The Urban Yoga Den

…where it's all yoga.

Yoga Class Focus: The Freedom to Heal August 29, 2014

Make space. Clear the way. Widen the paths. And in this liberation…heal.

The theme of my July classes was FREEDOM; and we kicked off our month of focused practices with a special “Declaration of Independence” workshop.  I teach this July 4th workshop annually; and each year, I’ve approached the session with a hint of motivational speaker style. “You can liberate yourself of obstacles and declare new truths!” Together, in the spirit of our forefathers, we celebrated Sankalpa – resolute intention for change.

MatFeetJournalCandleIncense(Summer2014)This year was different. This July 4th, the fires of freedom were not blazing with glory. I toned down. I got real. I simplified. And I asked: “What is your dissatisfaction with life? Could you still find inner peace if nothing changes?” Because life is a mix of action and change, and, surrender and acceptance. Yoga does not promise us that everything will be exactly as we wish it to be. That if we set a Sankalpa, have strong resolve and work to manifest our deepest intentions, everything will go our way. Nope. On the contrary, “Yogas Chitta Vritti Nirodhah” – the 2nd aphorism in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – teaches us that, even when things don’t go our way, we can still enjoy a calm mind.

So, mirroring the motivations of our country’s founders, we spent the morning of Independence Day professing our dissatisfactions. And then, we got on our mats to explore how we can cultivate flexibility, patience, curiosity, willingness, acceptance, surrender in our bodies. After our Asana practice, we invited those same concepts into our minds and journaled: “What if the change I seek can’t happen right now? What if it can never happen? What if the outcome of the change is not what I expected?” Wrapping up the morning with Yoga Nidra and a guided journey, we invited this spaciousness into our lives.

Over the month, we continued with similar themes, discovering physical liberation in twists and binds. With the Yoga Sutras as our guide, and “Sthira Sukham Asanam” as our mantra, remained devoted to balancing effort with ease in order to unlock life’s pressures. We affirmed that, even in a bind, we can feel free.

Freedom! Freedom to move with ease. Freedom to let go of expectations. Freedom to accept things – and ourselves – exactly as they are.

In August, with spaciousness as our best friend, we moved on to our new class focus: HEALING.

Our precious ancient Sutras promise: “Heyam Dukham Asanam.” As Swami Vivekananda translated: “The misery which has not yet come is to be avoided.” Not “can be” avoided. Not “might be” avoided. IS. TO. BE. AVOIDED. I don’t know about you, but every time I read this aphorism, I breathe more freely. Because I remember our ancient yogis’ simple formula – if I practice yoga as described in our foundational texts, I will sidestep future physical AND emotional pain.

So at this point in development – after setting foundations (June’s focus) and cultivating freedom (July’s focus), there is room to heal. With devotion toward practicing with a balance of effort and ease, action and surrender, and, change and acceptance, I have the spaciousness to heal past pain and patterns, and step into the future with wholeness.

This is not just a monthly theme for practice. This is not just a Sankalpa set for class. This is not just my body on the mat. This is not just my journal in a workshop. This is life.

Note to self…

Thank you for reading; and, thank you for practicing with me – even if/when you are miles away. OM Shanti.

 

Yoga Class Focus: Foundations for Freedom July 2, 2014

During June, my class focus was “Foundations.” I told students that I felt like I was starting over as a teacher, after a 7-month absence from the Washington, DC yoga community. So together, we started from scratch.

September 2013 "farewell" party with DC teachers and students. Little did we know, I'd be back in 7 months!

September 2013 “farewell” party with DC teachers, students, friends. Little did we know, I’d move back from Nashville after 7 months!

Each practice, we arrived together. With the Eight Limbs as our guide, we observed and then shaped our thoughts, our physical being, our breath and our senses. We meditated on Sankalpa (deep intention or purpose), and then chanted OM to transition into Asana. We flowed through six traditional Integral Yoga sun salutations, focusing on each of the 1st three Chakras for two repetitions.

Always, we set these foundations of the Limbs, Sankalpa and the Chakras. And OM. That essential syllable that syncs up the room’s vibrations.

And then the practice opened up for variety. One week we explored Yoga Sutra 1.2: “Yogas Chitta Vritti Nirodhah” (“yoga calms the mind’s disturbances”) with a heart-centered set. Another time it was Sutra 2.46: “Sthira Sukham Asanam” (“postures are both steady and easeful”) with a set of strong lunges and chair poses. Next we deepened our Pranayama (breath work) and Dharana (meditation) skills. Finally, we wrapped up the month with the story of Shiva, the original yogi (or, the O.G. – Original Guru, LOL) and an intensive on twists.

The beautiful morning light at my yoga HOME in DC: Embrace Yoga.

The beautiful morning light at my yoga HOME in DC: Embrace Yoga.

And yes, we practiced twisting from the foundation of the spine.

Personally, I cannot imagine practicing yoga without these foundational elements. Therefore, I certainly cannot imagine teaching without them, either.

I feel extremely grateful that my teacher, Faith Hunter, invited me back to my twice-weekly sunrise yoga slots and sub regularly at her studio, Embrace Yoga DC after I returned to DC in March. June was, indeed, a fresh start for my teaching. And thanks to my students, my personal practice is also rejuvenated.

Our July class focus is “Freedom.” For Asana, we will build on last week’s twisting set, and explore how physical mechanics can liberate the body for safety and ease, plus, strength and stamina. Conceptually, we’ll discover the Yoga Sutras’ keys to freedom from resentment…freedom from attachment…freedom from whatever trips us up, pushes us down or holds us back.

In fact, my July 4th “Declaration of Independence” class, 10-11:30am at Embrace, addresses exactly that: What do I want to be free of in order to live my truth? As the amazing 70s soul band Funkadelic said, “Free your mind…and your a** will follow,” brilliantly illustrating how Sankalpa (shaping the thoughts) should always proceed Vinyasa (flowing yoga poses). Heeheehee. Join us on Friday and witness the proof.

Thank you for reading; and, thank you for practicing with me – even if/when you are miles away. OM Shanti.

 

Love: The Privilege of Teaching Yoga February 5, 2013

LOVE: Brief (and maybe not so brief) explorations for our February class focus.

*  *  *

THWL2(18June2011)

Photo: Larkin Goff

It is a privilege to teach yoga.

It is a great responsibility to hold space for others.  For those who so courageously walk through the door, enter the room, step onto on the mat.  Who surrender themselves to be guided in this ancient tradition.

It is an outright honor to facilitate the birth of awareness, transformation, growth, intention, purpose, discipline.

I invite people to think or move or breathe or notice; I encourage, I cheer; I sit or stand or walk around; I instruct, I demonstrate, I practice.  Sometimes I pray.

This is my “vocation!”  And although I dedicate myself to mindful class preparation, ongoing trainings, regular practice, community building, yoga blog writing and other areas of this “job,” teaching yoga is not “work” for me.  The students do the real work.

Sometimes the depth of Sankalpa in the room is startling.  Sometimes the commitment to lengthening the breath and slowing down the flow makes me think I live somewhere other than Washington, DC.  Sometimes the determination motivates my own dedication.  Sometimes the closing OMs are so sweet and soulful I get choked up and cry.

My role in all of this?  To simply guide students’ process of discovering what’s already within.  Just as my teachers guide me – and, just as they prepared me to do for others.

At the end of a long, fulfilling day of instructing brand-new beginners, sharing yoga tools for big transitions with a couple who is moving cross-country, and leading an intention-setting workshop for a student’s landmark birthday…I can’t even believe that this is what I get to do with my life.  I am lucky to be in a position to pass on what works for me.  And when someone says it works for him/her, too, I am both pleased and grateful.

I love this.  More than anything else in my entire life, I love practicing, studying and teaching yoga.  Great gratitude to the inspirations, guides, teachers and unknown influences who led me here.

THWL1(18June2011)

Photo: Larkin Goff

Thanks for reading.  OM Shanti.

*  *  *

How do we recognize and trust our hearts’ desires?  How can we harness the impulses tugging at our hearts, and shape them into a deeper purpose?  Join me on Saturday, February 23rd, 3-5:30pm at Quiet Mind Yoga in Washington, DC for “Follow Your Heart.”  In this Sankalpa Vinyasa practice, Holly facilitates heart-centered Asana, self-inquiry and journeying, so students can tap into the flow of their deepest intentions. Re-ignite your 2013 resolutions – or, discover a completely new direction.

 

Back to Basics: Real Yoga Doesn’t Hurt (Revisited) February 2, 2013

“Tadaasana, Pranayama, Sankalpa.”

There is a reason I repeat these three words each time we regroup at the top of the mat between Sun Salutations.  For me, these three elements – The Pose, The Breath and The Intention – are the basics of yoga.  Although mentioned as three unique parts of yoga’s eight-limbed system, in my practice they are inseparable.  When I align myself in Mountain Pose (Tadaasana), I firmly embody my intention (Sankalpa).  When I breathe deliberately (Pranayama), I exhale obstacles, and inhale my intention with resolve.

When I fuse these three elements together, I fortify my purpose for that session of practice – and that sense of purpose begins to trickle into my life.

(Above is an excerpt from my January 2012 Back to Basics post – repeated in its entirety, below, to summarize our January 2013 Back To Basics class focus.  Because for me, the basics of yoga will never, ever change…)

*  *  *

DoNotPushTruck(Dec11)OK, I confess.  I’ve created a sensational title for a simple blog about our January class focus, “Back to Basics.”

“How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” was the sensational headline for a recent New York Times article (link below) that tells a simple story.  That headline – and the article’s content – generated more media reactions, responses and official statements than any article on any topic I’ve seen in a long while.  Perhaps more than “Occupy.”

How exciting!

Lively debate!  Impassioned professions!  True confessions!  All due to a newspaper’s intelligent twisting of heads for their benefit.  All due to a newspaper headline writer’s clever choice of wording.  All due to that newspaper’s strategy to promote its science writer’s upcoming book release!

If you can get past the hype, or accept that the article is only discussing one aspect of yoga (Asana, or, poses), or focus on the words How and Can, or perhaps, erase the headline from your mind altogether – you might find a simple story conveying one yoga teacher’s honest and humble experience.  That’s the story I found.  Therefore, I should have quit while I was ahead.

But no.  In preparing to write this blog, my goal was to read 20 or so online articles (all found by Google-ing “Yoga Wreck Body”) and numerous Facebook comments related to the original New York Times piece.  The pieces span a wide range of discussion: what constitutes “real” yoga; whether yoga should be practiced as exercise; how the NYT article is scientifically incorrect; how the teacher featured in the article is morally wrong; what we can do to practice yoga safely.  And so on.  Truly moved by people’s passionate and intelligent remarks, I wanted to immerse myself in public opinion, and then form my own.

Instead, the more I read, the less interested I became in others’ opinions.

On the contrary, I found myself delightfully reflective and clear about my original, personal, untainted opinion of yoga.  I remembered: the media gains attention by twisting facts, embellishing mediocrity and inspiring controversy; any form of physical activity can lead to serious injury; and the definition of “real” yoga will be relative to each person who experiences it.

So I stopped reading.

Now…getting Back to Basics…

*  *  *

“Tadaasana, Pranayama, Sankalpa.”

There is a reason I repeat these three words each time we regroup at the top of the mat between Sun Salutations.  For me, these three elements – The Pose, The Breath and The Intention – are the basics of yoga.  Although mentioned as three unique parts of yoga’s eight-limbed system, in my practice they are inseparable.  When I align myself in Mountain Pose (Tadaasana), I firmly embody my intention (Sankalpa).  When I breathe deliberately (Pranayama), I exhale obstacles, and inhale my intention with resolve.

When I fuse these three elements together, I fortify my purpose for that session of practice – and that sense of purpose begins to trickle into my life.

*  *  *

The Pose (Asana)

When teaching the basics, I like to start with the body.  In my own practice, focusing on healthy alignment and mechanics have established a practice that will last – I pray – a lifetime.  In addition, I find that the body is the primary reason most students come to yoga classes these days.  Either their doctor recommended this ancient remedy for modern health conditions; or, they’ve decided they want something different from the usual workout.

January yoga classes are traditionally packed.  New Year’s Resolutions and special offers bring row upon row of newbies and long-lost practitioners to studios, gyms and workplace wellness programs.  And so I offer a month-long Back to Basics approach that builds throughout the weeks.  Tadaasana is the perfect starting point, because the alignment cues in Mountain are foundational for many yoga poses.  That same week we flow through and finely tune a basic Sun Salutation; then we break down the mechanics of backward bends.

By the end of week one, beginner students are melting into the comfort of a safe and traditional Asana practice; and more experienced students are rolling their eyes and exhaling loud sighs of frustration!  Thanks to past experience, I smile inwardly, speak encouragingly and trudge forward resolutely!

The 2nd week we focus on bends, folds and twists; the 3rd is inversions and counter-poses.  At this point, the blissful exclamations begin: “Oh my god, I’ve never felt so safe in that pose!” and “I never realized how much pressure I was putting on my neck/lower back/knees!” and “I didn’t think I’d ever be able to do that.”  I include this not to pat myself on the back as a yoga teacher, but to spotlight the effectiveness of patiently committing to healthy alignment and mechanics – and, to give major credit to the teachers who taught me that patience and planted the seeds of a life-long practice.

We finish the month with yogi’s choice, where students request detailed instruction of the poses that frustrate, frighten or baffle them.  This is the fun part!  Just yesterday, I strapped myself up to demo Chaturanga mechanics and the class cracked up as I slithered like a clumsy lizard into the pose.  There’s nothing like the release of a good laugh at the end of four weeks of Asana intensity!

*  *  *

The Breath (Pranayama)

The 2nd aphorism in the most widely used yoga teacher training text – the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – says, “Yogas Chitta Vritti Nirodhah: Yoga restrains disturbances of the mind.”

By practicing Asana, warming up the structure, activating the nervous system and stimulating digestion, we essentially get the body out of the way.  When the body is at ease, the mind can be at peace.  Pranayama practice enhances that peace.

BreatheDeeplyWith few exceptions, I complement Asana with the traditional technique of three-part nostril breathing, or Deergha Swaasam.  The benefits of this Pranayama style seem infinite.  It gives the wandering mind something to focus on.  It lays a strong foundation for inner peace.  It increases our oxygenation and consequently strengthens the immune system.  It prevents energetic burn out and dehydration.  It massages our organs and stimulates digestion.  And on and on.

Although I’d been training to breathe through the nose since my 1st Kundalini yoga class in 1993, my 2008 “Yoga for Athletes” training and introduction to John Douillard’s brilliant book, “Body, Mind, and Sport” truly sealed the deal on nostril breathing for me.  This workshop and book reminded me how a peaceful baby breathes through the nose, its belly softly rising and falling with the filling and emptying of the lower lobes of the lungs.  Only when a baby reaches crisis – a congested sinus, a shocking sound, the need for food – does it open its mouth, take chest-height gasps of air, and cry for help.  When the crisis is over, the baby intuitively returns to soft nostril belly breathing.

As adults, however, we somehow depart from that natural state of peace!  As if in constant danger, we habitually take short breaths, in the upper chest, through the mouth.  Our exercise choices reinforce this crisis breathing.  No wonder we fall prey to stress, anxiety, distraction and energy depletion!  In addition to the benefits I’ve already mentioned, Douillard poignantly points out, “This shallow breathing soon becomes a way of life,” and results in serious health considerations, such as excess fat storage, digestive diseases, compromised lymphatic drainage and neck and shoulder tightness.

Ick.

In class we pause between Sun Salutations or other Asana practice.  I invite students to “allow the body to rest, but keep the breath deliberate.”  Returning to Deergha Swaasam regulates the heart rate, breath rate and overall energy.  Plus, if the heart is racing, what do you think the mind is doing?  Racing.

The ancients did not invent yoga as a cardio workout – in their society, they found a great need to calm the mind, and enjoyed the resulting benefits.  Even the Mahabharata – another ancient text that informs yoga practice – highlights a story of finding inner peace for the sake of effective battle.

What is the battlefield in your life?  Deliberate breathing practices can help maintain peace, calm and clarity during disturbances – whether they take the form of a pressing deadline, a workplace conflict, a family crisis, a traffic hassle or an internal struggle.

*  *  *

The Intention (Sankalpa)

Speaking of internal struggle…  I don’t want to tell my entire “What brought me to yoga” story right now; it would distract from the Back to Basics monthly focus.  I will briefly share:  Before I started practicing yoga in 1993, my life included much harm – being harmed and committing harm, in both subtle and more palpable ways.  Over nearly 20 years, this ancient practice has given me tools for healing, transformation and growth.  Yoga is not a physical practice for me.  Its Eight Limbs present a design for living.  They guide me to set ethical intentions, then practice physical and mental exercises that will liberate my body and mind, therefore allowing me to be more effective in and of service to the world.

At the beginning of each class, I invite students to notice what’s on their mind – without editing or judgment.  To honestly notice what’s there, whether pleasant or unpleasant.  We start where we are.  I then suggest focusing on one thought that’s strongly calling for their attention – something that’s been tapping them on the shoulder all day, or perhaps much longer.  This thought, when shaped into a positive reflection, affirmation or dedication, becomes their intention for class.

A Sankalpa is an intention, resolution and/or commitment that brings purpose to our time on the mat – and can affect our day, our world, our lives.

It is also a practical tool for facing challenges – both physical and mental – during the Asana practice itself.  When feeling challenged, I ask myself, “How can I align my reaction with my Sankalpa?  Which gives me more peace of mind and fortifies my efforts – facing or stepping back from the challenge?”  Because sometimes I need to dive into something daunting; other times I need to accept that it’s not the right time to push my limits.

Having a Sankalpa during yoga class not only forms a habit of self-inquiry and motivation, it also guarantees that my practice is harm-free.  It might feel uncomfortable to face or reduce challenge.  Yet, discomfort is different from harm.  While discomfort can yield constructive learning, harm can result in destructive pain.  By having an intention for practice, we become aware of and harness the positive effects of these nuances.

*  *  *

So, indeed, real yoga doesn’t hurt.  There’s just so much more to it than being afraid of potential physical pain, seeking rehabilitation of physical conditions, or plainly, addressing any physical need.

My friend once said, if the goal of yoga was purely physical, the Yoga Sutras would be a very short text: “Touch your toes.”  Hehehe.

Let’s get real…as my favorite teachers like to point out, there must be a reason we’ve chosen yoga.  If we just wanted to “feel the burn,” we have a million other exercise plans to choose from.  I’ll take the plunge and say: we choose yoga because we want more than a workout – we want to change.  We know it is a transformational practice.  Again, even the ancients knew this – there were enough troubles in society that someone invented a practice to cultivate an “easeful body, peaceful mind and useful life.”*

To this end, I like to stick with the basics: keen awareness of body, breath and mind.  Setting our intention, aligning a pose and deepening the breath – and bringing all three elements together to fortify our purpose – we not only exercise the body, but we empower our lives.

May all beings discover their own “real” yoga.  OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.  Peace, Peace, Peace.

*  *  *

The original article that caused an avalanche of opinions:
New York Times, William Broad, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body”

* Quote from Integral Yoga Founder, Swami Satchidananda

Photos: Top – Larkin P. Goff (by permission); Others – Holly Meyers (the author)

 

Peace Tools: Morning Routine August 7, 2012

Filed under: faith,Health,Inspiration,Philosophy,Spirituality — Holly Meyers @ 8:29 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

I thank you, ever-living sovereign, for restoring my soul to me in mercy.
How great is your trust!

– Traditional Jewish Prayer for the Morning

*  *  *

Like all of my days, as soon as I opened my eyes this morning, I said the above prayer.  Then, in the period of time between splashing my face with cool water and sitting down to work, I recited seven additional prayers or chants.  And that’s not counting several OMs and an affirmation meditation.

Prayer, meditation and chanting are part of my Morning Sadhana, or routine.  Ideally, my daily practices also include yoga movement, a walk in nature, breathing exercises, a drink of lemon water and more.  And ideally, all of this happens before sunrise.

Why do I do so much?

After 20 years of observing morning Sadhana in some form or another, I can guarantee its positive results: a peaceful day, for me and everyone around me.

With my background of addiction recovery, trauma survival and all that comes with those poignant life-shapers, and, with my current journey as a yoga practitioner and teacher, having a peace-making morning routine is essential.

The primary result of my routine is good health in body, mind and spirit.  Avenues to that result include: cultivating gratitude, connecting with a power great than me, awakening the whole body, stimulating digestion and balancing the nervous system.

(A note about “power greater than me” – from my experience and perspective, that power can be any being or resource outside of myself that consistently has my best interest in mind, that has more expertise than me in a certain area, and/or, whose influence restores my serenity when I am feeling off.  It could take the form of a metaphysical/spiritual “god,” best friend, doctor, ritual, quote, physical icon…or sometimes, just an oblivious, message-bearing stranger along my path.  It could have a proper name – i.e. Ronni, Doctor Smith, God, Ganesha, Nanak, Allah, Great Spirit – or a general character – i.e. nature, scientific theory, ever living sovereign, great mystery, infinite consciousness.  Most importantly, whatever it is, it is not ME.  And it is greater than ME because at any given moment of imbalance, its presence brings me to be my best self.)

At this point, my ideal morning Sadhana spans one to two hours, depending on the day of the week, what I have planned during the day and/or the time of morning.  When I first started following teachers’ advice to create a morning routine, the practice might have taken 10 to 30 minutes.  Over the years, though, I have collected so many effective traditions and rituals to address my oft distracted or triggered mind that, for me, it’s worth the time commitment.

That is my idealHowever

During the past six weeks, long days started at 6:30am, and included a juggling act of teaching Summer Camp 8am-4pm, managing a yoga studio part-time, teaching regular evening and weekend classes, plus trying to enjoy life!  In order to prioritize a good night’s sleep, I had to leave out some of the morning routine, practice parts while driving to camp, and/or finish parts at camp.

Boy, did it show!  That guaranteed peacefulness dwindled.  I became impatient in traffic, allowed small annoyances to make me grumpy, and had less patience with everyone and everything – including myself, which fed the cycle of self-criticism, annoyance, grumpiness and impatience!  Argh!

Having a morning Sadhana is a double-edged sword – if I keep up, I am gold.  If I slack, I am struggling to shine.  Overall, as I said, the pay off is 5-million percent worthwhile.

Your practice could be as short or long as you wish, depending on personal needs.  If interested, you might pick and choose little parts of the following routine – AWAKEN BEFORE DAWN, PRAY, CLEANSE, MOVE, MEDITATE/CHANT – and shape them for your own unique morning Sadhana.

*  *  *

Here is my morning Sadhana.  My complete ideal practice takes up to two hours; but an abbreviated practice can take as little as 30 minutes.

AWAKEN BEFORE DAWN

In 1993, my Kundalini yoga teachers highly recommended waking up before sunrise to meditate.  I had every intention to do so!  And I was happy to participate in pre-dawn meditation when on a retreat or doing a special workshop with a group.  But it wasn’t quite time for me to do this regularly on my own.

These days, I do start most days between 5:30 and 6:30am.  Pre-dawn energy feels neutral – removed from the previous day’s worries, and not yet taken hostage by the new day’s projections.  There is something about opening my eyes in the darkness and conducting a Sadhana in low light that simply prepares my mind to tackle all that might arise during the day with peace and balance.

Ayurvedic science claims that pre-dawn atmosphere is dominated by sattvic (or calming) qualities that support peace of mind.  I understand that waking up at 5:30am can seem extreme; after all, it did take me years and years to experience early rising as an enjoyable habit!

If I cannot awaken pre-dawn, I keep the blinds drawn and my home as dark as possible.  I used to think that the best morning practice was next to an open window or outdoors in natural light, greeting nature and allowing my self to awaken with the pulse of the external world.  However, since my 4-week yoga teacher training, during which we started each day in darkness without drawing the blinds (despite the natural beauty surrounding us), I came to embrace that above-described neutrality.  It simply creates a clean slate for the day.

Plus, when my house is dark, I am less likely to delay my morning Sadhana due to getting distracted by the plant that needs watering or the stray eyebrow that needs plucking or the laundry that needs folding!

PRAY

Immediately after opening my eyes, I express thanks for the gift of another day by saying the prayer quoted above.  A grateful beginning is important for me, because many times during my crooked and “eventful” journey, I veered off a healthy path, and could have died.  The Modah also reminds me that a higher power (which is an individual notion for each person, of course) trusts me to carry along in its world…as well as I can…each day.

I then splash my face with water, stand facing east, chant a few OMs and recite an additional four prayers.

Choosing prayers is a very personal experience.  Currently, mine are a collection from my Jewish heritage, Hindu traditions and yoga influences, as well as adaptations from addiction recovery programs.  I might, at times, also include Native American, Sufi or Buddhist verses.  I have even included Santeria chants.  For me, finding prayers that help set daily and long-term intentions is important.  No matter what the origin, my chosen prayers are primarily themed toward surrendering my strong will, accepting help, being of service and cultivating healthy connections.

Here are the four I recite facing east…

Karagre vasate Lakshmi (At the tips of my fingers is well-being, abundance and beauty – gifts from Lakshmi); Kara-madhye Saraswati (In the palms of my hands is creative community, eloquent communication and learning – gifts from Saraswati); Kara-mule sthita Gauri (at the heel of my hand is Shakti, powerful meditation and the balancing force for Shiva – gifts from Gauri); Prabhate kara-darshanam (I envision all of these gifts in my hands).  I recite this traditional Hindu prayer to the great goddesses in Sanskrit, three times, slowly, looking at my hands, with great consideration and appreciation for each gift.  I then lift my hands toward the sky in a gesture of sharing these gifts with all beings and of offering them back to their divine source.

Creator, I am yours.  Please build with me and do with me as you need, as you will, as you wish.  May I be relieved of self-centeredness, that I may better play a right-sized, useful role in your big picture.  Thank you for being with me through difficulties, for bringing opportunities, and sharing joy.  May I do your will always.  Adapted from recovery program literature, this prayer hopefully establishes a humble beginning to the day.  I grew up extremely self-reliant, which means that I can sometimes – thankfully less and less – have a hard time accepting help.  Some employers definitely took advantage of this tendency, as I took on way more than I was prepared, acknowledged or paid for.  Some friends and ex-s gave up on trying to share life as I plowed through everything on my own.  Live and learn.  The positives to this prayer?  Surrendering my strong will to some benevolent greater power definitely keeps me from acting overly selfish, fearful, egotistical or otherwise destructive.  It sets my focus on being useful to others – step by step, day by day.

In my relationships, I earnestly pray for the right ideal, for guidance in each questionable situation, for sanity and for the strength to do the right thing.  Woo!  This is a big one for me and also comes from recovery literature – specifically, in a passage about shaping healthy sexual relationships in sobriety!  To be honest, with this verse, I am praying to embrace ideals, accept advice, act sane and do the right thing in ALL of my relationships – romantic or otherwise.  Humans are complicated, sensitive and unique – and I yearn for healthy, positive connections.

Creator, I am now willing that you should have all of me.  I pray to be relieved of anything that stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows today.  Grant me strength as I go from here to do your bidding.  Another ego-busting recovery prayer, before I go into the rest of my Sadhana and day, which shapes the mind toward being of service to others.  What strikes me deeply about this verse is the request to borrow a higher power’s strength in case I don’t have enough of my own – or in case I am trying to be too forceful with my own strength, instead of flowing along with a greater purpose and will.  I feel great relief, support and motivation each time I say this prayer.

I understand that one could feel vulnerable giving up a strong will in exchange for surrender.  In my experience, the more I take my plans and hopes and expectations out of the center of my thoughts (which doesn’t mean abandoning them completely, but instead, dwelling on them less), and the more I focus on being useful and of service to others (even in simple ways like smiling while walking down the street and or doing my job really well), the more I generate an inner peace.  And the more I feed a cycle of peace around me.

There is no need to recite multiple prayers.  The initial, awakening Modah would probably suffice for me (and sometimes must, depending on my schedule).  However, I enjoy reciting my little collection of five.  And sometimes, if I am observing a specific study or focus in my yoga practice (i.e. my recently concluded 100-day exploration of Ahimsa), I might also light a stick of incense and set a specific intention for the day.  How one prays is an individual decision.  Some kneel, some stand, some sit, others do movement.  Some light candles, some light incense, some open windows.  Some are silent, some louder.  It all comes down to personal preference, motivation and significance.

CLEANSE

Next, I focus on awakening the body.  You might approach this in your own way, with practices that internally and externally cleanse.

Many medical systems, including India’s Ayurvedic tradition, recommend drinking room-temperature lemon water soon after waking, and most definitely before ingesting anything else, to stimulate a healthy bowel movement.  In my yoga teacher training, I learned that most disease originate in the digestive system; so I am happy to drink bitter water to encourage healthy digestion.

I also brew a homemade tea of fresh ginger root, cinnamon stick, clove, cardamom, turmeric and black pepper.  These ingredients stoke the digestive fire (known in Ayurveda as “agni”) in order to sustain healthy digestion throughout the day.  In the order of my Sadhana, I wait until just before meditation to begin sipping the tea.

Continuing to follow Ayurvedic recommendations, I then brush my teeth, tongue and mouth to remove bacteria and improve digestion.  Finally, I wash my face and hands with a Sandalwood-scented soap, to evenly awaken my dominant “dosha” (body/personality type) of “Pitta” (fire).

MOVE: OUTDOOR WALK, HATHA YOGA, YOGA NIDRA & PRANAYAMA

In this phase of Sadhana, I continue to subtly awaken my senses, my body, my breathing and my whole self.

A brief, early morning, outdoor walk has proven – for me – to make a huge difference in my day.  This stroll is not exercise-based, nor is it time for me to greet and/or engage with everyone I see.  This meditative and simple lap around the block gives me the opportunity to awaken and stretch my eyes, deepen my breath with natural air and gently ease into the rhythm of life.  When rushed for time, I’ve tried to substitute with everything from taking deep breaths at an open window, walking to work or driving to my busied destination with the windows open.  Nothing suffices.  The brief outdoor walk is a mood-stabilizing ritual and well worth the 10 minutes!

After my walk, I return to my still-darkened room to practice Hatha Yoga.  I begin with a series of Sun Salutations that progress from old-school Integral Yoga for digestion stimulation and nerve balance, through Ashtanga- and Jivamukti-inspired styles for strength and energy.  I also include Pigeon Pose for my frequently ache-y hips, and Twists for my spine and…you guessed it…digestion.

If I have the luxury of 20 minutes at this point in my morning routine, I enjoy a guided Yoga Nidra (deep relaxation) CD by DC-based yoga and meditation teacher Jonathan Foust.  Jonathan takes us through systematically relaxing the body, breath and mind for a restful yet aware experience.  The practice of even a 5- to 15-minute, self-guided, systematically relaxing Yoga Nidra after Hatha movement gives the body time to integrate the benefits of each Asana (pose).  In addition, due to its profoundly rejuvenating effects, Yoga Nidra can bring deep healing of many forms, and, when done in the midst of a tiring day, can feel more energizing than a nap.

To awaken and balance the nervous system after deep relaxation, I practicing breathing exercises (aka Pranayama).  I begin with a basic yogic technique called Deergha Swasam, which encourages a long, easeful, emptying exhale followed by an energetic, completely filling inhale – both through the nostrils.  This deliberate three-part breath travels through the three parts of the lungs – inhaling upward from the low lungs (belly area), middle lungs (rib area) and upper lungs (collar bone area), then exhaling back downward.  Focusing on the thoroughly emptying exhale creates a deeper inhale whose consequently deeper oxygenation can help strengthen the immune system.  Following a few minutes of Deergha Swasam, I move on to a rapid, naval-pumping breath called Kapalabhati.  Again through the nostrils, this technique only activates the lower lungs (belly area) with a rhythmic pattern of sharp, emptying, belly-contracting exhales and passive, brief, belly-relaxing inhales.  This energizing practice helps continue awakening from Yoga Nidra, and, its cleansing effects support the detoxification process of our Hatha poses.  I usually practice a 100- or 200-breath count of Kapalabhati.  Next, alternate nostril breathing, or Nadi Suddhi, uses a specific technique for exhaling/inhaling out of one nostril and then the next.  This calming breath soothes the nervous system and balances the brain hemispheres.  I practice Nadi Suddhi for a minimum of three minutes.

MEDITATE & CHANT

After Hatha, Nidra and Pranayama – when the mind is alert, the nerves are balanced, the body is at ease, the breath is natural and the senses are softened – the mind can concentrate more deeply.

This is the perfect time for meditation.

No matter how much or little time I have for my morning Sadhana, I strive to always include at least three minutes of some form of meditation – whether silently observing the breath or chanting out loud.  One fail-safe technique when time-challenged is to incorporate a positive affirmation with my Nadi Suddhi breathing, for example, inhale “my true nature is peace” and exhale “nothing can disturb my peace.”

When I do have 15- to 30- minutes for meditation, what I love most is singing 108 repetitions of the “Asato Ma” chant.  I have seen many spellings, translations and interpretations of this widely-used Sanskrit chant, popular with many yogis.  This version is most effective for me: Asato Ma, Sat Gamaya (lead me from falseness to truth); Tamaso Ma, Jyotir Gamaya (lead me from darkness to light); Mrityor Ma, Amritam Gamaya (lead me from things that die off to that which is everlasting).  OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti (OM Peace, Peace, Peace).

Repetition of these phrases reinforces my psychological direction toward and faith in the positive.  Falseness to truth can signify my desire to stop lying to myself, or, my hope to be free of people who lie to me…and so much more.  Darkness to light could be finding the means to be delivered from my depressive tendencies, to liberation and joy, or, awakening from being in the dark or uninformed about something, to being enlightened or aware.  Things that die off to that which is everlasting…the meanings are infinite, depending on personal experience.  For me, this phrase reminds me to choose attitudes and actions that will support long-term health in body, mind and spirit.  Among other things.

If I don’t have time for the 108, I chant this three times, and then close with another Sanskrit chant, popular in yoga circles, which wishes well-being for others.  Lokah Samastaa Sukhino Bhavantu.  Again, there are many versions out there.  My favorite is: “May the entire universe and all its beings realize peace and light.”

*  *  *

As I mentioned – I don’t always have the luxury or time to complete my ideal Sadhana first thing each day.  Yet, I always – always – practice at least some parts of my routine immediately upon rising.  I have learned that trying to spread it over a broken morning of errands or texts or other activities never pays off.  So even when I feel totally distracted – life drama tugging at my mind, the computer tugging at my fingertips, errands tugging at my feet – I still try to stay unplugged and go through the motions.

The above may seem exhaustive!  As I said, I actually enjoy a complex and absorbing morning routine to ensure a peaceful day.  Remember, this lengthy Sadhana can be broken down into manageable parts for a much shorter version.

Play around with parts of it.  Choose your own contents.  Find your own way.  And most importantly…enjoy!

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

*  *  *

The Roots of “Peace Tools”

From April 5 through July 13, 2012, I committed to a 100-day exploration of Ahimsa – the Sanskrit term for “avoidance of violence.”  You may read more about it under the “Ahimsa Now” entries in my blog. 

Since the final quarter of that exploration, I have been compiling my favorite Peace Tools – fail-safe practices for cultivating a reliable inner peace, which leads to a serene life and accountability to others.  In the long run, using these Tools supports the yogic concept of Ahimsa by decreasing violence. 

They can also just make you feel darn goodOM Shanti Shanti Shanti.

 

Back to Basics: Real Yoga Doesn’t Hurt January 26, 2012

Filed under: Exercise,Health,Yoga — Holly Meyers @ 9:19 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

OK, I confess.  I’ve created a sensational title for a simple blog about our January class focus, “Back to Basics.”

“How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” was the sensational headline for a recent New York Times article (link below) that tells a simple story.  That headline – and the article’s content – generated more media reactions, responses and official statements than any article on any topic I’ve seen in a long while.  Perhaps more than “Occupy.”

How exciting!

Lively debate!  Impassioned professions!  True confessions!  All due to a newspaper’s intelligent twisting of heads for their benefit.  All due to a newspaper headline writer’s clever choice of wording.  All due to that newspaper’s strategy to promote its science writer’s upcoming book release!

If you can get past the hype, or accept that the article is only discussing one aspect of yoga (Asana, or, poses), or focus on the words How and Can, or perhaps, erase the headline from your mind altogether – you might find a simple story conveying one yoga teacher’s honest and humble experience.  That’s the story I found.  Therefore, I should have quit while I was ahead.

But no.  In preparing to write this blog, my goal was to read 20 or so online articles (all found by Google-ing “Yoga Wreck Body”) and numerous Facebook comments related to the original New York Times piece.  The pieces span a wide range of discussion: what constitutes “real” yoga; whether yoga should be practiced as exercise; how the NYT article is scientifically incorrect; how the teacher featured in the article is morally wrong; what we can do to practice yoga safely.  And so on.  Truly moved by people’s passionate and intelligent remarks, I wanted to immerse myself in public opinion, and then form my own.

Instead, the more I read, the less interested I became in others’ opinions.

On the contrary, I found myself delightfully reflective and clear about my original, personal, untainted opinion of yoga.  I remembered: the media gains attention by twisting facts, embellishing mediocrity and inspiring controversy; any form of physical activity can lead to serious injury; and the definition of “real” yoga will be relative to each person who experiences it.

So I stopped reading.

Now…getting Back to Basics…

*  *  *

“Tadaasana, Pranayama, Sankalpa.”

There is a reason I repeat these three words each time we regroup at the top of the mat between Sun Salutations.  For me, these three elements – The Pose, The Breath and The Intention – are the basics of yoga.  Although mentioned as three unique parts of yoga’s eight-limbed system, in my practice they are inseparable.  When I align myself in Mountain Pose (Tadaasana), I firmly embody my intention (Sankalpa).  When I breathe deliberately (Pranayama), I exhale obstacles, and inhale my intention with resolve.

When I fuse these three elements together, I fortify my purpose for that session of practice – and that sense of purpose begins to trickle into my life.

*  *  *

The Pose (Asana)

When teaching the basics, I like to start with the body.  In my own practice, focusing on healthy alignment and mechanics have established a practice that will last – I pray – a lifetime.  In addition, I find that the body is the primary reason most students come to yoga classes these days.  Either their doctor recommended this ancient remedy for modern health conditions; or, they’ve decided they want something different from the usual workout.

January yoga classes are traditionally packed.  New Year’s Resolutions and special offers bring row upon row of newbies and long-lost practitioners to studios, gyms and workplace wellness programs.  And so I offer a month-long Back to Basics approach that builds throughout the weeks.  Tadaasana is the perfect starting point, because the alignment cues in Mountain are foundational for many yoga poses.  That same week we flow through and finely tune a basic Sun Salutation; then we break down the mechanics of backward bends.

By the end of week one, beginner students are melting into the comfort of a safe and traditional Asana practice; and more experienced students are rolling their eyes and exhaling loud sighs of frustration!  Thanks to past experience, I smile inwardly, speak encouragingly and trudge forward resolutely!

The 2nd week we focus on bends, folds and twists; the 3rd is inversions and counter-poses.  At this point, the blissful exclamations begin: “Oh my god, I’ve never felt so safe in that pose!” and “I never realized how much pressure I was putting on my neck/lower back/knees!” and “I didn’t think I’d ever be able to do that.”  I include this not to pat myself on the back as a yoga teacher, but to spotlight the effectiveness of patiently committing to healthy alignment and mechanics – and, to give major credit to the teachers who taught me that patience and planted the seeds of a life-long practice.

We finish the month with yogi’s choice, where students request detailed instruction of the poses that frustrate, frighten or baffle them.  This is the fun part!  Just yesterday, I strapped myself up to demo Chaturanga mechanics and the class cracked up as I slithered like a clumsy lizard into the pose.  There’s nothing like the release of a good laugh at the end of four weeks of Asana intensity!

*  *  *

The Breath (Pranayama)

The 2nd aphorism in the most widely used yoga teacher training text – the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – says, “Yogas Chitta Vritti Nirodhah: Yoga restrains disturbances of the mind.”

By practicing Asana, warming up the structure, activating the nervous system and stimulating digestion, we essentially get the body out of the way.  When the body is at ease, the mind can be at peace.  Pranayama practice enhances that peace.

With few exceptions, I complement Asana with the traditional technique of three-part nostril breathing, or Deergha Swaasam.  The benefits of this Pranayama style seem infinite.  It gives the wandering mind something to focus on.  It lays a strong foundation for inner peace.  It increases our oxygenation and consequently strengthens the immune system.  It prevents energetic burn out and dehydration.  It massages our organs and stimulates digestion.  And on and on.

Although I’d been training to breathe through the nose since my 1st Kundalini yoga class in 1993, my 2008 “Yoga for Athletes” training and introduction to John Douillard’s brilliant book, “Body, Mind, and Sport” truly sealed the deal on nostril breathing for me.  This workshop and book reminded me how a peaceful baby breathes through the nose, its belly softly rising and falling with the filling and emptying of the lower lobes of the lungs.  Only when a baby reaches crisis – a congested sinus, a shocking sound, the need for food – does it open its mouth, take chest-height gasps of air, and cry for help.  When the crisis is over, the baby intuitively returns to soft nostril belly breathing.

As adults, however, we somehow depart from that natural state of peace!  As if in constant danger, we habitually take short breaths, in the upper chest, through the mouth.  Our exercise choices reinforce this crisis breathing.  No wonder we fall prey to stress, anxiety, distraction and energy depletion!  In addition to the benefits I’ve already mentioned, Douillard poignantly points out, “This shallow breathing soon becomes a way of life,” and results in serious health considerations, such as excess fat storage, digestive diseases, compromised lymphatic drainage and neck and shoulder tightness.

Ick.

In class we pause between Sun Salutations or other Asana practice.  I invite students to “allow the body to rest, but keep the breath deliberate.”  Returning to Deergha Swaasam regulates the heart rate, breath rate and overall energy.  Plus, if the heart is racing, what do you think the mind is doing?  Racing.

The ancients did not invent yoga as a cardio workout – in their society, they found a great need to calm the mind, and enjoyed the resulting benefits.  Even the Mahabharata – another ancient text that informs yoga practice – highlights a story of finding inner peace for the sake of effective battle.

What is the battlefield in your life?  Deliberate breathing practices can help maintain peace, calm and clarity during disturbances – whether they take the form of a pressing deadline, a workplace conflict, a family crisis, a traffic hassle or an internal struggle.

*  *  *

The Intention (Sankalpa)

Speaking of internal struggle…  I don’t want to tell my entire “What brought me to yoga” story right now; it would distract from the Back to Basics monthly focus.  I will briefly share:  Before I started practicing yoga in 1993, my life included much harm – being harmed and committing harm, in both subtle and more palpable ways.  Over nearly 20 years, this ancient practice has given me tools for healing, transformation and growth.  Yoga is not a physical practice for me.  Its Eight Limbs present a design for living.  They guide me to set ethical intentions, then practice physical and mental exercises that will liberate my body and mind, therefore allowing me to be more effective in and of service to the world.

At the beginning of each class, I invite students to notice what’s on their mind – without editing or judgment.  To honestly notice what’s there, whether pleasant or unpleasant.  We start where we are.  I then suggest focusing on one thought that’s strongly calling for their attention – something that’s been tapping them on the shoulder all day, or perhaps much longer.  This thought, when shaped into a positive reflection, affirmation or dedication, becomes their intention for class.

A Sankalpa is an intention, resolution and/or commitment that brings purpose to our time on the mat – and can affect our day, our world, our lives.

It is also a practical tool for facing challenges – both physical and mental – during the Asana practice itself.  When feeling challenged, I ask myself, “How can I align my reaction with my Sankalpa?  Which gives me more peace of mind and fortifies my efforts – facing or stepping back from the challenge?”  Because sometimes I need to dive into something daunting; other times I need to accept that it’s not the right time to push my limits.

Having a Sankalpa during yoga class not only forms a habit of self-inquiry and motivation, it also guarantees that my practice is harm-free.  It might feel uncomfortable to face or reduce challenge.  Yet, discomfort is different from harm.  While discomfort can yield constructive learning, harm can result in destructive pain.  By having an intention for practice, we become aware of and harness the positive effects of these nuances.

*  *  *

So, indeed, real yoga doesn’t hurt.  There’s just so much more to it than being afraid of potential physical pain, seeking rehabilitation of physical conditions, or plainly, addressing any physical need.

My friend once said, if the goal of yoga was purely physical, the Yoga Sutras would be a very short text: “Touch your toes.”  Hehehe.

Let’s get real…as my favorite teachers like to point out, there must be a reason we’ve chosen yoga.  If we just wanted to “feel the burn,” we have a million other exercise plans to choose from.  I’ll take the plunge and say: we choose yoga because we want more than a workout – we want to change.  We know it is a transformational practice.  Again, even the ancients knew this – there were enough troubles in society that someone invented a practice to cultivate an “easeful body, peaceful mind and useful life.”*

To this end, I like to stick with the basics: keen awareness of body, breath and mind.  Setting our intention, aligning a pose and deepening the breath – and bringing all three elements together to fortify our purpose – we not only exercise the body, but we empower our lives.

May all beings discover their own “real” yoga.  OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.  Peace, Peace, Peace.

*  *  *

The original article that caused an avalanche of opinions:

New York Times, William Broad, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body”

* Quote from Integral Yoga Founder, Swami Satchidananda

Photos: Top – Larkin P. Goff (by permission); Others – Holly Meyers (the author)

 

My Mother is My Guru November 2, 2011

Mom’s been on my mind a lot lately.

And y’know, it makes sense.  I’ve been singing a lot (my mother taught me to sing).  It’s Autumn (October 2nd would have been her 81st birthday).  Thanksgiving is approaching (my family celebrated our last holiday season with Mom 10 years ago).  And I recently celebrated my 9th year clean and sober (my mom died as a result of long-term alcoholism).

I miss her.  I miss her right now.

Nearly a decade after her death, she still taps me on the shoulder at times.  She taps me when I’m playing percussion with bands, chanting devotional prayers at Kirtans, singing Gospel standards at open mics and lighting the Chanukah candles.  She taps me when my yoga instructor asks me to think of my most important life teacher.  She tapped me this morning while I was meditating.  She taps me when I’m pruning plants or arranging flowers.  She taps me when I’m decorating my home.  She taps me when I’m cooking a soup.

There are times when I reach out to tap her, too.  To hear her opinion.  To ask for her embrace.  To thank her for my life.  To apologize for any harm I did to her.  To grieve the pain of her life.  To send her the love she deserves.

I didn’t always love my mom the way I came to love her later in my life…later in her life…and then after she died.

*  *  *

I’m about to tell you some very personal and difficult stories.  Some are smiling and shiny; some are gritty and rough.  All are bittersweet.  I’ve selected these stories because they specifically prove that, indeed, my mother is the greatest Guru ever.  For me.

When I was young I hated my mother for being an alcoholic.  As an adult, I would learn more about the disease of alcoholism and honor the tragedy of her life.  But while growing up, I simply resented how drunk she got.   I was constantly afraid that my friends and the community would see her drunk; and because they frequently saw her, I was frequently embarrassed.  One time I spilled out the drink that she intended to take in the car on our way to Shabbat services – and she slapped me.  It was a gin martini.  To this day, I cannot stomach the smell of gin.

There were times when she came through as a great mother.  She was a hard worker, had full-time jobs, and did not drink during the day.  She truly wanted to show up, and when she could, she did.   But what I understand now is that her efforts to parent were overshadowed by the neglect.  In the end, alcohol always won her attention and became her priority.  Spill it out, and you became a threat.  So I learned to keep a distance.

*  *  *

During my college years, I grew to appreciate my mother.  My attitude shifted after I took my family to see a friend’s concert.  The next day at lunch, my friend said, “It was great to meet your mom.  For the longest time, I thought she’d died before we met.  You always talked about your dad – you never mentioned your mom.”  Whoa.  I had no idea I’d erased her so completely.  And then my friend said, “Y’know, you get a lot from her.”  I was so pissed off!  I argued, “No way, I have nothing in common with her!”  So he stated the obvious, judging by what I had told him in the rare instances of speaking about my mom, and his impression the night before.  She grew up singing; music is her passion; she gravitates toward soul music; she loves talking with other musicians; and, she was so comfortable backstage – it was the most natural place she could be.

That day, I surrendered my resentment and admitted that my mother had been an ally and soul-mate all along.  Clearly, I got a lot from her!  The passion for music, for soulful cultures, for gardening, for cooking, for interior design, for spirituality.  My mother taught me to sing, primarily through chanting the Sh’ma, a Jewish prayer, in harmony.

My mother did so much to inspire and encourage creativity.  Every morning, she’d have her coffee and cigarette while listening to WMAL-AM, when it was a jazz station.  Over breakfast I was exposed to the music that my mom had sung in talent shows and concerts – great vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Doris Day, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and more.  Although a blue eyed farm girl from the capitol of country music, my mom gravitated toward jazz and gospel.  In fact, I have her 1948 song book of Negro Spirituals.  This immersion in soulful music influenced me to write my own songs and perform them at my parents’ frequent parties.  Mom enrolled me in voice lessons.  On beach trips, she’d blast the radio and we’d all sing along.  She invited my high school New Wave band to hold a house concert.  When I was a little older, my drummer boyfriend invited me to tour California with his band – Dad said a firm “no” but Mom fought for me.  (I went to Cali.)  And so on.

At the same time, many opportunities were missed.  For example, there was a lot of self-taught musicianship and talent that was never deepened with consistent instruction or plans for ongoing development.  I do regret this and often feel that music education might have been my best choice for college.  Looking back, I don’t blame my mom for any of this, because I am certain she would have guided me in that direction if she could have.  I blame the disease of alcoholism.

*  *  *

As my mom became progressively ill, my love for her grew immensely.  Alcoholism and related troubles continued to take its toll in more serious ways.  In her 60s, Mom had cancer three times.  On the outside, she remained the strong-willed woman who could get through anything.  She continued planting gardens, harvesting herbs, cooking from scratch, building an art studio in her bedroom, doing crafts, listening to music, smoking cigarettes, drinking gin.

But there were points where I witnessed her heartbreaking vulnerability.  With each cancer, my mother never completely healed – more and more complications arose.  She became scared.  I once heard her crying in bed the night before one of her many surgeries.  When she was diagnosed with emphysema, she quit smoking and remarked with self-disgust, “I could have done that a long time ago.”  She would willingly try my yoga and diet suggestions, but was so sick that she’d end up feeling worse.  Toward the end, I remember laying next to her tired body on yet another day that she woke up with a “bug” that left her vomiting and weakened.  I will never forget the terror in her eyes when I urged her to go to the hospital.  Perhaps she knew she was dying and wanted to stay at home as long as possible.

That was Thanksgiving, 10 years ago.  I think the family dinner included Mom, Dad, two of my sisters, three of their kids and me.  That night, in my mom’s art studio, I drew an abstract of the scene.  My mother and father were angels at the heads of the table – Mom’s garden spade and a green vine enveloped us on one side; Dad’s cigar and its smoke on the other.  To me, both the vine and the smoke represented protection.  I sensed it was Mom’s last Thanksgiving.  I was right.

*  *  *

After my mom died, I developed a deep, knowing compassion for her.  Interestingly enough, I got sober six months after her death.  I’d started drinking at age 11, to calm the childhood chaos and hush the deep resentments.  Twenty five years later, as I came to understand the cunning, baffling and powerful disease that nearly killed me, I also came to understand the disease that succeeded in killing my mom.  Listening to other recovering alcoholics’ speak, I heard my mom’s story.  I saw how the disease had destroyed her life and consequently affected mine.  And I loved her even more.

My greatest awakening about my mom’s life came about four years ago.  By complete surprise, I found out that she had a child before meeting my father.  Stories said that she’d been hanging out with musicians in her native Nashville, might have been drinking, might have been raped…and ended up pregnant.  Her parents sent her away, to a “home for women” in DC.  The home arranged the birth and subsequent adoption.  They say that Mom was so angry, she never forgave her parents.  And so I found yet another thing that my mother and I had in common – we both drank to kill life’s pain and drown our resentments.

The biggest difference is: I got lucky and got sober; she did not.  I take that very, very seriously.

*  *  *

So yes, my mother is my Guru.  Throughout all the phases of my relationship with her – dead and alive – she has been my most influential teacher.  She teaches me with the light, and she teaches me from the darkness.  She teaches me through what she did, and what she would/could/did not do.  Her influence drives my passions and my purpose.

I love everything about her.  The singing lessons, the slaps, the strong will, the vulnerability.  She is the ultimate model of the perfectly imperfect human that I strive to be.

It’s taken me a day to write this.  I started when I finished meditating this morning.  I stopped and started and stopped and started again.  I cried my heart out.  There’s so much more than what you’ve read above, so many more experiences and stories, so much more grief and love.

*  *  *

Back in 2009, I went on tour with a folk-pop band and I took along a photo of my mom.  I’ve heard that the picture was taken in DC, at the women’s home, some time after she had the baby. She is beautiful and glamorous; she is too thin and her eyes look cold; she stands tall and her hands fumble with each other self-consciously. So I wanted to take this version of her on this exciting musical journey. Every night before I went to sleep, I lit a candle and thanked my mom.  I now play percussion and sing sacred chants in an all-female Kirtan group.  I’ve noticed that Kirtan leaders and spiritual teachers typically create an altar with a picture of their Guru.  Coming full circle, I can think of no one more perfect to place on my altar than the woman who sang Hebrew prayers with me, every night at bedtime.

Good night, Mom.  OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.