The Urban Yoga Den

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The Happy Heart Project: The Halfway Mark October 20, 2011

“Hey, I’m trying to hard to see the light, to see the light – to see it burn thru.”  – Abigail Washburn

When it comes to maintaining and manifesting an intention over 100 days – and that intention is to overcome a nagging internal darkness and move deliberately toward joy – it is imperative to know which tools, resources, practices and people support that intention.

So here I am, halfway into a project I started on a whim (for background, please see final note, bottom of page), and I am clearly learning what works – and what doesn’t work.

Back in August, when I started this daily ritual, joy felt elusive.  The origin of that challenge was a string of unfortunate, traumatic and painful experiences beginning in June 2010.  So the “Project” actually represented much more than a flippant whim.  It became a “Sankalpa” (deep intention, commitment, resolution) that would hopefully free my mind – and life – from the grip of PTSD, depression, anger and resentment.

And a shift is happening.  Of course, there are days when fear, negativity and doubt emerge.  Normal stuff.  At the same time, I have to be careful to not let those days stretch into a mindset.  So I reinforce my Sankalpa.

*  *  *

Move.  Toward.  Joy.

MOVE does not happen in the mind.  MOVE denotes a deliberate effort.  MOVE is an action word.

In yoga, when I think of action, I consider how I can take my practice off the mat and into everyday life.  To me, “practice” is a synonym for “action.”  Ashtanga Yoga founder Sri K. Pattabhi Jois used to say, “Practice yoga, and all is coming.”  A simple metaphor – when we take action, things happen.  Aphorism I.14 of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali states, “Practice becomes firmly grounded when efforts are made over a long period of time, constantly, and with great love (or devotion, earnestness, zeal).”

So again I mention the importance of tried-and-true tools, resources, practices and people to support my 100-day Sankalpa ritual.  They have encouraged my efforts, motivated my practice and strengthened my devotion.  Other influences, however, have been downright derailing at times.

What works and/or doesn’t work as I aim to maintain and manifest my intention to move toward joy:

WORKS: Being honest.  With myself and others.   This, by far, has been rule #1 for me.  THE best elixir for battling the stinking thinking.  Not convincing myself that everything is OK when it is not.  Not writing a bunch of “happy” lies in this blog.  Sharing my process with my circles, communities, co-humans.  Being honest about everything – feelings, ideas, plans.  Saying when I feel scared.  Saying when I feel confident.  “Sticking a pin in it” when my balloon of negativity, doubt and fear gets too inflated.  Getting it out.  Sometimes constructively, sometimes like a vent.

WORKS: Being listened to – being heard.  This means choosing the listeners carefully.  To truly be heard, I want to talk to those who have the patience, compassion and love to listen to everything I need to share.  People who care to know my insides.  People who care for my well-being, who have my best interest in mind.  People who do not immediately launch into fixing the problem.  I know this about myself: I need to let it all out – my stories, my theories, my feelings, my problems, my solutions.  Once I’m empty, I become spacious, calm and able to listen to feedback.

WORKS: Listening to, considering and/or heeding well-informed suggestions from people who know me well, who’ve stuck by my side through thick and thin, with whom I connect regularly, who are mental health professionals and/or who are trusted teachers whose experience I trust.  Listening to others’ stories.  Being as open-minded and willing as possible – yet still discerning, keeping my peace, purpose and sustainability in mind.  This is explored further in #1-4 below.

WORKS: Listening to and truly hearing loved ones’ and trusted beings’ encouragement and positive opinions.

WORKS: Staying close to those loved ones and trusted beings.

DOESN’T WORK: Trying to do this alone.

DOESN’T WORK:  Tolerating bossy, know-it-all recommendations (thinly disguised as concerned advice) from people who don’t know me very well (or who mistakenly think they do know me very well because maybe they used to know me a long time ago, or maybe they’ve read my writing or have heard me speak, or for whatever reason, they believe that we are alike), who have shown that they don’t care to know me authentically, whom I have not seen in a very long time, who intrusively beeline over to me because they’ve “heard what I’m going through,” who give medical advice without medical credentials and/or whom I absolutely do not trust.  And do you know what else doesn’t work?  Allowing these people to get under my skin; allowing myself to feel judged by these people; allowing myself to cop a resentment.  Indeed, at times, my vulnerable mind lets this happen!  What works then?  Taking a pause, replacing the false thoughts with a positive belief, and then understanding that these people are coming from a place of fear and/or a need to control.  I can have compassion for them, nod politely…and move on.  Or, avoid them altogether.  Or, be direct and say, “Thank you for your concern; I have a great team of supporters whose advice I am following.  So at this time, I want to stay on track and not add other suggestions. ”  Smile.  Walk away.  Bam.

Phew, that was a sassy little rant!  Sometimes I create my own frustration by being so open and honest about my process.  But, I’d rather have the opportunity to discern between appropriate/useful advice and inappropriate/fear-based advice than not get any advice at all!

*  *  *

In addition to clarity about support and action, I’ve also started to feel very clear about the process of cultivating positive change.  Thankfully, I’ve learned so much of this from the infinite influences I’ve said “yes” to over the years.  Here are the steps I’ve taken this time around:

1 – Let go of what doesn’t serve.  I’ve heard it a-thousand times, and it really is the best starting place for me.  This past summer, after what seemed like a year-long endurance test of trials and tribulations, I started letting go of anything that doesn’t represent deep peace, true purpose and long-term sustainability for me.  Jobs, relationships, belongings.  I took risks.  In the case of jobs and relationships, if I couldn’t leave immediately, I began to cultivate an exit strategy.  One by one, I started saying good-bye.  I will be honest – financially, it is beyond stressful.  But I really needed to let go and be liberated.

2 – Take time in the spaciousness created by letting go.  I learned to not fill the space YET.  To grieve the losses.  To feel uncomfortable.  To admit and accept my mistakes.  To witness my doubts, dreams, stories – positive and negative, real and imagined.

3 – Reflect on what brings deep peace, explore what constitutes true purpose and envision what looks sustainable in the long-term.  I have exposed myself to influences I might not normally consider.  I’ve read-up on the Occupy Wall Street efforts; I’ve started taking a high-power Jivamukti class; I’ve listened to Pema Chodron CDs (I love Pema, but am not typically a fan of audio learning).  And I have indulged in activities I absolutely love – that nourish me and bring instant joy.  I have seen live concerts, bought new CDs (please see the bottom of this blog to check out the video for the above-quoted Abigail Washburn song), listened to comedy, practiced yoga outdoors, watched baseball games, enjoyed inspiring films, participated in the Jewish High Holy Days.  I have let ideas and passions brew.

4 – Define peace, purpose and sustainability.  During the peak of Occupy Wall Street and the Jewish High Holy Days, I was struck with the strongest sense of self I’ve experienced in a long time.  It seems like a combination of the results of numbers 1-3 above, the pressure of calls to action in the media, and, the intensity of moral inventory, atonement and forgiveness sparked an energy of self-definition for me.  From Facebook, other media and other sources, I gleaned quotes that called to my soul, compiled them in a journal, and started aiming to live them, day in and day out.  They include: “Occupy within: a movement in awakening;” “While you are proclaiming peace with your lips, be careful to have it even more deeply in your heart;” “The unexamined life is not worth living;” and, “Do I feel happy?  No.  But I feel progress.”

5 – Take action – fill the space.  A few days ago, a yoga teacher friend exclaimed, “How’s your new life?”  She’s referring to the many changes I’ve made since the summer, when I started this process.  I reflected silently for a moment.  “It’s very empty…” and just then, a light bulb clicked on in my mind.  “It’s time to fill it,” I answered, with resolve.

This is coming up for me now that I clearly understand what works and what doesn’t to practice my Sankalpa with consistency and zeal.  With that support, I can tackle some next steps, which include: seek a  job that fulfills my true needs and allows me to continue teaching yoga; seek new yoga teaching opportunities; continue deepening my PTSD sessions and exploration; conduct a fearless self-inventory that not only identifies how I was harmed over the past year, but that also identifies what my part, mistake and/or contribution may have been to those troubles; practice forgiveness of myself and others; commit to other practices that direct me toward joy.  Thank goodness, there are many!

Let’s see what happens over the next 50 days…taking it one day at a time, of course.

Wishing all beings peace, joy, love – and a light that burns thru.  OM Shanti.

(Here is the lovely song containing the opening quote of this blog.  Enjoy!)

*  *  *

THE HAPPY HEART PROJECT.  Under the new moon of Sunday, August 28, 2011 I launched “The Happy Heart Project: 100 Days Toward Joy” – an effort to document my daily journey away from an annoyingly encroaching emotional darkness and toward the hopeful light of happiness.  For 100 days from 8/28 through 12/5, I will wake up, burn a stick of Happy Heart incense and set an intention to grow toward joy.  Each day I’ll post a “Happy Heart Project” status (and accompanying song for that day’s mood) on Urban Yoga Den on Facebook, then see what happens during the day.  Periodically, I’ll post an UrbanYogaDen.wordpress.com blog that covers my journey.  I’m excited that one yoga teacher friend unexpectedly exclaimed, “I’m with you!” and is sharing the journey!  Join us – choose one simple heartfelt ritual for your morning, intend to practice it daily, “Like” Urban Yoga Den on Facebook, and let us know how you’re doing from time to time!

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Clearing the Obstacles August 6, 2011

I am sorry to hear your pain.  You are a wonderful human being and deserve tranquility, peace, and love.  I would suggest that you stay focused on what is good for YOU, rest will follow.  –  letter from a friend

This quote sounds like something I would say to a student or friend.  Instead, it is an e-mail that a friend just sent to me.  I know he meant to write, “…stay focused on what is good for YOU, THE rest will follow.”  Yet the fact is, if I stay focused on what is good for me, indeed, rest will follow.  And I really, really need some rest.  The kind of rest that allows the heart to remember its yearnings, yearnings to cultivate clarity, clarity to turn into action, and action to yield change.

This has been the hardest blog to write, ever.  I keep starting and stopping; switching directions; adding this and that.  Stopping.  Sobbing.  And starting again.

It’s difficult to be 100% honest, and that’s what I need to do.  It’s difficult to not shade my current negative state with the positive solutions of yoga.  Is it yogic to admit that I am in pain, and that my usual solutions seem out of reach?

*  *  *

I feel it’s time for big change and I’m starting with small things.  But I wish I could crack myself open and re-program.  – letter to a friend

Last week, on my 46th birthday, I started parting my hair on the opposite side.

Ganesha, new hair part, pneumonia and me on my 46th birthday.

Immediately, I felt like a new person.  I saw myself differently.  My eyes looked happier.  My head felt lighter.  My mind was clearer.

The weekend before, I’d hit an emotional bottom where I spent an entire day acting very un-yoga-like.  OK, I’ll say it – although I haven’t had a drink or drug in nearly 9 years, I was acting as toxic as a drunken addict.  It was not pretty, people.  Some who went through that day with me were very forgiving.  Some were not.  Some recognized that stress from recent physical illness and emotional difficulties fueled my offensiveness.  Some didn’t care, because they were hurt.  And still others (thank goodness for the others) offered amazing advice and insight – including the belief that I’m hitting a bottom because big change is coming.

So last week, after a series of Facebook posts about fighting demons, letting go and changing…I parted my hair on the other side.

*  *  *

In the past month alone, notable events forced me to reevaluate my behaviors, activities and needs, and to reignite my practices, beliefs and vision.  – August “Yoga Update” (see “newsletter” tab)

To complement my fresh hair style, I’ve also been wearing my Ganesha charm more frequently.

Not only have I felt a need for newness, but also for a strong shove of old things out of the way.  When I first started practicing Vinyasa yoga, my teacher constantly spoke of “letting go of what doesn’t serve in order to make room for what does.”  I don’t frequently pray to specific deities, but being reminded of Ganesha’s power to clear obstacles (and provide protection) has been motivating.

These days, I know I need to release many things that compromise my deepest well-being in order to create space for what cultivates sustainable, lasting inner peace.  For instance, on mornings between the full and new moons, I used to pray, “Let me let go of anything that gets in the way of your will for me.”  Regretfully, that practice has faded off…but it’s time to bring it back.

*  *  *

Hindsight is 20/20.  – popular phrase

As you might know, I was mugged in June.  Feedback on my blog, “The Yoga of Being Mugged” has been positive.  People have used words like “resilient” and “compassionate” regarding my response to the situation.  I agree, and am thankful to be someone who uses yoga and other tools to recover from and address life’s difficulties.

Now here comes the 100% honesty – because I don’t want you to think that I am responding with perfect strength and forgiveness to an assault.  I want you to know that it hurt.  I want you to know that I now walk around scared and suspicious and over-reactive.  I want you to know that my past traumas have been triggered since the mugging.  And I want you to know that I sometimes act like a jerk because of this state.

If you’ve read my other blogs, you know a bit about my painful childhood and rough road toward adulthood.  These last 18 years of yoga practice, complemented by 8+ years of addiction recovery, have sparked a journey of mending and growth.  Still, I am just hitting the tip of the iceberg in undoing 25 years of destructive patterns and related consequences.

When I look back on my life’s traumas, I see the lesson behind each one.  So why am I so stuck in the pain of the past?  Because, due to my childhood isolation and later impulse to kill emotions with substances, I did not properly process and/or grieve these traumas at the time that they took place.  Making sense of them is one thing; authentically expressing and healthily processing the emotions is a whole other ball game.

Thankfully, these days I am feeling weary from past traumas robbing me of day-to-day happiness.  I am feeling a low tolerance for anything that does not match my craving for inner peace.  I am fed up with these obstacles keeping me from my intentions to be of service in this world.

So I am willing to do whatever it takes to change.

At the same time that I am willing to let go of limitations, I am somehow holding on.  I have taken the reigns, and have been gripping them tightly.  Terrified of feeling more pain, I have taken complete control of my life.  Regretfully.  Because when I am in complete control, there’s little room for you, for anyone, for a higher power, for healthy risk, for trust, for faith.

*  *  *

I’ve been learning to drive, my whole life. – Arcade Fire, “In The Backseat”

It’s time to let someone else take the wheel.  Let go.  Change.

In the Mahabharata – an ancient Hindu text – there is a story about true surrender.

A king wants to ruin a man’s reputation, and so decides to shame the man’s wife, Draupadi, by stripping off her sari in public.  A sari is a traditional Indian dress, made from several yards of material wrapped around the body.  In the story, the king begins to unwrap the sari, and in turn, Draupadi clings tightly in fear.  She continues to use all her strength while crying to god for help.

After much struggle, Draupadi realizes that, as long as she clings in fear, there will not be space for god to help her.  Bravely, she lets go of the sari, holds her hands up and exclaims, “If you want me to face this disgrace I will accept it.  I totally trust you; my life is in your hands.”  Miraculously, Draupadi’s sari becomes infinitely long, and the king becomes exhausted.  Draupadi was saved.

The first time I read this story around three years ago, I was struck by Draupadi’s willingness to accept god’s will, even if it means disgrace.  In the margin of the book I wrote, “WOW.  I wish for this surrender.”

At this very moment, I feel that exact yearning.  Since June, I have been so racked by fear that I wake up each morning with my fists clenched so tightly that my thumbs come out of their joints.

Shifting from self reliance to accepting help takes deep work.  A PTSD therapist has been helping me work through my past so I can heal from it.  Most days, I feel quite vulnerable, like a wounded animal, backed into my protective corner.  You know what “they” say about wounded animals – don’t go near them.

But circumstances have prohibited this isolation, and demanded togetherness.  Shortly after the mugging, I came down with pneumonia and had to ask for a lot of support.  All through my birthday week, my home was filled with friends bringing fresh produce, fun gifts and positive energy.  It chipped away at my rock-hard walls of “That’s OK, I can do it myself.”

I am continuing to reach out for the company, wisdom, experiences and advice of those prepared to step into the corner with me.  Yes, when they come near me, I might act overly protective.  I might swat them away.  I might misunderstand their concern for judgment.  I might mistake their discomfort for dislike.  I might offend them.  I might piss them off.  And they might or might not forgive me.

I will, however, forgive myself.

*  *  *

Here is the hardest part to write.  In my current state of imbalance, can I honorably teach the Eight Limbs, and how they outline a simple process for taking yoga’s principles off the mat and into everyday life?  How can I share “Yogas Chitta Vritti Nrodhah” and encourage yoga as a practice for calming the mind, when my mind is far from calm?  How can I authentically pass on yoga’s tools, when they don’t seem to be working for me in this time of extreme challenge?

Or does this messy phase of life illustrate yoga’s transformation?  Maybe this is my own version of “Draupadi’s Sari.”  Maybe my wish for absolute surrender is coming true.

One thing is for certain – this is my emotional bottom, and the only way out is up.

*  *  *

My god, Holly, you got mugged and now you have pneumonia?  The universe is trying to tell you something.  – a friend

My sassy answer to this remark?  “Uh-huh, the universe is telling me that I am a tough broad who can get through anything!”  Perhaps.  That would certainly match my self-reliant conditioning.  At the same time, I’m open to a totally different point of view.  By sending me a mugging, pneumonia and related challenges, the universe could be urging me to ‘fess up and say, “Come closer to me.”

See me, accept me, love me for exactly who I am – right now.  Vulnerable, fearful, distrustful and resentful.  Wounded.  Ready to focus on what’s good for me.  And more than ready for (the) rest.

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

 

Focus Wrap Up: The Eight Limbs – Yama April 10, 2011

It was 10:38am on Sunday, April 3rd when I started writing this wrap up, and the New Moon hung invisibly above.

In that Sunday’s classes we wrapped up our March focus on the 1st of the Eight Limbs of Yoga – Yama, or, abstinence. I extended the March focus through April 3rd so the New Moon – at the height of its energy of surrender, letting go and dissolving – could reinforce our liberation from what we might refrain from in our attitudes, our actions, our lives.

During the past month, our classes bravely began a journey of self-examination by way of yoga’s 1st limb.  For me, such exploration of patterns and beliefs is a process.  I have grown to understand that I might not be transformed within the period of one class, one month or perhaps one lifetime!  Each time I step onto the path, I am simply opening a door – maybe even just a little crack – to look inside with curiosity and compassion.  Still, this is deep work, and I try to balance intensity with restoration – during my personal efforts and our classes.

In his commentary about Yama (and Limb #2 – Niyama, or observance) in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Swami Satchidananda says: “These points are for whole-time, dedicated Yogis; and so, for them, Patanjali allows no excuses.  For people who aren’t that one-pointed toward the Yogic goal, these vows can be modified according to their position in life.”  So rather than introducing the Sutras’ list of five yogic abstinences (non-harming, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence, non-greed), I invited students to cultivate their own, personal Yama.  Toward the end of the month, we considered the official Yama from Patanjali’s ancient guidance.

Along with students, I cultivated my own personal Yama based on my “position in life.”  And the position I’ve been playing for most of my life is…

DEFENSE.

Last week, I squarely faced the huge deficit this role has hollowed out of my heart, soul and life.  Ugh.

What happened?

A number of things.  I’ll skip the long story about childhood and other traumas leading to the necessity for self-defense.  If you’ve read my past blogs, you know that I am devoted to looking backward in order to move forward with health.  You might also remember that just last summer I was blind-sided by a serious betrayal that erased all my trust in humans.  My heart was on lock down.  In my yoga practice, with professional counsel and through other spiritual practices, I started to open back up.  More recently, during the Off the Mat Into the World leadership intensive in early March, I revisited my bruised little heart and noticed that it did not feel so safe after all.  It was still in defense mode.  Again, I re-committed to the process of looking inside, taking action, sparking transformation.

But the biggest eye-opener happened last week.

I went through a breast cancer scare after a doctor’s examination.  Thankfully, at the radiologist appointment a few days later, I found out that I do not have cancer.  During those in-between days of fearful anticipation, however, I contacted family and spent a lot of time with friends for support.  Knowing me as well as she does, one friend reached out her arms and said, “Put your hands in mine.”  I did.

Then she told me, with resolve in her voice, firmness in her stance and steadiness in her eyes,  “You are going to be OK.  And you will not be alone.”

I felt my entire body seize up in defense mode.  My stiffened hands could not hold on.  My eyes could barely meet hers.  When I did look her in the eye it was through a hard plate of glass.  I could hear her words but not feel the sentiment in my heart.  I wanted to believe her but could not.  I could not trust for fear of being betrayed again.  I could not accept her love.

What’s the big deal?

If I don’t allow myself to accept love, I will never feel loved.  That’s it in a nutshell.  I don’t think I need to go into the specifics of how humans need to share love; how vulnerability is essential to trust-building; how risk-taking might be the only way to true intimacy.  The fact is, if I don’t take action to continually and consistently address, transform and heal the core wounds of my heart, I will continually and consistently struggle with every relationship in my life – at work, in family, with friends and otherwise.

Realizing this last week, I set a deep intention that will bring purpose to my Eight-Limb work in the coming months.  A Sankalpa.  My own personal Yama:

I aim to abstain from fear-based responses to life’s invitations for connecting, trusting and loving.  I will liberate my icy-cold, walled-up, scared little Anahata Chakra through heart-opening Asana, heart-expanding Pranayama and Bhakti-influenced practices.

Some wounds are hard to heal.  But for the sake of Ahimsa (non-harming – the 1st Yama from the Sutras), I am going to non-harm myself by taking the risk of being vulnerable.  No holds barred, I am rolling my shoulders back, breathing deeply and chanting my heart out. I am abstaining and refraining from, letting go of, dissolving, and surrendering fear.  Damn-it.

Why abstain?

As mentioned in the Intro to this month’s focus, I want to offer my best self in service to the world.  That is what Samadhi (yoga’s 8th Limb) means to me – an interconnectedness that dissolves separation, invites love, cultivates trust.  So in the end, I don’t want to heal my heart so I feel better – although I’m sure that will be a benefit!  In the end, I want to liberate my heart so I can serve others with authenticity, strength and sustainability.

Wishing you peace, joy, love and light.  OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

 

March Focus: The Eight Limbs of Yoga – Intro & Yama April 4, 2011

As I’ve said before, I wouldn’t dare try teaching the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali to my classes.  First, my knowledge of this ancient text is based on my four-week Teacher Training, during which we primarily studied the 1st two books; since then, my study has been on my own.  Second, there are some great Raja Yoga teachers out there whose experience included decades of studying, translating, interpreting and practicing the Sutras; they are the true teachers.

I do, however, like to design yoga classes where (I hope!) our actions on the mat find purpose through the wisdom of the Sutras.  In the beginning of March we embarked on an eight-month exploration of the Eight Limbs of Yoga, as introduced in Sutras 28 & 29 of Book Two of the Sutras.  Drawing from my 2010 blog about the Eight Limbs:

“Book Two of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras lays out yoga’s Eight Limbs.  Probably the most widely known and practiced are Asana (poses), Pranayama (breathing exercises) and Dharana (concentration as a form of “meditation”).

“But there are five additional limbs – and I believe they are in order for a reason.

“The Eight Limbs represent a process of growth from heady self-examination to soulful universal connection. The first two limbs – Yama and Niyama – list the ethical premises of yoga.  After we’ve set our intentions for values and virtues, we move on to Asana, to address physical limitations such as aches and toxins.  Next, Pranayama continues detoxification, awakens our life force energy and balances our nervous system.  With the 5th limb, Pratyahara, the senses are softened to remove outer distractions.  During Dharana, we concentrate intently on one point of focus.  Deepening into the 7th limb, Dhyana, our concentration shifts into meditation, and there is no separation between the meditator that point of focus.  The 8th limb, Samadhi, is generally described as “enlightenment” – but to me, that harkens of apart-ness.  I like to think of Samadhi as one-ness.  It occurs the moment when our practice of yoga’s previous seven limbs brings such peace and confidence that we are selfless.

“For me, Samadhi would be a state of consistently being my best self and offering that self in service to the world.”  (From https://urbanyogaden.wordpress.com/2010/05/21/focus-mayjune-the-eight-limbs/).

*  *  *

The month of March has been an introduction to the Limbs with emphasis on the 1st limb, Yama (or abstinence).

When considering how I might practice the ethical or philosophical virtues of yoga, I ask myself, “Who do I want to be as I walk down the street?  How do I want to treat myself and others?”  In response, I return without fail to the very 1st Yama – that essential virtue that sets the foundation for all other virtues: Ahimsa. Non-harming.

It’s a tough question to ask, “How might I be harming myself and others?”  Ugh.  Do I really want to look at that?  Well, no.  But, yes. And so, when our classes started our journey through the Eight Limbs, I set the deep intention to squarely face my own vulnerability and begin to abstain from whatever harming tendency (or tendencies) I might have.

More will be revealed.

OM Shanti.

*  *  *

Post Script

“An ounce of practice is worth more than tons of preaching.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Frankly.

Lately I’ve been using “we” instead of “I” when teaching and writing.  For example, “When we practice X, we experience Y.”  Hello?  Who am I to decide what anyone outside of myself is experiencing  in practice?  And so, to finish off this particular blog about living yoga in daily life, I want to apologize.  It is wrong of me to take the position of “we” when aiming to simply pass along what “I” have experienced.

I am hoping this awareness will end the pattern.  Feel free to call me out when necessary.  OM Shanti.

 

February Focus: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali February 9, 2011

At Yogaville, where all dorm rooms have a copy (or two) of Satchidananda's commentary on The Yoga Sutras.

From the title of this blog, one might think:

  • “Wow, Holly’s really going for it this time.”
  • “She’s taking on the ancient text of Yoga (with a capital “Y”)!”
  • “How in the world will we cover four books of aphorisms in one month?”
  • “Who does Holly think she is, teaching the Sutras?”

Hahahahaha!  Believe me, gang, I know better.

For February, our monthly focus is, indeed, the Yoga Sutras. Because without the Yoga Sutras, I wouldn’t be teaching yoga classes.  I wouldn’t have known how to guide you through the basics of Asana, Pranayama, Yoga Nidra and Sankalpa that we reviewed in January.  Heck, I wouldn’t even know what those things were without the Yoga Sutras.  In my estimate, without the Yoga Sutras, none of us would be enjoying yoga as we do today.

Then again, who knows?

I’m open to other POVs.  But I can only teach from mine!  I will admit (because my M.O. is “nothing to hide”) that my knowledge of the Sutras focuses on the practical portions we studied at my Integral Yoga Hatha Teacher Training in 2008.  Like any other studied text, there are parts of the Sutras that are ingrained in my brain – and I quote them the way some people quote one-liners from movies.

Specifically, five Sutras rocked my world when I first learned about them; and they continue to serve as essential tools for living yoga on and off the mat. This is our February focus.

HOLLY’S FAVORITE SUTRAS FOR CULTIVATING INNER PEACE

1 – A PROMISE

Early in Book One, Sutra 1.2 says, “Yogas Citta Vritti Nerodhah” or “Yoga restrains the disturbances of the mind.”  We’ve probably experienced this at the end of a luscious Asana and Pranayama class!  That remarkable liberation of the mind, free of worry and forgetful of fear, glowing with presence and brimming with confidence.  What I love most about this promise is – I don’t have to do it.  I don’t have to force my mind to be undisturbed; I don’t have to change uncomfortable thoughts; I don’t have to force positivity to replace negativity; I don’t have to effort anything.  Yoga will take care of all of this.  I do the footwork (practice yoga); and the rest will fall into place.

So in the very beginning of Patanjali’s aphorisms, we are assured: through yoga, we can still the mind and show up for life with serenity and peace.

2 – A PRACTICAL TOOL

Sometimes I need more than my regular Asana class to restrain disturbances of my mind.  If I sneak forward to Book Two, I find the remedy.  Sutra 2.33 says, “Vitarka Badhane Pratipaksha Bhavanam” or “When disturbed by negative thoughts, contrary thoughts should be employed.”  There are days when I find myself repeating “Pratipaksha Bhavana!” like a mantra, in order to snap out of negativity.  I’ve told this story before; here it is again.  My dearly departed Uncle Bill (revered in my April 2010 “Oh Death” post) was the king of replacing negative with positive.  I remember one conversation in particular.  I was feeling hopeless and believed I’d made too many mistakes during my early adult life to ever repair the damage and pursue my dreams.  I’d been swimming in self-pity and doubt for a while.  As I defended my despair, Uncle Bill interrupted – “Well, Holly,” he said with his soothing Tennessee accent and gentle churchgoer’s faith, “I believe you sort of lived your life backwards – when you were younger, you made all of your mistakes and somehow survived all of your trials.  Now you get to move forward based on what you’ve learned and live a better life!”  And you know what?  Since learning to replace negativity with positive or constructive thoughts, many of my smallest intentions and greater dreams have been realized!

Pratipaksha Bhavana, indeed!  Wondering where/when you can use this tool?  Read on.

3 – THE FOUR LOCKS AND KEYS

To further pacify the citta (mind), we backtrack to Book One.  Sutra 1.33 says, “Maitri Karuna Muditopeksanam Sukha Duhkha Punyapunya Visayanam Bavanatas Citta Prasadanam.” The many lengthy translations and commentaries on this aphorism offer an overall belief that there are four locks in our own minds and in the character of other people: happy, unhappy, virtuous and non-virtuous.  To confront these attitudes – whether ours or others’ – Patanjali suggests: “Befriend the happy; have compassion for the unhappy; delight in the virtuous; be indifferent toward the non-virtuous.”  In his commentary on Patanjali’s Sutras, Swami Satchidananda advises: “These four keys should always be with you in your pocket.  If you use the right key with the right person you will retain your peace.  Nothing in the world can upset you then.”  Another lovely promise.

Life has offered me unique opportunities to test this Sutra.  To read my personal experience about using compassionate detachment to understand and find peace with the violence of murder, please see my November 2009 “Compassion for Killers” post.

Yoga can offer relief beyond belief.  It has helped through horrible situations happening around me – as well as situations that I make horrible for myself.

4 – AHHH-SOME

I’ll admit it.  Sometimes I try too hard.  I overload my schedule; I forget to relax.  I feel disappointed that I haven’t mended every past mistake; I forget to forgive myself.  I give and give; I burn out.  And so on.  Mentors often suggest practicing Sutra 2.46 symbolically, as a remedy for this. “Sthira Sukham Asanam.” “Asana is a steady, comfortable posture.”  Here in Book Two, Patanjali discusses the practicality of yoga, reminding us that our poses are a blend of effort and ease.  Holding and resting.  Flowing and pausing.  We find ourselves physically expressing yoga poses with this fusion of steadiness and comfort.  Ahhh…just like a nice, balanced, healthy, sustainable life.

The previous Sutras offer immense assurance.  If we practice yoga in this way, we can count on these results.  When we show up for our practice in this way, we give back to the world with these offerings.

And then comes…

5 – THE ULTIMATE PROMISE OF ALL PROMISES

Sutra 2.16 is my most favorite idea in the whole-wide-world.  “Heyam Duhkham Anagatam.” “The misery which has not yet come is to be avoided.”  By using yoga’s tools on and off the mat, we can avoid future suffering!  Yea!  Not only can we decrease physical injuries by practicing Asana with respect for our bodies (steady AND comfortable), we can also decrease mental anguish by embracing the Sutras’ ideological guidance (“Yogas Cittas Vrittis Nrodhah”).

None of this means that we can avoid bad or intense experiences, because life will deal us whatever cards we are meant to hold.  But by embracing the above promises and tools, we can avoid misery and suffering – and above all, sustain an undisturbed mind – while going through any of life’s difficulties or sorrows, celebrations and joys.

Wishing you peace, joy, love and light.  OM Shanti.

Resources that influence my POV on The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali:

  • The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali; translation and commentary by Swami Satchidananda.
  • Raja – Yoga; by Swami Vivekananda.
  • Why We Fight: Practices for Lasting Peace; by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, Ph.D.
  • “Yoga Sutras Unveiled” from Integral Yoga Magazine, Spring 2010; with contributions from Michael Stone, Mukunda Stiles, Deborah Adele, Dr. M.A. Jayashree and more.
  • “Love in Full Bloom” from Yoga Journal, May 2010; by Frank Jude Boccio.
  • “Journey to the Light” from Yoga Journal, May 2010; by Kate Holcombe.

(I first wrote about these “promises” and tools last March and April, when our class focus was “Transition and Balance.”  That original, shorter post lives on the Tips-n-Tools tab of this blog.)

 

Focus Wrap Up: Back to Basics February 2, 2011

Over the weekend I taught the final classes in our January Back to Basics focus. To complement our fine-tuning of alignment, review of three-part breathing and return to proper resting, these last sessions invited students to deepen their commitment to setting an intention.

Personally, I can’t imagine getting on the mat without exploring some kind of purpose for my practice.  To set an intention, I like to let the thoughts naturally flow through my mind while arriving, and see which one most strongly asks for my attention – it might even be a thought that’s been tapping me on the shoulder for a few days.  Maybe weeks!  Or longer!  Then I shape that thought into a dedication, affirmation or reflection.

Using the three-part Deergha Swaasam breath, I deepen my reflection by imagining filling with intention on the inhale, and simple resting with it on the exhale.  Later in my set, during the internal focus and natural surrender of seated forward folds, I inhale to fill with intention, and exhale to surrender (dissolve and let go of) any obstacles (distractions, old stories, self-imposed limitations) that might stand in the way of realizing my intention.  And I reconnect with my intention before settling into Yoga Nidra – a process of deep relaxation, between a state of sleep and consciousness.

Although I’ve been shying away from the word “resolution” this new year, I will say that having a Sankalpa (a firm, prayerful, resolved intention) during my time on the mat makes a huge difference in my practice, my day and my life. Different traditions approach Sankalpa with unique perspectives – for example, setting a Sankalpa during Yoga Nidra so this process of yogic sleep helps us realize that intention; belief that Sankalpa can erase negative Samskara (imprints on or patterns in our lives); or using Pratipaksha Bhavana (replacement of negative thoughts with positive) to create a resolution.

There’s that word again!  Resolution.

I can’t escape it – if I am going to reflect deeply on intention, I must have resolve.  So I’ll try to ease up on my anti-resolution attitude!  Your encouragement is always helpful; I’m not the only teacher around here.

I hope you’ve found something useful during this Back to Basics month of reviewing and fine tuning Asana, Pranayama, Yoga Nidra and Sankalpa practice.  Looking forward to starting a 9-month look at the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and the Eight Limbs beginning in February!

Wishing you peace, joy, love and light.  OM Shanti.

P.S. Remember, the fine-tuning tips for Asana and Pranayama that I’ve taught over the past month can be found on the Tips-n-Tools tab of this blog.  Enjoy!

 

December Focus: Abundance December 4, 2010

Snowflakes are falling on the homepage of WordPress. I’m listening to Arcade Fire’s “Neighborhood #1” in which young lovers dig a tunnel from house to house after the neighborhood is buried in snow. And outside, for real, it’s finally Winter cold.

I’m fasting today. Liquids only.* There’s nothing like an empty body for writing about fullness! In this week’s yoga classes, we are introducing the new monthly focus of Abundance. Having just wrapped up a month of Gratitude reflections, we have an easy task, right? Perhaps we could list loads of stuff we appreciate in and around our lives. Perhaps we feel full of and surrounded by abundance.

At some point during this month, we might look ahead to the New Year and envision our intentions and goals. What will our “New Year’s Resolutions” be?

I’ve already made my 2011 New Year Resolution. Actually, I’ve made a resolution for this final month of 2010 – to NOT set intentions for 2011 and instead, to focus on the abundance of the present moment.

A friend recently responded to my resolution to not have resolutions by sharing “I find if I just lean into this moment with love, everything else sorts itself out.”

How often do we make space – internally/mindfully and externally/physically – in order to allow new or unexpected and maybe even unwanted things to flow in and enhance the abundance that we so forcefully cultivate through planning, goal listing, intention setting?

Can we expand, lengthen, release in order to create space?

Can we gently nurture that space with positive thoughts…even love?

Just asking.

Back to that concept of emptying the body to reflect on fullness. It works, it really does! In order to invite authentic abundance, I must make room. Yoga practice so beautifully offers us a platform for psychological reflection, expression and growth. “Yoga Chitta Vritti Nirodhah” – Yoga ceases the disturbances of the mind. Its eight-limb process is designed to offer ethical considerations, then regulate physical discomfort and external distractions so we have room to be mindfully present with what is.

When we make room, we can see that “what is” is all we need.

The following quote from writer and yoga teacher Max Strom popped up on Facebook recently; and it reminded me to make space for an abundance of anything. If I cultivate space (vs. holding back or holding in or holding tight), I can see that even the unexpected or “unwanted” can bring contentment. I must remember – if happiness does not manifest immediately, more will be revealed.

“We hold back from life so much. We literally refuse happiness because we demand to have it in a certain way – and this precludes our getting it.” ~ Max Strom

We had abundant snow in DC last year! Maybe this Winter it will – again – afford us the unplanned space to explore the new, embrace the unexpected, work with the unwanted.

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti. h*

* “Liquids only.” My liquid fast, for two reasons, admittedly includes one mid-day miso soup with lemon juice, turmeric powder, fresh garlic and seaweed/spinach. One, I have to take my Holy Basil (aka Tulsi) supplement with a meal. Two, I am hypoglycemic, therefore the miso’s protein and greens’ amino acids balance my blood sugar. All ingredients facilitate continued cleansing. Other than this, throughout the detox I drink: room-temperature water with cayenne, lemon, honey and electrolytes; and fresh ginger root tea. Upon awakening, I drink one cup of classic India spice tea with clove, cinnamon, ginger, black pepper, etc.