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By Janis Fontaine

In April, four monks from Gaden Shartse Monastic University in southern India visited Atha Yoga Shala in Delray Beach, which supports the community with yoga, meditation and healing programs. The Tibetan Buddhist monks participated in a weeklong stay that featured tea ceremonies, personal blessings, lectures, demonstrations and a butter-sculpting workshop for adults and children.

The tour is a way for the monks to be of service to the world community by nurturing peace, harmony, compassion and tolerance, their website says. Bringing ground-breaking programs like this to Atha Yoga Shala is Nicole Acacio’s way.

Acacio, the shala’s chief operating officer, started her association with Atha Yoga as a student in 2021.

“The owner and I connected,” Acacio said. “I came on as a consultant in 2023 to produce larger events, and then just recently came on full time.”

It wasn’t that Acacio, 54, was looking for work. As a successful content producer, Acacio had already achieved financial success but not fulfilment. “Production work gives you a paycheck, but I kept asking, ‘How am I giving back?’”

Like some other intensely creative and deeply driven people, Acacio turned to yoga, meditation and thoughtful walks along the beach to find answers. And like the Type A person she is, Acacio worked hard and became a certified instructor.

Since 2021, Atha Yoga Shala has expanded from a yoga studio to include a full-service spa and an adjacent 3-bedroom retreat house that sleeps 10 guests. It’s located on 4 acres in northern Delray Beach, tucked in just south of Plumosa Elementary School. The studio has heated and non-heated yoga rooms, and the full-service Atha Spa has five saunas.

Outside, pathways meander through native plant gardens, past bubbling water features, across stone steps and wooden bridges. There’s a large presentation space and an outdoor stage for yoga and performances. The yoga studio offers a wide variety of classes each week, from vinyasa to raja to kundalini.

Yoga isn’t a religion — although some people argue that it is. For most people, yoga is a way to improve the mind-body connection and to deepen their personal spirituality, whether that is Hindu or Buddhist, Christian or Jewish, agnostic or atheist.

Of the four monks present at Atha, only one spoke a bit of English, which he said he taught himself. He was 10 when he voluntarily left his family to join the monks. Now 42, he was chosen by his teacher for this experience.

He said he found the experience “scary” but “an honor.”

Of America, he said, “It’s very clean.”

The monks are Tibetan, but their monastery, Gaden Shartse Phukhang, is in a jungle in southern India.

In 1969, a small group of monks and 15 young boys escaped the destruction in Tibet and were given land by the Indian government in Mundgod, an agricultural town a few hundred miles south of Mumbai.

Today, the area where the temple is located is often called “Mini Tibet.”

Gaden Shartse Monastic University has more than 1,600 resident students, teachers, scholars and spiritual practitioners. About three-quarters are males between the ages of 10 and 25 who were born in Tibet and arrive as refugees at Gaden Shartse because of its reputation as a leader in Buddhist and Tibetan studies.

But people in India and Tibet can’t spare much to support the school. The tour raises money to maintain the university temples, classrooms, library, texts, kitchens and grounds and to build new space for the expanding college. Teachers, if they are paid, earn about $4 a month. It costs $2 a day to support a monk in his studies and that includes a small weekly stipend for necessities.

Bringing programs like this to Atha Yoga Shala is important and fulfilling to Acacio.

“I like problem-solving, and I like working for the underdog,” she said. “I want to look in the mirror and know I gave the best Nicole to the world today.

“There’s really only one goal: Universal love.”

A quick history of butter-sculpting

When the Monks of Gaden Shartse visited Atha Yoga Shala in Delray Beach, one of the things they shared was their sculpting skill.

But the butter-sculpting the monks demonstrated is quite different from the original art. For one thing, these transplanted monks live in southern India, not in the mountains of Tibet — and as we know, butter melts, so they used a wax-based mixture.

When the art of butter-sculpting originated, it was practical to use butter. During the winter months, the monks had no flowers or decorations to adorn their offerings to Buddha.

What they did have was an abundance of butter.

So they colored the butter with dye and sculpted it into flowers and animals, which they called tormas. These were used to decorate offerings to Buddha beginning about 800 years ago.

The custom grew so popular that today there are butter-sculpting contests, especially at the Great Prayer Festival in Tibet, with vignettes of Buddha measuring 12 feet tall.

The monks at Atha used wax mixed with oat flour (instead of the traditional yak butter and barley, which is pricey) to make the bases of their tormas. This tougher material can hold the weight of the added flowers and adornments, which are made with a combination of ghee, pastry margarine and wax that holds up better in hot weather. (Still, in

Florida’s humidity, the monks used bowls of ice water to keep the material solid.)

Most tormas are deity tormas, presented to a particular deity at a shrine, or food tormas, which are used to decorate cakes for feasts. Food tormas are partially consumed by the practitioners at the feast and the leftovers remain to feed birds and wildlife.

Various lineages and communities use different coloring agents and designs, which become part of their local traditions and are a source of great pride. — Janis Fontaine


Janis Fontaine writes about people of faith, their congregations, causes and events. Contact her at fontaine423 @outlook.com.

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