Category Archives: Faith & Spirituality

Forgiveness, Courage, and Leaps of Faith: Why I Left My Job

Nelson Mandela is one of my heroes.  As leader of the newly formed, democratic South Africa, he rejected anger, revenge, and violence despite decades of suffering incredible injustice. Instead, he turned to reconciliation and encouraged both the former oppressors and oppressed of his country to work together to do the same. In the movie Invictus, he offered this advice to his black bodyguard who had trouble working with newly assigned white colleagues:

Forgiveness liberates the soul.
It removes fear.
That is why it is such a powerful weapon.

I was drenched in sweat. My face turned to the right, my entire left ear pressed against the soaked towel. I lay on my belly, body and mind still. My Bikram yoga teacher broke the silence in the room and said, “Time waits for no one. What are YOU waiting for?” Her words slapped my face and seeped through my every pore. The clarity I sought for years suddenly came rushing forward out of the fog of uncertainty and fear. That moment propelled me to listen to what my heart had been saying for so long.

Eight years earlier, I felt directionless and burned out. I left my job and took a leap of faith by backpacking for four months through Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Portugal, and England with someone I loved. As I lived through this life-altering experience, I had no idea that the travel bug would bite me so hard. When I came home to NYC rejuvenated, I promised myself that I would see at least one new country every year.

I worked at a private, philanthropic foundation helping give away millions of dollars annually to colleges and universities. I was ambitious, driven, and pushed myself to the limit. I asked for (and got) more responsibilities, pursued a Masters degree part-time, got married, bought a house, and still managed to travel for three weeks to my new country of choice. But soon I would learn that my go-getter attitude was not sustainable. My body eventually rebelled and broke down gradually, cracking under my self-imposed physical, mental, and emotional prisons. Medical doctors only offered me prescription drugs and surgery to help me deal with the severe, chronic pain I felt throughout my body.

Desperate for an alternative, I turned to an Eastern healer and Bikram Yoga. I channeled the same hard work, focus, and determination that put me in this mess to get myself healed. Working to heal myself was hellish and grueling because it was an irritatingly slow process and went against everything that our pill-popping, quick-fix culture teaches us.

In every Bikram studio, students are instructed to look at themselves in the mirror for the entire 90 minute class. As a beginner, I could not look at myself without unceasing criticism. You’re too fat. You’re too injured. You’re not flexible enough. You’re not good enough. Each time I looked in that mirror, I confronted my own worst enemy: me.

The intensity of the heat magnified the challenge of the yoga poses. Many times, all I wanted to do was collapse, give up, or run out of the room screaming. Magically, my teachers knew when to offer me the compassion I needed to back off. Johanna, stay still. All you have to do is breathe. They also knew when I gave up too easily. You fall out, you jump back in! Johanna, what are you waiting for?”

To survive in that hot room required only a calm breath. Surprisingly, even that seemingly simple act was the most challenging. The classes where I struggled to “just” breathe were the ones that dealt heavy blows to my ego. Patience, compassion, and forgiveness were forced to set in because there was little room for self-criticism, judgment, and attachment. The salty tears and gallons of sweat chipped away at the protective walls I built so long ago against hurt and pain. It no longer mattered if I wasn’t good enough, quick enough, pretty enough, or smart enough. All that mattered was that I do my best. And when I fell down or fell out, all I needed to do was jump right back in.

As counter intuitive as it may seem, acknowledging my humanity afforded me the freedom to access my inner strength. Only when I forgave myself could I allow myself the chance to start again.

In the 2½ years of practicing Bikram yoga, I no longer feel the weight of the world.The chronic debilitating pain I once felt, is completely gone. Today, I am the healthiest I have ever been in body, mind, and spirit. I have learned to live my life the same way I practice yoga. I tackle each challenge and uncomfortable situation with a calm breath, a focused mind, and a compassionate heart. I have learned to be okay with uncertainty, fear, and discomfort knowing that these feelings ­shall pass. I am still learning.

Last Thursday, I said goodbye to my colleagues of eight years at my secure job. I venture now into uncharted territory. Yesterday, I arrived in Los Angeles for 9 weeks of full-time certification to become a Bikram yoga teacher. I have always dreamed of becoming self employed, doing things that I love most. Leaving my job and becoming a yoga teacher will make room for my greatest passion: writing travel stories and making travel videos with my husband. I feel that my mission in this post 9/11 world is to promote cultural understanding and healing. As a yoga teacher, I can help others who seek redemption. As a traveler, I can tell you stories about the places I visit and the people who live there. As an anthropologist, I can provide a unique insight to these cultures.

Every morning we awake, we are given another day for the chance to start anew. That journey always starts with the decision to forgive. I’ve learned that forgiveness first begins with ourselves before we can bestow it to others. Only then can we become courageous. Only then can we aspire for greatness. Only then can we inspire others to do the same.

A Tradition from Ponza, Italy Continues: The Feast of San Silverio

Religion. Politics. Power. Plots. Exile. Death.

Tile Rendering of Ponza's Main Port

All these ingredients create a perfect recipe for a dramatic plot.  But residents of Ponza, the largest of the Pontine Islands off the Italian coast in the Tyrrehenian Sea, celebrate a man whose life experienced them all.  The Ponzese annually celebrate the feast day of their patron saint on June 20 with a Roman Catholic Mass, a street procession with the statue, and abundant food.  Accused of treason for another’s political gain, Pope Silverius was deposed in the early 6th century.  Despite numerous attempts to prove his innocence, he was exiled to Palmarola, a harsh and rugged island 8 miles from Ponza, where he died.

The Ponzese were among the surge of Italian immigrants arriving in the United States between the 1880s and the 1920s.  Many arrived in New York City and eventually settled in the Bronx.  Like most immigrants, they continued their cultural traditions, one of which was the feast day celebration of their patron saint.  A fraternal society organized the Bronx celebration, which would mimic the one in Ponza.  After Mass at Our Lady of Pity Roman Catholic Church (now a closed parish on 151st Street near Morris Avenue), the faithful would process behind the statue throughout the neighborhood.

Hymn to San Silverio

By the mid 20th century, irreverent onlookers would throw eggs and bottles from building windows onto the processors.  In response, society member Ercito Mazzella offered to donate 81 acres of land in Dover Plains, NY that he recently purchased.  Located approximately 70 miles north of the Bronx, Mazzella originally intended to develop the land but instead, urged the society to raise funds to build a shrine that would serve as a permanent site for future processions to be held in peace.  In 2012, the San Silverio Shrine in Dover Plains will celebrate its 50th anniversary.

A Mass celebration and a small procession continues to be held every June 20 in the Morris Park section of the Bronx.  A week later, on Sunday morning, the shrine in Dover Plains hosts another celebration attracting hundreds of families, all of whom are descended from or somehow connected to the island of Ponza.

Fr. Ciro Iodice, OFM, sailed to the United States from Ponza on the Andrea Dorea in 1956, the ship’s penultimate voyage before it sank.  For the last 30 years, he has celebrated Mass at the shrine, driving several hours from Massachusetts to do so. He explained that many people participate in a procession because the saint is invoked for a specific intention or thanked for an answered prayer.  “A procession is a solemn, spiritual dialogue where a person can be in communion with the saint, with other members processing, and with the earth…the surrounding elements, both visible and invisible.”

The procession snaked along a forested path, led by a marching band and Rev. Iodice followed by men who carried the statues of the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, and San Silverio with the rest of the participants behind them.  The procession lasted 30 minutes with a pause in the middle for prayer. Red carnations on San Silverio’s boat were distributed to the crowd and several people pinned money to the ribbons adorning the saint’s statue at the conclusion of the ceremony. These donations were visible signs of requests or thanks.

Guido Rivieccio carried the statue of San Silverio this year as he has done for many previous years.  “As a kid, I was involved with the feast in Morris Park and I’ve been carrying the statue for about 10-15 years,” said Rivieccio.  He does it to honor his parents pointing especially to his father who was standing a few feet away.  The elder Rivieccio carried the statue in New York and in Ponza as a young man.  Rivieccio tries to remain connected to his roots by attending this annual celebration and by traveling back to Ponza.  Four years ago, he tattooed an image of San Silverio on his entire right deltoid and bicep!

Over time, most societies formed by newly arrived immigrants whither away as the connection to the homeland becomes more distant.  Yet for generations, these American descendants of Ponza have gathered with their families to celebrate this annual tradition in Dover Plains for almost 50 years.  Their devotion to San Silverio and their connection to their roots have not died. Let’s hope they never do.

People Power

The Tunisian people successfully toppled their president from power after mass protests in the streets, instigated by a humiliated fruit vendor who set himself on fire (and subsequently died) after a female police officer confiscated his wares and slapped him.  On the heels of these events, the Yemeni and Egyptian people are also taking to the streets to protest their dissatisfaction with their governments.  It is Day 6 of protests in Egypt and  I am transfixed by what I see on Al Jazeera TV.  These images bring my mind back to late February 1986, when a nation took to the streets of its capital Manila.

The People Power Revolution in the Philippines occurred on February 22-25 when masses of people publicly protested against the authoritarian Marcos regime.  Presidential snap elections occurred earlier in the month and declared the incumbent, Ferdinand Marcos, the winner despite widespread rumors of election tampering and corruption.   With members of his cabinet and the military turning against him and the archbishop of Manila calling the people to peaceful protest, Marcos eventually fled the country.  Corazon “Cory” Aquino, his opponent in the election and widow of Marcos-opposition leader Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr., assumed the presidency.

I see a lot of similarities between those protests 25 years ago in the Philippines and the ones today in Egypt.

  • People are fed up with a despotic regime led by someone in power for too long. Despite claiming to be purported democracies, these presidents have been in power for 20+ years (Mubarak for 30 and Marcos for 21)  with administrations full of rampant corruption, political repression, nepotism, and human rights violations.  The media is controlled by the government.

    The Phlippine Sunday Express Headline on September 21, 1972

  • The military fraternizes with protesters. The recent images I’ve seen from Egypt have been ones of a baby sitting on a tank and a woman or man kissing a soldier.  In the Philippines, people brought their families/children to the streets, young women handed flowers and food to the soldiers.
  • Religious prayer is observed despite the chaos. In Egypt, I am struck by a line of men on the floor, kneeling and bowing in prayer as soldiers surround them.  They remind me of the Filipino nuns and priests linking arms and joining the people to form  a human chain against an approaching army of soldiers and tanks.  They prayed the rosary out loud and raised up their hands which held rosary beads or the Bible.   Some protesters even cradled statues of the Virgin Mary.  They used prayer as a powerful tool of resistance. 
  • The United States finds itself in an awkward position. Historically, both Egypt and the Philippines were considered US friends and allies.  Both countries provided the US the anchor it needed to carry out its political interests within a region of instability (the prevention of the spread of communism in Asia and the spread of religious fundamentalism in the Middle East).  In fact, the US aided Marcos when he fled from the Philippines.  He was extracted from Malacañang Palace and eventually brought to Hawaii by US Armed Forces.  He stayed there until his death in 1989.

    Ferdinand & Imelda Marcos visit President Reagan in the US in September 1982

We do not know what the outcome will be in Egypt despite the similarities I just pointed out.  I do hope that the protests will end as peacefully as possible.  The Philippine people are proud that the revolution in 1986 was bloodless with no shots fired at the people.  To learn more about the People Power Revolution, click hereBoth black and white photos above & the photo immediately below were found on Francesca Cojuangco Guingona’s page.

Cory Aquino in 1997 with the ubiquitous "L" sign from the revolution. The hand sign stands for "laban" or "fight". She wears yellow, the color of the revolution. Picture courtesy of the GMA News Blog.

Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, son of Ninoy and Cory Aquino, flashes the L-sign during his presidential campaign. Sworn into office on June 30, 2010, he is the current president of the Philippines. Picture courtesy of The Philippine Star.

Guest Blogger at Bikram101 Blog

Day 79

Hi everyone!
I wrote a post for the Bikram 101 blog, which you can find here. Stop by, look around.  Enjoy.

My life is insane but my daily practice has kept me grounded.  I am so grateful.  I miss you all and I promise, when things aren’t crazy, I’ll be back to blogging…but probably after this challenge is over.

I’m proud of all of us as we get closer to the finish line!  I’m happy we did this all together.  Namaste!

What the frak?!

Day 3

Well, I had a whole, eloquent post written and by the accidental press of a button on my keyboard, poof!  It’s gone.  GONE!  I can’t retrieve it and I’m too frakkin‘ frustrated right now to re-write what took me about 45 minutes to conjure.

Suffice it to say, my original post was about convalescing, not going to yoga for a second day, and feeling left out of the action.  I used the metaphor of a marathon race and how the start gun just fired and all of us, giddy with excitement were moving past the start line, eager to start the challenge, and how suddenly, I tripped.  I had to bend down and tie my shoelaces while the crowd left me behind in it’s wake.  I  am happy for the rest of you who have completed three classes and it is such great fun reading your blog updates.  Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel frustrated that I can only account for one class while everyone else is on their third or fourth.

Then I recounted about going with The Husband to church today in the bitter cold and how it sapped all my energy.  That’s when I knew I wasn’t back to my 100% strength.  With my hood up and head down, I held The Husband’s arm and allowed him to lead the way without having to look up as we crossed streets and dodged people on the sidewalk.  Then it transitioned to the concept of trust and how it so nicely coincided with today’s Feast of the Epiphany in church, where three wise men followed a star to Bethlehem and upon finding the baby Jesus, presented Him with gifts of gold, frankinsence, and myrrh.  Further explanations about the importance of trust and how the wise mean serve as examples of how trusting the process in our lives and in our yoga is good for us.  And there you have it.  My vanished post just haphazardly recreated with such disinterest and dismay.  Arrrrrrrgh!

Signing off now and hoping tomorrow, I am 100% better (and less cranky) to return to work and go back to yoga.  Peace out.

SUPER FAT Tuesday

Are the stars grossly aligned so well that we are celebrating Super and Fat Tuesday on the same day? And of course, there’s the Giants and the ticker tape parade in downtown Manhattan this morning. And there’s Chinese New Year in two days!!!

I’m completely over-stimulated, I must admit.

I did my civic duty and voted after work. Is this a great great presidential race this year, or what?!! I never thought that I would ever see such fervor in this country to vote especially among young people. I’m used to their complacency, feelings of disenfranchisement, and total lack of interest. I just watched ABC News and thus far, 11 million registered Democrats came out and voted nationwide tonight. And of the tallied votes there is only a 17,000 popular vote difference between Clinton and Obama. It’s an exciting nail biter!!!

After I voted, I witnessed a very sweet moment in front of the local public library, which served as a polling place on days like today: an African-American woman was taking a picture of her daughter, who couldn’t have been more than 5 years old. As I walked up to them, I realized they had just voted together and the mom was taking a picture of the historic event and her daughter held open a big sign hanging around her neck…kinda like those folks on a NYC corner wearing billboards and distributing flyers for manicures, eyebrow threading, or men’s custom suit tailoring. I was thrilled that this little girl was getting taught at an early age about the importance of this civic duty! Touched by this moment, I stopped and offered to take their picture together. Mom agreed and as I was about to take the picture, I had to ask the girl to open up her sign since it got crushed because she was so busy hugging mom. She was so cute as she obediently followed my instructions, revealing a homemade sign with a picture of Obama that said, “Obama for President”.

Doesn’t this story just make your heart melt??? What a country!

There, I’ve proclaimed my side.

What are the taboo topics one does not discuss on a first date? Religion, politics, and sex (and ex-es as a corollary to this topic). Well, I would rather not discuss these topics either on my blog. So why declare who I support? Because it’s important for me to state who I endorse (Ha, like I’m a somebody with any political power or money!) at this juncture of the race.

Hey wait a minute…I voted. Why didn’t I act like a total slovenly glutton in honor of Fat Tuesday?

Pope John Paul II, 1920-2005 – Welcome Home

For anyone who knows me, they know that my faith in God is very important to me, that I have chosen to remain an active participant of the Roman Catholic Church, that I struggle daily with the Church’s teachings as made clear by Pope John Paul II, and that I rarely wear my faith on my sleeve. I have never been one to proselytize my faith to others, partly because I believe everyone is entitled to their religious ideas and need not hear what I have to say about mine but more importantly, I believe that the best expression of my faith is through living a life of love, trust, forgiveness, with a call to social justice.

I rarely would use my blog to discuss something that is so personal to me, as is my relationship to God and my relationship to the Catholic Church. But today, on the death of Pope John Paul II, the only Pope that I’ve ever known in my life, I felt that I could make an exception and put forth what my heart feels today.

Having been raised in a Catholic home whose family is from the Philippines, a predominantly Catholic country where the line between church and state does not exist, I have been exposed to the Church since I was born. It was only during my college years that I turned from the Church, eager to get away from what I experienced as a stifling tradition. Without my mother’s influence and gaze, I did not attend Mass on Sundays and shed all sorts of practices that I associated with Catholicism.

But God does indeed work in the most mysterious and the MOST GENTLEST of ways. Even though Sunday was filled with food, friends and good times, I felt like something was missing. I truly can’t explain it…except looking back now, all I know is that it was God’s Grace at work. So I tried going back to church and attended Mass on campus. I was struck by all the women who attended Mass out of their own accord without being dragged by parents and I witnessed how my peers incorporated their faith into their lives as students, as young women, daughters, and sisters.

Since 1994, I believe my faith has grown incredibly in due part because of my daily struggle with it, in questioning it, and in practicing it. Despite many painful disagreements with my Church, I still believe at the end of the day, that it is through Mass and the practice of the Catholic faith that I maintain my personal relationship with God, with others, and with myself.

I did not necessarily agree with all of Pope John Paul II’s conservative ideology but I do believe that he has been a wonderful example of how one can lead a moral life. I have to respect a man who holds fast to his convictions and beliefs and has not once swayed from them in the context of a fast changing and “modern” world. His impact on others through his selfless and loving actions, is a wonderful model for us as Catholics, and ultimately, as human beings. His life example transcended Catholicism yet it epitomized perfectly the teachings of Jesus Christ. He taught us how to live faithfully, how to give our wills up to the will of God, how to accept pain and suffering in life, in illness, and ultimately in death, and how to fight for what we believe to be right — to speak out and act on behalf of the disenfranchised, the poor, and the forgotten.

For these reasons, I am thankful to God for more the 20+ years of service this Pope provided. I am thankful for his life example. And I am thankful that he now is resting in eternal peace, free from human suffering and pain. The crux of my faith is the belief that death is not the end of life, but merely a transition to something better, something bigger, something so incredible that our own humanity will never have the capacity to fully understand it — the promise of eternal life. This is what I believe. Although Pope John Paul II leaves behind a great void in me, and perhaps in all of our hearts, I rejoice at his coming home. I will miss his incredible perservance, his fight for justice, his love for humanity, and his example to us all.


Pope John Paul II FORGIVES his would be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, December 1983 Posted by Hello