We went for local bread, we left with local wisdom

Tamara exuded a beautiful smile as she rolled the dough. She was making «ժինգյալով հաց» (zhingyalov hatz), a local bread stuffed with various diced greens and vegetables which have a delicious and slightly tangy flavor once baked. In between questions about life in the States, why we’re in Karabagh, and of course, everyone’s favorite topic, marriage, she said, “I lost my husband to the war. I have 4 sons and 6 grandchildren.” Long pause. “And you’re still smiling as you work,” came as the natural response to her calm and composed tone. “I smile,” she said, extending the tips of her lips even more as she skillfully wrapped the filling in the dough.”

“I smile so I make this with love. If I don’t prepare the food lovingly, it won’t taste good.”

And she carefully placed the filled dough into the brick oven.

Flour, water and salt are three essential ingredients for villagers. Love is another for this woman.

Mindfulness and the Identity of an Entrepreneur

Moving along a very dark and bumpy road with a happy taxi driver, to music from a diverse playlist created by his son, and after a detour caused by a closed road (thank goodness for GPS and a 3G network), we made our way from Yerevan to Aghveran faster than we thought we would. We were tired, and truth be told, a bit depleted from what most people who are building a brand new project face: the DIY syndrome. At the outset of most projects, the bulk of the work is done by just a few people. It’s a Do It Yourself mentality because well, it’s your newborn and you don’t really trust anyone else, and frankly, you don’t have the resources to hire a team. You envision a project, make plans about how to bring it to life, create a brand, generate lots (LOTS!) of social media content to maintain the brand, tell your story, and tell it again and again, build relationships, problem solve, fundraise, create the actual substance of the plan, problem solve, implement the plan, problem solve, and it goes on and on. In the midst of all of this constant movement, you make sure you don’t lose sight of the dream, the big vision, the intention, and you use that to refuel your spirit.

Participants at HyeTech 2016 enjoying a group activity
Participants at HyeTech 2016 enjoying a group activity

So, in short, our energy tanks was running low. We got in late, and after some brief conversations, called it a night to be ready for the 7:30am meditation and discussion we were invited to lead.

Stega sticker at HyeTech 2016

We were attending #CreateTogether’s Hye Tech growth event, where a group of Armenians in tech start-ups had gathered for knowledge sharing and learning. Our intention was to introduce mindfulness and meditation in ways that would help this group deal with their daily work-related challenges. To get the blood flowing, Armen started us off with stretches and half sun-salutations. He then led a breathing exercise and 5 minute meditation. The discussion that followed was fruitful. Participants described their obstacles at work; a lack of focus is what came up most prominently. We discussed the opportunity to practice mindfulness in every task and we introduced several meditation techniques. We asked participants to notice their thoughts and identify thought patterns, recognizing how nearly all of them were centered not on the present moment, but on the past and future. Hasmig closed off the session with another 5 minute meditation.

Group activity with Nerses Ohanyan at HyeTech 2016
Group activity with Nerses Ohanyan at HyeTech 2016

In the exercise that #CreateTogether founder, Nerses Ohanyan led after breakfast, it became doubly apparent that “focus” was one of the self-identified issues most participants were dealing with.

It was agreed by many that focus is key to success
It was agreed by many that focus is key to success

Another was networking, and we discussed fear of vulnerability as a culprit in some participants’ hesitation to network. For us, it was noteworthy how the practice of meditation can lend itself to higher levels of concentration, an openness to vulnerability, and an ability to form deep, authentic human relationships. In business, all of these traits are crucial.

HyeTech participants learning about breathing techniques with Armen Menechyan

The highlight of our day was a talk by Ron Weissman, a man whose achievements are too many to describe here. In short, he’s been engaged in Silicon Valley for decades, invested in dozens of start-ups, and worked for Steve Jobs.

Ron Weissman

Like most great things, Dr. Weissman’s talk on the identity of an entrepreneur came at the perfect time for us. So much of what he presented affirmed what we’ve inherently felt about Stega and the decisions we’ve made over the last 5 months as we moved from conception to realization. We learned a great deal from this talk and were empowered to keep dreaming, envisioning, taking risks, working as meticulously as we have on our baby project, and, also, not fearing failure. Our meditation practice has helped us create this perspective from the very beginning. It’s the source from which our decisions and actions spring forth.

We returned to Yerevan in the afternoon in time to prepare for our weeknight workshop and complete our checklist of social media and logistical tasks, peppered of course with a dozen other emails, phone calls, and unexpected (but not surprising) “To-Do”s symptomatic of the DIY Syndrome. What all this boils down to though, and the very substance of our work, is the opportunity to learn, teach, and engage in the beautiful exchange of energy. We met a creative group of change makers today. Twenty participants will share their breath and practice with us tonight. We’re planning another meditation session for a different group this weekend. We are so utterly grateful.

1 DAY TO TAKE-OFF! #1 OBJECTIVE OF STEGA

To serve the movers and shakers, the dreamers, the hard workers, the ones who walk the walk. These are the people who are building a nation.

Stega’s beneficiaries come from many organizations, and we’re so happy to have established relationships with them.

We leave for Armenia tomorrow! THANK YOU to every single person who has made this possible

2 DAYS TO TAKE OFF! 2 PEOPLE WHO INSPIRE US!

These are two very special women. Their impact on our lives is too great to do justice to in one post. So today, we reflect upon one of their strongest attributes: the ability to allow us to create our own lives.

Our parents let us leave our nests at 18.Though it must have been very difficult to be thousands of miles away, they let us live life as we saw fit. The fact that we’re now both back in Los Angeles has made them very happy, but they’re still supportive of us leaving again to follow our hearts. They hold space for us to learn from our mistakes, give us insight and guidance when we need it, and most of all, they love us unconditionally. They exemplify the kind of parental love that does not try to latch on through guilt or selfishness, but the kind that sees their children’s wings and lets them soar.

In The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran captures this relationship beautifully:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

In thought and spirit, our moms are forward moving. They grow with us, and just as much as they teach, they also learn. They see life as a dynamic process where we’re all students and teachers at all times. This perspective requires so much humility, and they couldn’t be better exemplars. We’re grateful beyond words for who they’ve been, how much they’ve supported our adventures, and now for their unwavering belief in the potential of Stega.

Thank you, eternally. We love you so much.

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3 Days to Take-Off! 3 Ways to Help Now

Over the last couple of months, we’ve turned to our community to help us launch Stega and have received more than 100 donations, totaling over $12,500! Our budget is just over $20,000, so we still have a ways to go. Launching a project of this size — working with at least 100 individuals from 15+ organizations — requires money.  In addition to four 2-hour sessions a week in Yerevan, we have organized private sessions with organizations that have sizable staff and weekend immersion workshops for Peace Corps volunteers and their counterparts. We will also start our needs assessment for Phase 2 of Stega that we hope to implement in the Spring of 2017. Yes, we’ll be very busy! Find out more about our 6-week pilot project by clicking here.

Funds have and will go towards the rent of workshop space in Yerevan, weekend immersion workshops (travel, space rental, accommodations food for participants), creation of visual assets, photo and video documentation, purchase and transportation of yoga supplies, travel within Armenia to conduct needs assessment for phase 2 of the project, printing needs, as well as  airfare, living expenses and stipends for 3 members of our team. Also, Gofundme takes over 8% of each donation so if we raise $20K through online donations, at least $1600 will be taken as processing fees.

goal-raised

All of this to say that a project of this caliber can’t be possible without financial support.

Here are three things you could do that would go a long way!

1. Make a donation and use your social media for good.  We have Facebook, Go Fund Me and Instagram pages that will be very active when we’re in Armenia. (Did we mention we’re leaving in 3 days!?) A donation through our Gofundme page would be terrific! Sharing your generous donation on social media with your personal message would be twice as effective. 

2. Host a Stega fundraiser. For example, organize a brunch or event with your close friends and family. Let everyone contribute what they would pay at a restaurant. Our friends were able to raise $500, which is enough to cover the logistical costs (space rental, transportation and accommodations) of a weekend intensive program for our Peace Corps volunteers and their counterparts.

Brunch fundraiser
Brunch fundraiser
Stega Benefit Brunch Logo
Stega Benefit Brunch Logo

3. Watch and share our You Tube video Many people still ask about the purpose of the project, and this video says it all 🙂

With your help, let’s see how much more we can raise before we fly out in three days!

THANK YOU to everyone who’s supported us already.

 

Choose Passion and Meaning. The Rest Will Follow.

I’m on a high. There’s this amazing and powerful energy and connection you feel with another being when you’re really open — no pretense, no masks, just genuine interaction.

Armen and I are having Skype meetings with all participants before the start of our program. Their smiles, the real human connection and positive vibes make my heart warm and content.

Yoga, for me, is a space of vulnerability. Openness to experiment and change are the first steps towards accepting vulnerability. In my practice, surrendering to this is what has made it transformative. It’s in this space where I can experience profound connection to myself and others. Because of yoga’s need for awareness, this space is also where I sow the seeds for the person I want to be. I accept who I am, I see myself, and I make room for growth.

In our meetings, I’m hearing people imply their struggles and their desire to be with themselves, change habits, and learn. These are people who spend their life force advancing Armenia socially and economically. They’re the change-makers, and they recognize their need for inner work. Even if they don’t quite know why, they’re listening to that voice inside that says, “Yes, do it. This may be good for you.” This is how I started yoga; I listened to that inner voice that nudged me forth, “Keep at it. You know you’re already feeling the difference.”

What Armen and I want most out of this project is to create a safe, nonjudgmental and noncompetitive space where people can be who they are. In this space, they can be vulnerable if they want to be. They can be open, trusting, and honest. And if they’re not, then we hope that at least they’ll be aware of this choice. We can’t dictate outcomes. All we can do is our best to create this space, be true to ourselves, and let life take care of the rest. It’s the group energy and dynamic that’s ulitmately going to shape the workshops.

But right now, as I reflect on the last few meetings, I’m full of happiness — like that deep contentment I feel when looking out onto the vastness of an ocean or the magnificence of a star-studded sky. I feel the gratitude and awe that comes tied to the realization that I’m in the right place at the right time, and I’ve tapped into an energy much, much larger than myself. It’s the energy that binds us as living creatures. It’s intense, humbling, and unconditional. It’s love.

4 Days To Take Off! 4 Things You Didn’t Know About Us

A story that weaves crayons, coffee, yoga, travel and boxing.

For today’s post we decided to get a little personal and share a bit about ourselves. Hasmig and I have known each other since we were literally six years old. I remember the day quite vividly. It was 1989. Early September to be exact. My mom took me to school that morning and I remember the red-tiled hallway leading to the first grade classroom, right in front of the teacher’s lounge. I must have arrived a little late or had started a few days late, because everyone else seemed quite settled into their assigned seats. That day, Ms. Lucy sat me next to the “pretty girl with green eyes” — this became my mother’s descriptor for little Hasmig.  Hasmig has vivid memories of sharing her crayons with me, though I have just followed along with that story and accepted it as truth. It probably is, because I was quite notorious for not having my school supplies with me. Hasmig, throughout my academic career all the way to graduate school pushed me to excel and reach my highest potential. She is doing it once again with this project.

Our friendship goes way back. Here are some snippets, written by the both of us 🙂

Hasmig and I are huge aficionados of coffee, especially espresso drinks. In grad school, we (I mean, she) would get really excited about all nighters during mid-term and finals. We would buy dark chocolate, set the mood and make sure our coffee was in abundant supply. We used to walk to our neighborhood Greek supermarket in Astoria to buy the only thing we would “splurge” on those days: Illy coffee beans. We’d both be in the kitchen when opening the silver canister to get a good first whiff of those delectable fresh beans! We had an espresso machine with a steamer that Hasmig’s mom had gifted her in undergrad, which served us loyally every day.

I would be in charge of making the espresso. That’s what I was most excited about actually — the event! Around 10pm we would take a shot. Around 10:15pm I would promise her that I would  take JUST a 5 minute nap. I would wake up at 5am. She knew not to wake me.  It took many years for her to learn that these espresso parties would never manifest into late-night study sessions, because I am a morning person and at the time she wasn’t. We have since synchronized our sleeping patterns (she’s the one who’s changed). 

Armen was really into spinning when we lived in New York. He’d take the train to Crunch Fitness and come back a sweaty mess, line his wet shirt on the radiator in the living room to dry, and immediately get to work preparing to feed his famished stomach. He practiced yoga then — I’ll never forget his handstands right between our two living room windows — but not as consistently as he has in the last few years. Like it does for many people, yoga can come and go from your life until a certain turning point. For Armen, it was a way of healing after divorce and readjusting to life in the US after having spent years living and working in Spain. Readjustment is not easy, especially when coupled with heartbreak. (If anyone understood culture shock, it was Armen, not only because he’d traveled so much, but his Master’s Thesis was on the topic.) It requires total breakdown, shedding, rebuilding, and most importantly, fearlessness — something Armen has a lot of and what I admire most about him. He was the guy who would stare at the world map on his computer screen in the 12th grade, planning trips. He dreamt of visiting the Greek islands, and of course, that he did soon after. He traveled abroad to Spain in college and in 2008, took the risk to follow his heart and moved there for love. Here’s a fun fact: he’s traveled to over 25 countries on 5 continents and visited over 100 major cities. As a high school teacher, he often took his students on incredible trips of exploration and discovery. There was always that zest for experiences and inquisitiveness in Armen, as well as a level of detachment from convention. This is probably why he felt comfortable leaving a great job after just a year in Los Angeles to follow his heart once again. This time, it took him to Nepal for a month-long study of meditation at a Tibetan monastery and a full commitment to teaching yoga.

Giza kiss
Giza kiss

I’ve often heard people remark, “Armen’s life is amazing! He’s seen the world, he teaches, doesn’t have a 9-5.” Well, as someone who’s been close to him for years, I want to say, “Yes, but do you know how much courage that takes?!” It’s not easy to give up convention, to not walk the path of financial security, to not have a retirement plan, own a home, accrue a sizable savings account. To set your spirit free, you often need to take huge risks in financial insecurity. To have financial security, you often entrap your spirit. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but living in a society with huge student debt and a standard of living that requires a high salaried 9-5 makes it pretty tough to have both freedoms. So then the question becomes, how do you want to live this short space between life and death? I think, for the time being, it’s pretty clear for Armen.

Swayambhunath
Swayambhunath

When Hasmig told me that she’s going to help her husband start a business in boxing — after she had just written an award-winning Master’s thesis on women and peacebuilding — I was shocked. Boxing? You and Yetvart? Really?!  These two were activists and academics who had walked across the US, traveled to give talks about Ghandian nonviolence, and were so passionate in their work and beliefs. I imagined them getting PhDs, starting a non-profit or something similar. In my mind, I couldn’t reconcile this new life choice with who they were. Hasmig explained to me the noble reasons Yetvart wanted to do this and that she was fully in support of him. I know it wasn’t easy for her – for either of them actually. They had to shift their identities to something they would never have imagined for themselves: businesspeople. They learned how to build a business from ground up with absolutely no experience. Once Hasmig made the decision to commit to this new role, she was fully consumed by it and applied her typical no-frills, “just get down and do it” work ethic. They were in the trenches together, working very long hours and knowing her, surviving on pints of coffee to get the job done.  Over the years, she accepted this new identity, found meaning in it, and learned so much. She not only managed the business, but she got her hands dirty and started to learn the trade of crafting championship boxing belts. I mean, who knows how to use power tools these days? She does.

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Hasmig with boxer Sugar Ray Leonard at a benefit fundraiser.

The parallels in our lives are uncanny. I moved to Spain in 2008, the same year Hasmig got married and settled on the east coast. She moved back to Los Angeles last year after a painful separation from her husband. I had moved back the year before because of the same reason. I knew she was immersed in a deep process of healing and that yoga would help, so I encouraged her to start taking classes again. I remember that it was around this time last year when I was abroad and we talked. She had left LA for a few days of solitude in a small coastal town in California. She has been crying, grieving, letting go. Despite the pain, she knew that this is where she needed to be and that there were things to learn in the process of being torn apart. Hasmig observed her own transitions as she was experiencing them. She fully committed to yoga and meditation and surrendered to what life had in store. As she puts it, “I felt like I’m cutting an umbilical cord over and over agin, letting go and creating internal space to fill it anew.” We both know how transformative these practices can be, which is why it’s these — and not something else — that have given shape to Stega.

From crayons to grad school roomies, travelers, risk-takers, shedders of convention, and friends through it all, we’re now here, co-creating Stega. As we go through each stage of this beautiful process, we learn so much about ourselves and each other. We observe, balance one another’s energy, laugh a lot and enjoy lots of espresso. What a joy!

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5 Days to Take-Off! 5 (Of the Many) Organizations We Will Serve!

When we conceived this idea, there were 3 – 4 organizations we thought we would work with. Now, 5 days to take off, there will be at least 15 organizations represented in our 6-week pilot program. Even though each organization has a very special place in our heart, we’ll start with 5 now and introduce the others over the next few weeks.

Here is more information about each organization links to their Facebook pages. They are all doing such meaningful and selfless work. Follow their pages and give them some love.

 

Women's Resource Center
Women’s Resource Center

The Women’s Resource Center is a feminist organization working with and for women. Its main goal is to give women the necessary tools and empower them to become active citizens of the Armenian community through education and support.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The objective of the WoWomen's Support Centermen’s Support Center is to create a safe environment for women — a place where they receive support, empathy, and the knowledge that they are not alone in their struggles. Women are provided with practical learning about domestic violence, as well as counseling that bolsters self-esteem and confidence.

 

 

PINK Armenia work in the spheres of sexual health, human rights and gender issues. It promotes universal respect and tolerance. It began as an initiative of a group of young and enthusiastic people to create an organization which would encourage safe sexual relations and foster human rights protection.

 

 

The Peace Corps’ Armenian mission is Peace Corpsto:

1. Help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.

2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.

3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

 

 

COAFChildren of Armenia Fund (COAF) works to secure a future for children in Armenia’s impoverished rural villages through improved education, healthcare, community life and economic conditions. COAF programs create and sustain opportunities for growth and progress.

 

6 Days To Take-Off! 6 Reasons Why You Should Go To Armenia

We are going to Armenia to launch Stega, but here are six more reasons why we can’t wait to be there.

  • The People – Whether you’re in need of directions or a home-cooked meal, there is a good chance a local will be there to help. The Armenian people are warm, welcoming and very hospitable. When invited over for dinner, make sure you can hold your liquor because that home-made mulberry vodka is not to be toyed with.
Mother & Daughter (Marmashen)
Mother & Daughter (Marmashen)
  • Naturescape – Take in the splendor of winter wonderland, a vibrant spring or the magical colors of autumn. Armenia has gorgeous landscapes, hikes for all levels, caves, and ziplining. Download the newly launched HikeArmenia app and explore!
Vanadzor
Vanadzor
  • The History- Armenia boasts 3 UNESCO World Heritage sites: the monasteries of Haghpat and Sanahin; the cathedral and churches of Echmiadzin and the archaeological site of Zvartnots; and the monastery of Geghard and the Upper Azat Valley. If you’re a Christian history buff or you want to see amazing church architecture, Armenia must be on your visit list!
Home Cooked
Home Cooked
  • The Food – Take your pick from traditional Armenian dishes to those influenced by Mediterranean or Middle Eastern cuisine. There are usually seasonal and organic options. Eating out at a restaurant or cafe, or better yet at a local’s house in a hidden village will not hurt your pocket and will likely provide you with the most memorable of experiences.
Ponchik
Ponchik
  • Cafe culture – During late Spring to early Fall, the cafe culture in Yerevan, like in Europe is thriving. Enjoy quiet reading time or meet friends for a cup of coffee outdoors in one of many cafes. (Oh, and most have free wifi.)
Public Transportation (25 cents USD)
Public Transportation (25 cents USD)
  • Affordability – Transportation, food and lodging for western visitors is affordable. Unfortunately, there is still high levels of economic disparity in the country. However, growth in tourism is beneficial to economic development. So pack up and go!

Six reasons are definitely not enough. Check out this extensive list by the Weather Channel.

 

7 Days to Take-off! 7 Benefits Of A Yoga Practice

7 days until take off so here are our 7 benefits of yoga.

It’s difficult to limit this post to just seven benefits as there are many more. Hasmig and I have been impacted differently by yoga at various times of our lives, but here is a list of what we think are among the most significant benefits.

7. Yoga relieves back and neck issues.

Let’s be honest: most of us have seated jobs and drive cars and find ourselves hunched over more often than we’d like. Since most exercises are directly related to the spinal column, strengthening and stretching the muscles around the spine help relieve pain and correct posture.

Focus and Concentration
Focus and Concentration

6. Yoga builds focus and concentration.

All poses require awareness and focus. Yoga teachers draw students’ attention to parts of their bodies and muscle groups that we otherwise wouldn’t pay attention to. More challenging poses and those that require balance necessitate an even greater level of awareness and focus. This healthy habit spills over into our everyday lives and helps us gain mindfulness of the task at hand.

5. Yoga leaves us happy, relaxed, and content. 

While our faces may not reflect relaxation or happiness during some poses, we’re generally quite content and relaxed after the final pose, savasana. The practice of yoga releases endorphins in our bodies (much like after a heavy but satisfying workout) which reduce stress levels and trigger happiness. Studies have shown that yoga can change the chemistry of our brains, leading to lower levels of anxiety. The focus on the breath, in particular, has a powerful impact on our mood. If you’ve ever tried smiling during a difficult pose, you’ll know immediately how much control you have in shifting your emotional state.

4. Yoga is “me-time.”

In most yoga studios you won’t find mirrors to watch yourself or others (well, unless it’s Bikram yoga). In fact, students’ eyes are closed during some poses. Yoga is about tuning into ourselves. Other students, the space, and background noise all fade away. We compete neither with others, nor with ourselves. There is no judgment in yoga. We accept ourselves and move past discomfort at a pace that feels right for us. This practice can create confidence or boost self-esteem without having to compete against or be like anybody else. And because we’re not competing, we know it’s completely up to us whether or not we want to return to the mat every day. As such, yoga helps build discipline for the right reason: because it feels good for our minds and bodies.

3. Yoga helps us let go. 

We typically set expectations for ourselves about what our bodies should be able to do. Well, yoga inspires us to meet our bodies where they’re at and recognize that that will change. If we’re so concerned with meeting our expectations, our focus becomes directed towards the future, or if we’re upset that we used to be able to get into a pose and now we cannot, our focus is on the past. Bringing our attention to the present moment allows us to sit with ourselves where we’re at. This habit impacts our behavior patterns, and can help us shed many layers of attachments to the past and future.

Side Plank with Tree Variation
Side Plank with Tree Variation

2. Yoga builds strength and endurance.

One doesn’t lift weights in yoga. We typically use the weight of our own bodies to build strength. It can be a slow, but very gratifying process. Certain schools of yoga like Kundalini or Iyengar, which hold long poses, push us to move past discomfort and develop endurance. They remind us that all things are temporary, and that the transformation happens when we learn to sit into that difficulty than if we try to avoid it — like everything else, it will pass. You can imagine how beneficial this lesson can be in our lives 🙂

1. Yoga helps us cultivate compassion, love, and peace.

How often are we caught in either thoughts about the past or plans for the future? Through a focus on our breath, the practice of yoga can disconnect us from these attachments and projections, and bring awareness to the present moment. As we observe the undulations of our inhales and exhales, coupled with physical poses, we recognize our amazing ability to accept each moment as it comes and shape it to what we want it to be. With each breath, we recognize that this very natural process is what we share with every other living being on the planet. As such, breath is an equalizer and connector, and with each breath, we have the opportunity to fill ourselves with good intentions, gratitude, peace, compassion, and love.

So, go for it, bring yoga into your life.

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