Our history

by Cathy Calderon

Yesterday I spent the afternoon with a good friend riding our bikes through Brooklyn and over to the old Fulton's Landing overlooking the East River and New York Harbor.  It's a beautiful spot - the Brooklyn Bridge Park with a bike path that stretches all the way from the Manhattan Bridge, under the Brooklyn Bridge and around the curve of shore line to Red Hook.  

We sat on a little hillside just above the water, and watched, mesmerized, for hours as the boats moved up and down the river and out into the harbor - water taxis, ferries, sail boats, big ships, barges, every conceivable type of boat doing all sorts of tasks.  The water was rolling in big, undulating, turbulent waves moving this way and that, and through all of the motion could be seen the steady stream of the strong current.  At one point we rode underneath the two bridges and marveled at the massive structures holding up these magnificent towering bridges, with cars, subways, bikers, joggers and walkers all moving between Brooklyn and Manhattan in a constant exuberant flow.

What I felt all afternoon was a sense of wonder, awe and deep deep gratitude for being alive in such a turbulent, expansive and passionate time.  Yes, there seems to be danger all around these days, and certainly enormous uncertainty.  But what a glorious time to be alive on this earth!  The river and all its bustling activity made me think of the great stream of life - how it never stops, how it changes constantly, sometimes peaceful and gentle, sometimes wild and turbulent.  But through it all, always this constant and steady current drawing us forever home.

As we all know, next week is the tenth anniversary of 9-11.  Shambhala Center was born in the aftermath of that terrible day.  That day has become one of those markers -- "Where were you on..." kind of days.  As anniversaries roll by, we retell the stories over and over, trying to make sense of that which is senseless, attempting to find peace in the midst of painful memories.  And so I'll tell the story once again of Shambhala's birth.  Bear with me if you've heard this story already...

In June of 2001 I had just graduated from my yoga teacher training.  After more than 25 years of practicing yoga, I had finally decided to take the plunge.  It was a rigorous, challenging, transformative training that left me blown open, my heart and spirit on fire with inspiration, my entire being vibrating with possibility and passion.  The summer passed in a kind of blissed-out fever of happiness.  My children were little, we spent most of our time in a little cottage on Fire Island, and I felt that after many years of struggle and inner turmoil, life had finally opened its arms to me and welcomed me into its embrace.

Then that terrible morning... and everything seemed to crash as I watched the towers burning, and then collapsing in a terrifying display of annihilation.  Paul and our little boys and I watched the whole thing from the living room window of our 11th floor apartment.  The world seemed to be ending, and we sat with our sons on our couch and tried as best we could to prepare them for what we thought may be coming.  Even as I write this now, I can feel the horror of those moments, hours, and days that followed.

That night I helped organize a candlelight vigil to the fire house in our neighborhood (St. Johns and Washington) where the entire company of 11 firefighters had lost their lives that morning.  With a group of neighbors we walked over, where we joined in with others already assembled, offering prayers, hymns, chants and tears.  Afterward I was approached by a community leader who asked if I would help organize a larger memorial service, which was held at the Brooklyn Museum.  I remember vividly as I would walk around our neighborhood in the days after 9-11, seeing all of the vigil candles burning on stoops and sidewalks in front of houses and apartment entrances, signalling that someone in that home had been taken when the towers went down.  I could not walk more than half a block without weeping and often collapsing in a flood of grief.  From this experience, I felt called to do whatever I could to help our battered community heal from this devastation. 

And so I went back to the man who had asked me to help plan the service, and asked if he knew of a church basement or community center where I could offer free yoga and meditation classes to help people release some of the pain and fear.  He said that he believed what our neighborhood needed was a full time center for healing arts, and that he knew of a storefront that was available.  He took me to see the space and meet the landlady.  It was in a building that had been vacant for over 20 years only recently renovated, on a block that was lined with burnt out, abandoned buildings, many used as crack houses for decades.  Clearly this was a dramatic symbol of the kind of despair that can overtake a community when hope is extinguished.  

When I walked into the little space, ushered in by our soon-to-be guardian angel Haileejaa, I stood in a kind of daze, trying to imagine myself teaching yoga here, searching my heart to see if this felt like home.  Later that night I told Paul about it, and said, "This is crazy.  How can I open a yoga center, when I've never even taught a public yoga class?!  Shouldn't I wait a year, get a little experience teaching at other studios, and the think about something like this?"

To which he replied, "We might not be here in a year."

That pretty much captures the mood of those weeks and months following that tragedy.  Life seemed precarious and precious - something never again to be taken for granted.

And so I decided to do this ridiculous, crazy thing - to open a yoga and dance studio with absolutely no experience teaching, and no business background.  By all accounts, we should have gone under within the first year or two.  But somehow the magic began to happen.  People appeared from everywhere, offering their support and help in getting the space ready to open.  And I'll never forget that opening weekend -- November 10-11 -- chilly and windy, brooding skies.  We offered two full days of free classes.  I walked around the neighborhood distributing flyers under every doorstep, posting them on every pole, for days pounding the streets.  And then the people came!  Crowded into the little room for every class. 

And I taught my first yoga class to a roomful of brand new beginners - many of them from cultures that would never be exposed to yoga.  Some brought their children and parents to the class with them, walking in shyly, their eyes wide with curiosity - what's going on here?  Three generations rolling out mats side by side, the little ones falling asleep, curled up peacefully during the final relaxation.  And we were launched.

There are so many memories flooding through me as I reflect on these ten years of Shambhala's life, culminating in this last year as I released my role as guardian and passed the torch on to Sarah.  Memories of all of the wonderful teachers who have come and gone, some staying with us through the whole ride, others leaving for a while then returning, and many new teachers coming in to renew us with their fresh enthusiasm and inspiration.  Memories of wild, outrageous salsa parties, and the passionate drumming of Haileejaa and Ronnie for Melvin's always joyous African dance class, Pupy's crazy Afro-Cuban workshops where he would sometimes get possessed by the spirits and throw the drums around as he screamed and danced in wild ecstasy.  Watching Mariyah's belly dance class begin when they used to be held on Tuesday nights, as I would finish up my Chakra Yoga class, then pretend I had work to do back in the corner as she started her class, just so I could bask in the beauty of her gently undulating motions for a while before heading out into the night and the walk home.

And so much healing.  Beautiful, moving yoga classes and workshops, meditation courses, community ceremonies for healing and release.  I remember on the first anniversary of 9-11 we held a community gathering, and during it I asked people to write down their prayers and wishes and place them in a basket in the center of the circle.  Afterward I told then I would place the basket on the altar for a year, then burn the prayers, allowing the smoke to rise up to the sky, taking the prayers with it.  When I went the following year to get the prayers, one fell out of my hand and dropped to the floor.  I noticed a child-like scrawl, and remembered one little boy who had come with his mother and had been so engrossed in the whole experience.  I looked at his prayer, and I'll always remember its simple beauty:

"I ask God to help us all.  Yes God - help us.  Good old God!"

I chuckled, thinking how wonderful it was to be able to think of God as "good old God" like a favorite uncle or a best friend.

So many memories.  And now we are in a new phase.  I told Sarah when she was taking over the leadership, that Shambhala had been born in darkness, in the midst of great suffering and despair.  And that I was the perfect midwife for that birth and early development, because I have been so intimate with the shadow side of life for much of my own.  But that now it was time for Shambhala to move fully into the light - and Sarah has a nature that is filled with light and hope and open-hearted sincerity and inspiration.  She has brought many swift and dramatic changes to our beloved little center.  And while many of you are exhilarated by these changes, I'm sure for some of you these changes have brought a sense of discomfort, even fear.  But I encourage you all to see beyond the small picture -- how things have changed a lot -- and see the grand scope of her vision.  I somehow managed to keep Shambhala afloat, to keep it surviving.  But Sarah's vision is to guide it beyond survival mode, and into full-throttle, soaring, thriving glory, while at the same time maintaining its roots in its original mission: to provide a safe oasis for us all to come together in healing and celebration.  I, for one, am thrilled at what I see happening!

As Shambhala continues into this new phase of its life, I invite you all to find ways to help it stay rooted in its beautiful garden of community.  One of the things that was so special about our original space was how we all were forced to mingle together from the moment we walked in the door.  No waiting area, no receptionist to greet us -- just all of us thrown together into one big pot!  Now we have the wonderful spaciousness of the upstairs greeting and gathering area, and two beautiful healing arts rooms!  But the risk in that can be that people begin to fall back into that guarded urban stance:  come in, pay for your class, set up your mat, do your yoga, and leave without ever greeting the others around you.  So I offer you the challenge to keep our new, expansive space as intimate and cozy as our original space was.  Turn to someone next to you as you're setting up your mat and waiting for class to begin, or upstairs as you're removing your shoes and signing in.  Introduce yourself, start a conversation, go back upstairs after class and stay for a few minutes, just hanging out, soaking up the atmosphere, talking with the karma yogi receptionists, massage therapists or other yoga or dance practitioners.  Make it your home.  Make it part of your vibrant, cherished community.

As we witness the big changes that Shambhala has undergone, it seems that this is a good meditation to contemplate - that there is nothing in this universe that does not change and move and flow, and that life is not meant to be clutched at or forced into submission or kept in a box so that it stays the same.  Rather life - like love - is a great ride, a great rolling, adventurous, exhilarating and sometimes scary ride.  If we could only learn to relax and enjoy it!  

And once again we find ourselves, like in 2001, in scary, unpredictable, even chaotic and dangerous times.  Can we face this challenge and take refuge in the power of our name?  "Shambhala" comes from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and refers to the mythical kingdom that in legend is hidden in a remote valley high in the Himalayan Mountains.  It is here that the great sages and visionaries retreated at the start of this latest dark age, which began thousands of years ago.  It is said that they saw what was coming, and knew that if they did not keep safe the wisdom and teachings that had been handed to them, the world would be doomed.  So they resolved to remove themselves from the world, create a center of spiritual learning and deep, rigorous practice and training, so that they could continue to transmit these teachings to their descendants.  And these great descended beings would be ready, when the world reached its darkest hour, to emerge and spread the wisdom that would help guide us back into the light.  Not a religious message, not dogma, but simple profound teachings of how to live in the authentic power of who you really are - a descendant and aspect of the Great Source.

I read this story as a metaphor for the kingdom that is within each of us - the place of wisdom and peace and great strength and courage.  We are each called to tap into our own inner Shambhala and be a beacon of hope and enlightenment for the frightened, confused people all around us.  Each time we smile encouragingly at a neighbor or co-worker, or stay calm and kind during stressful times - whether on line at the bank or store or subway platform, or while stuck in traffic, or preparing for the next natural or fiscal onslaught, or helping out in the aftermath -- each time we can stay relaxed in the eye of the storm, we are reinforcing this message of hope and courage.

Can we root down, as we talk about in our yoga poses, send those roots from our pelvis all the way down our legs and feet and down, down, down into the earth?  Can we draw up from the depth of the earth, draw up that energy and power, drawing in strength and support and stability and courage -- enough to face the turbulence and panic all around us?  Can we reach out and draw in the support of friends, community, family, and Spirit - God, if you like to use that word -  to steady us and fill us with the determination that would allow the kind of comment made by the mother of one of my friends -- a woman who had been battered by all sorts of challenges and tragedies, a single immigrant mom of eight children, whose favorite expression was: "Life is tough, but I'm tougher!"  Everytime I would hear that phrase it would send a thrill through me. Oh, to have that kind of warrior spirit!  That's what life demands! Who ever said it was supposed to be easy?  The time for regret, complaint and accusation is over!  We're in a boat on a turbulent river heading into the wild open sea - time to put on your life vest, grab an oar or hoist the sails, and hang on for a wild ride!

This afternoon there was one particular ferry boat that caught my attention -- the one that makes the loop between Brooklyn, Manhattan and Governor's Island which is a popular destination for picknicking, bike-riding, kayaking and general frolicking.  The boat was packed, and it seemed everyone had crowded out onto the front deck to catch the views and the invigorating wind.  The boat was rolling and churning madly through the chaotic water, dodging barges and speeding water taxis, and the people were laughing and waving and shouting to one another and gesturing toward the shoreline at familiar landmarks.  The feeling was of a grand party, the start of a wonderful adventure, everyone excited and filled with the thrill of anticipation of a magical afternoon.  

May your days be filled with wonder, exhilaration and magic, and may the promise of adventure and deep fulfillment offer its hand to you, that you may see how full and rich and wondrous your life already is.  As one great sage said in a quote I love to use:  "Stop seeking abundance, and start seeing it - everywhere!"

Here's to life as a boat ride - destination unknown, but the scenery alone is worth the ride!

As Walt Whitman's words, inscribed on the railing at Fulton's Landing, celebrate so well:

"Flow on, river! Flow with the flood-time, and ebb with the ebb-tide!
Frolic on, crested and scallop-edg'd waves!
Gorgeous clouds of the sun-set! drench with your splendor me!
Stand up, tall masts of Manahatta! Stand up beautiful hills of Brooklyn!"

Stand up, indeed!  Stand up, and celebrate a life too complex and mysterious to ever keep safe and neat!  Stand up and cheer for all those who have faced what life has brought, have seen it, felt it, born the brunt of it, and still they stand on the front deck of the boat, facing the wind and waving in excitement at what's still to come...

Love & blessings to you all,

September 2011