“Yoga lights my fire. "
This month we are talking with Zofia Kumas-Tan. I met Zofia in April while doing a branding shoot with Vraie Nature Yoga + Mo/uvement. She teaches at the Chelsea Studio and is passionate about yoga and Kirtan. Keep reading for her insights and a deeper look into who she is.
Zofia thank you for being here and sharing your thoughts and experiences with us. First can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’m a mom of two, a wife, a daughter, a teacher, a lifelong student, a yogi… It’s a bit hard to sum up! At heart, I could say that I’m a seeker of Truth - of all that is Good, and True, and Real. What I’ve come to know, limited as it may be, I try to share with the people in my life, either by example, or through my teaching, or through my blog. I try to live simply, as much as I can, taking care of my family, my home, the land around me, the community around me. Offering my gifts with love and devotion - this is my aim, my yoga, my life.
I love that you aim to live simply. I also believe that simplicity is more. You teach yoga, meditation and lead a Kirtan band. What drives you forward in these practices?
What drives me forward? Wow, that’s a good question. Joy... Curiosity… Love. Before kids, I used to work as an occupational therapist, in hospitals and in health policy research. I liked it, but I didn’t love it. When I found my way back to yoga after having children, something clicked. Yoga lights my fire. Yoga philosophy really touches something in me. I feel such joy in contemplating these great questions of life - the questions that yogis asked thousands of years ago: Who are we really? How can we find peace and happiness in this life? And there is something just magical about asana practice - so simple, yet so transformative, so enlivening. Feeling like I’ve discovered a gold mine, I want to share it with others. A big motivator for me, too, is my children, my family: I think it is Love that drives me forward to find the best in myself, so that I can bring that highest part of me to them... so that I can be a Light to them, in times of darkness... so that I can help them to see the Light in themselves.
I have felt the power of yoga and it’s philosophies. It is a wonderful practice that is able to change a person’s life. Now, let’s talk meditation. There are so many different kinds of meditation practices. Can you tell us what meditation means to you and what kind of meditation you practice?
Meditation, as I understand it, is the focusing of the mind on one thing. All of one’s life can be a meditation, if the mind is focused on one thing. Making breakfast for my family can be a meditation, if my mind is truly focused on that one thing. Doing yoga postures can be a meditation. The key is to keep the mind present, in the here and now, in a state of calm observation - not judgment, not reaction, just observation - and when the judgements and reactions come, you just observe those too! To steady the mind, to keep it focused, you can hold an intention in the mind, or a mantra in the mind, or you can focus on your breath as you move through whatever you’re doing. Yoga and meditation are not just on the mat. That said, I do like to practice seated meditation, too. I have a meditation corner in my bedroom, where I sit for about 15 minutes every morning. I practice japa meditation, which is the repetition of a mantra, usually but not always with a mala (string of 108 beads). I sit, light my little oil lamp and get myself settled in my seated posture - tall spine, open chest, soft face. I take a few mindful breaths. Then, holding my mala, I begin to repeat my mantra - one repetition for each bead. Afterwards, I sit for a few moments, no mantra, just silence. I say my closing prayer, and then I start my day.
I also use my time in the kitchen as a meditation practice. I guess that it’s a place that I spend a lot of time. Can you share with us your mantra and it’s meaning?
I’d rather not share my specific mantra - I don’t know why, it’s just a feeling I have. But every yoga mantra is valid - and they all lead to the same place, deep within the heart, way beyond the grasp of the mind. “Om” is the simplest and most powerful mantra, said to contain within it all the mantras. It’s meaning has many layers. The way I feel about “om”, it’s like a reaching up, from deep within you, up towards the Divine. It’s like reaching out your hand to God, or to the Universe, saying “I’m here, singing for you, waiting for you, inviting you to come with me” The key is to stick to one mantra every time you sit for japa meditation. Traditionally, a person would receive their mantra from their teacher, but you can also pick your own mantra. A book I’ve found very helpful on this whole topic is “Meditation and Mantras” by Swami Vishnudevananda.
Thanks for your honesty. I can see that your mantra is a very personal thing, that you hold close to your heart. Who is your spiritual teacher?
I don’t have a “guru” in the traditional sense of the word. I did my yoga teacher training under Ivy Xie-McIsaac of Wishingtree Yoga, in Kanata. I feel such gratitude for her teachings; it was she who showed me the depth and breadth and beauty of yoga. I have continued my yoga studies with Sylvie Gouin (Inspired Living with Sylvie, in Ottawa). Ivy brought the Bhagavad Gita to life for me, and now Sylvie is guiding me through Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. What a blessing to know and to learn from these two strong, luminous women. I’m also very much inspired by the life and teachings of Swami Sivananda and his disciple, Swami Vishnudevananda.
And apart from these “formal” teachers, I can say that my kids and family are my greatest teachers. I mean, who else can push your buttons like your family? That’s how you come to realize what your buttons are! They show you! And they test all your resolutions, all your ideas. “So, you think you’ve got it figured out - what are you going to do now? How are you going to apply all those teachings in real life? How are you going to stay calm and centered and loving, when we are bouncing off the walls and leaving a trail of socks all around the house!” They don’t say that in words, of course, but they sure make you think! They’re truly great teachers, and great supporters, and an inspiration in many, many ways.
Thanks for the reminder, because I definitely get my buttons pushed by the people that I love. Approaching those moments as teachings is a great perspective. You are also part of a kirtan band. I love the story of how your band came to life. Can you tell us about your group and how it came to be?
When I started my teacher training in 2015, part of my training was to participate in a monthly kirtan. Kirtan is the singing of yoga mantras in a group, usually in call-and-response. So one person leads and “calls out” the mantra, and the rest of the group responds with the same mantra and melody. It’s a beautiful blend of music, mantra and meditation. But more than that, with kirtan, there is devotion - or “bhakti” in Sanskrit. Essentially, we are singing with hearts full of devotion to God, or to the Higher Power - the mantras contain the various names of this One Truth - and the songs are expressions of gratitude, or longing, or joy, or praise - sometimes even sadness, or loss. It’s an opening of the heart to God, to the Divine: an offering of whatever’s in the heart to this One, and an invitation to that Great Love, that Divine Light, to fill our being.
Ivy’s husband, Stewart McIsaac, co-leads the teacher training with Ivy. He teaches the modules on nada yoga - the yoga of sound - of mantra and healing sounds. And Stewart leads the Wishingtree Yoga kirtans. So every month, over the year of my training, I attended kirtan and through osmosis and practice, I learned and came to love the core mantras. After my training ended, I continued to attend kirtan as often as I could, and lo and behold, us “regulars” ended up becoming a sort of band. We have Stewart on guitar, Ivy with tingshaws/shakers, Scot Dunlop on cajon, and me with drum or harmonium (a kind of a mini organ). Last October, we recorded an album together, “Water Way Chants, by Water Way Kirtana” Then, in December, I decided I’d like to bring kirtan to Vraie Nature Yoga & Mouvement in Chelsea, where I teach. Though I had originally thought that Stewart would lead kirtan, as he had always done, I somehow ended up leading the Chelsea kirtan that December, and have continued to do so every month. Stewart, Ivy and Scot are usually there to share their voices, instruments and energies. It’s wonderful!
I love how things can evolve and grow! What do you say to people who have never chanted before and feel strange/uncomfortable with chanting and saying that they don’t have a nice singing voice.
One of the greatest gifts of this practice is that, after the initial discomfort and self-consciousness, after the initial protests of the mind, you can really let go of your inhibitions and just sing! That is so incredibly freeing. To be able to express yourself from the heart, without fear of what you sound like, what you look like, what others might think… I wish everyone could experience this. To come to love the unique sound of your own voice, and to use it in such a positive, powerful, uplifting way… we can come to this place through kirtan and then allow this to touch all areas of our life.
If you had to share one teaching with the world, what would it be?
Not having time is no excuse. Make time for what’s truly important. Take good care of yourself and your circle of family/friends. Love yourself and your dear ones, truly, unconditionally. Bring as much light into the world as you only can - it can be in very small and simple ways - an appreciative rub behind your dog’s ear - a smile to a stranger. Connect with that Light that’s already inside of you, and let it shine.
What is your morning Routine?
I get up between 6 and 6:30. First, I step outside to let my hens out of their coop and to check on my garden, and then I shower. Actually, I wasn’t always a “morning person,” but showering in the morning, rather than evening, has really helped! Then, I sit in my meditation corner for japa meditation. Depending on the day, I might throw some sun salutations in there too. Then it’s time for my making breakfast meditation :)
You have hens! I love it. I have dreamed of having chickens. Also, it’s nice to hear that you made yourself into a morning person. No excuses right?
Thanks Zofia for your time in insights. You can find Zofia at the following workshops and classes…
Summer schedule at Vraie Nature Yoga in Chelsea: Mondays Yin Yoga 4:30-5:45pm, Wednesdays Classical Yoga 9:30-11:00am, Sundays Classical Yoga 9:00-10:15am
Three-week meditation session at Meredith Centre in Chelsea: Wednesday, September 4, 11, 18, 7:30-8:45pm
You can reach Zofia with questions about these or other offerings at: firstname.lastname@example.org
On September 1st, 2019, Zofia and I are inviting our community at large to my Studio in the Woods for an outdoor kirtan celebration. We will gather and chant to the rhythm of mantra and elevate our vibrations to a higher frequency. The event will be photographed and Zofia and her band members will use the photos in their promotional material and social media feeds. It’s called a branding photoshoot and I look forward to seeing you there. All are welcome!