Recently, Sun Health sat down with Swami Purnachaitanya to discuss his perspective on yoga, common assumptions about yoga, self-acceptance, and the role of breathing techniques, and meditation in healing and transformation. Swami is the Director of Programmes and Senior International Trainer with the Art of Living Foundation, a travelling teacher as he is commonly referred to.
Please describe your journey to yoga .Why do you devote your life to this practice and how has it changed you?
Since my childhood I had a desire to live a life of service, making a difference to the people around me, and I also had a keen interest in Eastern traditions and philosophies. Born and brought up in The Netherlands, I used to practise a range of Eastern martial arts. In those martial arts there is also an aspect of breathing techniques, meditation and transcending the mind, but it is limited. I wanted to learn more and I was looking for something authentic, go deeper. When I did the first programmes of the Art of Living, while at high school, I found it so relevant for our day-to-day life, so practical and yet profound, that I knew that I had found what I was looking for. And when I saw that these programmes helped other people also in so many ways, whether it was to improve their health, get rid of stress, improve their relationships, or find more meaning in life, I knew that this is how I would like to serve the world: by teaching these programmes to maximum people.
I have to get this out of the way. You look like Jesus, the Western one in posters and art all over. How do people react to you especially that your teachings are from Eastern origins where Christianity does not really have a huge following?
Yes, it happens quite regularly that people say I look like Jesus. I guess that’s also because the Church somehow chose to give Him a western look. My dress and appearance is actually much more Eastern I would say, as it is an ancient practice of monks to dress like this, and they either shave off all their hair and beard, or keep it long. I guess you can say that whatever they do, they do it 100%! But this is just a uniform you can say, so that people can recognise one as a spiritual guide, nothing more. Of course it is very comfortable also, and as for people’s reaction: they are usually just pleasantly surprised and a little curious!
What exactly does Travelling teacher, Director of Programmes and Senior International Trainer with the Art of Living Foundation entail?
Travelling internationally, as per the local requirements, to conduct various programmes of the Art of Living, including Yoga Teacher Training, Meditation Retreats, Leadership programmes for rural youth and more. I also oversee various service projects, guide our local teams what more initiatives we can take up, and represent the organisation in national and international forums.
Tell us a bit about the tour you are on and which countries you have/will be visiting?
My work in Africa started in November in South Africa, after which I went to Zambia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Kenya and now Botswana. After this I will be traveling to Mauritius, back to South Africa for a tour, and then to Uganda, Ivory Coast, and more places. I will be in Africa till at least July or August, and then probably come back again soon after that.
What is your mission as a teacher? Who are you trying to reach and why?
Our programmes target all layers of the society, from villagers and slum dwellers, to the general public, students, professionals, government respresentitives and prison inmates. Transforming the society by strengthening the individual, with the vision of a violence-free, stress-free, prosperous and peaceful world.
Who are the teachers that really inspire you and why?
I used to read different books and see some videos and so on, but when I met Sri Ravi Shankar I knew that I had finally found what I had been looking for: a real living Master, who is authentic and teaches the ancient wisdom in a way that is so relevant to our modern lives, and with such humility and simplicity that everyone can understand it and relate to it. His profound wisdom, put in simple words, and the fact that he encourages all to ask questions and have their own experience, is something rare and beautiful. He cares for all, feels at home with people of all cultures and religions, and honours their traditions, encouraging them to preserve their ways. He has truly embraced the world as his family, and works day and night to make their lives better and this world a more peaceful and beautiful place.
Some of us think we can practise yoga or meditation on our own. How important would you say it is to have a teacher/master/guru?
In the philosophy of Yoga it has always been emphasised that one needs a proper teacher or guru to learn these techniques. Many of the scriptures on Yoga and its techniques often also don’t go into details about techniques – it has to be learnt in person. Nowadays many people feel they can learn from a book or Youtube video, but they forget that a book or video will not be able to guide or correct you. You may think you are doing it properly, while actually you may not, and it may even be harmful if you don’t do it correctly. And if you need someone to guide you when you go to a new city and are lost for directions, would you not need someone all the more if you want to learn about something so subtle as how your mind works, how the consciousness works, and how to realise your true nature?
Share at least three common incorrect assumptions about Yoga?
- You need to be physically fit and very flexible to practice Yoga. Truth is, a good Yoga teacher can guide any student as per their current situation and by doing the right practices, one can become much more fit, healthy and happy. Yoga is for all.
- Yoga means physical exercise. Truth is, the physical asanas (postures and stretches) are only a very small aspect of Yoga. The main practice and teachings of Yoga are about how to keep our mind peaceful, happy and balanced amidst any situations and challenges in life.
- Yoga is a religious practice and cannot be practised if you follow a certain religion. Truth is, Yoga was conceived and developed by the sages of India thousands of years ago as a science to keep the body and mind healthy, and to realise one’s true potential. Stretching your muscles, breathing in the proper manner, and keeping your mind peaceful is not against any religion, and to say so one not only deprives people of something that can greatly improve their lives, it also shows a very unscientific and medieval mindset, as if saying Om, Amen or Shalom would affect anyone’s beliefs. It would be like saying that a Buddhist or Muslim or Hindu cannot use medicines that were invented by Christian monks and scientists in Europe over recent centuries.
In you travels,what have you observed to be common problems people are facing/struggling with?
The most common problems people face nowadays are increasingly stressful lifestyles and work cultures, which affect all spheres of their lives: their physical and mental health suffers, personal relationships get affected, ethics and belongingness at work decrease, and we find more violence and corruption in the society. And that is why the Art of Living focuses on transforming the society by strengthening the individual. Individuals get empowered and become agents of change, spreading peace and awareness, and taking responsibility to make a difference, be it through service projects like rural development, education, sustainable agriculte, or workshops to help people get rid of their stress and improve their physical and mental health, and live a more meaningful life.
What is your definition of healing? What facilitates this process according to you?
Health as per Yoga and Ayurveda (the ancient Vedic science of medicine that is closely connected with Yoga) is a state of holistic wellbeing. It is not just a healthy body, but also a peaceful and happy mind, and a good and balanced emotional state. This is why Yoga focuses so much on how to manage the mind and emotions, and how to maintain a happy and peaceful state of mind irrespective of the situations we find ourselves in. True Yoga is being able to maintain a balanced and peaceful mind even amidst the most challenging situations. More than flexibility of the body, it is flexibility of the mind. The breathing techinques (pranayama) and meditation aspect of Yoga addresses this. And that is all the more necessary in today’s world, where we find life is increasingly stressful and most health-problems we face nowadays are psychosomatic in nature, which means they are partially or entirely created by stress. When we are stressed, agitated, or uneasy, certain hormones are produced in the body, and many of the physiological processes are affected, leading to a deterioration of physical health as well. The breathing techniques and meditation can counter this effectively, a lot of research has been done on that already.
For someone who is on a spiritual path, what would you say is the most important thing for one to be committed to?
Have a committed practice, even if it is just 20-30 minutes every day, to pause, and for a moment come back to who you really are, what you really want in life, and what is really important for you. We tend to lose ourselves in the daily responibilities, be it at home, at work, or socially. You need to take care of those as well, but if you think that you will really start your meditation practice or spiritual growth after you complete all those worldly responsibilities, you will never be able to, as those will never end. And follow one path sincerely. If you try some technique here, read some other book there, go and visit another Master, and so on, you will only get confused and never reach the goal. Dig one metre in many places and you will never find water. Dig in one place, and you will definitely reach your goal one day.
Finally, what is the goal of Yoga as you see it….beyond the walls we often construct, how are we truly connected to this practice?
The goal of Yoga in the philosophy of Yoga is very clear: to realise your true nature, beyond the body, mind, intellect and our limited identity. We are made up of matter and spirit, body and consciousness. The body will drop one day, and the spirit continues its journey. That is what you really are, that part of you which is eternal, untouched and ever pure and peaceful. The more you experience this part of you, the less events, people and situations can shake you, and the more beautiful and meaningful your life becomes.
Forgiveness is a virtue
It’s hard to get through life without experiencing some resentment. Executive Director – Phronesis International College (PIC) and Counselling and Psychotherapist, Peacebuilding and Life Skills Education Specialist Dr Thelma Kgakgamatso Tlhaselo-Majela discusses forgiveness and why letting go is good for you.
Forgiveness is a process that positions one on a healing path by choice in an attempt to resolve the psychological stress and trauma one could be experiencing. These pains and emotional injuries may stagnate one into feelings of anger, bitterness and resentment and in worse cases depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorders. If left for long, protracted unresolved psychological distress and or trauma could deepen one more into multiple losses.
It may generate hatred and desire to cause harm on the other and this can throw one into revenge and or vengeance. Forgiveness then starts from the cognitive ability to choose letting go of the emotional and cognitive baggage thus granting the self or inner being power to constructively open portals of intrapersonal empowerment. Moreover, a well-integrated process of forgiveness could shift one into an empathetic and compassionate psychological space filled with virtue and psycho-sociological attributes of restoration that accentuate positive benefits of healing.
In your experience,what are the common issues that need forgiveness?
Life by nature is riddled with so many issues and challenges characterised by diversity and complexity hence appropriate understanding is very important. People are social beings that co-exist through healthy connectedness and this may happen at the physical, personal, socio-cultural, psychological, financial, spiritual; political level to mention a few.
We all need a deepened awareness on how the intra-personal (within self), inter-personal (with others), inter-group (within groups) and international (nation to nation) relational connections play out in life. These healthy relationships deserve to be developed, nurtured and protected lest they become dysfunctional and corrosive.
The common issues for forgiveness are varied and highly individualised. One person may look at what another is struggling with and may consciously or unconsciously belittle it because for them it appears an easy or small matter but people are unique and this deserves respect. The relational betrayals, emotional injuries, corrosive conflicts and intractable may result in residual emotions that can cause people to drift into anger and bitterness. In such accounts, people may find themselves responding through avoidance or seeking revenge which has the potential to cycle one back into deeper pain.
The complexity of forgiveness may originate from the nature and quality of the relationship one had, the nature of the wrong committed with the cognitive interpretations one ascribes to the event. This includes significant others such as spouses (couples), children, family relatives, colleagues, bosses and subordinates in the work place.
Sometimes, it may be people we do not know that have hurt us such as a murderer, rapist or an abuser and may not even acknowledge that they have done anything wrong to us. It may also be about the symbolic losses where the people and or situations to forgive do not physically exist such as a dead person or a geographic disconnection. In such cases, the existential reality of the phenomenon remains true, real and alive in the psyche of the emotionally injured person and requires a healing process.
Is it possible to forgive when one is still angry and can you forgive someone who does not think they have done anything wrong?
Forgiveness is a process that one does by choice for oneself and not for the perpetrator because one understands that the pain and suffering one is experiencing has a direct injurious effect on one’s life. Similarly, revenge and vengeance which for long has been one of the rudimentary human responses can only promote increased pain as it stagnates one into more hurt and pain.
It often cycles one back into psychological trauma hence one needs to perceive value addition in engaging in forgiveness because it can be logically and rationally incomprehensible when one is caught up in this quagmire. A bitter-angry person may grapple with cognitive dissonance which is an internal struggle to understand why they have to release someone who according to them deserves a punishment or better still refuses to acknowledge that they have done anything wrong.
But irrespective of the reason, holding on to anger, bitterness and resentfulness within the inner self can only grant one false gratification that they are holding the perpetrator to ransom. Needless to say, we have no control on how the other person thinks and feels and we may actually be subjecting ourselves to increased injury and punishment from the very issue we are contending with.
Seeking professional help will assist one to work through the psychological defence mechanisms such as denial, repression, rationalisation, reaction formation, regression to mention a few that may promote dysfunctional tendencies in un/forgiveness processes. Notwithstanding, people need to be assisted with respect for human dignity within them and never be forced and or coerced into forgiveness when they are not ready to do so. Given that anger will consume the person already holding the pain and hurt whether it is perceived or real, working on forgiveness can be a desirable option to open the healing process.
Can you discuss the rewards or benefits of forgiveness?
As can be seen, it often pays to work through forgiveness hence the concept of working it out because people respond to pain and trauma differently. The rewards and benefits shared in this context are not by any means exhaustive because there are several psycho-social models for assisting people to process forgiveness issues and this requires well trained service providers.
*People who are angry and bitter are often not desirable in social contexts because they may consciously or unconsciously spill this negative energy on other people and this tends to repel instead of attract social connections. At intra-personal level, we are likely not to find our inner life peaceful and enjoyable if we are ever stuck psychosocially on anger and bitterness because it may promote self-hate, poor self-concept and negative self-esteem. So it pays to be gentle to love yourself enough to desire good emotions about and towards other people for that will rub corrosively on your personal well-being. The benefits of forgiveness include enabling one to circumvent these psychological pains and trauma that can affect quality of life with self and others which may compound stress levels.
In extreme cases people may sink into depression and anxiety which could ripple into other areas of life such as sexual dysfunction, eating disorders, substance use and abuse, relational conflicts and psychosomatic illness. Forgiveness builds a healthy mindset and that attracts a healthy personality which consequently leads to healthy social and physical well-being. Forgiveness fills the inner space with good attributes and this is shared with others. We then by addressing forgiveness issues reduce on maladaptive tendencies and lift on psychosocial protection thus leading to safeguarding the intra-personal, familial, corporate and societal communities from effects such as divorce and relational stressors.
At corporate and industrial level, a socio-psychological space that is riddled with un/forgiveness is a breeding ground for visible and invisible costs. For instance, a huge cost can emanate from a collective environment that is unproductive because of collective stress and restlessness. A workplace where people are transparent and honest and regard others with respect to deserve forgiveness often tends to promote healing communities where others feel safe and do not fear hence they can work to the optimum level of their potential.
We also benefit as a nation when we are characterised by forgiveness because we have a strategic desire to promote a knowledge-based community as the foundation for transformational change. Botswana considers people as a reservoir for knowledge and wisdom to lead as change agents and if we are a community that is unable to work through issues of forgiveness, we may create or nurture a psycho-sociological space that disempowers collective construct for healing communities.
A Motswana who is able to forgive is likely to live with people from other backgrounds and has a healthy and broader capacity of dealing with diversity and differences with virtue and competencies for the 21st century to advance the nation at local, regional and international level.
Rabiya Mahomed-McGeoff: Talking Marriage and Family Therapy
Increased mental health awareness is leading to demand for therapists to serve couples and families. Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Lead Clinician, Rabiya Mahomed-McGeoff talks to SunHealth about being one of the most important confidants a person or family can have.
What is a Marriage and family Therapist?
A Marriage and Family Therapist is a mental health professional trained in psychotherapy and family system, and licensed to diagnose and treat mental and emotional disorders within the context of marriage, couple and family system. A Marriage and Family Therapist treats a wide range of serious clinical problems including adult schizophrenia, depression, marital problems, anxiety, individual psychological problems and child parent problems.
How did you become a couple and family therapist?
When I did my undergraduate studies in Psychology, one of my professors was a Marriage and Family Therapist.
He introduced systems theories and they made sense to me. So I decided to pursue marriage and family therapy.I did my Bachelors in Psychology with a minor in Women Studies at University of Massachusetts. I did my Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy at Alliant International University in the US. After completing my Masters, I did clinical experience for two years, completing 3000 hours of direct client contact (which is a requirement in the State of California before one can seat for the licensing exams.)
I sat for the two exams and passed. I got licensed as Marriage and Family Therapist in California, USA.
What do you most enjoy about your work?
Giving clients hope, a voice, walking them through transitions and seasons in their lives and seeing them gain insight on their issues.
What is the most challenging thing about marriage and family counseling work?
The most challenging thing is when I work with teenagers where parents don’t want to get involved.
They just drop their children and expect me to fix their children. In most situations you find that parents are the ones with problems and are the ones who need therapy not the children.
What is the biggest myth about therapy?
That you only go to therapy when you have problems. That is not the case; therapy empowers and helps to facilitate personal growth in one’s life. For couples, therapy helps with tune in and awareness of issues before there is a problem.
It strengthens the family and the marriage bond. And also the assumption that therapy is free. I still get amazed by my educated friends who get shocked that therapy is a paid profession.
In general, what do specialists in this practice offer?
We offer couples therapy, individual therapy, child therapy, and group therapy on different issues; grieve therapy, premarital counseling, divorce mediation and recovery.
We consult for organisations on different issues including restructuring, retrenchment and workplace communication.
How do you stay detached from your counselling work? Is it even possible?
I have been practicing for more that 10 years now, throughout the years I have created some rituals that help me to transition from work to family life.
I have learned to set clear boundaries. At the end of my work day I put my phone on a silent mode for 30 minutes. I write down things that I have accomplished on that day and one thing that I am thankful for. I do basic breathing exercises. When I close my office door that’s the end of work – when I get in the car I listen to music until I get home.
What experiences are most useful for people becoming counsellors?
You need to be passionate, enjoy working with people and be willing to learn from your clients.
What seems to be the biggest obstacle for clients in therapy?
Not taking responsibility for the choices one has made over the years.
Mental health problems seem to be skyrocketing in our society lately? What are the reasons for this and what can be done about it?
I don’t think mental health issues are skyrocketing. Mental health issues have always been there. It is only that in our culture when we don’t understand something we find a way to label it. Mental health was often labeled as “botsenwa, mopakwane or boloi.”
There was a stigma for a person suffering mental health problem and their family. Often times they were ridiculed and treated as outcasts and shame to their families. Now people are beginning to be open about mental illness and it seems like it is skyrocketing because of the increased awareness.
We need to educate people more about mental health so that they can be aware and be sensitised on mental health issues.
That is a step to destigmatising mental health and learning the importance of early intervention, which can make a difference in one’s life.
If there is one thing you wished your clients or patients knew about treatment or mental illness, what would it be?
Mental health is a real illness. It’s not a character defect and it is okay to live with mental illness.
I have heard that after a couple has a child, which is notably one of the happiest times in anyone’s life that the satisfaction and overall happiness in the marriage can dramatically decrease. Is this true, and why is this? What can couples do to sustain their marital happiness after children?
Having a child is a transitional time in a couple’s life. The reason why it feels like a couple’s happiness has decreased is that the couple did not prepare for the transitional period and therefore they don’t know how to behave, or support each other with the introduction of this new person in their lives.
It is important for the couple to prepare for this period. This is another time in a couple’s life where couple’s therapy is necessary to help process and explore different ways of preparing for the anticipated additional member of the family.
The challenging thing in this transitional stage is that one partner takes a back seat while the other one is the driver of all things baby.
It is a normal transitional challenge and with preparation and awareness it can be handled better to ensure that the fire keeps burning.
What do you do to personally cope with stress in your life?
I pray, read, exercise, spend time with the people I love, balance family life and work life.
If you had your schooling and career choice to do all over again, would you choose the same professional path? If not, what would you do differently and why?
I will do it all over again. I feel honoured and humbled when people come to my office and choose to trust me with their inner fears. It often gives me joy to see them walking away with a smile.
As a therapist I make a difference in people’s lives.
What is the best advice you can offer to readers on leading a meaningful life?
Be true to who you are as a person.
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