BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Cleansing with Sage

Sometimes all you need is sage. I recently tried it as a way for an energetic shower and a deep metaphysical cleansing.

How does it happen? Here's an article from

Whenever I burn sage (aka smudging) at my yoga studio before a session, I've heard comments like: 

"It smells like weed in here!" Or, "What smells like barbecue?" And then there's my all time favorite, "It smells like my grandmother's cemetery."

Sure, dried white ceremonial sage has a distinctly beautiful scent when burned. And if you're new to this practice, just try to be open minded about it. You can take a moment of meditation to notice if the smell evokes a sense memory for you. Where does that resonate in your body? 

Examine whether you feel a spiritual connection, or an earthy, ancestral stirring within your blood.
This is the smell of thousands of years of spiritual communion and ritual.

Smudging your sacred space, your home or office, or even your body with sage is like taking an energetic shower, or doing a deep metaphysical cleansing. The smoke from dried sage actually changes the ionic composition of the air, and can have a direct effect on reducing our stress response.
Smudging is ritual alchemy — changing and shifting the air element, and transforming our current experience to a mystical one.

The use of incense and other smoke and vapor to connect humans to the spirit world, can be easily traced throughout the East in parts of Asia and even dating as far back to Ancient Greece.

The use of dried white sage however, is a 2,000 year old Indigenous American practice. The shamans used dried sage plants on their fires as a ritual of calling upon ancestral spirits. Any conflict, anger, illness or evil was absorbed by the sage smoke to be released or cleansed from the energy field of a person.

Next, sweet grass would be burned to call forth the energy of peace and love. This ancient shamanic mystical ritual is a simple one to incorporate into your daily or weekly routine, or any time you feel like you might need a little aura polishing. You can never really smudge too much!
Some ideal (or necessary) times to sage smudge your aura and/or space would be:
  • When you move into a new living space
  • When you begin a new job or start your own business
  • Before and after a guest enters your home
  • Before and after a yoga or healing session
  • Before meditation
  • After an argument or any illness
  • Upon returning home from crowded situations
And here is a simple 3-step sage smudging ritual to try:

1. Use loose dried white sage or a white ceremonial sage bundle (aka wand), which is usually bound together by a thin string. You can find sage bundles at your local herb shop or health store, Wiccan/pagan bookstore, metaphysical store, and even some yoga and healing arts centers. Or, if you have a sage plant, you can make your own — just bundle and tie it, and then hang upside down in cool dark space until it is completely dried out.

2. Next, place it on any heat-proof burning surface like an Abolone Shell — a traditional vessel used by Indigenous American people that represents the element of water. Light the bundle by holding a flame to it until it begins to smoke. If a true flame appears, shake the bundle gently or blow until it is just embers and smoke. I often find that I have to re-light my sage bundle a few times during the ritual process. If you are burning loose leaf sage, the best method is to use a charcoal burning disk inside of a censor or small cauldron.

3. Once you have a nice smoke going, use you hand or a feather to direct the smoke over your body from your feet up to your head, then back down again. As you do this, visualize the smoke taking away with it any negative energy from your life, any darkness or malady.

If you feel comfortable with this incantation, repeat the following:

"Air, fire, water, earth. Cleanse, dismiss, dispel." 

The sage ceremony lifts the veil between the everyday and the sacred. As you say your incantation, you are shifting energy at will.

Once you have smudged your body, begin to move through your space. Wave the smoke into all corners, across doorways and into shadow spaces. To maintain the atmosphere of ritual, keep repeating the incantation in your mind as you diffuse the smoke.

Once the space is cleared, allow the sage bundle to either burn out or gently press it out in your heat-proof shell or container. You can even bury the remaining smudge in your garden to really feel the completeness of the cleansing ritual. Once buried, the sage has done its work in completing the elemental cycle. Ideally, you should try to use a new smudge for each cleansing.

Happy Enchanting!

Friday, March 18, 2016

Indigenous Women in the Philippines Are Fighting for Their Way of Life

My latest story for Womensenews

They woke up to the smell of gasoline poured on the canvas roofs of their tents at an evacuation center on the grounds of a church, the complaint says.

It was around 2:30 a.m. on Feb. 24.

"Immediately after, the tents were set aflame when a lighted torch was thrown in," reads the complaint, which was sent to a U.N. official as well as members of the press. "Five makeshift houses were already consumed by fire when it was put out."

Dormitories near the camp were also burned, according to the complaint.
The attack occurred on the compound of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, or UCCP, in Davao City in the southern province of Davao. Those under attack were over 500 indigenous people from the south of the country, known locally as Lumads.

Five people were hurt, including two children who suffered burns when the canvas roofs melted and fell on their feet.

Now Karapatan, a Manila-based umbrella organization of human rights groups, is waiting to hear back from Chaloka Beyani, U.N. special rapporteur on the rights of internally displaced persons. They submitted the complaint to Beyani at the 31st Session of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Switzerland, which opened Feb. 29 and runs through March 24.

While the focus of the complaint is on the burning of the encampment, advocates are also looking for help with the deeper problem of the Lumads' displacement pressures.

Legal advocates are lodging this particular complaint, but the Lumad themselves have been doing everything possible to protest on their own behalf.

Month-Long Protest

Late last year about 700 Lumads left their mostly thatched huts and makeshift homes in villages in different parts of Mindanao to travel on foot, by bus and ferry to a camping ground inside the University of the Philippines campus in Quezon City, a two-hour drive outside Manila.

Many were mothers who left their children to join the month-long protest.

One is Minda "Dindin" Dalinan, 36, from the Blaan indigenous tribe. She is a mother to eight children, ages 1 to 17. Dalinan left her children under the care of her husband and relatives. She didn't want to leave them but she knew that joining the protest was something she had to do to try to give them a peaceful life.

"In 2004, the military killed my father. My father is a member of the tribal council in our community. He was stubborn. He did not want to give up our ancestral land so armed men killed him. I just want the killings to stop. My dream is to see an end to human rights violations," Dalinan said.

She comes from the poor farming village of Bacong, Tulunan in North Cotabato in Mindanao, the second of the three island groups of the Philippines in the southernmost part of the country. She is a full-time housewife, taking care of the children while her husband ekes out a living as a farmer.

She spoke with Women's eNews last November inside the Baclaran Church, a popular 1932 Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines.

"Why would a mother like me leave her eight children?" she said. "It's because the human rights violations in our community are so rampant. I have to join this protest. It's too much."

Protesters called their trip "the Manilakbayan," a play on the words Manila, the Philippine capital, and "lakbayan," the Filipino word for journey.

The displaced evacuees at the center of the current U.N. complaint came mostly from remote communities in Davao del Norte and Bukidnon, both in Mindanao. 

They said they were forced to flee because of operations of paramilitary groups in their communities.

Country's Food Basket

Mindanao is considered the food basket of the country, with more than 700,000 hectares of land in the region covered by banana, pineapple, oil palm, rubber and other plantations.

Ten of the poorest of the country's 81 provinces are on the island.

By plane, the distance from Manila is more than 500 miles, or up to two hours away, depending on the province.

More than 500,000 hectares of land in Mindanao, or 12 percent of the region's land, are also covered by various mining concessions, according to industry data. The region ranks fourth in copper, third in gold, fifth in nickel and sixth in chromite deposits in the world.

Indigenous people say they are a business obstacle that mining concerns are leaving up to paramilitary groups, with possible help from the military, to remove.

Months before the Manilakbayan, the different indigenous tribes of Mindanao suffered a series of direct attacks, killings and harassment. The abuses were concentrated in three provinces--Bukidnon, Davao del Norte and Surigao del Sur–that host private Lumad schools that are regulated by the government.

Among the series of incidents against the Lumad, one of the most highly condemned was the displacement on Sept. 1 last year of at least 2,000 residents from the village of Diatagon in Lianga, Surigao del Sur.

Another was the killing of Emerico Samarca, executive director of the Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development (Alcadev). He was found inside a classroom hogtied, with a stab wound and his throat slit open.

The armed men then killed indigenous community leader Dionel Campos and his cousin Juvello Sinzo, who have campaigning for the protection of ancestral lands, said Josephine Pagalan, 37, a Lumad mother from the village belonging to the Manobo tribe.

"I was there, I saw them kill Dionel Campos and Juvello Sinzo," said Pagalan.

The murder has not been solved and the military has denied any involvement in the attacks, saying that the armed group did not belong to the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

International Attention

The incidents have drawn international attention.
On Feb. 12, 62-year-old American playwright and feminist Eve Ensler, author of "The Vagina Monologues," visited the Lumads in the Davao evacuation camp.

She was moved to tears upon hearing of the plight of the Lumads, according to, an online news site, which covered her visit.

"They love the earth. They know how the earth operates," Ensler was quoted as saying on the news site. "They are one with the earth and we're destroying them for mining companies, for greed, for capitalism, for exploitation and when you see how beautiful they are, when you see how generous they are, when you see how all they want is to be one with their beautiful trees and their sky and the earth, their rivers – how can any human being be doing this to them?"

Whoever is to blame, Lumad mothers said they want to live peacefully and take care of their children and return home from evacuation camps.

Gertrudes Layal, 43, left her five children, ages 8 to 19, to join the Manilakbayan. "I just want to protest so that we can keep our ancestral land. 

Mining companies want our land. They always promise development, they promise to give us jobs but they do not keep their promises," Layal said.

Pagalan, the Lumad mother from the village of Diatagon, left four children at home to join the protest.

"We want the government to be made accountable for the human rights violations and attacks," she said. "Mining companies promised too many things in the past but they did not deliver. We don't want to give up our land because money can be consumed but land will not perish."

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Old Jazz Band from Old Shanghai

This is a story of a legendary jazz band and how its music mesmerized us.  Photo by Jes Aznar. 

SHANGHAI, China - The thermometer, I suspect, reads four or five degrees Celsius. It is around 9 in the evening, on this cold winter night in Shanghai and my step counter says I’ve walked 11,000 steps already, a thousand more than required.

Twelve hours ago I was in the middle of Manila’s worsening traffic, navigating my way to the airport, to board a plane to this Paris of the Orient.

Landing in Shanghai around 4 p.m., I am brought straight to a posh nightspot, the tree-lined French Quarter, Xintiandi, which literally means the New Heaven and Earth, for a sumptuous Chinese dinner.

After dinner, we walk in the crisp cold winter evening, through the district’s quaint corners and curio shops.  At Nanjing Road, we revel under the dancing city lights glowing under a bright winter moon. 
Finally, we reach the famed Bund and we stand by the Huangpu River to savor the view of the city at night.

But by now, I am tired and cold and could really use a good night’s rest.

Oh, but our gracious host, Ambassador Carlos Chan, the Philippines’ special envoy to China, insists we should have some drinks to cap the night.

I can’t very well say no to a 75-year-old man who doesn’t look tired at all.
And I’m glad I didn’t because he was saving the best for last, right here inside the Peace Hotel, an iconic early 20th century gothic-style structure along the Bund.

It is known around the world as an art deco masterpiece while its amenities and interior were said to rival if not surpass European and Manhattan’s best.

The hotel, which originally opened on Aug. 1, 1929, is known as Asia’s center of glamor and glitterati for the rich, famous and nameless from around the world.

It is also a fitting home to a legendary group.

Indeed, it is here at the Peace Hotel’s Jazz Bar, a cozy bar with gothic chandeliers, where I find myself face to face with Shanghai’s legendary Old Jazz Band, playing live jazz music to a huge crowd.

Until tonight, I have never been up close with a world famous jazz group or rock band, one whose music could make one’s heart melt, feel warm all over and fall in love like a little girl.
They all look elegant in their suits and bow ties, as in the heyday of Shanghai jazz in the 1930s and 40s.

Stepping inside the bar is a trip to a different era, to Shanghai’s bygone days. The soulful music transports you. You hear the variety of rhythms, improvisation and the blues. The band makes you forget where you are; you get lost in the moment. It was a rabbit hole of sorts.

Indeed, nostalgia rules. And why not? The Old Jazz Band plays classic jazz, harking back to the 30s and 40s when most of World War II took place and had a profound effect on Europe and Asia. They play Beatles songs, too.

The Guinness World Records has acknowledged the band as the oldest in the world.
The band was official formed in 1980 but its members have been playing jazz decades earlier. Today, it is composed of six veteran musicians whose average age is 80.
Zhou Wanrong, the leader of the band, is 94 years old.

According to an article in the Shanghai Daily, Zhou was born in 1920 in Wuhan, the capital city of China’s Hubei province. He studied music at an institute named Juyuan in Wuhan’s former French concession.

It was in this school where jazz in China originated.

“I started when I was 14 and studied for three years,” he says.

However, in the 1930s, Wuhan banned dancing and jazz, so Zhou moved to Shanghai to form an all-Chinese band in what became the center of jazz in Asia.

In 2013, German documentary filmmakers Uli Gaulke and Helge Albers produced a documentary about the group: As Time Goes By, which followed the band from 2011 to 2012, including its gig at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam.

The band plays here every night. “We’ve been playing everyday since 1980,“ Zhou says.
The group has attracted a loyal following through the decades. US presidents Jimmy Carter and 

Ronald Reagan have traveled to Shanghai to listen to them.

We stay for more than an hour. I forget the time and the biting cold. I am just enjoying the music and getting lost in the moment. 

But soon it is time to go. It is almost 11 in the evening and I am sipping the last of my tea.

The musicians have packed their instruments and off they walked to a waiting private bus outside the hotel.

I don’t want to leave. But there’s no one on the stage now; the seats are empty, the spotlights have been dimmed. 

Then I realize that hearing them play even once is enough to make the music linger, to reverberate in the deepest recesses of my soul, echoing as we walk out into the cold on the Bund.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Notes from Heartbreak Hill

Curtains close. Music stops. Kisses end. Some good things never last. Moments, however intense, disappear with the passing of time.

Perhaps, ours disappeared with the cherry blossoms blown away by the February breeze or as we stood up there in the mountain that took my breath away. Or perhaps, in the middle of the night as dragons breathed fire and red lanterns lit up the night, you just decided that you would leave.  

Or maybe, you weren't ready or you couldn't. Or you simply just had to go. No goodbyes. 

It was short, sweet and forever etched in my heart. You have made your mark. I will find comfort in the possibility that we had. 

Who was it who said that one can never go back to the same place ever? We can never go back to the way things were. 

Not a day will go by without me succumbing to the misery of losing the “we,” the “us,” the “you and I." It has rearranged everything inside me into an incoherent, incomprehensible narrative.

There's no lesson in all this, no sense at all, just pain -- a deep, profound and lingering pain.