I am so happy to introduce you to one of my teachers, Stephanie Chee Barea. We met virtually for this interview, given the social distancing in place due to Covid-19.
Here, we talk about the power of the collective container, how women are creating a new paradigm of leadership in communities, the power of myth as a tool for self inquiry, how Stephanie went from Science teacher to owning a yoga studio, and more.
Sometimes serendipitous moments can take our breath away in an instant moment, and other times they’re small blasts of insights over time, like a slow-building puzzle, where you’re not quite sure what the final picture will look like until you see it all in the rearview mirror and it causes you to let out an “Ohhh, now I get it.”
Over a year ago, I was searching for a local meditation community in my town with a goal of finding a community where I could contribute fully as a student and a teacher. After months of asking around and searching, I literally found Stephanie by googling “meditation near me.” Surprisingly, her studio is less than half a mile from home. I have lived in my town 21 years had no idea this place existed! I wasn’t ready to take on yoga, so I kept checking back on her site and one day, voila! A series of 4-month meditation classes were posted.
Our first meditation session was a small group of women – all strangers to me – and I fell in love. During this time, I was in the middle of writing a curriculum for a meditation workshop for parents of children with disabilities. After a few women’s circle meditations, I wrote Stephanie to let her know I was seeking a space to teach, and asked if she knew anyone in her network who might have space to offer for a multi-session workshop.
She responded immediately saying she’d love to offer her space, and that by the way, her friend who works in the same building is a family therapist working with parents of children with disabilities, who would likely be interested in the class. Serendipity!
Our most recent women’s circle meditation gathering was online for the first time, during the heightened time of the Covid-19 Pandemic. There is something about a group of women coming together. We have women from all walks of life: college professors, bereavement counselors at Stanford who are prepping to speak to parents and children about their loss due to Covid-19, young mothers, and women who are older. It is always powerful. Last time, I kept thinking, “If only everyone could be a part of this right now, how healing it would be.” That was the inspiration for our conversation today.
AT: Stephanie, thank you so much for finding time to be here with me today. I am so happy I found you, and I love our circle of women!
SCB: I do too! It’s so rewarding for me. What I’ve come to learn about what feeds me in the community of women is creating an alchemy of the basic agreements for what it is we’re looking to do, and let the rest of it be the magic of what happens when we show up and we’re present for one another.
The Power of the Collective Container
This is part of what the sacred feminine container creates for us – a safe place where we can observe our thoughts, without judgement, and without being our thoughts.
AT: I’ve noticed this nuance in your gatherings where I sense you see yourself as creating a space for transformation, but not with an intent on a certain outcome or trying to "solve" anything. You allow the women to just be.
SCB: Yes, I have been working with this concept of simply observing what are we holding. When we gather as women there’s a collective recognition that we don’t need to hold all of this in our own containers alone, and we can move things up and out into this larger, collective container. Then, the container becomes a container for transformation.
AT: You call this our collective container, and you describe it so beautifully.
SCB: In many spiritual traditions the women are the water carriers, and not just owning the element of labor, but what my teacher Suzanne Anderson calls a Yin vessel. Our own bodies are able to hold a lot. If we think about how much we hold for others and ourselves, sometimes we find we need a bigger container, or we need to let things come up and out into the collective container. It’s not imperative that we hold it all in ourselves. Our collective container always has a greater space and capacity.
AT: I’ve found during Covid-19 I’m holding a lot without realizing it. There’s also an element of bracing – wondering what is next, and bracing for how I think my children will psychologically respond to isolation, for example. Being able to talk to friends has been cathartic. We had a recent discussion about honoring our own suffering even though we know there is deep suffering all around us.
SCB: Absolutely, I am seeing this even in my own life. I have really been noticing what attachments I have to safety, comfort and security, even material things, like this painting behind me! (A framed print of a gorgeous Sri-Yantra).
On Leadership: Being a Teacher and a Student
"There is no woman who comes to women’s circle that is not a leader.
AT: How do you see yourself in our community. Do you see yourself as a teacher, a student? I have heard you talk about several of your teachers with deep appreciation.
"I believe where we are moving with leadership is the sacred feminine – holding brave space for shared experience and honoring each individual as a unique voice of wisdom."
SCB: There is a colonized mentality that is, “I am teacher, and you are student. And I give my knowledge to you, and you know me to be the authority.” But I believe where we are moving with leadership is the sacred feminine – holding brave space for shared experience and honoring each individual as a unique voice of wisdom.
AT: There is a lot of discussion these days around the pendulum swinging more to the feminine. I see this coming up even in business, where it’s acceptable for male leaders to talk about resilience and care for fellow employees.
SCB: Yes! I view what we do together as the new paradigm of leadership. I am simply holding space. The women who show up to be together are the community leaders. There is no woman who comes to women’s circle that is not a leader. We each understand we all have our own connection to Source and we are the women in the community that are able to hold light and the light for transformation for ourselves and others in a powerful way.
AT: Oh, I love that. When you put it that way, it reminds me how important it is to make the time to be together. On being a student and a teacher, one of my teachers calls it “teach-learning.”
SCB: That’s exactly what it is. We are all always transforming. It’s a continuous process. It’s not as if, “I’ve done it, so now let me tell you how to do it.” This is an ongoing conversation I have with many teachers in my own life.
Moving from the Survival Dance, to the Sacred Dance
AT: Speaking of transformation... I’m a storyteller and deeply curious about how others have navigated from their survival dance with life, to their sacred dance. In Bill Plotkin’s book, Soulcraft, he cites the Native American teacher who talks about how we do what we need to for survival, until we feel called to search for clues to the sacred – the work we were born to do. What was your path to where you are now, did you have a calling?
SCB: I was a high school science teacher and administrator, living with my husband and son around the year 2000 in Washington DC.
AT: I knew you had a science brain!
SCB: I am a self-proclaimed science nerd!
Professionally, I was deeply fulfilled and challenged in my work at the time. My husband, an attorney, was in the DC law firm life, which was very demanding. We decided at the time our life wasn’t working the way we wanted it to for us as a family so we decided to move to the Bay Area. I was pregnant with my daughter at the time, and throughout all of that transition, the one thing that stayed constant was my yoga practice.
Funny story, I first came to yoga wanting to “win” yoga. [laughter] But I did feel called to learn about its ancient origins. I knew a lot of the teachers I admired most were based here and I thought, “Now I can explore the spiritual side of yoga.”
AT: Wanting to “win” yoga is hilarious – I can relate. I did hot yoga for 30 days and I had no idea the time there was anything spiritual about it. My entire goal was just to complete the 30 days! [laughter]
SCB: This has been something I’ve always wanted to untangle. I’ve been really interested in myth, and feminine myth in particular, and there is certainly this entanglement between Hinduism and Yoga that I feel separates people from yoga. There’s an elephant god, and people are looking around thinking, “I thought this was about me! Not about this...” I’ve seen it can be one of the ways in which yoga feels uncomfortable to people.
AT: Right. Until I studied Hinduism, I’d see the elephant, and the Shiva with six arms and the meaning was lost on me. Of course now that I’ve been studying spiritual psychology and religions like Hinduism, it carries so much meaning. I can’t believe I’ve lived this long without this deeper understanding. It’s easy to see why there is “judgement” against things we don’t know or understand.
SCB: For the past 11 years I’ve been studying Sanskrit and the scholarly view of ancient Indian myth and wisdom that predates all religion. My teacher and mentor, Pandit Rajmani Tigunait,is fluent in several ancient Eastern languages, has two PhD’s, and is basically a decoder ring, and we talk a lot about this.
The Sanskrit language itself is difficult. It wasn’t until the last two years I realized that like many spiritual traditions, it is and was an oral tradition. I can’t tell you how long it took me to figure that one out! But it is because so much of it has been lost to us as modern humans.
AT: How did you start yoga?
SCB: When I started yoga, I was a college freshman in New York City and I had just come from years of being in a ballet program. Ballet wreaked havoc on my self-image and self-worth. I was looking for a way to be ok in my body, and yoga seemed like a natural fit.
AT: Do you think yoga helped you learn compassion for your body?
SCB: Yes. I am so over judging myself! This is part of what the sacred feminine container creates for us – a safe place where we can observe our thoughts, without judgement, and without being our thoughts.
AT: I feel like being a compassionate witness to our own human shenanigans is key.
SCB: That’s right. The way I’ve been moving with my thoughts these days is to take the seat of the compassionate observer. I find those places where I am afraid to look or where I sense resistance, and then I sit with it and with self-compassion, look to understand what is going on, rather than judging what’s going on. This is a really big lesson we’re going through now, for all of us.
Using Sound to Transform Thought
AT: There is a lot of collective anxiety right now. I feel this great responsibility to not contribute to it. Meditation is always my go-to, but I know that you also chant mantras.
SCB: Chanting has been very fun, and also very unexpected in my own life.
AT: I understand it to be a way to open the mind to transform thought... but when I have done it in your class sparingly, I found myself focused on “getting it right” and I couldn’t let go.
SCB: Mantra, from a physics or science perspective, is energy in the form of sound. Sound is vibration, and vibration is what proceeds form.
The idea is that the Mantra Shakti, the energy of a mantra, is a primordial alchemy of sound that creates a different energy field in the mind. That’s all we’re doing; changing the field of the mind. People of all traditions have been doing it for thousands of years with sound – through chanting or singing, drums, rattles, or other instruments.
AT: Tom Kenyon, in the documentary Song of the New Earth, says “Music and sound are the language and architecture of the cosmos.” He says when you make sound without words, the right side of the brain essentially opens consciousness.
He is a channel for all kinds of archaic stories and myths. Speaking of myth, recently you told a story, about the myth of the women of Avalon.
The Power of Myth as a Tool for Self Inquiry
"Myths are to be used as a tool for self-inquiry. We can ask, 'What are the juicy bits of this story that stand out to me, that I can explore within myself?'”
SBC: You know, you were talking about story telling. I love learning about those first stories told around the fire. Like many myths there are many variations, but the essence of the story of Morgan and Avalon is that Arthur is seriously wounded on the battlefield, and everyone believes that all is lost.
Morgan was a beautiful, bright goddess, priestess (if a man wrote it, she was naked on a white horse) [laughter]... at any rate, she was bold! This group of women, led by Morgan, ride out of the mist on the far edge of the battlefield and carry Arthur away to Avalon, the place where all magic lies, which is the place where the women come together and “do their magic” which is, essentially, healing.
AT: I have to laugh at this now, how we gather for our Women’s Circle, would that have been described as “magic.” [laughter] It is pretty magical.
SBC: Exactly... we can see how it’s easy for myths to be twisted. Myths are to be used as a tool for self-inquiry. We can ask, “What are the juicy bits of this story that stand out to me, that I can explore within myself?”
And in your mind, maybe she’s naked on the horse and in my mind, maybe she has a Robin Hood outfit on! [laughter]. I just love that image.
The essence of it for me is, how powerful we are when we are able to be together and share sacred space as women. When we come together and hold that space for each other, we get a lot out of it. It’s a deep well. Then we leave that well, and we go back to our respective world – maybe it isn’t always a battlefield – but it kind of feels like it these days, and we go back out into the world and do our work in the world.
AT: Beautiful. I get goosebumps every time you talk about this.
Women as Community Leaders in Times of Crisis
"When we come together and hold that space for each other, we get a lot out of it. It’s a deep well. Then we leave that well, and we go back to our respective world – maybe it isn’t always a battlefield – but it kind of feels like it these days, and we go back out into the world and do our work in the world. ...women have always held community together during times of crisis, so we’ve got to do that – not for ourselves – but for each other."
SBC: These are some of the most ancient stories of how women used to gather. They become distorted over time. But it is really this different model of this different model of leadership, how we come together and then go back out and lead our lives and in our own community.
I was on a call with one of my teachers, Sherri Mitchell, last night. She was talking about how this crisis is a leadership crisis. Her words of encouragement were that we as women have always held community together during times of crisis, so we’ve got to do that – not for ourselves – but for each other.
AT: That is beautiful. I noticed I had resistance within myself about a couple of Zoom calls because I didn’t want to have yet another something on the “to do” list. It’s laughable because I was very replenished by them, and also realized I needed them, and my friends needed me. So now, we do them regularly, every other week. It feels very supportive. I am moving into more of feeling a deep honoring of that time I get to spend with friends, talking.
SBC: Yes, I believe one of the most powerful things we can do is remember we’re not alone right now.
AT: I am happy we could me this happen. In the realm of teach-learning, you are certainly one of my decoder rings! Thank you for sharing your wisdom, it is a gift, and especially cathartic during these uncertain times.
SBC: Thank you, Amie. It is not my wisdom to keep, always happy to share. This has been such a pleasure.
More about Stephanie: Stephanie Chee Barea is a practitioner and educator of the science and philosophy of tantric hatha yoga. An initiate of the tantric Sri Vidya tradition—a 5,000-year-old living tradition of the Himalayan Masters—she earned a BA in biological sciences from Columbia University, is a certified ParaYoga E-RYT 500 teacher, and also holds credentials to teach Yoga 4 Teens and Prenatal Vinyasa. She lives with her husband and two children in the Bay Area, where she owns Mela: https://www.mela.yoga/