June 19 – 26, 2014, Mirka returns to Assisi with a group of 25 for the pilgrimage back to the city of Peace and the home of St. Francis and St. Clare.
It has been over 20 years since the awakening of her and Gary Kraftsow‘s connection to this beautiful town. Mirka has been returning regularly since then, every year or two, with students to reconnect and ‘share the good news’ about the life of two great Yogis who lived a life in the embodiment of their teacher. Each return lights the fire in more hearts to find the to follow their individual spiritual path with as much love and courage as St. Francis held for his way.
This year, we have friends coming from across the United States, Germany, Turkey, and Croatia. Join us on this blog for the story of the week, as it unfolds.
You can read about each day of the Journey by clicking on the links below or read the blog in chronological order using the links at the top and bottom of the posts:
This little online journal will, hopefully, be a collection of experiences and reflections from participants in the week in Assisi June 19 – 26. Here are just a few thoughts bubbling up from me as I slowly put together my pile of stuff to carry over to Assisi.
Returning to Assisi is like a pilgrimage. I am still digesting the connections I made within myself and with the spiritual community (or Sangha) from the last two trips I made in 2010 and 2012. And, when I think of what will come during the next visit, my mind stays empty, open to whatever life brings.
The returning is very much in the spirit of the teachings of St. Francis. He and his brethren would leave Assisi and wander, sharing the ‘good news’ about their faith. This was medieval Italy, so they didn’t just road trip or hop on a train. Clothed in only a tunic in winter, they walked, data after day, seeking shelter as it came.
As Padre Gianmarie Poloidoro explains in his book Francis of Assisi, “Winter wasn’t the best time to leave on a preaching excursion; none the less, in winter, people were more free and better disposed to listen, especially those in the villages and castles where farming and simple handcrafts – now restricted by the bad weather and lack of light – constituted the major part of the people’s work. Going forth two by two, as the Lord commanded in the Gospel, the eight divided their world into four parts, in the sign of the cross: Two went north. Two went south. Two went east. Two went west……’
They were often abused and suffered great humiliation at their odd choice of living in poverty, but they went out into the world, none the less. And with a positive spirit and sense of celebration, they went to speak of their spiritual path through devotion to teachings of the Gospel. One can imagine the reception they received when two unknown beggars, dressed in rags without any possessions, arrived in town trying to change the religious beliefs of everyone (what would have happened to them in this day and age?). Eventually, they would all gather again in Assisi to share their experiences.
Padre Gianmarie explains: “The return, as always, was a coming back to a grand celebration. At last they gathered back together to recount things with the Lord had done through them in the villages far away. The friars met and talked about the plan of God which was unfolding day after day; they prayed together, and they constituted their own mode of living together and of coping with suffering and of interpreting the reality around them, thus creating a ‘chapter.’ This ‘chapter,’ made up of real events and happening in real time, actually embodies the heart of their lived experience.”
“Embodying the heart of our lived experience” is a fantastic way to describe gathering in Assisi with a wonderful group of people to dive into traditional teachings about the heart and mind!!
I don’t know if there is something in ‘the air’ there or the heart just opens knowing that there is a returning to a spiritual meeting, but there is a lightness in my heart when I am there. This year, that lightness is already beginning before I arrive. I think it is because I am connecting with the Sangha (thanks to modern technology) on a daily basis.
And like the Franciscans, they join us from four paths:
From the North– There are friends from Assisi who were there on the first retreat 20 years ago, and this is their first time returning.
From the South – There are friend who have been to Assisi years ago but will not be with us this year.
From the East – There are friends who have never been to Assisi who will be there this year (some who have never done Yoga before).
From the West– There are even friends who are just dreaming of going some day.
They are all part of the Sangha, in my mind, all part of the story of deep self-reflection and connection to the story of the lives of St. Francis and St. Clare (I will share more of her story later; her’s is not a story of wandering but of deep, unmoving dedication).
I tend to be a person who likes to have a feeling of order and planning, but in Assisi, I am open to the rhythms of the Universe in a way that I can’t seem to find often in daily life. It is as if I notice the subtle messages in the mundane when my heart opens like that. I even have ‘visions’ in Assisi; I mean, seriously, WHO has ‘visions’ in real life? Mirka is the inspiration and guide in moving with life in this way….. I think need more Mirka in my everyday life!
In a few days, two other guests from the retreat, Jentry & Lynne, will be stuck in a car with me for about 12 hours as we drive down from southern Germany (where two of us live), and the other 20 people on the retreat will be either crossing the ocean or enjoying Rome with some tremendous jet lag. Everyone who is attending this year has made a tremendous commitment to be there, and that, in itself, is a powerful energy coming to the gathering. There are others sending love and looking forward to reading and hearing about the next ‘chapter’ in their beloved Assisi.
As we settle into the space of preparing for this amazing Yoga exploration, Assisi reveals the lessons of the week as we move. You cannot plan an event in Assisi – you prepare, and the event unfolds! As we wandered the streets this morning, preparing for our friends arriving tomorrow, we stumbled upon Padre Gianmaria Polidoro, the founder of Assisi Pax International. Assisi is one of the few places can you accidentally run into a great peace maker. (we will be visiting him again later this week)
He reminded us, this morning, that the journey of peace begins within. Shanti, Pace, peace – all the same idea of Universal peace. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali teaches this same concept, so beautifully and unendingly shared by Padre Gianmaria. Since we are in Assisi, it should be remembered that all of the teachings of St. Francis can be translated into one word, PAX (peace).
Patanjali, a great sage in the transmission of the teachings of Yoga, offers guidance for cultivating inner peace with the Yamas and Niyamas (among other practices). These practices are guidelines for caring for ourselves and others, the foundation of peace.
Entire books could be written about the two lists below, but here is a simple summary of the Yamas and Niyamas.
The Yamas (practices towards the outside world) are:
Ahimsa – Absence of violence
Satya – Truth
Asteya – non-stealing
Brahmacarya – celibacy (more in reference to restraint or self control than the way the word is used today)
Aparigraha – non-grasping, or non-hoarding
These Yamas, taken together, constitute a vow, a degree of personal integrity and commitment to your own fundamental principles.
The Niyamas (practices towards the inner world, ourselves) are:
Sauca – cleanliness
Santosa – contentement (notice this is a practice, not a goal)
Tapas – discipline
Svadyaya – self reflection
Isavara pranidanani – letting go of the things you cannot control (easy, peasy)
The Niyamas are a means to keep purifying the vessel that carries us through this life and keeping the mind directed. The last three also constitute the three practices of Kriya Yoga (Yoga of action).
The Yamas and Niyamas are the first two branches of Ashtanga Yoga (of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, not necessarily the popular flowing practice shared by Sri Patabi Jois). If you can practice no other part of the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga, practice the first, yamas. This, alone, is a foundation for supporting a peaceful world.
The Temple is ready!! The Assisi 2014 Sangha is all together in Assisi after a full day (or more) of traveling.
In Assisi, I am more aware that life is unfolding, regardless of my intentions or efforts. My mind opens to the reality of this moment and all that is shares. it doesn’t mean that things are quiet and peaceful; they are just real and meaningful. That being said, this story of the week’s blog may reveal itself in a very nonlinear fashion – consider yourself initiated into the experience of Yoga in Assisi with Mirka.
Mirka and I were speaking this morning of an experience she had many years ago with a beloved teacher in Assisi named father a Anthony, a priest who referred to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali as the ‘golden chariot’ of spiritual teachings. How beautiful is that?
As she unfolded some of his amazing teachings, she told me about a special moment with this teacher. She said how powerful it was and added, “of course I was gushing blood from my nose” and went on to describe the rest story. The massive nose bleed was a meaningless aside in the greater story but striking as it shook up the image of the moment in my mind. I so often think of spiritual experiences as serene events (though life too often reminds me that this is not the case).
This story came as we were working towards the idea of Francis’ greeting of
“Pax et Bonum” (Peace and Wellness) that he and his followers shared. Mirka’s story (and visual shock of gushing blood) made me think of reading about St. Francis and St. Clare. Their bodies were ALWAYS struggling with some from of illness. However, all of their profounds experiences and transformations took place in the midst of disease and imperfection of body. Francis, who suffered from many painful conditions at times in his life still walked around greeting people with “Pax Bunum” – peace & wellness. These are not qualities of body but of mind. Coming from the western media which associates ‘wellness’ with affluence and health, this is a very different connotation for these words; much deeper and more profound meaning.
So, as out beloved friends arrived from around the world, we kept this message – peace & wellness. This is what Assisi helps to cultivate to those who pay attention. I have been here twice and have had profound realizations, but in my recollection of those moments of insight, I forget the physical struggles I faced in both journeys. At the time, those physical struggles seemed so big; upon reflection of my spiritual journey, there were just food for the fire and, in a way, not really suffering but nourishment.
The Sangha gathered in our chapel for the first time. Twenty five of us shared and connected. Mirka and Assisi have a way of helping people find openness. and within that openness, we found we that even the strangers among us fit perfectly with this group. Some felt very strongly called by the stories of Assisi, some just wanted a chance to dive into the experience of these yoga teachings far from the daily life, and others just came because they knew it would nourish their hearts. We welcomed each other, and the Sangha has begun! Pax & Bonum, Pace & Bene, Peace & Wellness!!!
In Honor of our days of travel and transition, I would like to share thoughts from Lynne on the day before departure. She had never met Mirka before she arrived and is new to the lineage of Viniyoga that Mirka shares here.
“Tomorrow we drive to Assisi … for the yoga retreat. Jentry, Tammy and I are heading off early, early, early for a rather long drive … on roads I’ve never traveled … through towns I’ve never seen. Tammy asked me to write down some of my thoughts and expectations … from a rookie’s perspective.
Expectations … first of all, I try to live without expectations. “Expectations are premeditated resentments” … and I’ve spent the last 15 years of my life letting go of resentments. I’m much happier when I’m able to take things as they come and leave it up to God to guide me. As a side note, God is, for me, the easiest way to say “Universal Spirit”, “Higher Power”, “Spider Grandmother” or whatever name people have assigned to that unwavering, perpetual, omnipotent essence of peace and love.
So, I’m headed into this with no expectations and am open to all the new experiences coming my way.
But a few hopes … it would be wonderful to make new friends and learn new ways to grow on my own spiritual path and maybe even combine the two.
And a few achievable goals … bread, cheese, wine. Maybe figs, if they are in season.
And a sprinkling of fear and envy … let’s face it, as the years go on, there are small indications that maybe, just maybe, I’m not 33 anymore. This is the year I’m twice as old as my daughter. I like naps. I love to walk but need to rest from time to time. My joints talk to me more than they used to. I just need to remember to be kind to myself and do things in my own time. All of my self-doubts are wrapped up in fear and envy. Back in Texas, I have a special place where I leave my fear and envy before going into my yoga class.
Now back to my daughter, Jentry. From the moment she was born until this very instant, she makes me smile and laugh and I am grateful to have her in my life. Well, except for a few moments from the teenage years … but, well, who wasn’t a bit rebellious? We have had lots for joy … and some sorrow … some exciting adventures and many mundane moments in life that are actually the important ones! To be able to share this time with her … no husbands, no kids, no housecleaning or cooking or watering the garden or dog walking … just us … well, that in itself is a gift.”
Here we go! We started out the week getting to know this beautiful city and some of the history that surrounds us.
Our hotels are in the very center of the old city – Hotel Dei Priori and Hotel Alexander – so we just need to walk out of the lobby to be surrounded by ancient beauty. An as an aside, these hotels have truly become our home here in Assisi. Year after year, they support this Assisi journey and do everything they can to take care of us. The staff is on call 24 hours for us and helping us feel comfortable and cared for. When I apologized to the manager, Simone, for a mistake I made the other day, said, “No, no. Don’t apologize. You are family. You should feel like you are at home here.” We feel at home!
So, from our Assisi home, we headed out with our guide Margherita Sensi. Her family has a tradition of being guides in Assisi, so she really knows some precious details. She took us out through the town center, Piazza Commune, which was an ancient Roman piazza and has been the town center for thousands of years.
After that, we headed over to the church of Santa Chiara (St. Clare), which is a later church, built after her death in the 1200s. I finally got to ask my question about the choices of St. Clare. As I mentioned before, St. Francis and his brothers would go into the world sharing a message of peace, but Clare and her order lived a cloistered life. Why was that? Was it a reflection of the culture or of ideas that St. Francis had about the way of women in his community?
A little story about this woman St. Clare – I promised I would share the history of St. Clare to whom this town is dedicated. According to our guide, Clare, herself dictated rules of her own order. When Clare saw the work of Francis and his brothers (she was the only woman to join them), she saw that something was missing. He and the men went out into the world to talk with people. Someone had to stay put and “talk with God” (in the words of our guide). Her choice of cloistered life, a a life of pure meditation, was hers. She was the first woman, recognized by a major religion, to start her own order, separate from a man’s. Today, there are about 40 women cloistered in the church of Santa Chiara – they do not see any other people aside from the other sisters (though there is a liaison of some sort, obviously) In fact, recently, one of the sisters was taken ill. As they took her to the hospital, the church was closed, and curtains were set up so no one could even see her going to the ambulance, and at the hospital, she had a room away from others. As a result of this rather extreme choice of a seriously dedicated spiritual path, the women who join this order as usually older than the typical nuns when they take their vows.
Santa Chiara, herself, lived in a different church than the one where her body rests today. It is a small church called San Damiano, and she and her women spent their lives there. Chiara wrote the rules for her own order and upon her death bed, demanded that the Pope himself come with his signature agreeing to her terms (she was a smart woman).
So, back to Assisi, We wandered the street with our guide learning about the places important to the story of this town and its two Saints. She didn’t even seem to mind the many questions about the details of the spiritual journey of the saints (as opposed to just the historical facts). It is a Yoga retreat after all, so it is nice to see how two powerful people made difficult choices to take the spiritual path that they felt called to follow. We ended with the Basilica of St. Francis and the amazing frescos by Giotto adorning the walls.
As one walks out of the Basilica, there is a big lawn with a hedge cut into the words “PAX” and a Tau symbol; this is the symbol Francis chose to represent peace in his order. Mirka reminded us of the idea of “Pace e Bene” shared as a greeting by Francis and his followers.
Jentry found a couple of amazing trees, just oozing love as we walked through the town……
So, after a lovely lunch back at Hotel Dei Priori and a bit of a rest, we joined all together in the practice space, St. George’s chapel. Finally, coming together on the mat!!! Connecting with the breath, coming together as a Sangha, finding the space to be open to this moment.
Mirka guided us into a deep practice moving towards a mantra – “Pace Bene” – with simple hand movements, awakening some energy for mudras that are coming in the week. This is a big group of people with such a huge range of experience with Yoga (some practicing for over 20 years and some have never been to a class), so Mirka did the magic that she does bringing everyone together with that beautiful adaptivity of the Viniyoga tradition. We have awoken the Yoga temple and are ready for the week of exploration there.
As we begin to connect with the history and stories of this ancient town, we are moving together towards opening and awaken internal energies. Mirka began our practice with gentle, supportive Asana (Yoga postures) that focused on core strengthening. Then we moved the attention more closely to the breath and began connecting with the first three chakras before sitting in the quiet space of peace that a wonderful Yoga practice supports.
Today is our first excursion to a specific destination (as opposed to a tour of general sites). We headed down the hill to San Daminio. Just to orient you in the story of history of this structure, I’ll mention its significance in the story of Franciscan tradition.
Historical and mythical background (short version) – Francis was a failed soldier, to make a long story short. While he wished to go off and fight in the crusades, it didn’t work out quite that way, and he returned to Assisi with his head hung low. At that time, San Damiano was a small church outside of the town walls, and it was in ruin. It was while praying here that Francis had some kind of awakening or vision. Some claim that he saw Jesus speak to him from the crucifix over the alter. In Padre Gianmaria’s writings, he cautions against this image because Francis never actually said that is what he saw. What is clear though, is that he understood that God asked him to rebuild ‘the church.’ Francis took this literally, ‘borrowed’ some of his father’s money and rebuilt this particular church. This was the beginning of the end of Francis’ layman’s life.
This church was also extremely significant in the life of St. Clare because once she joined the Franciscans, it was clear that living co-ed at that time would not work. So, Francis asked her to start an order of women, and their home was San Damiano. Clare spent most of her life there and died there. It was also here where she is said to have saved the town of Assisi from invading Saracen soldiers in 1240 by holding the Eucharist and praying. She became the official protector of Assisi, and the city vowed to be devoted to her (more about that on Sunday). What I find really interesting is that her body was so sick at the time of this event that she had to be carried out to perform this miracle, and yet still, this sick, broken woman sent back an army.
So, with this in mind, we head down the hill towards the space of the church in the middle of farm lands. Just above the church itself, there is a gathering point where Mirka initiated us into the practice of the chin mudra (the thumb touching the index finger with the other three fingers extended). We did some practice with the mudra and had some discussion on practice, peace, and forgiveness. One of my favorite quotes from that discussion was :
“Forgiveness can happen only when I give up all hope of a perfect past”
After visiting the site and seeing where Clare and her order lived, before you head out to the court yard, you can read the last words of St. Clare as she said goodbye to her own spirit:
“Go calmly in peace, for you will have a good escort, because He who created you has sent you the Holy Spirit and has always guarded you as a mother does her child who loves her. O Lord, may you who have created me, be blessed.”
Some of us gathered outside afterwards in a shady corner and Mirka introduced us to a peace chant. This turned out to be a very powerful experience for some of us. As we learned this chant, we had some important practice on cultivating and supporting inner peace even in the midst of confrontation. This chant had a particularly potent meaning for some of us on this day.
Here are the English translation of the words from the Santimantrah (Peace chant):
May there be peace in heaven, peace in the skies, and peace on Earth.
May all the waters know peace.
May all the herbs and plants know peace.
May all the great trees of the forest know peace.
May all the forces of the Universe know peace.
The immense, transcendent reality is peace.
May all know peace, peace, and only peace,
and May that peace come unto me.
Om peace, peace, peace.
After this, we returned to town, ate, rested and then returned to our beautiful St. Giorgio’s chapel for practice. Mirka brought us back to the work of the morning and supported it with Asana and breath work. She also began helping us connect with the first three chakras using imagery and sound associated with each chakra. Slowly, we are building a foundation to connect deeply with the energy system in the body. A beautiful way to end an active day.
Sunday, the day of rest! and Day 3 of the retreat. This is the Sunday after Corpus Christi, so there are many, many festivals happening in an around Assisi. For those of us here on the retreat, it is also a day of reflection and a chance to go off on our own a bit, being immersed in Assisi and the local culture.
Since that is all more of an internal and individual process, I will share more of the tourist side of the day for now (if some of the group wants to share their reflections, I will update and add more).
Some of us slept in and recovered some energy after a long trip followed by the first two busy days of the retreat. (Those of us who didn’t sleep in made sure to nap accordingly later in the day – or, at least, I did!)
A few of us actually got up earlier than normal and went over to a nearby town called Spello where there is a flower festival. Mirka suggested we go early because it is a big spectacle, but if you go early, you can miss the hoards of visitors. People have been working for weeks to prepare chopped up flowers and other plants to be laid on the ground in incredible pieces of temporary art work. People had been laying down the colors since the day before, and we arrived around 6:30 AM to see them putting on the finishing touches. After a mass in one of the churches, there would be a procession through the flower masterpieces, destroying them all. You can see the connection to a celebration of the temporary nature of the body. We all left before the actual procession because we could barely escape the town center because of the crowds. The art work was spectacular. There are no words. Just take a look at some of the beautiful images Jentry captured.
That was truly just a glimpse of the offerings at the festival. After a few minutes, when I realized the scope of the art, I stopped even trying to record it on a device and just walked in the beauty and the spirit of the hundreds and hundreds of people working to create it. The creative spirit filled the air, and I just blended in and moved with the people, chatting here and there as best I could in my really poor Italian (I met a few really nice people). I ran into Banu, my trusty roommate in Assisi, and we took a little cappuccino break watching the people move past.
After we returned to Assisi and had lunch, we learned about the planned festival for the afternoon there. Since it basically took place outside of our hotel, it was hard to miss it. (In fact, the photos, below, were taken from the hotel window) In the previous post, I mentioned how St. Clare is said to have stopped an invading army. Well, because of that, the town of Assisi is dedicated to her. Each year, they renew the vow the city made in 1240. Apparently, that vow was being renewed today! In the afternoon, there was a mass in San Ruffino (up the hill), and afterwards, the bishops and, apparently, every priest and nun in town processed down to the main piazza where the mayor and city officials were waiting (along with a bunch of people dressed in medieval clothes). The mayor gave a beautiful speech, and the bishop presented the Eucharist St. Clare used for her miracle, and then the whole procession continued on to the big church of St. Clare.
We had a special guest this morning, Mario Thanavaro, an amazing teacher of meditation from Rome. In honor of Mario’s arrival, we did our practice in the Yoga chapel in the morning, and Mario guided us into meditation after the Asana practice with Mirka.
For full disclosure, my body decided today that I need some silence and stillness, so in a wave of nausea and general ick, I headed back to my room after breakfast and stayed there until the afternoon… a bit of forced reflection. So as our Sangha returns to their home locations, I will see if someone will share their experiences from the morning with Mario. In the mean time, he shared some of his writing, which he gave us because it is so important to share this message:
“Once upon a time, long ago, people walked about barefoot. One day, the queen, walking across a rock field, cut her foot on a sharp stone. Annoyed, she called together her ministers and ordered the Queendom carpeted with leather. One wise minister stepped forward and suggested an easier way. ‘rather than covering the entire realm, let’s cover the soles of everyones’ feet.’ The queen agreed and that was the origin of shoes.
It seems silly to cover a kingdom with leather to protect out feet. In the same way, some of our strategies for living are attempts to cover our world. A much more effective way of living is to learn to take out point of direct contact with the world. In the teachings of the Buddha, mindfulness is what brings us to the point of contact. Mindfulness entails knowing what is happening in the present moment while it is happening. It is a training in how not to be lost in our thoughts, opinions, and reactivity. It is also a training in how to see things as they are, as opposed to seeing them through the often distorted lens of pre-concieved ideas and interpretation.”
He also shared the more personal story of his journey from a Buddist monk for 18 years to a layman living in Rome and continuing his teaching. One thing he shared that really resonates in my mind is that we have the ‘choice to die in each moment and to be reborn.’ In that we are free to let go of the past and our former ideas and be completely free in each moment to move forward in a better, clearer way. It doesn’t mean we need to be happy or strong or ANYTHING, but we have the freedom to be open to what we are in this moment.
After lunch (for everyone who didn’t feel ill), there was time to rest before an excursion over the the Basilica of St. Francis and into the tomb. The tomb of St. Francis is a dark, cool, stone covered space where the body of St. Francis and a few others have been laid to rest. There are small areas to the sides of the tomb where people may sit. Our group settled themselves and prepared to do some silent meditation. Normally, there is a lot of shuffling and mumbling as tourists and pilgrims move along in droves. But, as the meditation group settled themselves into silence, the entire room became quiet. Our actions do have effects!
After a short meditation in the dark cool space, the group moved back up the hill (a lot of hill climbing this week) and back to the main piazza to visit Assisi Pax International and Padre GianMaria Polidoro.
Padre GianMaria was chosen by the Vatican, back in the early ’80s, to bring the US and USSR into peace talks. He and two of his colleagues organized five peace talks and laid the foundation to end the cold war. He violated sanctions in Iran because he had the opportunity to speak there about peace. He has visited Mommar Gadhafi in a tent to speak of peace! To say that I am in awe of his life’s work is an understatement, but now, he is a humble Franciscan, sitting in Assisi PAX International, the meeting place for peace, and continuing his work to help cultivate peace on a global level. He spoke to us of the need for forgiveness and compassion as necessary for peace to prevail – when he speaks of peace, it is wise to listen.
He shared some inspiration from his favorite source, the gospel, in addition to the lessons he has learned from experience. He asked Mario Thanavaro to help translate the passage into English from the gospel. So Mario, a former Buddhist monk, in the heart of Assisi, read to us from the book of Matthew, chapter 5. In particular, Padre Gianmaria drew our attention to the passage “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely.” He reminded us that the blessing comes because it is better to be persecuted than to be the one persecuting.
To illustrate his meaning, he shared the details of a current tragedy in Italy where a small child was killed. After a big DNA search, it was found that a neighbor may have committed the act. When this news was released, the family of the victim asked that everyone pray for the family of the accused because, whether guilty or innocent, his family is suffering. He used this as an example to break out habit of reacting to violence with more violence. It is this cycle that dooms us over and over. Only with practice of this process of breaking the cycle of violence can we begin to realize this mission of peace, which has been his life’s work and is the fundamental message of St. Francis.
We visited the Eremo delle Carceri today. This site is my personal favorite site of the week! It is a hermitage in the mountains a few kilometers from Assisi. There is a small collection of buildings including a small structure where Francis spent time living in isolation, but mostly, it is a beautiful wooded hilltop. The entire area is considered sacred space, so silence is respected, generally.
We didn’t do much of a guided journey, we just headed towards the end of one of the paths at our own pace, having our own experiences. One of the group had a wonderful experience of being so ‘mindful’ that he completely missed the fact that he had seated himself in an area where many, many people had made little crosses out of sticks and leaves all around him! He looked down and noticed one, and then suddenly, his eyes saw what was all around him. He laughed at his ‘mindfulness’ of what was happening inside his head but his ‘mindlessness’ at the reality of his surroundings.
A practice that Mirka has supported in this space since the 2010 retreat is walking meditation. This tradition began when her son, Matteo, and I removed our shoes at the entrance to the hermitage after hearing a story of how Francis would often go around barefoot. It turned out to be a great lesson for us both! The paths at the Eremo are gravel, and our tender feet were not used to it. By walking barefoot, one had immediate awareness of the present moment and the mind could not wander. Once in a while, we would walk through a small pile of fallen leaves and they felt, literally, like SILK! The first time we went through a pile, we both stopped and said, “ahh” and laughed at the simple pleasure and how important is had become.
Six months after that ritual in 2010, I was in labor with my second child, and while walking in circles in the delivery room barefoot, between contractions, I was walking at the Eremo (one of the most powerful visualization exercises I’ve ever done). The pauses between contractions were like the beautiful piles of fallen leaves that we found to give our feet a moment to rest. When we returned to Assisi in 2012, Mirka asked Mario to initiate us into walking meditation on those same, beautiful gravel paths. Now, the barefoot tradition is becoming part of our Assisi journey. If you ever find yourself in the Eremo, try taking off you shoes – it will rock your world!
After meeting as a group to sit with the breath and meditation, some of us gathered near a stone alter where we shared some of our experiences and received a small token of our time here together. As we were sharing (and let’s admit it, there was some tears involved), one of the people from our group noticed two strangers who were completely taken into to the moment we were sharing. So, our little circle became a bit bigger and these two women joined us. I don’t know why, but that moment really touched me. They didn’t know us or what we were sharing in the week, but they were right there with us in gratitude for life! Ladies, if you are reading this, it was so lovely to have you!
Our friend Bill, our good ol’ Texas man, shared a poem that expressed some of his feelings from the week. Here is what our great Yogi friend shared:
“If” by Rudyard Kipling
If you can keep your head when all about you Are losing theirs and blaming it on you, If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, But make allowance for their doubting too; If you can wait and not be tired by waiting, Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies, Or being hated, don’t give way to hating, And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master; If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim; If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster And treat those two impostors just the same; If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools, Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken, And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools: If you can make one heap of all your winnings And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss, And lose, and start again at your beginnings And never breathe a word about your loss; If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew To serve your turn long after they are gone, And so hold on when there is nothing in you Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch, If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you, If all men count with you, but none too much; If you can fill the unforgiving minute With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
I think I’ll end there…………I could write more about the beautiful practice on the mat in the chapel in the afternoon, but as the moments in the week blend together, there is no separation between ‘on the mat’ and ‘off the mat’ Yoga. It is really all a graceful dance of being here, paying attention to the moments of life that unfold for us. Walking, breathing, being, sharing, core strengthening, mantra, krama exhale…….. all, one amazing Yoga practice – ALL DAY LONG.
As our final excursion on the retreat, we visited the Basilica of Santa Maria deli Angeli down the hill from the old city center. It is a long walk down (about 45 minutes at a good pace), and some of us went along the pilgrims path, which is marked by red bricks with the names of donors who helped pay for the walkway. Since it has also been a full, active week, some of us took a taxi 🙂 The Basilica is a massive structure, and today, very dramatic as a shift in weather was coming in, so dark clouds and gusts of wind filled the air.
This huge basilica was built around a much smaller structure, which now sits happily under the dome. The Poziuncula was the chapel where Francis and his brothers eventually ‘settled’, and it is the place where Francis died. The location of the structure is important to note because it was not inside the city of Assisi. It was far away from safety and prestige. Note – there are no photos allowed inside; they are really quite insistent upon it, but here is an old image Mirka obtained years ago – I didn’t ask how she obtained it….
A few of us took in the beauty of the structure. A few of us had some personal ritual we completed near the Porziuncola. Eventually, we all worked our way towards the chapel of forgiveness, and Mirka gave us a little of the background of the chapel and one of the miracles of St. Francis that is said to have taken place there, among the rose bushes.
On this very blustery Assisi day, we eventually made our way back to the protection of the old city (protection from the wind, that is – very windy morning!). In the afternoon, we gathered for one more Yoga session on the mat tying together the many techniques we practiced over the week.
Assisi Fun fact – Did you know the city of Los Angeles was named after this church? The full name of the city of Los Angeles is “El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula”. It was founded by Franciscans and is named after the church where the Porzioncola lies!! I only know this because after returning from the Pozioncola this morning and having lunch, Jentry, Matteo and I were sitting in the piazza having a cool drink before the Yoga practice when Padre GianMaria walked by on his way to Assisi PAX International. I chased him down and invited him to join us. He did so happily (because Assisi is awesome that way), and as we talked about travel, he mentioned that little gem. Have I mentioned how wonderful it is to spend time in Assisi? Where else can you share a cool drink with a peacemaker and a lovely man in a piazza and be schooled on history and peace? Yoga – ALL DAY LONG!
So, back in St. Giorgio’s chapel for one last gathering…… My roommate for the week is Banu Çadırcı, a fantastic Viniyoga teacher from Istanbul. She and I sat together and made a list of the techniques Mirka shared over the week…. the list was LONG! It all seemed so simple, but since we are both training in this Viniyoga tradition, we liked to step back and analyze the techniques and their integration to the themes of peace, forgiveness, and love that had been flowing through the week. A.G. Mohan recently said that in order for an Asana practice to be classified as ‘yoga’, it needs to contain the following elements:
“It brings balance and cultivates a state of calm and clarity (sattva)
It has purpose
It involves proper breathing
It is done in conjunction with the yamas and niyamas
It is learned from a proper teacher
It is a practice of ‘minding the mind’”
Banu and I enjoyed analyzing the practices from the eyes of a teacher and seeing the mastery of the techniques that Mirka weaved in to gather attention, and support our bodies, minds and emotions.
After our closing circle in the Yoga room, we had time to change and then head to a final dinner together in town. We shared a few toasts, stories from the week and just generally enjoyed the company of this fascinating group of people before moving our attention on to prepare for big days of travel ahead.