Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Yoga Teacher Spotlight: Rick Kowalewski on Yin Yoga

What is Yin Yoga? Why might we try this slow and restorative yoga practice? Join Sky House founder, Ashley Litecky and yin yoga teacher, Rick Kowalewski in this interview as they take a deeper look into the benefits and healing capacity of yin yoga.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Plant Teacher Spotlight: Hawkweed

Over the last few weeks I've been inspired to write about plants. The largest push came from a conversation I had with my grandfather about our Lithuanian heritage. As my grandfather shared his stories about the farmers and herbalists in my family who grew their own food, made their own clothing, worshiped trees, engaged in ceremonies, and kept bees, it inspired me to share some of my stories and the plants that I know. I've decided to combine my love of the tarot and plants and pull a plant card from "The Flower Speaks" tarot deck each Thursday and write about the plant, its signatures, personality, teachings, and medicinal qualities.

Today I drew the card for Hawkweed, Hieracium pilosella, also known as mouse-ear. This tough and hairy plant prefers to grow in sunny, sandy, and less fertile areas. Just in looking at you can tell she has a story. Her leaves grow close to the earth, are covered in fine white hairs in a rosette shape, and her stalks are hard and dry. Above her tall spindly stalk is a bright explosion of yellow and below her yellow head are reddish ligules, which at one time acted like a shield for her developing flower bud. Many times I have mistaken her for a dandelion but she is no dandelion. She is hawk medicine, a warrior, ruled by Aries, and unlike dandelion, she sends out chemicals from her roots to limit her own growth.

One teaching from Hawkweed is about honesty. In "The Flower Speaks" tarot, Marlene writes about it's connection to the planet Mars, the sign of Aries, the Justice card, and the quest for truth. She likens the plant to the great horned owl, also called a night hawk and it's ability to "see through" brush and obscurities to peer into the truth of what is below.

Medicinally, her fuzzy lung-like leaves are used for lung conditions like asthma, bronchitis, and whooping cough. Nicholas Culpepper, an herbalist and medical astrologer from the 17th century used mouse-ear hawkweed juice to ease the pains of kidney stones and the gripping discomforts of the bowels. He also recommended a syrup made from this plant for coughs and a poultice to be made from its astringent leaves for wounds.

Last August when I was visiting Adam's family land, the large open fields were covered with the tall waving heads of hawkweed. I sat with the plant and could feel its strength. I kept thinking to myself, "how can you grow so tall on such a thin stalk?" As I spent time with the plant I realized it was the strength of its spirit and its desire to grow toward the light that was holding it up. If we believe that matter organizes itself around energy, then we can see how this works. It's like when we really desire clarity in some area of our lives and we keep focusing on it, reaching for it, and in that process we can feel more deeply who we are, what we honestly need, and before we know it, we are there!

When you stand above the plant it looks like a bright eye gazing into your soul. I wonder if Hawkweed was pulled from the deck today as a reminder of the warrior energy of spring headed our way. Perhaps she is circling us like a hawk, asking us to survey our lives, to look at ourselves with the piercing eyes of truth and honesty. Maybe it is time to get real, get honest, and to face the truths that we might have been avoiding.

As the energy of spring starts to build now is the time to get to work. It is time to survey our lives with grace and honesty. It is time to ask ourselves the tough questions and start making small decisions to clear away the brush and brambles.

Like hawkweed, let us put on our fuzzy coats and reach toward the warm light of truth and start the journey. The process may be long and arduous but if we know where our arrow is pointed, we can trust that the path will follow.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Finding My Religious Roots

This morning I sat down to practice some new songs on my harmonium, a beautiful instrument that you can find at most kirtan or yoga music events. Contrary to what most people think, the harmonium, or pump organ is not native to India. Rather, it was developed by Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein (1723–1795), a professor of physiology at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. When the British missionaries 'took over' India, they brought French manufactured harmoniums to teach their new captive audience Christian hymns.

Perhaps the twisted history of this instrument spurred by own mini-existential crisis.

As I was playing one of my favorite Kundalini chants, "Prithvi hai, Akash hai, Guru Ram Das Hai" which means, "The Earth Is, Heaven Is, Guru Ram Das Is," I started thinking about this Guru Ram Das guy. Who was he really?  I have no ancestral memory of him. I can't ask my parents to tell me the old stories of Guru Ram Das and how he used his beard to dust the dirt from his teachers feet.  I started feeling sad...and lost.

I stopped playing and asked myself the question, "what spiritual songs did MY ancestors sing?"

This is an immediately tricky question because I am an American mutt. My mother's father is from Lithuania and my mother's mother is from Sicily. My father's mother's line is thought to have come over on one of the first ships to the US and is a mix of English, Welsh, and French. My father's father is from the Czech Republic (formerly Czechoslovakia). So what does that make me? Where do I look to find the source of my pagan proclivities?

I am guessing I am not the only white American yoga teacher to ask these questions and to have these feelings. In my heart I love the stories from Hinduism, the Gods and their many faces, the yoga poses that help us to embody these great qualities and attributes. I only wish that I had the same familiarity with these Gods as do my Indian and Hindu students. I wish my family celebrated Shivraratri and Ganesh Chaturthi. I wish these faces and stories were ingrained into my DNA from generations of worship and celebration. Instead, I have a broken Catholic chain on one side and a failed Protestant attempt on the other.

So, I began to research songs from my own ancestry. I thought there might be a song from my own ancestral roots, perhaps an old Latin, Greek or Latvian song similar to my favorite Sikh chant. One that calls to the Earth, Heavens, and to a saint, sage, plant, or tree spirit, who I could connect with, sing to, feel.

After hours of research and time listening to some very strange YouTube music videos, I came
across an ancestral religion that instantly spoke to me. On my Lithuanian grandfather's side, they practiced a nature and ancestor focused religion called "Romuva." Romuva was practiced and celebrated throughout the Lithuanian region until 1199 AD when the Roman Catholic Church declared it pagan and attempted to wipe it out. "Romuva" which means "temple" and "sanctuary", also "abode of inner peace."  It includes songs to the trees, plants, seasons, sun, moon, wedding songs and dances, gardening songs, funeral songs, and songs for feasting.

I was overwhelmed by happiness and grief as I read about this beautiful religion. It was so familiar. As familiar as the plant Rue that is used in many Romuvan ceremonies. As an herbalist, I've had a deep connection with this plant ever since it first came to me in a dream. Every time I see, smell, touch Rue, I feel like I "know" the plant, and even more importantly, that it KNOWS me.

After many hours of searching and listening to Lithuanian folk songs I realized that I wasn't going to find what I was looking for. There weren't any simple mantra-like songs that I could whip up and play on my harmonium. The Lithuanians didn't have mantras or even a concept of a mantra. Their songs are long, celebratory, and include detailed accounts of bird songs, flower buds, berry gathering, and accompanying dances performed in circles. 

As a practitioner of yoga and meditation I pride myself on my ability to detach and observe my emotions. This is a very helpful skill especially when you live in a busy city like DC and need to detach from the large amount of stimulation that is a part of your daily life. However, if you are sad, like really sad, and sad for a good reason, detachment might actually be more like avoidance. Today I went into my sadness, probably much like my ancestors would have.  I let myself feel sad and cry. I mourned for my heritage, for my ancestral songs, plants, and rituals. I mourned for the God that my ancestors knew and prayed to. 

Yes, I can sit, meditate, and forgive them, but that doesn't change the fact that I feel like I've been robbed from a childhood that would have validated my love of nature, animals, plant spirits, and my ancestors. No amount of meditation will bring back the stories of great-great grandmother  and how she gathered berries and mushrooms, and celebrated the victory of spring over winter with song and ritual fires for her omni-present ancestors.

I'm not sure what to do with all of the the information I've found.  Do I try to learn revive these old Lithuanian songs? Do I plan a trip to visit my remaining family living in the Lithuanian country side on the land my ancestors have farmed for ten generations? Do I try to incorporate the plant and ancestral traditions of my relatives into my life here in the United States? Do I keep looking for my ancestral God?

Or do I say goodbye to this part of my heritage and pick up my hybrid-harmonium and play hybrid-songs to my hybrid-gods?

Perhaps it's not so black and white. It is conceivable that my ancestors have been speaking to me all along. Perhaps they were the ones who led me to wash and decorate the trees in my suburban backyard. Maybe they led me to study plant medicine and helped me name my first cat "Mishka" which my grandfather later told me means "forest" in Lithuanian. Perhaps they are alive and with me now as I plan my spring medicinal herbal garden and design a primitive skills retreat to the mountains of Georgia in July. 

I've decided to set up an altar in honor of my ancestors just as they do in the Romuva tradition. My mom said she will send me some old photos of my great grandparents. I will call my grandfather today and will listen to his stories. I will pray that my ancestors continue to guide me as I practice my yoga, study my plants, and search for my own authentic songs.  I will continue to ask tough questions, live modestly, incorporate nature-based rituals into my life, and I will wait patiently for the answers. 

As the Lithuanian proverb goes, "Kaip senieji giedojo, taip jaunieji dainuoja" or, "Just as one calls into the forest, so it echoes back".


Just got off the phone with my 91 year old grandfather. My grandpa Al was a first generation American whose parents were brought together by a matchmaker in 1913. They escaped the Russian occupied Lithuania by sneaking out one night, crossed a babbling creek carrying a bag of feathers on their head (to trade) and crossed the border to Germany. From there they bought a ticket to America and landed in Massachusetts where they set up their first home.

I told my grandpa about the questions that came up for me today around God and my struggle with religion. I shared my feelings of being displaced from my ancestors and their stories and their gods. He told me story after story of his parents and grandparent's lives in Lithuania. He said that God, in Lithuania, is an old oak tree. Along the highways and village roads you will see metal barrier surrounding all of the old oaks (usually with a diameter or 5 -6 feet) to preserve them. The oak tree gods are honored throughout the country along with the old forests. He told me about the Lithuanian Thunder god and the history of serfdom and war from in the country from 1100 to 1830.

My grandfather is a scientist. He has a PhD in chemistry and worked for General Mills for over 50 years. He's never said it outright but I think he is an atheist. He married my grandmother who is Sicilian and a strong Catholic. As we spoke about the nature beings he told me about his grandfather, Jougas, who ran a small farm, kept bees, sold honey, and made herbal medicines for the village. He gave me the names of the villages and told me stories about visiting large clearings in the forest where people would gather for ceremonies. He said he happened to be visiting during an ancestral ceremony of his own line, the Milunitis family, and people gathered and spread picnic blankets across and old ceremonial clearing, shared food and drink while his cousin dressed in the traditional costume performed a ceremony to honor the deceased. Although he didn't say it, I think he was moved.

I am so grateful for my grandfather. He has a sharp and open mind even when I was going through some challenging times as a teenager, he has always treated me with openness and respect. I am grateful for him and his strong memory. It makes me feel so good to know that I have ancestors who were land-dwellers, lived and acknowledged nature spirits, worked with bees, and made plant medicines. It is a part of my history that I never knew. I know I am not alone and if you have elders who are still with you, reach out, ask them questions. There is something nourishing to the soul in hearing these old family stories.

At the end of our conversation he was almost in tears and said, "God bless you, Ashley. You are the first grandchild to ask these questions and I am glad to know that our history is living on." I know that my cousins care, yet as the oldest grandchild, it just happened that my existential crisis came first