My Journey with a Remarkable Tree
by Ken Finn
Eye Books 2005

In the context of abundance, how can one differentiate between need and desire? As yoginis and yogis, how can we live the ethical principles of yoga (the yamas and the niyamas) to the fullest extent possible, from our relationship with ourselves to the ones we engage in with foreign lands as consumers in the global market? Ken Finn’s My Journey with a Remarkable Tree calls upon us to contemplate these questions and then act.

Finn travels to Cambodia in search of its Spirit Trees, to commune with them and to receive enlightenment from their powerful presence and communicative energy. The journey takes him to the back roads of Cambodia on a darkly humorous motorcycle ride where, with despair and shock, he encounters first-hand the illegal logging of the Spirit Trees and a collection of corrupt officials who, for profit, enable it to take place.

Finn’s grief and anger propel him to discover what becomes of the logged trees. Through a comical shift in identity, Finn crosses the Cambodian border and finds his way into factories where he witnesses the trees being turned into garden furniture that will be shipped by the hundreds of thousands to garden stores in North America, Britain and Europe. Most poignant is his experience of being in the factories among the Spirit Trees and experiencing these once spiritual beings as carcasses.

Throughout the book, Ken Finn’s self-awareness, irony and gentle sweetness carry him through encounters with a full cast of idiosyncratic characters who challenge and support his journey toward finding and following the Spirit Trees. Through his eyes, we can begin to feel the political and spiritual impact of the logging trade in Cambodia, especially for the forest dwellers whose lives are impoverished by deforestation, and then way beyond its borders to our own backyards. He makes the violence and destruction of the Spirit Trees striking when he reminds us of the banality of its cause: the tremendous demand for garden furniture that will lie dormant in a yard with little use.

Finn ends his book with a plea for his readers to stop engaging in consumerism. He asks them to use their imagination to consider the possible origins of items they purchase and the effects of their production on the countries, peoples and ecosystems from which they come. After reading My Journey with a Remarkable Tree, I cannot look at any object in quite the same way. I cannot help thinking how tightly related are our spiritual practices and the choices we make as consumers, and how what we buy and if we buy deeply impact the livelihoods and spirituality of those near and far. – Elizabeth Antonette Papagni

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Waking Up to What You Do:
A Zen Practice for Meeting Every Situation with Intelligence and Compassion

by Diane Eshin Rizzetto
Shambhala 2005

Through our everyday thoughts and actions, the author of Waking Up to What You Do asks us to stop and take the required time and distance to assess their true meaning and deep psychological origins. In essence, she states that by following the path of the Zen precepts with mindfulness, we can understand why we think and act as we do, cultivate awareness and eventually change for the better.

To demonstrate how these precepts can be applied, she relates many critical moments of her own life, notably her relationships with her partner and her Zen students. In fact, since the book references almost exclusively her experiences, I’m not sure if one should consider it to be a self-help book or a meditative autobiography.

For anyone wanting to learn about the basics of Zen, the introduction is an interesting read. Rizzetto starts out by explaining the Zen philosophy and its ten precepts, of which eight are then reworded and reordered to present positive affirmations more accessible to today’s audience (example: “Not Indulging in Anger” becomes “I take up the way of letting go of anger”). The book is infused with this flexibility and does not want us to be “imprisoned” by absolutes, judgements or any other external influence. As the author suggests, “the precepts are not to be taken as a yardstick by which we measure our own or others’ self-worth; rather they are gateways through which we can realize the mutual human foibles we all share.”

Once we can identify and be attuned to the “Just This” moment where we step back and observe our feelings, thoughts and actions from a mindful distance, we can evaluate each situation with intelligence and compassion. This, explains Rizzetto, is achieved by questioning our motives and by probing our physical and mental states. The process of personal growth then operates at its own pace (taking days or years) and leads to an essential question: “What prevents you from living the way you want to live your life?”

The rest of the book tackles each of the chosen Zen precepts and methodically follows the process the author prescribes. Narrating situations in her own or her students’ lives, she progresses to its deeper considerations and imparts conclusions, pointing out the rigidity in our own perceptions and feelings as the source of the faults we perceive in others. She then suggests practical exercises that can be completed by the reader in hopes of becoming more mindful in similar circumstances.

In spite of this first-time author’s awkwardness with prose, through which she projects a slightly moralistic interpretation of her own teachings, Waking Up to What You Do is a thought-provoking book that invites the reader to sharpen mindfulness in the presence of the most ordinary, everyday moments. – Brad Muncs

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Vive le Vegan!
Simple, Delectable Recipes for the Everyday Vegan Family

by Dreena Burton
Arsenal Pulp Press 2004

When I was handed this cookbook and saw the word “vegan” in the title, I scoffed. Vegan recipes? How complicated can that be? Granola Soup? Soy-Carob Casserole? Ha! But oh, how I was soon eating those words – and eating some truly succulent vegan meals.

Vive le Vegan! is a follow-up to Dreena Burton’s first cookbook, The Everyday Vegan, which featured vegan cooking as something that can be done at home. Having had children since the release of Everyday Vegan encouraged Burton to make an updated vegan cookbook, slightly more family oriented. The recipes in Vive le Vegan! are designed to take less time out of a parent’s busy schedule, and there is even a back section of the book devoted to bringing up your own little baby vegan. It contains year-by-year advice on what vegan foods are best for the baby at that time, as well as how they are prepared. Burton raised both of her children using this very schedule.

As a non-vegan, I find it hard to believe that you can make “normal” vegan food. I mean normal as in simple things that you can pronounce and that don’t take a whole day to prepare. The author explains that most people share my presumption that cooking vegan translates into preparing gourmet cuisine. But Vive le Vegan! contains simple recipes like chocolate chip cookies and rosemary potatoes. At the same time, Burton stresses that the recipes are not so simple that they lack taste.

I was curious about just how simple these recipes could be, so I tried them. A great aspect of this cookbook is that most of the ingredients can actually be found in a grocery store. Some newer grocery stores even have health food sections for some of the more specialty ingredients. Looking through the recipes, I noticed a few ingredients I doubted could be found anywhere but a health food store (but once you buy yourself, say, a pound of hemp seed nuts, they become part of your cupboard and are available for the next recipe).

The book itself is of a fine quality. Although lacking photos, the recipes are easy to understand, even for the non-vegan like myself, who has not yet been acquainted with kamut grain. Each recipe also provides variations and substitutions for wheat-free methods. As well, it provides a clear and concise glossary, and a chapter on hemp foods.

The only difficulty with this cookbook is the alarming recipe names: Chipotle Corn Black Bean Soup may indeed be simple, but sounds intimidating. As well, I was a tad put off by Hemp Sprinkle until I realized it was a salad dressing. But again, the non-vegan will learn to be comfortable with these recipes as they start with the very basic, familiar ones, then work their way up to that Millet-Amaranth Porridge.

Can a cookbook have a moral? I am no longer judging books by their covers, nor vegans by their titles. Vive le Vegan! I concur. – Elizabeth Ollmann

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Resistance and Renewal: Surviving the Indian Residential School
Celia Haig-Brown
Arsenal Pulp Press 2005

Canadians are not known for hubris, but one thing most Canadians will show some pride about is the belief that Canada is the good guy of the world; an identity that is exhibited in everything from peacekeeping and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to politeness. However, Canada has an ugly not-too-distant past in the treatment of First Nations Peoples that is not commonly acknowledged.

In her book Resistance and Renewal, Celia Haig-Brown compiles first-hand accounts from members of the Shuswap Nation of the west coast, who were forced to attend the Kamloops Indian Residential School. As children, these individuals were taken from their family homes to a giant brick institution operated by nuns and missionaries, where they were subject to all manner of abuse, and punished if they spoke their own language. The mission of these schools was to integrate Native children into white society, or in other words, cultural genocide.

Resistance and Renewal is a cultural and historical study, but Haig-Brown’s intentions for the book are to reach beyond the academic world. There is “richness and insight” in the stories her informants tell, and she seeks to reveal to a wide audience the skeletons in Canada’s closet. The stories of her informants are organized by common themes and experiences, and lay out a clear portrait of suffering and subversion, the infliction and consequences of deep wounds. Her analysis of the school system elaborates how these injustices originated in the racist notions of Canadian government policy makers who referred to their work as “aggressive civilization.”

For the non-Native audience, Haig-Brown gives faces and lives to a particular segment of First Nations people, and attempts to show something of the origins of the social problems those people face today. White Canadian society can easily ignore this tiny percentage of our nation’s population, but in ignoring the history of Canada’s treatment of indigenous people our national identity as the good guys of human rights becomes a lie.

It is important for all Canadians to bring these issues into their national historical knowledge, and to recognize that they are not in the past, but in contemporary society. The last residential school was only closed in the nineties, and the children of the system are now adults and leaders of their communities.

Since its first publication in 1988, Resistance and Renewal has found a place in the popular realm. Non-Native Canadian readers continue to be educated about the state of the third world within our borders, and Native readers have found their own experiences reflected in its pages, leading to the healing of old wounds suffered by individuals and communities and to the continued fight with the Canadian government for apology and recompense. – Ian Cant

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Light on Life:
The Yoga Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace and Ultimate Freedom

by B.K.S. Iyengar
Rodale Press 2005

The test of a teaching lies here: can we use it to find our way through life’s vicissitudes, its tragedies and minor irritations? If it cannot help on that level, leave it on the shelf. This one belongs right beside your mat.

In Light On Life, yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar at last articulates on the teachings that have illuminated his approach to Yogasana. The precision, detail and insistence on perfection have entranced thousands of Westerners. But how many of us have really understood that he has been trying to take us to a meeting with our own soul?

Why do we have a body? Mr. Iyengar says, “so that we can come, through diligence in asana, to understand our mind, and so reach our Soul.” What is asana for? “To sharpen and awaken the intelligence, thus showing us the true meaning of our embodiment and of the divinity that animates us.”

Guided by the sutras of Patanjali and using the five koshas as his framework, Mr. Iyengar takes us through the progressively subtle stages in the search for the soul, with asana as our vehicle. We learn about extending and expanding from our very core; we learn how driven we are by our emotions; we come to understand that “all behaviour is dependent on our thoughts” – those vrittis! We discover the simple, essential art of living in the present. And, finally, we ask in each asana: who am I?

Everything that comes up as we work with asana can be understood and worked with through one or more of the sutras. If, for example, I force my hand to the floor in Trikonasana, losing the integrity of the pose, there’s something wrong with my approach to aparigraha and santosha, not to mention satya – and the wrongness will not be limited to my practice of asana.

In a world of increasingly slippery standards, Mr. Iyengar is well known for his refusal to compromise. “I become angry when my students throw away their God-given talents on bhoga-yoga, look-good, feel-good, do-no-good yoga,” says Iyengar. He also observes: “Positive emotions, pity, kindness and a general but diffused feeling of goodwill are not equal to virtues. They are often no more than narcissistic self-indulgence. Real compassion raises the question: ‘What can I do to help?’”

The frequent Americanization of style and content fails to respect Mr. Iyengar’s own writing style. Similes or analogies that are pure Iyengar clash with those obviously deriving from a Western life experience. It is a delicate task to edit an author whose understanding far surpasses one’s own, whose first language is not English, and whose culture is vastly different.

Nevertheless, there are felicitous passages, whatever their source. For example: “Asana is a sacred offering.” “We are surrendering our egos…. Use asana to sculpt the mind…. Intelligence does not chat.”

A wake-up call in a pop yoga culture, these teachings from one of the world’s best-known yoga masters may well help pull Western yoga out of its materialistic preoccupations. Mr. Iyengar is abundantly clear about the true goal of a yoga student. – Karin Lenman

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Kiran Ahluwalia
by Kiran Ahluwalia
Karuna Music, Triloka Records 2005

On Kiran Ahluwalia’s self-titled third album, I hear a conversation of musical influences that do not compete, but complement each other in true collaboration. The spirit of the music shines brightly through, dissolving any lines separating cultures. Kiran was born in India and raised in Canada, and her music explores and merges these identities, realizing a clear expression.

On this album, Kiran changes her focus of interpreting traditional music from India and Pakistan to creating music for contemporary texts – in this case, the Urdu and Punjabi poetry of three Torontonian poets: Rasheed Nadeem, Rafi Raza and Tahira Masood. This merging of music and poetry brings the Canadian ghazal to life. The ghazal is a form of poetry originating in Persia 700 years ago. On this album, Kiran begins with poems and by adding inspired music turns them into songs. She collaborates with musicians who play a combination of Eastern and Western instruments. The sarangi and tanpura sing alongside the guitar and bass. From still lakes and bubbling creeks, the tablas are like water traversing the disk. They form a percussive base, playing with Kiran’s voice to create a variety of colours and moods. Her melodic voice soars above the landscape, narrating the scene, and then swoops down to become a part of it.

Listening, the music affected me in a similar way. At times mesmerizing – disappearing into my subconscious and then emerging with sudden sharp presence. These changes happen subtly, so it’s not always clear when the rhythm changes – there is sublimation from one space to the next. It is a journey. I don’t understand the words, but I feel the passages. Within the many layers of music, there is the sense of an exchange happening. Inside the music and between the music and me, I experience something that doesn’t fit into my language of explanation and I am richer for it. – Shannon Grey Duncan

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Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life