Levitating Monkey: How did you come to settle in Guatemala?
Michelle Margaret Fajkus: I had a perfectly happy life in Austin, Texas. On a bit of a whim, I went to an international teaching job fair in the summer of 2009 and six weeks later found myself living in Guatemala City. I wanted to try out living abroad and to improve my Spanish. Over six years later, I’m still in the country, and showing no signs of leaving. Since 2012, I’ve been living at Lake Atitlan… quite a welcome change from the capital!
Levitating Monkey: Talk to us about Enlighten Ed, (the book and the community), and how it came to be.
Michelle Margaret Fajkus: One of my good friends from my time working as a school teacher in Guatemala City, Kat, and I both found ourselves exploring progressive education models individually during the year 2014—she in Canada and me in Guatemala. After reading and helping edit a manuscript she’d written on unlearning, I asked Kat if she’d like to co-write a book with me about the new, emerging paradigm of education outside the traditional classroom model. That turned into the creation of our website, Enlighten Ed.
The book manuscript is still in the works. It is growing organically out of our unfolding experiences as educators who are no longer school teachers and the blog chronicling these experiences. We’ve realized our community is people who are seeking a new way of learning for themselves and their kids. People who, like us, are ready to move beyond the old paradigm and away from the old patriarchal, capitalistic systems and toward a sustainable, happy, healthy, whole life… for our whole lives. People who were born in the 70s, 80s and 90s who are perhaps now raising children and rethinking what it means to “get a good education.” Teachers and parents on the cusp of expanding their consciousness and taking the great leap into the new, unknown and uncharted territory that is lifelong learning.
Levitating Monkey: How did you decide that your main objectives were: to enhance compassion and creativity in the classroom… while dealing with the demands of the educational system and budding doubts as to whether or not the classroom was the right environment for us (or anyone)?
Michelle Margaret Fajkus: My first three years of teaching were in a poor, public bilingual elementary school in Austin, Texas. My next three years were in an elite, private bilingual K-12 school in Guatemala following the “American” curriculum model. While I enjoyed some aspects of my time spent at these two drastically different institutions, I found myself continually frustrated with the limitations the school system places on teachers, students and everyone involved, through illogical bureaucracy; way too much emphasis on achievement, grades and test scores; and a general lack of respect for the profession of teaching. The end result was that everyone was stressed, and both kids and adults were behaving badly… often treating themselves and/or their classmates and colleagues with disrespect.
My last school teaching job, here at the lake, was at a small, private school. At first it seemed like utopia… small class sizes, happy children, a caring, close-knit community. But last year, after a huge turnover in staff, leadership and student body, the entire culture of the school changed for the worse. I realized that no matter how progressive the school, it was still a school and by its nature it kills creativity, creates unnecessary competition, promotes false rating systems and teaches children to be rule-abiding followers. School itself is a bully.
Whether educators are working within a school or not, the focus must be on the heart: developing skills for healthy relationships with ourselves, our partners, our families, our local communities and our Mother Earth community.
Levitating Monkey: Can you share some of the work you participated in as it relates to social justice causes and service learning projects involving both teachers and students?
Michelle Margaret Fajkus: When I came to Guatemala, I soon learned about the recent history of the country (a long, bloody civil war involving a genocide of indigenous Maya by the Guatemalan Army) and the multitude of societal problems (poverty, crime, corruption, pollution, and so on). I took on a leadership role for the community service learning committee of the American School of Guatemala and helped organize groups of students, teachers and parents to do service projects such as homebuilding with Habitat for Humanity or playing with kids at an orphanage.
One of my most memorable experiences was teaching yoga to a group of teenage boys at an organization called Safe Passage. This is a non-profit right in the middle of one of the worst neighborhoods in the city that offers educational support services to the children of people who work in the city dump, sifting through garbage to salvage anything recyclable to sell, earning, if they’re lucky, a handful of centavos per hour. So this group of about ten boys from the barrio are 13, 14, 16 and there for breakdancing class, and here am I, this Spanish-speaking gringa who arrived to show them how to breathe and stretch. After the class, after savasana, one boy came up to me with a light in his eyes and asked, “How can I learn more about this?” It was the exact experience I’d had at age 20 when I took my first group yoga class. It was a wonderful, full circle moment.
Levitating Monkey: In your book, How to Be Free, you have some beautiful passages on topics that include: Stop Seeking, Preparing to Die, Giving Up Hope, Taking in the Suffering of Others. How and why did you decide to write a book on this topic?
Michelle Margaret Fajkus: Through my practice of yoga and mindfulness, I have gained a great sense of freedom. I struggled with major mental illnesses in my twenties (depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety) and the consistent, devoted practice of yoga and meditation have enabled me overcome these diagnoses to find balance, peace and joy in daily life. I have been passionate about yoga and writing and teaching for about as long as I can remember. So with How to be Free (and really everything I write for publication, every book, article and blog), my intention was to inspire people to live in a more mindful, grateful, yogic, and heart-centered way. This book is my attempt to offer beginners to the practice some basic information and simple, powerful techniques that they can incorporate into their spiritual practice. I’ve actually just revised it and released the second edition this week!
Levitating Monkey: Can you share a bit more on each of these themes? (I think our readers would be especially interested in learning how to achieve contentment, preparing for death, more on Tonglen).
Michelle Margaret Fajkus: Tonglen is a beautiful practice of pure compassion. I learned about it in books by Pema Chodron and Ken Wilber. In summation, it is breathing in and taking on the suffering of others and breathing out sending them healing, lightness, love, and whatever else it is they need to be free from suffering. It’s quite the opposite of the technique often taught to breathe in healing and breathe out our suffering. It is based upon the reality that all beings suffer and all beings wish to be happy, safe, healthy and free.
Preparing for death is also an intensely powerful and rarely taught practice. It is simply imagining the moment of our own death. This I learned from studying Tibetan Buddhism. It can be done in savasana (aptly named corpse pose) or in sitting meditation or informally. I imagine myself on my deathbed, an old woman. I am surrounded by loved ones. I am calm and feel a sense of fulfillment for the good, long life I have lived. It is just a way of remembering: life is short and it will end in death. As a child, I developed a phobia of death after a tornado hit my school, so this is an amazing and welcome turnaround in my attitude toward dying.
Levitating Monkey: In the book, you have some beautiful quotes referenced, can you speak to these specific quotes and their meaning “Pleasure is only the shadow of happiness.” ~ Hindu Proverb, “Yoga is rehearsal for death.” ~ Richard Freeman and “Happiness is not given to us, nor is misery imposed. At every moment we are at a crossroads and must choose the direction we will take.” ~ Mathieu Ricard
Michelle Margaret Fajkus: I am a shameless collector of wisdom quotes. The Mathieu Ricard quote came from his excellent book on Happiness. I find it so true (though I know it’s a cliché) — we are responsible for choosing our response to situations. We can let life make us bitter or grateful or anything in between. Richard Freeman’s pithy line is a wake-up call. Yoga is enabling us to live well and ultimately preparing us to die well. Finally, the Hindu proverb speaks to the idea that pleasure is not ultimate happiness. I think most of us in the world today are pleasure-seekers. We need to see clearly that pursuing desire only leads to more desire. It’s all about the balance between true contentment in this moment, just as it is, just as we are, and yet (paradoxically) simultaneously learning, growing and becoming better humans.
Levitating Monkey: I read your fantastic article “3 Things Karma Isn’t,” last year, was curious if you could expound on Karma not being random and where you go on to say: Karma. The impact of your past imprinting on your present and future.
Michelle Margaret Fajkus: Like “yoga”, “mindfulness” and many other spiritual terms, “karma” has become so mainstream, and so often misunderstood as an eye for an eye. Karma, like the universe, is complex, complicated, and rather incomprehensible. Whether or not you believe in reincarnation (past and future lives) is irrelevant. Our current and future karma is the result of our past actions. Through living our Dharma (in this context meaning our life’s purpose), we can accumulate more “good” karma and eliminate our backlog of “bad” karma. I put good and bad in quotes because really there is no good or bad, just what is. And of course, everything is impermanent and control is an illusion… so many of the transactions involving our karmic debts or surpluses are completely out of our hands. So what can we do? Simply let go and remember that this too shall pass.
Levitating Monkey: Can you tell us more about the mindfulness and yoga personal retreats you offer at Lake Atitlan?
Michelle Margaret Fajkus: Sure. Since 2010, I’ve been co-leading (or occasionally solo-leading) weekend retreats here at Lake Atitlan and a couple other places in Guatemala. My style of yoga is called Yoga Schmoga, and it incorporates hatha yoga asanas, pranayama (breath work), yin yoga and restorative poses, mindfulness practices and meditation. As a practitioner, I’ve been drawn to Buddhist teachings and have drawn from the Zen and Tibetan Buddhist traditions as well as the yogic teachings which tend to intertwine more with Hinduism. My main philosophy teacher is J. Krishnamurti, and I’m also a huge fan and follower of Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chodron, the Dalai Lama, and TKV Krishnamacharya.
Levitating Monkey: In your book, Flow & Flower, you talk about how one can heal his or her chakras. Can you share your top three tips for folks to better connect with their heart, sacral and root chakras?
Michelle Margaret Fajkus: Gladly! These three chakras are probably the most problematic for lots of people. To connect to the root chakra, we can stand up directly on the earth, and feel the ground through the soles of our feet. We can breathe deeply and feel thankful to nature, the earth, sea, and sky. We are nature and nature is us.
For the sacral (2nd) chakra, water and movement are the keys. Moving (walking, practicing yoga or tai chi, hiking) near a river, lake or ocean is ideal. Or jumping right in and taking a swim! At times when these natural bodies of water are not nearby, we can connect with the sacred sacral chakra even in a pool, bathtub or shower. We need to remember to be more like water and just go with the flow, accepting our desires and emotions, not repressing them.
Finally, for the heart, I want to say that this chakra is where it’s at. This is where we need to be as a global society. We’ve been stuck at the third chakra for a long time now, obsessed with work, ambition and power. A lot of people are awakening their hearts and this is helping evolve the collective consciousness of humanity. Green is the color of the heart. Immerse yourself in green, whether it be wearing green clothing in a green room or a forest. I personally adore doing Metta (loving kindness or loving friendliness) practice, both formally and informally. That is, sending good wishes to my self, my loved ones, and ultimately all beings. May all beings be safe, happy, healthy, peaceful and free.
Levitating Monkey: If you could impart three key life lessons to others on their (spiritual) path, what would they be and why?
Michelle Margaret Fajkus: Great question! I’ll keep it super simple. One: connect with your breath. Breath is life. Breath is always there for us, as long as we live. Breathe deeply. Inhale gratitude. Inhale whatever it is you feel. There is no wrong answer. Just keep breathing.
Two: move. Shake it up. Travel. Stretch. Hike. Walk instead of driving everywhere. Bicycle. Practice yoga asana. Keep your body dynamic. Listen to your inner voice. Dance when it is time to dance. And then be still.
Three: give love. The first and last freedom is self-knowledge. Know yourself. Be aware of yourself. Accept yourself. Love yourself. Give love freely and unconditionally by being kind to yourself, your friends, relatives and pets, your enemies and adversaries, to all beings without exception. Do not let hate win. Let love be!
About Michelle Margaret Fajkus:
Michelle is the author of a memoir, Yoga Schmoga, as well as a chakra guide, Flow and Flower and, most recently, Be Free, a collection of healing, heart-opening practices. She is the founder of Yoga Freedom and co-creator of EnlightenEd, as well as retreat manager for Villa Sumaya at Lake Atitlán. She has been a columnist for elephant journal since 2010. To find out more about Michelle, visit her website.