Five (thousand) years later: Yoga, Hinduism and Healing from Hurricane Katrina

We had a wonderful Yogathon experience here in New Orleans, at the Radha Radhakantha  ISKCON Temple on Esplanade. What began as a vision to draw the Hindu community into social service outreach through offering free yoga, manifested an evening of connectivity, healing and rebirth.

Yogathon, which included over 100 Temples, Ashrams and Spiritual Centers nationwide, is featured in the Washington Post On Faith Blog. In New Orleans, it was part of the 5th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina remembrance and renewal.

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temple The temple, with its traditional New Orleans exterior complete with wrought iron fence, and interior complete with traditional Hindu worship space, is a perfect example of the beauty and strength of our multicultural, pluralistic society. That this temple offers seva in the form of free dinner to the community every Sunday night, only enhances its beauty. New Orleans is a fantastic city, but also a city very much in need of compassionate service.

The space generously provided by the temple for Yogathon was absolutely lovely, with marble floors, dark wood paneling, stained glass accents and images of Indian devotional art. Two instructors, Laura Flora and Anne Compton Lambeth from Wild Lotus Yoga led a class, which was only the start of the evening. Before leading the attendees through gentle asanas (yoga postures), Laura spoke about the deep spiritual art of yoga. We had a very diverse group, some beginners and others experienced, who were all sweetly tolerant of my running to and fro with the camera.

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summer 2010 089Laura guided the class through breath awareness and various asanas, emphasizing stretch without strain. She gave simple but accurate explanations for the meaning of the asanas, such as Vrikshsasana “the tree pose.” Anne assisted by gently helping people position and relax into the poses.
The class was transformative; there was a noticeable difference from the slightly harried people arriving in the rain, and the same people one hour later, rising from Shavasana: relaxed, energized and peaceful.

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summer 2010 040After the yoga class (and taking a moment to rehydrate with some juice!) we were given a tour of the temple and everyone was made welcome to join in chanting during the beautiful religious service. This close encounter with singing, dancing Bhakti tradition was eye-opening for many of the non-Hindu attendees who associate Hinduism with scriptural complexity and meditative contemplation. The Bhakti tradition is especially at home in New Orleans, where music, dance and vibrant celebrations are very much a part of the city’s sense of self. Everyone was pleased to deepen their understanding.

Exploring the diversity of ways to worship in any tradition is a key to understanding the true nature of faith. Here in the United States there are many Hindu communities, each with its own traditions, rites and practices. While much is held in common, every congregation is unique. In turn, there is much that is shared in common with the surrounding culture; each is advised and enriched by the other.

We enjoyed a vegetarian meal lovingly prepared by the temple community, and over this delicious dinner, had an informal but spirited discussion about the roots of yoga and its role in American life. Some people had questions about yoga and Hinduism, so we introduced general history and terms, and discussed the many forms of yoga philosophy. We all shared our views and experiences of the empowering necessity of spiritual expression, regardless of one’s faith (or lack thereof). Everyone I spoke with had a deep respect for the power of yoga as part of an enlightening and grounding spiritual practice.

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As this was the 5th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, there were events and rallies throughout the city. A few people who attended Yogathon remarked on the connection between healing oneself and healing one’s community, and chose to attend this event as part of their personal observance of this significant date. Many grieve for those who died in that catastrophe, and struggle to come to terms with the forever altered landscape of the survivor. New Orleans has a long way to go: many people are still traumatized by the events set in motion by the hurricane; many are simultaneously seeking and creating a path for revitalizing the city and themselves.

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Being part of Yogathon and offering yoga as a vehicle to heal this great city (my second home), was very meaningful to me personally. Just as the United States welcomes my hereditary Hindu community and has in turn been enriched by the unique perspectives which that community has to offer, so I feel adopted by New Orleans, and allowed to help in this time of rebirth. It’s humbling that, as someone who is not from this city, I am accepted, guided and embraced by the community, and allowed to make my own small contribution.

I’d like to thank everyone at Hindu American Seva Charities, ISKCON New Orleans, Wild Lotus Yoga, New Orleans Healing Center and Interfaith Works, as well as my eternally tolerant husband Urban Haas, and our lovely NOLA housemate Veronica Leandrez for support, tolerance, hospitality and encouragement far above and beyond the call of duty. My community here in New Orleans together explores and lives the experience of self-healing as community healing. I am so grateful for the opportunity to bring some Hindu wisdom to sustain that journey.

Our experience with Yogathon revealed that there is no need to build bridges between cultures. In simply coming together and sharing of ourselves, we realize that we do not inhabit separate shores, but live a land that is itself a bridge. We only map what is already there.

Free Yoga: Interfaith Innovation and a Return to Traditional Roots

I always say that Interfaith engagement does not necessarily change traditions, but rather stimulates innovative ways of expressing tradition. In this case, quite literally: Ancient tradition + Social Networking = new way of communicating.

Headwaters/Delta is now the Social Media Adviser for Hindu American Seva Charities (HASC)! HASC is a project run by Anju Bhargava, the Hindu representative on President Obama’s Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
HASC is a progressive American organization promoting pluralism, tolerance, social justice, civic engagement (including acculturation and adaptation of New Americans and immigrants), and advancing interfaith and community service. Seva is an integral part of Hindu/Dharmic traditions, and means society enrichment through volunteer activities. Many people in our country are in need of a little (or a lot) of help. Hindu communities have much to offer their fellow Americans, of any, every, and no faith. We want to help.

Much of HASC’s work is to reach out to Hindu and other “Dharma” traditions such as Buddhist, Sikh and Jain, to form a network and collective vision for this new endeavor. There has never been a national organization for these traditions that specifically focuses on social service. So, how will we proceed? What’s next?

Our first project with  HASC is to help promote Yogathon: Free Yoga Across America. We are uniting the White House “Active Lifestyle Challenge” with the Hindu concept of seva. On August 29th, Temples, Ashrams and other Spiritual Centers across the nation will offer FREE Yoga classes to the public. Everyone (of any or no faith) is welcome! If your organization would like to join us, sign up here. All we ask is that attendees bring a  non-perishable food item, and that the participating temples donate them to a local food shelf. We’d appreciate it if you could take a photo and/or send us a brief report to feature on our website, too.

New ideas are often a manifestation of really old ideas. Yoga is an old practice, remade as a new activity, and now it has become part of a movement within its original ancient community (Hindus) living in a young country (America) to do something innovative with another ancient concept: seva. These ideas may be old, but they are far from outdated. There are many ways to bring them to serve our current needs.

We're working on enhancing HASC's 21st Century communication via Facebook, Twitter, and other Social Networking sites. You’ll be seeing us around the internet very soon!

What’s new now, will be old someday: history is in the making. Let’s make something we can look back on and be proud of.