We are so thrilled to be able to introduce you to Ashana who will be co-leading the Spread Your Wings Mantra + Yoga Retreat at Blue Osa on May 12-19th.
Tell us about yourself.
I am a woman, mom, wife, friend, plant person, singer and musician, learning what love is all about. My weeks consist of being a mama to two sweetheart-rascals; gardening with my husband and running our botanical perfumery, Agua de Flora; teaching and performing; practicing mantra music with producer/collaborator Chad and playing with my new world music band, Rio Luminoso. Anyone interested can sample the mantras on my two CDs on my website, AshanaSophia.com. I also enjoy cooking for my family. Music and food are one and the same to me: one nourishes the physical body, the other satiates our yearning heart and soul. I take walks and go to yoga classes when I can squeeze it in, but often stretch and connect my mind to my heart, while putting the children to bed! One thing that intrigues me is how yoga pulls out our insecurities, and mantra practice helps heal unresolved feelings once they’ve been brought to the surface.
How did Yoga come into your life?
Ashana: I grew up near the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. There was a distinctly different beauty about the people I witnessed practicing yoga. In high school, I started going to Kripalu on the weekends, and slowly my journey with mantra and yoga began.
Do you practice today for the same reasons as when you started? What is the most important thing about your present practice?
Ashana: I began my practice with a desire to look and feel a certain way. Now I practice entirely for the stress reduction and mostly do Yin Yoga; the long holds (average three minutes) help me slow down and lengthen my breath. I am ready for a stronger practice; it’s been a slow re-emergence for me after the early years of motherhood.
Many yogis are hesitant to include mantras in their practice and find the style a bit out there. Why do you think that is?
Ashana: Yoga became westernized quickly, especially when it started being offered in gyms across America. Most people see it as a way to stay fit and work on stress reduction. Bhakti Yoga is one of the eight limbs of the practice but for most teachers, it is intimidating to bring an ancient and foreign practice into their modern classes. What they might be unaware of is the profound heart-opening these mantras can create. There are few practices that facilitate such an immediate and intense physical and emotional reaction and subsequent healing. Practicing mantras cultivates our intuition, our internal wisdom. We don’t always trust our emotional experience, or allow ourselves to feel it. Using our voice in this way unlocks that experience and brings it to the surface, into the light. It is a rare and healing experience, but it can be scary to place one’s faith in such a mysterious process. One physical cause of these changes was described in Guru Jagat’s amazing book, “Invincible Living.” Briefly, the body’s stress response is initiated by a message from the hypothalamus, located just on top of the brain stem, close to the roof of the mouth. Through vibration and touch, chanting stimulates the hypothalamus to secrete chemicals that affect brain chemistry and resulting emotions. It can be helpful to understand this, but it’s so important to approach the practice with our hearts open to what we will experience and not evaluate it with our critical minds.
What are a few of your favorite mantras and why?
Ashana: I particularly love singing the Mul Mantra, from Kundalini Yoga’s Sikh tradition, which has a special rhythm and lyrical beauty. These days I am loving chanting, “Akal Akal Siri Akal, Maha Akal, Akal Moorat.” This mantra is about helping a soul leave the earth when the body dies. Something about it is deeply comforting to me, maybe like the savasana pose at the end of a yoga session. I adore singing, “Hari Gobind, Hari Gopal,” as it cultivates a feeling of innocence and love. All these mantras are ancient love poems to the divine, with melodies that I compose or that come to me in a rush of inspiration.
As a Yoga teacher, what advice would you give to a beginning practitioner?
Ashana: There is no right way to practice, except not to hurt yourself by going too far too soon. Follow your body’s impulse to move and stretch. Next time you feel a natural urge to stretch, roll your neck, arch your back, and do it deliberately, using your breath consciously. This will lead you inside your body. That is yoga: presence and breath. One of my yoga idols started at the age of forty, Vanda Saravelli from Italy. By eighty her body was as youthful as most twenty-year-olds’. The practice of yoga has the capacity to shift your hormones and emotional wellbeing dramatically. Who doesn’t need that kind of support?
And what would you say to those who are more experienced?
Ashana: I might remind them that yoga is about digesting and assimilating your life experience, about increasing your energy in order to have the mental and emotional strength to do this. Especially the experiences that hurt us or we don’t understand or don’t want to understand. Often we practice to cultivate enough space inside to love ourselves. Then we’re able to see how every possible action and reaction exists within each of us, and there is choice involved.
What are the main differences between a led class (retreat setting) and a self-practice (at home) form of yoga from the participants’ point of view? What are the advantages of each method?
Ashana: When we practice alone or at home, we may feel comfortable to breathe more deeply, go at our own pace, fart or sigh more loudly. It does allow for more contemplation and rest, without having to commute. But building the energy of our practice usually takes more effort. We are communal beings at heart. There is power in practicing in a group, in a beautiful setting. At the beginning of practice everyone has a slightly different vibration…the happiness of one person balances the sadness of another. Slowly we emerge into a collective harmony. This allows us to feel the neglected parts of ourselves we don’t usually have time for in our hectic lives. This experience is incredibly bonding and often creates new and healing friendships.
What can participants expect in your upcoming yoga and mantra retreat?
Ashana: We are so excited to be together at Blue Osa. The opportunity to deepen our practice and have fun over a seven-day period is simply luxurious. Like our muscles, the voice requires gentle, consistent use for ultimate comfort and expansion. Our speaking voice is one of our most powerful tools for creating peace and harmony in our lives. When we cultivate awareness in using our voice more effectively—especially our tone and use of breath—our world begins to open up because we trust ourselves to pause, listen, and respond from our still small inner voice. This kind of power is authentic.