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.
‘Cancer took away my boobs, not my life’
Sun Health: What events led up to your diagnosis, or, how did you discover that you were suffering from cancer?
Mpho Kgaodi:My journey with Breast cancer started in 2012. Around April I felt a lump on my right breast. It was not painful at all, just slightly itchy. It was on the upper part of my breast. I ignored it for about three days but it kept nagging me and then I decided to go see my doctor. He also confirmed that there was a lump on my breast He sent me for mammogram that confirmed an abnormality on the structure of my right breast. I then went to see him with the results and he informed me that there are two ways to test that lump – Biopsy, which meant that he will be taking a piece of that lump to send it to the laboratory for examination and the other option was to totally remove the lump, Lumpectomy. I decided that he removes the whole lump, because I really didn’t want that Lump on my breast.
SH: We know that about 10% of all breast cancers are hereditary. Are there other women affected in your family?
MK: I don’t know of any other woman or even man in my family who has had cancer, though it is hereditary.
SH: What were your first thoughts when you received the diagnosis?
MK: I cried for a brief moment. I was overwhelmed with emotions, fear of death. I quickly recovered from that dreadful thought and remembered that I have a great husband and three boys. I felt that I had so much to live for.The doctor informed me about the options I had regarding treatment and he gave me time to think about it. I drove back home to Lobatse and by the time I arrived at my house, I had already made up my mind that I am going for total removal of the breast. I broke the news to my family and they were just as shocked as I was when the doctor broke the news to me. I explained to them my decision to go for surgery and they were very supportive. Few weeks later, I went for a mystectomy.
SH: How long were you in treatment
MK: The surgery was followed by Chemotherapy. The first time I walked into the oncology centre, I found so many people there already. I then realised that I am not the only person with cancer, it is so many of us. It gave me strength and courage. I had heard that the side effects of chemo are brutal, seeing those people made me realise that if others can do it so can I. I decided to go for it as I had so much will and spirit to stay alive and raise my kids. After the second session of chemo, I started losing my hair, nail beds turned black. I was never discouraged though, despite my aching body and the constant nausea after chemo. I had six cycles of it. In 2013 around April again, I experienced severe pain on my left breast, but with no Lump. My doctor again recommended I go for a mammogram. It confirmed cancer which was still at stage 1. I then insisted that they remove the breast. I would lose both my breasts but I knew staying alive for my boys was more important. Other people thought the pain was psychological, and I knew what I felt and my mind was made up. I had the second mastectomy and had to go through another cycle of chemo which I completed. I am now on oral medication. I take my tablet daily. It is recommended that I take it for ten years. I have just started on my year 6 on the tablet. I do go for regular check ups, to establish if the cancer is not back.
SH: What helped keep your spirits up and gave you support during this period?
MK: A good friend of mine and colleague told me about Journey of Hope Botswana. He introduced me to them, and I had tremendous support from them. I also went to Cancer Association Botswana to introduce myself. My family has also been my backbone, supporting me through it all. I am so greatful. On days that my spirits are low, I always take my mind to positive thoughts. I try to remind myself of the good times, sometimes I even find myself laughing out loud.
SH: How has this affected you at a psychological level?
MK: My life has not really changed for the worst. Like the saying “when life gives you lemons, make lemon aid out of them”. I lost my job after the second diagnosis of cancer. While this affected my family financially I never got discouraged, as this gave me time to take care of my family. I am a full time stay home mom. I walk this journey with my family. My boys understand that I had Cancer but now I am okay. They sometimes check if I have taken my medication, and they would even ask about my next appointment. I am blessed to have them.
SH: Facing the diagnosis of breast cancer is one of the most feared experiences in our society. What has been your experience as you worked with communities through Cancer Association of Botswana (CAB)?
MK: Working with CAB has been eye opening. Through motivational talks and other actives like the annual stiletto walk, the message has been positively received. There is still a lot to be done though, especially to make people understand that breast cancer is NOT a death sentence. So many lives can be saved.
SH: Amongst raising awareness, cancer awareness month is about celebrating individuals like yourself and their triumphs over cancer. Is there anything you would like to say to the community of cancer survivors and women in general?
MK: I have learnt so much from being diagnosed with cancer. I appreciate life more. I never used go and see a doctor without any pains or any thing “wrong” with my body. Now I do it regularly and so far I always get a clean bill of health. I encourage everybody to do regular self -breast examination. It is easy, convenient, cost-effective and can really help with early detection. I believe there is a lot to be done as far as breast cancer awareness. Remember men can also have breast cancer.
To all those who are going through cancer at the moment, remember you are not alone. Let’s walk this journey together. Let’s walk with Hope, Courage and Strength. There is life after cancer. Cancer took away my boobs it did not take my life. As October is breast cancer awareness, let’s support those affected, honour the survivors and remember the fallen.
PINK RIBBON ALWAYS
Caroline Gartland speaks on Children and Mental Health
Tell us about yourself and your background
I’m originally from the UK but have been in Botswana for eight years so this is now home! I have a Combined Honours degree in Psychology an MSc in Mental Health and have had a pretty varied career.
I started off working with offenders doing rehabilitation programmes; went on to support the victims of domestic violence then ended up working in Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services for the National Health Service.
I’ve done a lot of work, mainly voluntary, in different fields since being in Botswana but my passion is now Early Childhood Mental Health.
What does your work entail?
Early childhood mental health is mainly working with parents, caregivers and teachers to help them understand how children develop and the best ways to support their mental health and brain development as they grow. It’s about providing training and opportunities for families to bond with their children and introducing new ways of playing and interacting.
What sparked your interest in early childhood mental health?
Quite simply, having my own children! My daughter was born five years ago and I was fascinated watching her develop and grow. It occurred to me that the younger you begin to consider mental health and provide tools for resilience against life’s adversities, the better outcomes you are likely to have.
I began reading everything I could get my hands on, and completed a diploma in Infant Mental Health. I’ve worked down the lifespan but I feel I’m now where I belong, working with babies and young children.
What mental health issues have you observed in children in Botswana?
Mental Health is still stigmatised around the world and Botswana is no exception. Most people immediately think of mental illness, but mental health is about so much more; we all have mental health and some days we are fine and able to deal with life’s challenges and some days we need more support and tools under our belt to help us cope.
Young children can experience mental health problems. Anxiety is a common one, but we are more likely to focus on the behaviour we see rather than how the child is feeling. An anxious child who refuses to go to school may be labelled as ‘difficult’ or ‘naughty’ but what they are expressing is a painful emotion that they need help dealing with.
Describe one thing you find fulfilling and challenging about working in this industry.
Working with children and families is a pleasure and a privilege. To make life a little bit easier for someone is all that matters, you don’t have to be out there saving the world to make a difference.
My major challenge is time. I would love to do more, I’d love to do an MSc in play therapy and a couple of other therapeutic techniques I’ve come across in Europe but that gets put on hold as I focus on my own family and business.
Can you share an anecdote about how mental health consultation works?
I think that education, understanding and connection are the three keys to giving a child the best start in life. Led by that, SensoBaby provides classes in the community for parents and caregivers to connect with their infants.
We offer workshops on parenting and play to foster understanding of child development and wellbeing and we are available to troubleshoot specific problems an individual or agency has with the young children in their care or the systems they have in place. When it comes to individual parents, mostly what they need is to feel heard, supported and guided in their parenting choices.
You can read all the baby books in the world but they won’t give you the answers you need for your child, through responsive parenting and connection, you’ll find you have the solutions you need.
What advice do you have for child-care providers or early childhood teachers who are at their wits’ end over a child’s challenging behaviour but don’t have access to a consultant?
Empathy is an important and undervalued skill – the ability to consider another’s viewpoint. What is that child feeling? Their behaviour might be challenging and hard to deal with but often the root cause is an unmet need. There’s a famous quote from an American Clinical Psychologist, “The children who need love the most, will ask for it in the most unloving ways.”
Does a mother’s mental health affect her foetus? How important would you say is paying attention to women’s well being during pregnancy as with their physical well being?
100% yes. It is so important to support a woman’s wellbeing during pregnancy. As an example, if the mother experiences significant stress and rising levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) during pregnancy, the foetus will be affected and in some cases will be more sensitive to stress in childhood or later in life.
Pregnant women and new families (Dads as well!) deserve nurturing care themselves and shouldn’t be afraid to ask for support. SensoBaby run FREE monthly coffee mornings to support pregnant and new mothers because we understand the importance of maternal wellbeing.
Do smart phones and television make our children mentally ill as is often purported?
I don’t think technology is always the villain it’s made out to be. The key is in the relationship with that technology. Moderate use of TV’s and smart phones are fine, as long as they aren’t a substitute for outdoor play, imaginative play and meaningful interactions. If a child is crying or upset and we hand them a device to keep them quiet then we have missed an important opportunity for connection, helping them process what is going on and supporting them to calm down and settle themselves.
Now, I know you are involved in an exciting programme that helps caregivers and children to bond and get the children off to the best start in life through play. Can you say a little bit about that work and just how you are seeing it play out?
SensoBaby is our baby; a project born from passion and a desire to support families in Botswana. We offer play-based classes for children and their caregivers that are underpinned by the principles of child wellness as well as early foundations for learning.
When you provide developmentally appropriate opportunities to play, you learn so much about your child. That understanding and observation builds strong connections, which will form the basis of that child’s future relationships and self esteem. Play is so much more than ‘a fun activity.’
We offer a number of trainings and workshops for parents, nannies and community stakeholders and hope to increase our offerings this year. Our community partnerships and voluntary programmes have been successful so far and we hope to see more impact in 2018.
We currently serve the Gaborone community but would like to expand throughout Botswana as opportunities arise. The response to SensoBaby has been fantastic so far and we can’t wait to see how far we can go with the concept!