Maria Skouras

Maria Skouras (eHomemakers): Maria describes herself as a life-long learner. She earned a BA from NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, a Masters of Science degree from New York University’s Center for Global Affairs, and a Master of the Arts from NYU’s Graduate School of Arts and Science in Cultural Sociology. She then worked for seven years as the Senior Policy Analyst in NYU’s Office of Government and Community Affairs. Maria has been an active board member of The Posterus Foundation, a nonprofit based in New York City, studied abroad in Italy, London, China and Hong Kong and traveled extensively through the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. After her fellowship Maria wrote: "Speaking with locals and living in a country is the best way to learn about the real lives of citizens, not just the stories in the mainstream media. I will be more critical of what I read as a result of this experience.”

An Untraditional Start to the New Year

21 Feb

The first Chinese New Year celebration I attended was the most untraditional but among the most memorable.  It was held at the chalet of a very generous Malay couple that C2 has known for quite some time.   From their youthful appearance and love of hip-hop dancing, aerial classes, and yoga, I am still amazed that they are in their early 70s.

Each week they host an open gathering for friends and guests to sing karaoke, play musical instruments, converse, and relax.   In honor of Chinese New Year, they extended a special invitation for guests to participate in a potluck dinner and meditation session.

To reach the festivities, attendees dodged wild jungle plants while climbing up a stone stairway chiseled into the mountainside.  At the top, everyone congregated in a wooden bungalow overlooking Kuala Lumpur.

A View of KL from the Jungle

A View of KL from the Jungle

The eclectic crowd of about 60 guests included energy healers, yogis, entrepreneurs, singers, and inventors.  While hailing from various disciplines, each appreciated the opportunity to celebrate the New Year by engaging in a spiritual healing meditation called agnihotra and dining together.

Agnihotra is not a Chinese New Year practice; it is an ancient Hindu meditation ritual that is believed to purify the atmosphere and heal the practitioner.  By lighting a fire with natural materials, it is believed that positive energy is transmitted into the atmosphere.  It then neutralizes and disinfects harmful pollutants improving the land for crops to grow.  In addition to its environmental benefits, agnihotra is said to reduce stress, improve health, and bring clarity to the practitioner.

Agnihotra must be conducted at sunrise and sunset, so preparations must be made before the sun goes down.  Groups of individuals sat cross-legged around pyramid shaped vessels and took out bags of dried cow dung.  In many cultures, cow dung has been used for centuries to cure ailments.  The cow is also considered a sacred animal for being a strong animal and providing milk to nourish the population.

The cow dung was placed on a coconut husk at the bottom of the copper container.  I knew the next step of this process was to light the cow dung on fire using ghee (butter).  Under different circumstances I would have gone running out of the room at the thought of being surrounded by 40 pots of burning cow dung.  However, with the knowledge that most of the room’s participants conducted agnihotra twice a day, I wanted to experience it for myself.

Lighting the Fire

Lighting the Fire

When all the materials were ready, a countdown to the sunset was held and at the precise moment the dung was set on fire.  Then the evening chant was performed and pinches of rice were added to the mixture as offerings.  The room lit up with orange and blue flames and became a calm sanctuary as each person focused on his/her thoughts.  An incense-like smell permeated the space and those around me meditated.  Even though I wasn’t successful at clearing my mind, I felt more at peace and hope that I will have another opportunity to practice agnihotra.

A glimpse into the agnihotra room

A glimpse into the agnihotra room

Feeling more tranquil, the group proceeded to dinner.  Gathering to eat with family and friends is central to celebrating the Chinese New Year.  However, this experience was different from the other dinners I attended later in the week because it was entirely vegetarian.  Attendees brought rice and vegetable dishes, fresh fruits and Malaysian desserts.  My favorite dessert was warm glutinous black rice with a swirl of coconut milk called Pulut Hitam.  It had just the right amount of sweetness and was a tasty end to the vegetarian feast.

Pulut delish, must learn how to make this!

Pulut delish, must learn how to make this!

While my first Chinese New Year dinner was far from traditional, it still captured the importance of sharing a feast with friends and family and practicing wellness for a fresh start to the New Year.

Posted By Maria Skouras

Posted Feb 21st, 2011

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