The New Beginning

It’s been a few weeks now since I’ve officially ended my service with Peace Corps and it’s taken me this long to process that this chapter of my life has come to an end. Quite honestly, I’m still processing and I probably will be for a while. I guess that’s what happens when you open your heart to an experience or a place or people – you’re changed forever and the journey leaves an indelible imprint on your soul. There are moments I feel sick to my stomach at the thought of having walked away from one of the most beautiful places I have ever known. The pain of separation overcomes me and I ache at the thought of all I left behind. But as the most kindred to me know, “There is no way to both stay and go.” 

And to go was the choice I made, to begin a journey of another order, eternally grateful to have been seen off by some of the most genuine of spirits I’ve ever come across. We laughed, we (I) cried, and we learned Ticky’s magic broom trick. I can only hope that the people who I’ve connected with in the last two years have an idea of how profoundly they shaped and enriched my time in St. Vincent.

With any ending comes a new beginning and now I’m back in DC stepping one foot in front of the other, searching for something that I’m not even sure exists yet. I’ve promised to let my intuition guide me, but often I find it making me dizzy; this path has been full of twists and turns as I try to navigate my way through the Unknown. But I’m a firm believer that when you follow your heart, you can never make a wrong decision… After all, that’s what led me to the Peace Corps, and it opened my eyes to the world in a way I could never have imagined. Gratitude seems insufficient for something that’s changed my life so completely, but the humility of thanks has been one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned. So to everyone who’s been a part of it all, those who have followed my stories from near and far, and to all who have supported this dream, it has meant so much to me and I will never forget what it has taught me and helped me to do. From the very bottom of my heart …

Thank You.

Love,

Camille

RPCV St. Vincent and the Grenadines ’10-’12

Namaste: A Peace Corps Yoga Movement in the Eastern Caribbean

A group of fourteen people lay on the grass in the Botanical Gardens in St. Vincent on a pleasantly warm Saturday morning. Their breathing is slow and calm as they practice the final resting posture, Savasana (Corpse pose), at the end of a one-hour yoga class underneath the cool shade of breadfruit and coconut trees and a partly cloudy blue sky.

The group that has come to practice this morning is made up of local Vincentians, Peace Corps Volunteers, ex-pats, and visitors. Many are regulars at the bimonthly yoga classes that have been offered at the Alliance Française in Kingstown since January 2011, while others are completely new to the practice.

As class comes to an end, students approach me with questions about poses, to introduce themselves and to share observations of how differently they felt at the end of class compared to the beginning. The relaxation, peace of mind, and sense of community are palpable as each person moves with noticeable ease and lightness in their energy at the conclusion of the session.

Such is the remarkable magic of Yoga, which in the Hindu language of Sanskrit is translated to ‘yoke,’ or ‘union’. This ancient practice whose origin can be dated back by some scholars as early as the 3rd millennium B.C. continues to become increasingly popular in the westernized world as a means to improve the body-mind-breath connection, thus improving overall health and well being.

Its benefits include increased sense of presence; improved flexibility, strength, and circulation; better concentration, focus, emotional regulation and mental clarity; and heightened levels of peace and compassion for self and others.

In our work as Peace Corps Volunteers, it is no surprise that this mindfulness practice is incorporating its way into an ever-growing number of service projects. Already on three of our six island posts, PCVs are using yoga to help us in our mission to promote a lasting sense of peace and friendship, one island at a time.

Grenada

Last summer PCV Katie Randall (EC83) was introduced to REACH Grenada, a group-based youth curriculum that seeks to support the health and wellbeing of Grenada’s most vulnerable youth. As part of the Bartholomew Lawson Foundation for Children, a New York based non-profit, REACH Grenada provides a supportive space for healing and recovery through self-expression. Utilizing mediums such as song, dance, games, art and yoga, children who have experienced early trauma in the forms of neglect, abuse and abandonment build positive coping mechanisms and to release negative emotions constructively.

Six months into her service Katie introduced this curriculum to a group of teenage boys in conjunction with the caregivers at a residential home where she had helped run a summer program. Her background in yoga paired with her desire to positively impact these youths’ lives made for an ideal secondary project. “Life skills in the form of anger management, conflict resolution, self-regulation, and being in the present moment wrapped up in awareness of this safe space,” Katie says, “is a crucial element of life for young, vulnerable youth.”

St. Lucia

PCV Sarah Templeton (EC83) began teaching yoga to a group of four women at a holistic wellness center in St. Lucia in August 2011. After recognizing the need for increased exposure to the concept of healthy living, she moved her yoga project to a secondary school where she discovered that greater numbers of people would come to class each week. “I found teaching the teachers was really effective because it helped them with stress management and better breathing techniques, which maybe would help in their day to day,” said Sarah.

One major challenge she faced with newcomers was disarming their preconceived notions that yoga is an expression of negative forces or anti-religious associations. Despite these misconceptions she found that the classes have continued to grow and that her students express a genuine curiosity about the practice.

In May 2012, Sarah began offering yoga classes to the youth at Upton Garden Girls Centre. Their reception is promising she says, and her hope is that they recognize the benefit of emotional regulation through breath and movement. Sarah hopes to continue the expansion of yoga in St. Lucia through starting classes for secondary school students and supporting the emergence of community classes around the island.

St. Vincent

In addition to teaching at the Alliance Française and Botanical Gardens, my own service has included an offering of yoga and meditation sessions to students and graduates of the Community College Art Program. Twice a month since November 2010, I have gathered with these leaders of the country’s creative youth movement to aid in facilitating their growing sense of awareness about themselves, their environment, and their work as emerging artists in SVG.

After nearly two years of yoga in the Art Room, student Sean Roache has found that starting his day with Sun Salutations has led to increased productivity and decreased stress. In June he also found himself turning to the practice to help in easing the emotional pain from the untimely loss of fellow artist and yoga practitioner Jennifer Lewis, a dear friend of the Art Room and cherished member St. Vincent’s creative community. Sean’s practice has also led to the revelation of profound insights about resilience and interpersonal connections. “The ability to maintain sanity in loss is a greater reward than simply rejoicing in victory for your wins,” Sean says. “I’ve learned that yoga is a powerful tool that can bring people together.”

It is this spirit of togetherness that reminds us the practice of yoga is one that extends beyond the space in which we practice. On the mat we practice cultivating peace within ourselves; off the mat we practice taking that peace out into the world as we show up more present, more loving and more compassionate, ultimately helping to make the world a more peaceful place.

And isn’t that was Peace Corps is about?

Namaste.

The Medevac

I arrived in Washington, DC on May 29th, exhausted, vulnerable and feeling defeated. Just the morning before in St Vincent I realized I had hit rock bottom. My existence at post had become one of unbearable isolation, and a depression of overwhelming proportions had set in that I could no longer cope with alone. So from my friend’s house near Kingstown, I called our medical officer in St. Lucia to wave the white flag and signal S.O.S.

 “I need your help,” I told him, my voice cracking as tears welled up in my eyes.

With that plea began the process of my medical evacuation from St. Vincent. In less than twenty-four hours I was on a plane out of my host country, heading back stateside to receive care and attention from the Peace Corps medical services office in our nation’s capital.

Over the course of my 45-day medevac, I saw a counselor at Peace Corps headquarters several times a week who supported and witnessed my healing as I gained the perspective to cope with the issues and challenges that brought me there. When I wasn’t at HQ, I explored the District with my camera, a journal, and my mending self as I searched for meaning in the aftermath of chaos. Then on June 17th, I felt the chaos resurface again when I was told of the death of my friend Jennifer Lewis in St. Vincent. It was at home in California where I sought a few days’ refuge as I worked through that grief and sorrow. In her passing I learned that such loss is not always truly loss but rather profound spiritual transformation that can ultimately bring us even closer together in transcendental forms and energies. And perhaps most importantly through this whole medevac ordeal, I rediscovered that the purpose of our most difficult struggles is always to help us continue to grow and learn, and that the rewards of these lessons can lead us to the people and places we’re meant to know.

“You see, no one ever told me that as snakes shed skin, as trees snap bark, the human heart peels, crying when forced open, singing when loved open.” – Mark Nepo

In no uncertain terms, the last six weeks have seen my heart both weep and sing. But what’s been released has left me with a stronger sense of my purpose in this world and what I want to leave behind.

There are still questions that have yet to be answered, but in the process of healing and allowing myself to pause and breathe and receive these gifts, I feel more connected now to the ground beneath me and to those around me. So as I prepare to board a plane back to the Caribbean, I know I’m carrying back with me a heart that’s been opened and faith restored, along with the deepest and most honest gratitude I can possibly express to those who helped me along during this most unique and page-turning chapter of my story.

Pepperstorm

A storm came Sunday. It was unexpected, unannounced, uninvited. Some storms, like this one, devastate and leave a wake of tears and chaos and confusion, and we are left to search the remnants of a life transformed to make sense of a senseless wrath.

But other storms are of a gentler nature. We are nourished by its rain, its winds sweep away staleness, and their sounds are more like soft spoken words than demonstrative booms of threatening thunder.

Such was the nature of our Pepperstorm sister. Creative, gentle, compassionate, and conscious. A truth seeker whose loving spirit rests in the forms she created with her heart.

In sorrow we uncover layers of compassion for the humanity in which we all exist, and in this spiritual lesson it is also revealed that our process of healing is also shared. Strength is gained from the relationships we cultivate with honesty and love, and with the memories of those whose blessings are spiritually eternal.

Light and love, that which lives on forever. 

— for Jennifer

http://www.pepperstorm.co.uk/

http://pepperstorm.blogspot.com/

Camille in the Capital

Currently in Washington, DC on a Peace Corps-sponsored wellness hiatus of sorts. More on that story later, but some photos of our nation’s capital for now…

Fight or Flight?

I would be lying if I said I’ve loved every minute of every day of being a Peace Corps volunteer. And I would be lying if I told you that I don’t seriously consider abandoning this journey in search of greener pastures on a semi-regular basis.

Don’t get me wrong. There are many wonderful things about the Peace Corps, and about the Caribbean and St Vincent, but there is also a list of challenges equally as long to match. Lately these struggles have been getting the better of me and every day I find myself questioning what I’m learning from the challenges I face.

For almost two years now I’ve lived in a village over an hour’s van ride from Kingstown, in a rural fishing community nowadays best known for being the hub of SVG’s … “alternative agriculturalists.” It’s basically as far away as you can get from the cultural epicenter of St Vincent on this side of the island, and the van ride is NOT easy. Whenever I’d meet someone in town and tell them where I live, the response is always astoundingly consistent. “Oh, that’s so far,” they’d tell me, with a look of surprise/confusion on their faces. At an event I attended a few months into my service I met an American ex-pat who’d been living here for some years and I asked her why I always received such a response. Very few people who live near town ever go all the way down to Chateau, is what she told me. Plus, she added, they’re probably also wondering if you work on a ganja farm.

As soon as I got here I knew my post was going to be a major lesson in patience and learning to sit still in one place for a while – a cruel joke to a compulsive wanderer! But I’ve managed to have experienced periods throughout when I’ve felt deeply connected to my community, stable and secure here working in multiple projects simultaneously and spending the majority of my time around the village. So much can be learned from living in a place like this, so radically different from where I was raised. The limited resources, the family connections, the local rumor mill… it can teach a person so much about community living within the means of what’s available to us. But the wanderer in me still remained and it’s this side of myself that’s felt incredibly cut off from a lot of other learning opportunities St Vincent has to offer. By mere nature of where I live and the limited transportation, I quite often feel unfulfilled on many different levels, seeking intellectual conversation and yearning to surround myself with beings whose energetic vibrations ignite positivity and inspiration…

It’s no wonder why most of my secondary projects have been outside of my community, around town and at the college. Creating spaces and linking with other sensitive individuals who share a mission to heighten awareness and expand our collective consciousness – for this I’ve gladly suffered through many a loud, sweaty, spine bending, roller coaster van ride, for making those connections are what’s kept me afloat here.

With five months left, I question daily what my purpose is in the time that remains, and the wanderer inside is anticipating the impending transition with some anxiety. Five months to some may seem like nothing, but my inner restlessness is speaking loud and clear – How much longer do we have to stay?

But with no idea yet where to wander off to next, patience and stillness again are the lessons to which we return, continuing to question and reflect on what will be of most service to us and those around us.

So until we settle on a new place to flee, it’s back to fight the good fight for now. At least the view’s not so bad…

Mother teachers

My neighbor children came by for a visit today while I was busy with some typical Sunday house chores – laundry, cleaning and cooking. They picked up their feet as I maneuvered the broom around the legs of the table and chairs and I smiled with amusement recalling my own childhood memories of my mom mopping our kitchen floors, paper towels under her feet, while I sat on the sofa in the living room watching.

Here in St Vincent on this wet, rainy Mother’s day I’ve been filled with emotion as I reflect on the many teachings we receive from our mothers. From mine I’ve learned independence, strength and spiritual faith, despite some critical differences in opinions and beliefs; while I also recognize in her where my less desirable qualities like absent-mindedness, clutter around the house, and nervous laughter were inherited.  But she has also been a pillar of inspiration in some of the most challenging life lessons of healing and forgiveness, for which a daughter in her coming of age years must be endlessly grateful as she encounters her own difficulties on a personal journey that she herself has chosen with the freedom and blessings granted to her by her life’s blood.

This week that journey presented some of the most gratifying communal experiences in the nurturing presence of our Nature Mother, whose highest teachings are available for all of us to receive, as long as we are present and open. In a mission to record the visual and energetic stimuli of different heritage nature sites in St Vincent and Bequia, I joined the heART room family as we embarked on the first steps toward erecting an historic Kingstown mural representing the country’s unique and mystical offerings. Brought together by this creative opportunity to express and offer a shared love for the islands, I was moved and inspired by the dedication and sense of community that came forth from the youth participating in this endeavor. Each site, while unique in its cultural significance to SVG, is rooted in nature and each individual in the group seamlessly found her/his connection to the sacredness of the environment as we all worked hard to document our personal experiences.

In this way of being with and observing her gifts, Mother Earth teaches us in whispers of the wind through trees, in the gentle touch of the water in the sea, and in the majestic wisdom of emerald mountain rainforests that what is most precious to us is that we are all connected to her, that we are all one and that it is our urgent responsibility to protect and share her gifts for the greater good.

i heart yoga art

Last year I wrote a post about how Bob Marley’s song No Woman No Cry got me through a difficult time while I wandered through the Botanical Gardens near Kingstown. This song has become a sort of anthem for me during my time in St. Vincent as I return to it whenever I need to be reassured that Everything’s gonna be alright. It’s certainly one of the most beloved songs to have ever come out of the Caribbean, and the people’s reverence of Bob Marley’s lasting legacy is really quite humbling. A few weeks ago Sheridon said to me, “Teacher Camille, in school we learned that Bob Marley was a peace maker. I want to be like him and make peace too.”

The video below was created as a personal expression of the song’s message. Along with the grounding energy of the mountains in the backdrop and the sacred gifts revealed through a dedicated yoga practice, these are the treasures that have continued to help me strengthen and support body, mind and spirit in this journey.

After I posted the video to Facebook last month, Grenadian yogini/teacher/artist Malaika Brooks-Smith-Lowe featured it on her wonderful and inspiring blog, Groundation Grenada: Action Collective

The outpouring of support and encouraging words I’ve received in response to this video have been incredibly humbling, especially since the idea for it was initially conceived as a personal side project to fill my time after passing on my role as editor of Serious Ting. Eventually this process, creative in its essence, led me to realize a new dimension that Yoga has taken on in my life. The practice for me expands now beyond a moving meditation done in private, and has evolved into an invaluable tool for expression of self and emotions… Yoga as Art. How grateful I am to have been given this as a gift that I hope to keep sharing.

one love

camille aragon, yoga artist

breaking points

The Edge… there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. – Hunter S. Thompson

The last few weeks have taken me on a detour, on a journey in which the focus have been on lessons far and away from working, striving, reaching and achieving.

For all of last week I was bed-ridden by an infection on my right leg coupled with a twisted and swollen ankle and shin, from falling down the stairs in my house twice in one day. It was a perfect storm and it knocked me down, hard.

I spent the beginning of last week in denial about my situation, convinced I would be back on my feet in no time. But the tears that would come involuntarily as my leg throbbed with pain each time I tried to stand, along with the words “hot mess” that the Peace Corps doctor used to describe it, made me start to realize that I would be out of commission for longer than I had initially thought.

The nature of being a peace corps volunteer is difficult enough in and of itself. There is an underlying feeling of vulnerability and loneliness that come with being put into a community of people who all knew each other before you arrived. Sometimes those feelings are quieted by connections created and relationships built. Other times these insecurities can be magnified by circumstances beyond one’s control.

I’ve been incredibly lucky in my life to have never so much as broken a bone or suffered from any majorly devastating medical concerns. So to be debilitated by these recent health issues was excruciatingly challenging for me. I couldn’t move freely, do any work, or practice yoga. My only job was to rest and heal and to absorb the spiritual and emotional lessons that were the real reasons this had happened to me.

Nothing in this life, or any other, happens at random and lessons are always delivered when they are meant to. My brother Matthew’s birthday was last Monday. He passed away in a freak accident when we were teenagers; he was 15, I was 13. Every year on April 23rd I feel an overwhelming sense of pain and loss on a day that should be filled with happiness and celebration. But this year, on what would have been his 30th birthday, I felt the depths and darkness of a pain and suffering unlike any I’ve experienced since his passing.

They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Sometimes I wish I had the ability to shield myself from hurt and sadness, and do realize that on some level I guard with ferocity the most vulnerable parts of my being. But I also know from experience that the heights of true happiness cannot be fully felt without also having learned from the mysteries of sadness and despair. This is the spectrum of the human experience.

And so the journey continues, the healing goes on, and the strong get stronger as I give thanks for the blessings that emerge from the beauty in these lessons, for myself and anyone else also healing themselves from something unimaginably and unspeakably painful…

Because, aren’t we all healing from something?

isle of spice photos

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