Saturday, October 3, 2015

Discover Your Family Tree

“Family, like branches in a tree, we all grow in different directions, yet our roots remain as one.” – Unknown

When talking to my Yoga Teacher Training Class, Guru Singh explained that we have 256 people in our bodies, our ancestors: parents, grandparents, great grandparents, etc.  Their pains and our joys directly affect our own joys and pains because all their emotions are written in our dna.  This is called the science of Epigenetics.

“According to the new insights of behavioral epigenetics, traumatic experiences in our past, or in our recent ancestors’ past, leave molecular scars adhering to our DNA. Jews whose great-grandparents were chased from their Russian shtetls; Chinese whose grandparents lived through the ravages of the Cultural Revolution; young immigrants from Africa whose parents survived massacres; adults of every ethnicity who grew up with alcoholic or abusive parents — all carry with them more than just memories. . . , our experiences, and those of our forebears, are never gone, even if they have been forgotten. They become a part of us, a molecular residue holding fast to our genetic scaffolding. The DNA remains the same, but psychological and behavioral tendencies are inherited. You might have inherited not just your grandmother’s knobby knees, but also her predisposition toward depression . . ..”

This summer, while laying in bed extremely ill and hallucinating in Greece (the birthland of some of my ancestors), I felt these 256 people whispering, yelling and running around inside my body, as if they were playing a three dimensional highly competitive game of Shoots and Ladders.  Guru Singh prescribed in order to heal ourselves, we must heal the pains of our ancestors. I think before we can heal their pains we must learn who they are.

I spent my life piecing together my family tree. I have done this by talking with the matriarchs in my family over tea, playing scrabble, sitting in living rooms, and during walks on the boardwalk.  My story is complex and contradictory but there are some overarching themes: oppression, slavery and racism.

My ancestors are black and white, Jewish and Christian, city folk and country folk, and Northern and Southern.  My maternal grandmother Anna was a Black Baptist born on a farm in South Carolina, while my paternal grandmother Suzanne was a white Jew from the industrial steel city of Pittsburgh.  An unlikely pair they only met a few times.  What they have in common  is me and my brother.  They both came from oppressed peoples: Suzanne’s parents from the anti-semitic ghettos of Eastern Europe, Anna parents were slaves working the rice and cotton fields of South Carolina.

I know Suzanne’s parents came from the Ukraine and Romania, but I don’t know what city or a region. Their common tongue was Yiddish.  I heard the story of my great grandfather crossing Europe to escape the czar’s army where he wouldn’t have survived as a Jew. So he had to leave in order to stay alive.

I believe that Anna’s family were slaves on a plantation in Charleston.  I have deduced this because their odd last name Toomer which is also the name of a dutch plantation owner.  I found this out when researching plantation records at my University.   I don’t know where they come from before South Carolina, but my guess is Sierra Leone because most slaves from South Carolina coast were brought from there because of their skills cultivating rice.  I will get my DNA tested someday soon so that I can solve that mystery.

Guru Singh said we can heal the pains of our ancestors by two hours of spiritual practice a day.  For me that means yoga, meditation, writing, and art making.  I honor my ancestors by having an altar in my bedroom with some mementoes of them.  I try to never to deny my heritage even if it is complicated to understand.  By celebrating my personal diversity and complexity, I make sure that no one of those ancestors in my body feel left out or denied.

Do you know your family background? Are there any elders you can talk to to piece together your family tree?

Activity #1:
Draw up what you know of your family tree.  See what holes are in your tree and contact a relative that might help you make the tree more complete.

Activity #2:
Making an Ancestor Altar

Most traditional cultures understand that when you celebrate your ancestors, no matter what they were like or how they treated you, you will find forgiveness and compassion and break free of karma and samskaras.

I suggest to everyone to make an ancestor altar is part of their healing and self discovery process. Find a spot an appropriate in your home where you can make a small altar. Ask yourself if this is a good place and the energy is right. Then, place a down a cloth or fabric arrange photographs or symbols of your ancestors on top of your altar.  If you don’t have a picture of an ancestor you can use an object s/he owned or a slip of paper with your ancestors’ names, or photographs of their home.
Place fresh flowers, fruits, vegetables or seasonal items on your altar to honor your ancestors, place fresh flowers in a vase on your altar.  You may also choose to burn incense or light candles.. Every time you change the offerings, thank your ancestors for the gifts they gave you. Do this no matter how difficult your relationship was with the ancestors. History is not what actually happened, but how choose to remember it.  The  ancestral altar provides an opportunity to can change your family story.

From time to time visit your altar and reflect upon your ancestors. Remember, at the same time that you are building this physical altar you are also building a spiritual altar inside of you.

Excavation Question 1:

Write down what you know of your family story.   Explore how the stories of your ancestors may be affecting you both spiritually and emotionally.

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