The Urban Yoga Den

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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.

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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: 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.)

 

This Too Shall Pass April 9, 2010

I just floated home after Ximena Gutierrez’s Jivamukti class at Past Tense Studio (one of the places where I teach yoga).  Today’s theme was “This Too Shall Pass” – a phrase with which I am very familiar from a variety of spiritual paths and programs.  The premise is to remain detached from and have faith through all experiences – positive/negative, good/bad, easy/difficult.  Because eventually, all will change.

Over and over and over.

Complementing the normally uplifting effect of Ximena’s classes (and today’s perfectly crisp and sunny weather), I am feeling quite light-spirited from fasting.  I have not had a “solid” meal since Wednesday evening.  For this liquid fast, throughout yesterday I drank: many glasses of water with fresh organic lemon, cayenne and honey; one cup of fresh-made carrot/celery juice; two cups of Yogi Detox tea; and two bowls of miso soup with lemon juice and seaweed flecks to balance my blood sugar with proteins and aminos.

As you know from last night’s post, I attended a Kirtan yesterday.  Combined with my daily Sadhana, the fast removed many physical distractions and heightened my focus on the task at hand – chanting my devotion to a Higher Power.  Again citing Native American ritual, I remember that many people fasted for 24 hours prior to our sweat lodges, to intensify their presence within the ceremony.  Last night, I definitely felt more connected and aware during the event.

I have tried fasting a number of times throughout my decades of exploring spiritual paths and natural health.  Being prone to hypoglycemia, straight water fasts and the legendary “Master Cleanse” (water, lemon, cayenne, honey) do not work well for me.  At Yoga Teacher Training, we were invited to fast every Thursday with the cleanse formula – and for one day at a time, I did fine.  Overall, longer fasts that combine cleansing and nutritious liquids, juices and broths leave me the most energized and strong.

For example: in class this morning, lifting myself into wheel was like flying into the sky heart-first, with limbs dangling lightly below.

For me, fasting is easier if I remember that “This Too Shall Pass.”  The first day can be very challenging.  Every smell or reminder of food brings a hunger pang.  But I simply remind myself, “That food will be there when I finish my fast.  No need to dwell on it now.”  (Just like all those times I thought that depression or bliss would last forever – “Balance will return when this condition dissolves.  Be present with the emotion for these moments.”)

Today, after morning Sadhana and this journal entry, I will break my fast with a simple bowl of steel-cut oatmeal, cinnamon and fresh organic ginger.  I’ll ease back to a clean diet throughout the day, probably munching on dried goji berries and perhaps a bowl of miso with collards and onion.  All good tonic foods.

For dinner tonight, I’ve been invited for salmon at my friends’ house (yes, I eat fish – maybe I’ll journal about my choice to eat fish sometime) and am to bring a chocolate dessert!  Most likely, my fish portion will be small; and I might take a moment of conscientious indulgence for a small bite of dessert.  But maybe not.

More will be revealed.

The point is that I am willing to grow along this path of yogic life.  This fast did not take a bunch of planning.  I decided on Wednesday evening to stop eating for a day, and was going to break the fast without going to yoga class this morning.  But I went anyway, because I was feeling so great after last night’s Kirtan and yesterday’s liquid diet.  And if I didn’t have dinner plans this evening, I might have kept going through this day and beyond.  This clarity, lightness and serenity that comes from cleansing is a beautiful gift.

And of course, This Too Shall Pass.  And that’s A-OK with me.  OM Shanti.

“Be good, do good, feel good.”  – Swami Satchidananda

 

Compassion for Killers November 17, 2009

“Compassion for the unhappy.”  “Indifference toward non-virtous acts.” – Sutra 1:33

So here I am, again practicing the locks and keys of Sutra 1:33 (see “Boy, 9, Dies…” post for details).  This morning, 26-year-old Josue Peña was arrested for killing 9-year-old Oscar Fuentes a few nights ago.  (*)  Immediately, I thought, “Josue Peña must be in some kind of pain in order to shoot-to-kill.”  That’s simply where my heart and mind go when I hear about violent crimes.  I know too much about pain’s ability to turn intentions horribly sour.

But I wasn’t always able to access compassion regarding violence.  It’s taken years for my anger about such crimes to soften – and partially from necessity.  As I’ve mentioned before, resentment is a killer for me.  It sucks away my joy and can turn me dangerously destructive – self and otherwise.  So I had to find tools to express my anger, and then promptly transition to more empathic and forgiving feelings toward criminals.

If Sutra 1:33 just isn’t cutting it for you when it comes to killers, check out the “Charter for Compassion” (below).

When Inter-Faith leader Karen Armstrong won the TED Prize in February, 2008, she made a wish: for help creating, launching and propagating a Charter for Compassion. Since that day, thousands of people contributed to the process so that last week the Charter could be unveiled to the world.

My favorite line in the Charter, regarding responding to violence with compassion, is: “To cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings—even those regarded as enemies.”  Visit the awe-inspiring and interactive website at http://charterforcompassion.org/ Or, check out the Charter’s text, below.

If you still feel negative feelings toward Josue Peña and other killers…know that you are human.  And that’s A-OK with me.  Still, I urge you to consider finding room in your heart for empathy, understanding and compassion.

Wishing you truth-to-self…and liberation from resentment.  OM Shanti.

Bullet hole in a door.

CHARTER FOR COMPASSION

A call to bring the world together…

The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.

It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others—even our enemies—is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.

We therefore call upon all men and women ~ to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate ~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures ~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity ~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings—even those regarded as enemies.

We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensible to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.

(reprinted from charterforcompassion.org)

* Update: A few days after being incarcerated, Josue Peña hung himself in his prison cell.  No further comment.