening of Possibility and Opportunity
Although nothing truly dies in Nature, Spring does bring about a tangible experience of vitality and life compared to the quietude of Winter, where activity is slower and beneath the surface. We see new life emerging everywhere, from the fresh tips on the fir trees, geese making their way back home, and all of the onion and lavender seedlings thriving towards the Sun. We hear the various melodies of birdsong among the treetops where silence once hung, and we smell the aroma of pine sap beginning to ooze to the surface of their bark. The potentiality of this new growth would not be possible without the offering of what has come before.
At 'Niwas this regeneration is witnessed most tangibly via…compost! Last years' pea shoots, buckwheat stems and oat straw have been broken down and mixed with a generous amount of cow dung all winter to become a vibrant heap of nutrients for this years crops. This regenerative re-cycling shows us the opportunity of letting go of what has served its purpose and to utilize the breakdown of this ‘death’ to fuel what is to come, what is to be birthed and brought to life.
Today, in Annapourna Garden there is a sacred sense of vacancy and as I walk along the dormant strawberries and hibernating garlic, the crunch of fallen pinecones and the last remnants of snow beneath dirt covered boots treading where bare feet will soon dance again awakens a sense of joy and optimism within me. At first glance, the garden plots may appear bare and empty but if we take a moment to truly listen, we can sense the vast possibilities that await. Those rows of bare dirt and rotten leaves will soon be transformed into an environment bustling and blooming with calendula, cabbage, tomatoes, honeybees, pumpkin, foxgloves, lupins, chili peppers, and bushes heavy with raspberries and groundcherries. This is what I think of when I imagine explaining what 'Niwas feels like. A home for opportunity and growth and abundance for all living beings, not only reserved for Yogis but also for the insects, the dark eyed juncos and crows, chipmunks, goats and the plants themselves.
Pre-arrival shift and Ashram arrival
I began to feel a shift inside of me occurring days before my feet met with the soil of the Land that holds Ishtadev Niwas. There was a type of gravitational pull from deep inside my belly of all the sticky, story-filled, stale energy that I had been carrying around for what felt like multiple lifetimes. All of the insecurity and unworthiness now oozing to the surface of my skin, no longer able to hide in the dark corners where I had so strategically placed it. This is one representation of the potency of the energy that graces and envelops Niwas. An energy that creates the opportunity for deep purification and this is what I was being offered before I had even arrived — an opportunity to surrender the grief that coated the walls of my heart and to let go of all that I thought I was in order to create the space for the unfolding of my fullest potential.
I did not arrive for the residency with any prior experience or knowledge of Karma Yoga and Ashram life and it was definitely an adjustment on a systemic and spiritual level. I simply arrived curious with a feeling that this is where I am meant to be and I am safe here. There is a teaching that rippled throughout my residency — in order to receive we must OFFER FIRST. What I had to offer was sincerity, sweat (and tears!), and enthusiasm and from that offering I was absolutely, unexpectedly blessed in receiving an abundance of experiences, lessons, skills, and opportunities that my soul had been yearning for.
Ashram Life = Coming Home
My residency experience at 'Niwas felt like a coming home to a sacred space that I think most of us dream of living in — a space that expresses, practices and honours non-judgment, joy, beauty and love. Compared to the typical busy-ness and chaos of modern culture, the simplicity of living and studying at 'Niwas creates a yearned-for and very rare opportunity for reorientation. Reorientation from a state of purely self-infatuated thought forms and actions into a new state of consciousness focusing on, and embodying community, connection, service, reciprocity and humility. Living within the intimate embrace of Nature at the Ashram with the support of routine, accountability, Mantra, wholesome food and laughter creates the vibration for beautiful things to manifest. And I was blessed to experience this beauty during the time that I lived there.
Structure + Duties
Each day is held in the safety and supportive structure of routine: wake-up, Puja, Asana practice, breakfast, Karma Yoga, lunch, more Karma Yoga, chanting, dinner, sometimes more Karma Yoga, and then tea and sleep. From this sense of consistency a simplifying effect occurs. Since each day was relatively dependable, whatever arose was quite simply, entirely me. Any anger, sadness, joy, anxiety, grief, or bliss that was experienced was all arising from inside, whether consciously or not. This makes it effectively challenging to project blame onto anything or anyone external for what is being experienced…frankly that would be a misuse of valuable time and vital energy that would be much more productive in shaping bread or building a new hay shed… This simplification and clarity of the external environment created a spaciousness to witness oneself acutely without the obscurities and distractions that coat our perception in the ‘outside world’ that can make it challenging to understand the truth of the experience. At the Ashram, there is limited space or time for the enactment of our stories, allowing us the opportunity for simple awareness and purification, which can feel intimidating, intriguing and refreshing in one breath.
The Ashram is like an outspoken and compassionate friend that is your least and most favourite all at once. You may spend moments walking to your next duty cursing under your breath, but moments after you’re done throwing a fit to the trees (I am speaking from experience!), you come into a state of remembrance that although it feels like a face slap, it is done by a hand that unconditionally loves you and will never waiver in supporting you in helping you to clean your heart. As painful and uncomfortable as it might be, this is so you may blossom into your purest, most beautiful self. The veils are thin within Ashram and it’s not only the sticky, unsavoury stuff that becomes seen and wiped clean but all of the beauty, uniqueness, love, kindness and courage that we carry and embody is expanded, exposed and made easily accessible for us to experience and share with others.
During my time at 'Niwas, the focus of Karma Yoga duties revolved around tending to Annapoorna Garden and supporting Her growth (creating the possibility for her to support our growth in return!). Watering, weeding, listening, harvesting, witnessing and wildcrafting...these duties allowed me to observe, in awe, the beauty and balance that organically and cyclically culminates in the natural world. Also, to revere and revel in the bounty of the sacred that grows at our fingertips and beneath our feet — from seed to sprout, to fruit to food and to seed once again. As a keen gardener and an aspiring student of the plant world, I was certain I was in heaven.
The modern world, with everything so instantly accessible, tends to be so loud and dizzy and even green spaces are manicured and molded to convenience us. But Nature’s truth is raw, wild and pristine. She invites us to slow down, let go and to experience true freedom and to arrive into the abundance that surrounds us, that She provides us. She invites us to open our hearts by simply placing our hands in the soil. 'Niwas feels like a whole different world in this sense. I spent my days soaked in sunshine surrounded by wildflowers, honeybees and juniper bushes, walking through the garden barefoot hearing a soundtrack of chipmunks shrilling and chickadees singing each other their sweet songs. You might think, how could you possibly get hooked into the mind’s flat and redundant narratives when you’re surrounded by such magic? Well, because the mind has power, and we’re human with all sorts of messiness coming to the surface during Karma Yoga, but thankfully amongst the open, organic landscape of 'Niwas it is likely that you will be brought back into the present moment by the grace of a butterfly landing on a red clover next to where you’re weeding or by a thirsty sunflower in the midst of 35º August heat helping you to realize just how blessed you are to have the opportunity to recharge in the shade for a moment or to have a sun hat on your head…
One of the most potent lessons for me was from the Yoga Ecology teachings I was offered during residency — to learn how to truly listen. To soften into a state of absorption in order to be in right relationship with the natural world. A relationship of reciprocal nourishment, communication and gratitude in order to fully receive and integrate the loving messages that Nature offers us. Such as, the grasshopper encouraging you in your giant leaps forward and the honeybee’s reminder that in order to collect the sweet nectar, first we must be willing to do the work, that we cannot heal something we refuse to feel.
At 'Niwas, each system you interact with is arranged deliberately to require complete presence. No light switch or water tap is turned on without the awareness of where that source is coming from and what needs to be done or put in place for optimal operation and flow. This is another example of the opportunity granted to reorient outside of yourself, to practice full awareness of cause and effect and the interconnectedness between everything. Whether regarding generator fuel needed to run water to the gardens or caring for the goats and sheep so they can produce luscious fiber to make into wool for weaving items to keep the humans warm in the winter or minding the needs of the mounds of sweet corn so they may grow healthy and tall enough to support the bean stalks in their summer climb towards the Sun. Niwas provides ample opportunity for reorientation towards love. For us to restructure our intention towards serving the greatest good, creating a beautiful, sustainable, rhythmic spiral of care and nurturance for all beings and creatures.
I did not leave residency the same person I arrived as, not in the slightest. I have been revived with a new sense of hope and faith of how beautifully my life will unfold and I found a home that I am always welcome to come back to. Not only did I leave with far less hair on my head… but now my nervous system feels more stable (I experience a fraction of the anxiety I did prior), my heart feels open and ripe, my body is much stronger (mixing and kneading giant buckets of bread dough daily will do that for you) and I now know how to confidently a drill and know which screws are used for constructing a tin roof and the amount of water tomatoes and kakai pumpkins need in order to thrive.
I learned to enjoy the subtleties that surround me, like enjoying a cup of warm tea after an honest days work and how the Moon’s glow hugs the tips of the ponderosa pines. I now tread more lightly on the Earth where I walk, I say thank you to all I experience, and I offer before I receive. I learned how to love. And above all, this experience supported me to finally feel worthy of grace. Despite the bounty of knowledge and skills that I learned, I have barely scratched the surface of this journey and my training — So, lets keep chanting!
I humbly offer immense gratitude to Sri Swami Satyananda, Swami Satyasangananda, Swami Niranjananda and the wisdom keepers and light bearers of the Saraswati lineage of whom this wisdom and grace emanates and to the Land that holds 'Niwas gently on her belly, thank you. From the depths of my heart, I offer gratitude to Sn. Shivani, Sn. Paramjyoti, Narayana Madhu, Om Shanti, Avi, Bubbles and the entire 'Niwas eclectic feathered and hoofed family for teaching me, inspiring me, motivating me, holding space for me and for literally holding me together so I may begin the journey of growing towards my highest potential with a foundation of trust, integrity, strength and love. And to all of the beautiful beings that I had the absolute pleasure of connecting with during my Karma Yoga Residency at Ishtadev Niwas, much love and I’ll see you next year!
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