The Urban Yoga Den

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The Yoga of Being Mugged June 29, 2011

Last weekend I was mugged.

Taking yoga off the mat and into the world means forgiving my mugger. (Photo: Larkin Goff)

Sorry to alarm you.  Rest assured, I am fine – with the exception of some anxiety around the ‘hood, a maxed-out adrenal system from the stress, a sore shoulder from wrestling with the mugger, a cut and bruised finger (see photo of fingers) from my purse being yanked out of my hand, and very sore hamstrings from chasing down my mugger barefoot on pavement (see photo of broken sandals).  Help in many forms arrived quickly.  Although we did not catch my mugger, we recovered my purse and all of its contents, except the cash and some chocolate.  The situation made for a late night, yet I was able to wake up early the next morning, enjoy teaching meditation and yoga classes, and spend time with yoga friends.

Lots to be grateful for.

A few things strike me about the situation: my reaction of fighting back; my impulse to ask (and scream and yell) for help; and my ability to completely forgive my mugger and wish him well.  With a smile.  A giggle, even.

Here’s how it went down…

At about 11pm Saturday night, I returned to D.C. from a week in Tennessee.  Shortly after midnight, I left my apartment building to take a gift of local Nashville artisan chocolate (58% dark) to a friend.  I was carrying the gift bag and a small canvas purse in my hand.  Less than 1/2 block from my doorway, two chubby, sweet-faced black youths approached.  One lunged at me and grabbed my purse.  After a struggle, he ran off with it.

His friend kept strolling slowly along.

I kicked off my sandals and took off after the thief.  As I passed the friend, I punched him HARD in the arm and vented “F*** YOU.” 

I think I heard him respond, “I didn’t do anything, m’am.”

I kicked off (and broke) my sandals.

I chased the mugger for a few blocks, screaming for help the entire time.  People perked up, but not quite in time.  I lost him as he disappeared around a corner.  Thankfully, a neighbor saw which direction he’d headed.  I gave up my pursuit in exchange for calling the police.  They came quickly, neighbors offered support, everyone was great.  After much report-taking, one of the officers and I traced the mugger’s steps and recovered my belongings except the chocolate and about $60.  Overall, it could have been worse.

Fighting back felt great.  Wrestling, screaming, punching, running.  Paying attention to details served well.  Following, searching, finding.  Asking for help was a huge relief.  Not-alone, cared for.

Still, what to do with the mixed emotions and adrenaline at the end of the night’s events?

Yoga.

Yoga and related practices, I should add.  I was wired trying to fall asleep, so I accessed my Somatic Experiencing resources, laying flat on my back with my hands on my hips, breathing deeply and settling myself a bit.   After a little while, I was able to turn on my side, curl up, and drift off.

Before falling asleep, though, I giggled at a vision of this young punk, at home with the video game, chili dog and Big Gulp he just bought with my cash…and digging into a big bar of frou-frou artisan chocolate!  He’d be ruined forever.  I could see it – the next day, his friends offer him some M&Ms and he’s like, “Ick, gross, no way.”

The morning after the mugging, I taught my weekly meditation and yoga classes.  For the guided meditation, we practiced an adaptation of Buddhist Metta.  “May all beings be well,” we inhaled.  “May all beings be free of suffering,” we exhaled.  I included my mugger and his friend in those wishes.  After meditation, a student noted, “It can be hard to wish well for those who’ve harmed me.”  I shared that the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (and a great therapist) helped me understand that people who cause pain are most likely in pain themselves.  If I meditate on their well-being and direct compassion toward them, perhaps they will hurt less and therefore hurt others less frequently.

We continued with a set of Asana and Pranayama, focusing on alternate nostril breathing.  I read a story from Integral Yoga’s Swami Ashokananda, where his practice of this calming breath helped him navigate a potentially serious conflict with perfect peace and ease.  These stories motivate me to continue my yoga and other balancing practices no matter what.

It was a powerful “morning after.”

The cord of my purse cut and bruised my finger.

Since the mugging, as I walk my sore body cautiously and anxiously around my ‘hood, I keep my eyes open for my attackers.  If I see them, I am to contact the case detective.  And I hope I do.  Because I have another vision – as part of his punishment, my mugger must do 90 days of yoga classes with me.  I sincerely believe in yoga’s power to transform harmful little punks into helpful human beings.

I believe because it worked for me.

I can’t be sure why this kid stole from me.  But I can guess that he’s in some kind of emotional pain – as I was, for decades.  Through yoga and other tools of recovery, I have changed.  Today, someone asked me, “What keeps you happy?” and I answered, “The chance to help others by sharing the things that have helped me heal.”  Opportunities to practice Karma Yoga keep me happy.

So who knows – maybe this kid and I will share yoga and chocolate and there will be one less hurting/hurtful human being on the streets.  More will be revealed.

Wishing all beings peace, joy, love and light.

 

Focus: The Yoga Sutras – Love & Murder February 28, 2011

Each morning when I rise, I try to spend about 30 minutes praying, meditating and doing some Pranayama.  When I do, my soul feels infinitely more peaceful throughout whatever the day tosses my way.

For me, this is the point of yoga.

From what I’ve learned, this was also the point of yoga for the ancients who invented this deeply balancing art  – ancients like Patanjali and others, who thankfully passed yoga along for thousands of years so it could reach us. Yogas Citta Vritti Nrodhah is the 2nd aphorism in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.  “Yoga restrains disturbances of the mind.”  The only Sutra that comes before this is the statement, “Now we will explore yoga.”

So clearly, cultivating a calm mind is the most important goal of yoga practice.

In our February classes, we have been exploring a very basic introduction to the Yoga Sutras.  I am sharing five aphorisms from Patanjali’s wisdom that, for me, are practical tools and inspiring promises.  (Please see “February Focus: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” for an introduction to the five.)  On and off the mat, they inform my discernment process when making large and small decisions; they remind me how to live in peace with all others; they guide me toward self-acceptance, -love and -compassion; and they give me hope.

Last week we covered Sutra 1.33, which is a tough order.  In my opinion.

In Sutra 1.33, Patanjali introduces “The Four Locks & Four Keys.”  He suggests that (in order to fulfill yoga’s purpose of a calm mind) we cultivate the following attitudes toward the following types of people: friendliness toward the happy; compassion for the unhappy; delight in the virtuous; and disregard (or indifference, or equanimity or detachment) toward the non-virtuous.

As I prepared to teach my seven weekly classes on this theme, I decided to share the story of my 11-year-old yoga student who was murdered in March 2009 – and how I used the four locks/keys to navigate that deeply disturbing situation.  I meditated on this decision, realizing that such a dark story could potentially shake up the room.  I prayed, “May I be relieved of self-centeredness, that I may better play a small, useful role in your big picture.  I pray to be relieved of anything that stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows.  Grant me strength to do your bidding.”

I checked my motives, reminding myself that I do not teach for my own needs, but for the well-being of my students.  In the end, I decided to share my personal experience in order to demonstrate yoga’s solutions for every possible situation.

Even a situation as severe as murder.

*  *  *

In my early experience, the toughest part of Sutra 1.33’s “advice” was offering anything but anger, disgust and all kinds of judgment toward the non-virtuous.  Even today, as harmful things occur around me and happen to me, I can naturally (and humanly) sink into all kinds of harsh emotion.

Thankfully, in his commentary on The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Swami Satchidananda nudges me, “We come across wicked people sometimes.  We can’t deny that.  So what should be our attitude?  Indifference.  ‘Well, some people are like that.  Probably I was like that yesterday.  Am I not a better person now?  She will probably be alright tomorrow.'”  Simply put.  And with an underlying vibe of self-forgiveness.  Beautiful.

What of the people who are habitually “wicked” – who commit harm as a reaction to being harmed themselves; or due to fear; or to fulfill a sense of survival?  How do I keep a peaceful mind in the midst of serious threat?  I first recognize that in order to commit harm, a person is most likely deeply unhappy.  Therefore, as the 2nd lock/key suggests, I offer compassion to that person.  And I disregard the non-virtuous deed as the result of that very human state of unhappiness.

I was inspired toward this approach by the beautiful book, “Why We Fight: Practices for Lasting Peace” by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait.  “…if someone is ‘non-virtuous’ according to our definition, the judgmental part of our personality comes forward and we label those people as ‘bad.’  We try to maintain a distance, either my withdrawing ourselves or by pushing them away from us.  Any of these actions sets the stage for violence.”

And then he makes the strongest point.

“Cultivating indifference for people we believe to be non-virtuous damages our sensitivity to others and destroys our capacity for forgiveness, kindness, and selfless love.”  He reinforces, “But by cultivating indifference toward the deeds themselves, we remain free of animosity for those whose actions are non-virtuous.”

Hmmmm – a mind free of animosity sounds like an undisturbed mind.  Therefore, if I want to practice yoga as the Sutras suggest, I must disregard the deed, have compassion toward the doer…and perhaps even forgive her.  I had to practice this recently.  And believe me, it works.  And it’s worth it.  For peace of mind.

In his May 2010 Yoga Journal article, “Love in Full Bloom,” Frank Jude Boccio takes this Sutra one step further.  He invites us to offer ourselves these same attitudes – friendliness or lovingkindness, compassion, delight or joy, and equanimity.  He asks, “How would you like to be unconditionally loved, just as you are, without having to be or do anything special?  What would it be like to feel truly, completely, radically accepted, without feeling as though you had to hide or deny or apologize for any aspect of yourself?”

And I add – can you imagine how peaceful the world and our own mind states would be if we offered this unconditional acceptance to all beings?

So let’s start with ourselves.  Can we remember to offer ourselves lovingkindness, compassion, joy and equanimity?  Can we forgive ourselves for mistakes, accept our humanness, see ourselves as worthy?  Boccio points out, “…if we cannot love and accept ourselves just as we are, we will find if difficult to truly love anyone else in such a limitless, unconditional way.”

Remember, yoga’s ultimate goal is an undisturbed mind.  So how do we cultivate love when it feels impossible?  If I am firmly stuck in harsh judgment toward myself or another, the most effective elbow-to-ribs is the tool we learned in Sutra 2.33 – Pratipaksha Bhavana.  The replacement of negative thoughts with positive.

In his ever hopeful way, Swami Satchidananda says, “If the thought of hatred is in the mind, we can try to bring in the thought of love.  If we can’t do that, we can at least go to the people we love and, in their presence, forget the hatred.  So, although the hatred comes to the surface, we can keep if from coming out or staying long by changing the environment.”

May all of your yoga classes be an Environment Of Love.  May you feel surrounded by love.  May you feel secure, safe and supported during your practice.  May you find peace of mind.

*  *  *

Over the past week, I have witnessed students’ profound dedication to cultivating the virtues suggested in Sutra 1.33.  I have seen them apply The Four Locks & Keys during their Asana practice.  I have watched them wrestle with discomfort, re-commit to cultivating a peaceful mind, and choose positive over negative.  I have felt the love in the room; and I am certain it has found its way off the mat and into the world.

Since hearing the “murder story,” many students have confided in me about difficulties or hardship they are going or have been through.  I pray that, during our classes, they feel support for their healing.  I pray they get an ounce of relief, a break from troubles and tools to cultivate the peacefulness to face whatever life tosses their way.

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

 

January Focus: Back to Basics January 26, 2011

Luscious.

That’s how I would describe, in one word, the yoga class I just took with veteran Asana teacher Sandy Kavalier up the street from my apartment at Yoga Chai (http://www.yogachai.com/).  Breathing emphasis and mechanical cues.  Nothing more, nothing less.   My hips feel heavenly, my arms stronger, my shoulders intact, my lungs larger.  My entire body is vibrating with fresh oxygen.  My mind feels serene.  What a gift.

The focus in my yoga classes this month is Back to Basics. After a few months of conceptual themes (“Abundance,” “Yoga in Action,” “Why Yoga?”), we are returning to the nuts and bolts of Asana, Pranayama and Yoga Nidra.  And after a few months of almost completely abandoning my own personal yoga practice due to end of year busy-ness, I myself am enjoying those nuts and bolts at home, and in classes like Sandy’s.

I’m noticing that many studios around town (Yoga District, The Studio DC, and more) are featuring fundamentals and basics classes, most likely in answer to the abundance of New Year’s resolutions to start practicing yoga.  I know that Kelly’s “Virgin Yoga” class at Past Tense brought some newbies into our mix!

So welcome newbies and experienced yogis alike! There’s nothing like fine-tuning to awaken a long-standing practice or to start a new practice off on the right foot.

For more on the Principles of Alignment and Pranayama, please check out the Tips-n-Tools tab of this blog.  More later!

OM Shanti.

 

In the OM Zone November 11, 2010

You can hear the OM sound everywhere. It vibrates every cell in your body. It brings such a nice feeling of peace.  – Swami Satchidananda

There are times, at the end of a yoga class, when the closing OM is so sweet I have cried.  And there are times when it is so cacophonous that I have giggled with delight. I love both!

Personally, I’m a soft “OM”er.  My hope is to not hear my chant above any other, and to experience blended voices.  Still, I appreciate when students bring their loud, bright and even gravelly voices into the mix.  OM-style is an individual choice, probably influenced by a favorite teacher.  I used to get a bit rattled when the chant sounded noisy; but now I experience Santosha and feel content with all forms of OM-ness.

Chanting “OM” is a pure and soulful experience for me.  I do it everywhere and frequently – throughout my morning Sadhana; three times to open and once to close classes; as much as necessary to become present; three times before I start the car.

Over nearly two decades of yoga practice, I have heard many descriptions of OM’s origins and meanings.  Despite these varying definitions, I believe one consistent truth.  When we join our voices in OM, I feel that we are uniting.

To me, OM is a simple syllable that brings a vibration into the room, among us and within each.

I recently had the chance to experience the sheer power of this simple syllable during Ricky Tran’s DC Yoga Immersion (http://www.rickytranyoga.com/).  In approaching the Eight Limbs of Yoga, Ricky fuses authentic reverence with contemporary playfulness.

One of his favorite phrases was, “You’re in the OM Zone now!”

The morning began with Bhakti practice, including devotional chanting with Rudra Das Kirtan recordings (http://www.rudradas.com/home/).  The energy in the room started to rise. Next we moved into hips-centric Asana toward the goal of Lotus Pose.  Some poses challenged me immensely, others felt totally easeful.

(Side note: I believe that a great teacher supports students silently with prayerful and energizing vibrations.  Otherwise, there’s no way I could have effortlessly expressed poses beyond my present Asana level in Seane Corn and Max Strom workshops!  I focus more on the philosophical, lifestyle and service aspects of yoga than on higher-level poses.  So I felt totally at ease with Ricky’s accepting and encouraging Asana instruction.)

Happily, by the end of this brilliantly effective hip opening sequence, I was able to sit comfortably in Half Lotus – on both sides – for the first time!  Jai!  And it’s a good thing, because seated Pranayama was next on the docket.  I love me some Pranayama!  So any chance to sit and breathe for longer periods is welcome.

After Pranayama came what I call Ricky’s “Dharana Challenge” and what he calls “The Perfect 10.”

Glowing from Bhakti and Hatha, we were ready to meditate.  Ricky suggested focusing the mind by repeating OM 10 times in a row without distraction. If we wandered from OM, we were to start over at one.  If we reached 10 uninterrupted OMs, we should continue to 20, and on.  Ricky gave us the choice to chant silently or aloud.  One by one, students voices began to fill the cavernous studio with swirling, howling, beautiful chants of OM.  We chanted with conviction, a blend of bright and gravelly, loud and soft.  All sweet and pure and soulful.

And then it happened.

Perfect unity.  That simple syllable brought us together as one.  I couldn’t tell where my voice started and someone else’s ended. It seemed like the entire room of OMs originated from my mouth.  Then it switched.  Everyone else’s voices swirled through my lips, into my mind, penetrating my being.  There was no separation.

We were, indeed, in the OM Zone.

Gratitude to Ricky Tran and all the Eight-Limb-ers who stuck around after Asana practice to create this unforgettable experience.  It was the wildest OM moment of my life.  I feel thrilled to have more brothers and sisters with whom to explore the infinite promises of the Yoga Sutras.

OM Shanti.

P.S. Thanks for the photos, y’all!

 

Focus Wrap Up: Yoga In Action October 28, 2010

To wind up our September/October class focus of “Yoga In Action,” we are expressing appreciation for noble acts of service through Pranayama and Asana.

Whether your service occurs within your family, your workplace, your community or otherwise, please take some time to breath deeply into your beautiful, generous heart center and celebrate your efforts.  Lift your heart to the sky in Chair Pose, Crescent Lunge, Cobra and Bow in gratitude for the service of others.

Whether you held the door open for your neighbor, were patient with an anxious child, rescued a pet, volunteered to teach a yoga class or fortified an at-risk population through your grant writing – I encourage you to now inhale self-appreciation, and on your exhale (ahhhhh) simply rest.

Back in September, we began our exploration of Yoga In Action by practicing self-care.  We acknowledged that self-care often includes asking to be cared for.  We drew upon the infinite resources of the earth beneath and air around us to enhance our yoga practice – and our daily well-being.  We opened our minds to the concepts of forgiveness (of self), acceptance (of self) and surrender (to other).

In October, we identified the tangibles from yoga practice that fortify our service off the mat in the form of Karma Yoga. We took the balanced calm of Pranayama, the supportive foundation of standing poses, the motivating wisdom of the Yama and Niyama and more to our challenges, our opportunities and our efforts to be there for others in Seva (selfless service).

Now it’s time to celebrate, appreciate and recognize your deep intentions over the past two months!  To close our classes, we offer gratitude to those who have been of service to us, as well.  And as we close our Bi-Monthly Yoga In Action focus, I offer gratitude to those who intend take their yoga off the mat and into the world however possible – even by simply sharing your glowing smile at the end of your yoga class!

Be gentle with yourselves, take good care, identify your resources and offer all of this to others.

I leave you with a Hebrew prayer for those who serve humanity, below.  May you continue to serve sustainably.  OM Shanti.

May the one whose spirit is with us in every righteous deed, be with all who work for the good of humanity and bear the burdens of others, and who give bread to the hungry, who clothe the naked, and take the friendless into their homes.  May the work of their hands endure, and may the seed they sow bring abundant harvest. – Mah Tovu prayers for Shabbat morning

 

Focus: Yoga In Action – Surrender October 20, 2010

I like the peace in the backseat, I don’t have to drive, I don’t have to speak, I can watch the country side, I can fall asleep.  I’ve been learning to drive my whole life. – Arcade Fire, “In the Backseat”

A few weeks ago, I completely unplugged for five days – no phone, no internet, no meetings.  No to-do list.  Whatever came up, I did it.

I walked down the street without a phone attached to the side of my head.  I met people’s faces.  I noticed the gum on the sidewalks.  I heard children’s delight and sorrows.  I spent a lot of time in solitude.  I cleaned, I gleaned, I cooked.  I meditated, journaled, slept, cried…then meditated, journaled, slept and cried some more.  At long last – the time to genuinely take care of myself.  Haha – I’d spent all of September encouraging self-care in our yoga classes, and there I was, stuffing emotions and exhausted!

What surfaced during this “purification retreat” was a strong priority to re-cultivate trust and love.  I am, deep down, a loving and trusting person.  I admire human beings, am in awe of humanity and adore people in general.  But since this past summer’s emotional betrayal, I have struggled to feel comfortable and secure in relationships – even long-standing connections.  Despite teaching many yoga classes and showing up for commitments over recent weeks, I have found myself sinking into fear and isolation.

So I am forcing myself to reach out and reconnect.

Asking for help is not always easy.  For most of my life I was a self-reliant, “that’s OK, I can do it myself” gal. Hence the Arcade Fire quote above.  I was always in the driver’s seat, making things happen.  Never in the back seat, enjoying the ride. Only over the past 8 years or so have I been able to comfortably surrender to being helped by others…to letting someone else drive.

I must actively surrender to feeling vulnerable, taking risks and accepting others’ care.  I am lucky and grateful to be part of spiritual fellowships and social groups that encourage honesty and outreach.  In addition, I can practice being cared for through specific yoga exercises, such as borrowing support and energy from the elements of earth and air.

During the last weeks of September, our classes explored just that.  First we grounded into earth energy.  Figuratively inhaling through our feet to the crown of our heads, then exhaling back down through the soles, we rooted ourselves into the infinite stability, balance and foundation of the ground beneath us.  Aside from our typical, Integral Yoga influenced set, we added standing and balancing poses such as Triangle Pose, Warrior 2 and Warrior 3 to truly reinforce the earth’s strong and ever-present support.

Next we drew upon the infinite air around us by oxygenating deeply. We energized our classic IY set by inserting Pranayama practices throughout.  For example, during our Sun Salutations, we started with the rapid, naval-pumping Kapaalabhaati breath in Mountain Pose, then flowed through the 1st half of our movements with deep, three-part Deergha Swaasam breathing; in Cobra, we paused for more Kapaalabhaati; then we completed the 2nd half of the flow with Deergha Swaasam.  We also turned up the heat in our floor poses by adding Kapaalabhaati to Downward Facing Boat and Upward Boat.

For me, being fortified by these natural resources represents being cared for by something or someone outside of ourselves.  I surrender to being helped – and generously, that support is there for me.

If all other yoga intentions fail, the one practice that always comes through for me is surrendering control with every exhale during Poschimotanaasana.  There is something about incorporating mindful Deergha Swaasam during this seated forward fold that proves profoundly effective every time.  Each inhale is an opportunity to infuse myself with a positive intention.  With every exhale, I let go physically and emotionally, curling inward in the upper body and sinking inward with my mind.  Using long, thoroughly emptying exhales, I symbolically surrender obstacles and dissolve distractions.

If I learned anything from my own classes in September, it’s that sometimes self-care means allowing something or someone else to care for me.  If I truly yearn to take my yoga into action and bring my healthiest and strongest self off the mat and into the world, I have to get out of the driver’s seat.

Turning it over and surrendering control might be the only way to rebuild trust and love.

OM Shanti.

P.S.  BTW, during my “retreat,” I also went to the Nationals’ final three home games.  If you’re wondering what baseball has to do with Yoga In Action…well first of all, because I love baseball so much, these three nights were acts of self-care!  Most importantly – I think I reached some kind of Samadhi when I witnessed the Phillies clinch the National League East title on the 2nd night!  I’ve only seen that happen on TV, and it was thrilling!  I was completely blown away by the energy and although a true Nats fan, I felt a one-ness with the 1,000’s of Phillies followers there.  Awesome!

 

Focus: Why Yoga? – Resilience August 11, 2010

Today a friend is having a lumpectomy to remove cancer in her breast.

This friend is a strong, solution-oriented, resilient woman.  After reading my news about the betrayal, breakup and decompression process, she wrote to encourage me to join her in a ritual of surrender.  Instead of asking friends to pray for her well-being, she invited us to pray to let go of something that no longer serves us. On Monday evening, under a waning moon, I invited students to use their breath intentionally.  Together, we inhaled something positive into our being.  On the exhales, we let go of whatever might impede that positive intention.

Amazing what happens when I follow my own instructions!  I inhaled, “I trust that I will be taken care of,” and exhaled, “I surrender my fear.” I did this…after a day full of self-centered fear and heart-racing anxiety.  You see, while decompressing from this betrayal (which triggered memories of other traumas), I had become distrustful of humans.  By practicing intentional breathing in class Monday night, my fears and anxieties started to dissolve.

My friend’s proactive and positive attitude cracked open the door of my own resilience. And for that, I am grateful.

In past posts, I’ve written about “Pratipaksha Bhavana.” Essentially, this is what my struggling friend suggested.  This practice (mentioned in aphorism 2.33 of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras) invites us to replace negative thoughts with positives.  This does not mean we should stuff or deny strong emotions that produce “negatives” – the healthy recognition and processing of anger, fear and anxiety is essential to our wholeness and well-being.  At the same time, for a multi-trauma survivor like me, the tendency to dwell in those emotions can cultivate fear-based stories that have nothing to do with the actualities surrounding me.  False beliefs such as, “I can’t trust anyone; everyone is hiding a horribly hurtful truth; I can instruct yoga but not get close to anyone” can invade and pervade.

When actually, I am surrounded by caring, honest, healthy and beautifully-human beings.

For those who know me and know how I teach, you also know that it would be impossible for me to disconnect!  I love engaging deeply and authentically with fellow yogis, students and teachers.  It was scary enough two weeks ago, when I found myself halfway through a class with no recall of what I had taught.  This realization lead me to make better choices for myself.  The end of my relationship has allowed me to reconnect with my truth, my essence, my healthiest me – and therefore, to show up for others.

For me, a path toward true resilience must include this essential aspect of service.

Since Monday evening’s Pratipaksha Bhavana/intentional breathing practice, so many other remedies have surfaced.  In fact, Tuesday was a long string of therapeutics.  I started with a visit to the chiropractor, who, by aligning my structure (post-traumatic-couch-sleeping is not great for alignment), reinforced proper flow of energy through the Chakras.  Then, in a Cranio-Sacral Therapy session, I finally verbalized my anger, disappointment and grief through a gradually-unstuck throat Chakra.  During a noon yoga class, where the teacher spoke of “Samtosha” (the Eight Limbs’ “Niyama” or virtue of contentment with or acceptance of what is), pigeon pose released my tears.  Afterward, talk therapy nurtured my trust and balanced my emotions.

Does this sound like a lot of effort?  Perhaps.  At the same time, through years of experience, I’ve grown to prefer the liberating results of proactive healing to the destructive crawl toward progressive depression.  Let’s see – liberation or destruction?  I know which sounds best to me.

“Therapeutic Tuesday” would not have been complete without sharing my experience, strength and hope with others who also believe in proactive recovery.  So that evening, in a room full of people who surrender to solutions one day at a time, I admitted my distrust of humans, identified this as dangerous, and described the tools I’m using to move away from that false story and toward the positive reality.

And the door to resilience cracked open a bit more.

This morning I woke up to my alarm at 6:30am.  I sprung off the couch (ok, ok, this IS a process!) and zoomed down the street for a 7am yoga class.  Inspired by a Sufi poem, the teacher encouraged us to see flowers growing within…and then to envision an entire garden.  Perhaps in full bloom; perhaps in need of some pruning.  Her music choices were positive and spiritual, organically complementing the bright sunrise.  No crying this time.  I felt energized and excited for change.

I even felt that trust was possible.

When I got home, I popped Joshua James into the CD player and cooked Irish Steel Cut Oatmeal with goji berries and walnuts.  What a shift from lazy comfort foods and mandatory meditation lectures.  Not to say that Dharma talks don’t help!  But to reach this point, where I can listen to Joshua’s soul-stirring stories and hear both the outcry and hope in his voice…I can now cry as a release and have hope, too.

As for the oatmeal, well, a self-nurturing and nutritious home-cooked breakfast beats the fleeting pleasure of potato chips in the long-term!

So on Monday, my friend with cancer helped crack the door open.  (Today, despite her encouragement to surrender my “stuff,” I’ll be praying for her and her only.)  Since Monday, despite my fear of trusting humans, despite my anxiety, despite my gushing emotions after so much holding-in – I have allowed people’s hugs, words, smiles, songs, teachings and prayers to penetrate this broken heart and tired soul.

This morning, the door to resilience is wide open. And I am choosing to walk through it.

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

(P.S. If you have any questions about the remedies, practitioners, teachers or concepts mentioned above, please write me at hmeyers65@yahoo.com.)

 

Wine & Kirtan April 9, 2010

I just got home from “The Chant Super Tour” concert with Kirtan musician Krishna Das and spiritual singer Deva Premal.  Although I like her lullaby-like versions of Santeria chants for Yemaya and Oshun, and I don’t mind hearing her music in yoga classes, Deva’s work is a little too soft for me.  Tonight I enjoyed her partner Miten’s and her version of a Gospel blues song (with an astonishingly hot flute solo by Nepalese accompanist Manose) – but I couldn’t wait for the second act.

Because Krishna Das packs a strong punch.

During his Bhaja Govindam chant, I was clapping so hard that my arms tingled through the entire next song.  At the end of his set, I had no idea what time it was and I barely felt the surprisingly cold rain as I walked to my car.  Although he encouraged the audience not to leave the wholeness of the world around us to float off to a separate “spiritual” experience, it was definitely hard to not be swept away.

Aside from this event, I’ve seen a few concerts over the past couple of weeks.  (I swear this will relate back to Kirtan.)  I saw Wilco at the Strathmore in North Bethesda (formerly known as Rockville to those of us who grew up around here), and David Gray at the Lyric Opera House in Baltimore.  Being a non-drinker who mostly hangs out in non-drink-centric places, I found it jarring to walk into the lobbies of both venues and smell the overpowering scent of alcohol.  No judgment, honestly.  It’s simply jarring.  As a non-drinker.

As a non-drinker and a yogini, it’s even more jarring to walk into a Kirtan concert and be hit in the face with that same smell.  And to smell it reeking on people’s breath while they sang and sweating from their pores as they danced.   At one point, I noticed that I was barely breathing while chanting, because I was so tired of inhaling alcohol fumes.  And you know me – I’m a huge breather.  Pranayama all the way.  But not tonight.

So it was a weird experience.  And I just thought I’d share about it a bit before going to bed.

Something I definitely appreciated from Deva was her description of Sanskrit chants as powerful medicine.  This reminded me of when I used to participate in Native American sweat lodge ceremonies – and the elders would warn newcomers not to “mix medicines.”  In other words, some people thought it would be cool to get high before doing a sweat lodge; and the elders explained the dangers of mixing “medicines” that had different purposes.  Drugs having one purpose (no need to explain), and the lodge having quite another (praying like heck while purifying intensely).

So tonight, while I understood that some people like to relax with a glass of wine (or something), I wondered what their experience would have been like had they simply allowed the power of Sanskrit mantras to create that relaxation.  Kirtan’s purpose is to express devotion to a Higher Power and it is a form of Bhakti yoga; while wine’s purpose…

Anyway.  As we chanted our powerfully medicinal songs, I wished the elders were there to share their warning.  Without their guidance, even I might not have thought about the significance of keeping medicines separate.

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

(PS: Yes I know that this is more attitude-y than my typical posts.  I know that not everyone experiences yoga in the same way.  Personally, I’m gratefully accustomed to and really appreciate yoga spaces being free of other “medicines.”  Can you say “Eight Limbs?”  Goodnight now.)

 

My Heart’s Desire February 10, 2010

“Sunrise in the sky of the heart is the most blessed sight.”  Swami Nityananda

In this second half of our Bi-Monthly Focus of HEART, we’re shifting from an anatomical awareness of the neck, collar-bone, shoulder and rib area (see “Let Your Heart Bloom Open” for fine-tuning tips) to a more psychological or conceptual exploration of the heart chakra.

“Anahata” is our fourth chakra and the first of our “higher” energy centers. Not that the three lower chakras are in any way “bad” – simply, they govern bodily and material issues; Anahata is considered a balancing point between these basic functions and the spirit and intellect of chakras five through seven.  Its color is green; its element is air; its symbol is a 12-petaled lotus; and its qualities include love, passion and devotion.  The heart’s seed mantra is “yaum.”  (Yum!)  “Kalpavriksha” is the divine Wish-Fulfilling Tree that resides in the heart chakra and represents the manifestation of Sankalpa (resolute intentions or deep yearnings).  To “follow our heart” means planting seeds or making decisions while dwelling under Kalpavriksha.

In our February classes, we are focusing on the “heart’s desire.” I’m inviting students to revisit the symbolic bulbs they planted in Autumn 2009 during our Diwali celebration (see “Diwali Intentions”); the seeds they planted for 2010 in our New Year’s Eve workshop; the goals they set in Caroline Weaver’s January workshop; or even their simple, day-to-day intentions.  Throughout our classes, we are using Pranayama, Mantra, Mudra and visualization – for a taste, see the Meditation on the Heart’s Desire, below.

So what is my heart’s desire? Well let’s see…

Yesterday I was reading a blog by former Past Tense Yoga Studio (www.pasttensestudio.com) student Abby, who recently moved to Nicaragua.  Her intention is to spend one year deepening her passion for music, songwriting and guitar through an “Eat, Pray, Love”-style journey.  When she described this plan to her friends, some remarked, “OK – so you’re taking a year off.”

“It’s not a year off,” she protested, “It’s a year ON.”

When I read these words, I felt my heart flutter.  The idea of a year ON vibrated high in my chest – the same place I feel anxiety.  But this wasn’t anxiety, it was excitement.  As if something was saying, “Turn it ON, Holly.”  Not that I’m going to pick up and move anywhere.  I think the fluttering is a reminder of intentions that started brewing during last Autumn’s Jewish High Holy Days and Diwali.  I feel it’s high time to consult the Kalpavriksha and started to follow my heart more proactively.

And there’s nothing like a Mondo Beyondo list to trigger the process.

In her January e-blast, DC studio owner Debra Perlson-Mishalove invited readers to trash traditional New Year’s resolutions in favor of celebrating their most “juicy and outrageous” wishes. The Mondo Beyondo list, she wrote, “is the list where no boundaries are considered – including lack of funds, time or energy.  This is the list that comes from the quiet stirrings in your heart…”  By the way, one dream on Debra’s own list gave birth to her successful Flow Yoga Center!  (www.flowyogacenter.com)

To uncover my Mondo Beyondo yearnings I followed Debra’s suggestions, including: journaling about obstacles, fears, security, purpose; meditating on my deepest desires; rewriting the limiting, negative, false stories I tell myself; and using my yoga practice as a mirror into my life.  Wow.  I’ll spare you the details – just trust that I unearthed some humbling facts about how I get stuck, play it safe and limit myself.

Thankfully, one of Debra’s nudges motivated prompt action.  “How can I make my life more juicy or get out of this rut?”  I resolved to explore my self-imposed boundaries, attend Level 2 yoga classes, take action to get a great job and more.  These explorations sparked my very own Mondo Beyondo list.  Here’s an abbreviated version:

Holly’s Mondo Beyondo List from January 2010

  • I will give birth to a yoga-based nonprofit to decrease violence in families and among youth.
  • I will soon work a full-time job where I am useful and of service; a job which contributes to financial independence.
  • I will hike all over Ireland, breathe that air, jam with those musicians, feel my mother’s origins.
  • I will travel to India, stay in an Ashram and live the essence of yoga.
  • I will erase my current loans and debt within five years.
  • I will rewrite all of my obstacle-laden stories and move on.
  • I will enjoy a true romantic partnership with a man who is… (well…I know what I wish but HP might have something else in mind).  We will find each other soon… (OK…on HP’s time line, of course).  We will love each other through thick and thin.  Period.
  • I will explore my self-imposed boundaries in Level 2 yoga classes.  And like it.
  • I will tour regularly with alt-country, country, folk and singer-songwriter bands as drummer or percussionist.
  • I will be part of my sisters’ and their families’ lives – even if only through meta and prayer.
  • I will teach at Flow Yoga Center.

Your heart’s desire wants to know: when will you start your “year ON” or make your Mondo Beyondo list?

Until next time…OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

MEDITATION ON THE HEART’S DESIRE
(These instructions are archived on the Tips-n-Tools page.)

  1. Sit in a comfortable position.  Cross-legged, on the heels, or on a chair with feet flat on the floor.
  2. Close the eyes.  Witness the breath, the mind, the body.
  3. Begin to deepen the breath into three parts (Deergha Swaasam).  Inhale into the lower lobes of the lungs (belly area), middle lungs (rib cage) and upper lungs (collar-bone), then exhaling down from the collar-bone, ribs and belly.  Let each inhale be strong and full, and each exhale be long and thoroughly emptying.
  4. Allow the mind to rest on the breath.  Follow the flow of air with the mind, listening to the sound of the breath, or feeling the body move with each inhale/exhale.
  5. Feel the body sink and expand.  Become aware of the lower body’s contact with the ground, its stability, support, balance.  Become aware of the upper body’s length and let the heart center begin to open.
  6. Expand the heart center.  (See “Let Your Heart Bloom Open” for detailed instructions).  Using inhales and exhales to enhance your movement, reach the crown of the head toward the sky, maintain the length in the neck, broaden the collar bone, expand the rib cage, maintain the length along the side body, allow the shoulder blades to release toward each other and down the back.
  7. Bring the hands into Lotus Mudra.  Press the palms together in front of the heart; then, leave only the heel of the palms, the pinkies and the thumbs touching while spreading and opening the fingers and palms.  The hands represent a lotus in full bloom.
  8. Continue the Deergha Swaasam breath.  Imagine the inhale flowing through your lotus and filling the belly, flowing into your cupped palms and filling your ribs, then flowing up to the finger tips and collar-bone.  Imagine the exhale emptying from your finger tips and collar-bone, palms and ribs, then emptying the belly out through the lotus.
  9. As you continue this breathing technique, bring to mind your Heart’s Desire or Sankalpa.  It might be a resolution, an intention, or a wish for yourself or another.
  10. On the inhales, imagine filling your lotus with your Heart’s Desire.
  11. On the exhales, imagine releasing this wish from your lotus, sharing it with the universe.
  12. Continue this visualization for at least three rounds of Deergha Swaasam breathing.
  13. Seal your meditation by chanting the seed mantra for the heart chakra, “Yaum” (sounds like “OM” with an added “Y”).
 

Let Your Heart Bloom Open January 13, 2010

Hunched and hidden hearts, don’t let the cold weather shut you down!

Our Bi-Monthly Focus for January/February yoga classes is HEART.  For the 1st month, we’ll focus on the Anatomy & Physiology of opening the heart center despite our tendency to scrunch up during the winter.  For the 2nd month, we’ll explore and perhaps counteract the emotional/psychological consequences of that classic winter shut-down.

Despite your tendency to shrug forward against the bitter cold, let your heart bloom open.  How?  Start by wearing a warm hat and scarf!  Then, take a brisk walk to your closest yoga class and give the following four heart-opening tips a try.

TAKE IT FROM THE TOP

To have an open heart, one must first have a good head on his or her shoulders.  What I mean is, you must float your head above your neck so your ears hover directly over your shoulders (vs. in front of the shoulders due to a jutting or downward-tilting chin).  Think of the Alexander Technique direction to “free the neck” then allow the crown of the head to extend out of and up from the spine.

The crown of the head is that flat-ish spot in the center-top of the skull where you would place your King or Queen crown so it doesn’t fall off.  This is different from where you would place your tiara (toward the hairline) or a yarmulke (toward the back of the skull) – although I always suspected that the Jewish yarmulke (pronounced “yamaka”) plays the same role as any prayerful head wrap, protecting the 7th chakra energy and also maintaining humility; so I feel a little confused why we place it so far back on the head.

Anyway…

Anatomically, the crown of the head is the point where your spine would pop out if it continued through the top of your skull. Any profile in a basic anatomy book can illustrate this.

To begin our heart-opening process, please stand in Tadaasana (Mountain Pose) with your arms resting at your sides.  Begin your deep three-part breath (aka Deergha Swaasam, described on the Tips-n-Tools page), remembering to let each exhale be long and thorough, all the way down and out of the lower lobes of the lungs and belly, and your inhales strong and complete, through the rib cage and up to the collar-bone.

Now, inhale and reach the crown of the head toward the sky, hovering your ears over your shoulders.  Maintaining that alignment, relax on the exhale.

BAD TO THE BONE

Gliding our way down the cervical spine, we then broaden the collar-bone to create space for the upper lobes of the lungs and top ribs.

To do this, stand in Tadaasana with arms resting down, and press your palms into the sides of the thighs.  Line up your middle finger with the seam of your pants – or where that seam would be if you had one on your yoga capris.

Inhale and continue to press the palms flat.  On the exhale, curl open the upper arms.  Biceps curl out and away from the ribs while triceps tuck under and toward the side body.  As you exhale thoroughly to the belly, the shoulders and collar-bone will naturally broaden and you will feel like a proud yoga soldier.

FILL UP THE BARREL

Next, we have to create space for the heart’s doors to open wide.  They are swinging doors and like the rib cage, they need room to move forward, sideways, backward, all around.

I like to describe the rib cage as a big barrel, imagining myself actually filling up a big cavernous barrel as I breathe through the Deergha Swaasam.  The lungs also expand forward, sideways and backward.  Plus, they are longer than most realize – beginning as low as the upper abdomen, expanding through the ribs and reaching up to the collar-bone.

So let’s fill up the barrel!  Inhale into the belly, ribs then collar-bone.  Hold the breath in the rib cage and explore the expansiveness surrounding your precious little heart.  Then exhale, maintaining that expansiveness, particularly in the side body.

THAT SINKING FEELING

Fourth and finally, we return to the most simple instruction for opening the heart.

Inhale and reach the crown of the head toward the sky.  On the exhale, move the shoulder blades together then down the back. With the head high, the collar-bone wide and the side body long, the blades easefully sink into place.

BABY, IT’S COLD OUTSIDE…

…but you don’t have to hunch the winter away.  Hold your warmly capped head high, wrap that scarf around your perfectly aligned neck and follow your heart down the street.

See you in class.  OM Shanti.

(Jan/Feb Heart Focus instructions are archived on the Tips-n-Tools page.)