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Yoga Class Focus: Gratitude Trumps Adversity November 27, 2014

SunRaysForestPathSometimes, gratitude does not come overnight. Sometimes days, weeks and months can pass before thankfulness finds its way into a broken heart. But from experience (and lots of it), I know there will be a silver lining to every story of challenge, hardship and adversity. If you’ve read my blog before, you are familiar with my efforts to use yoga, addiction recovery, therapy and related resources to heal from past trauma and cultivate a life of balance and wellness. I’m also devoted to sharing these experiences and tools with others. I’m not perfect; still, I do believe in every being’s potential to heal, grow and change.

And for that – the faith, the belief, the hope – I am grateful.

On this Thanksgiving Day, I am grateful for two specific things.

 

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“Humility and gratitude go hand in hand.”
~ Swami Sivananda Radha

#1: I don’t know where my father is.

You may have read my past blogs about last year’s family fiasco. I’d moved from my hometown of DC to Dad’s retirement city of Nashville to support him as he ages. There were major issues with his house, his health and his finances. Although I was able to help successfully in many ways, my time there was challenging from every angle – work, health, home, community, family. The most difficult was watching my father fade with dementia. The most damaging was my sisters’ hostility toward me. I became financially, physically and emotionally depleted. After gaining counsel, I made the very difficult decision to return to DC, where – with the support of deep roots and caring communities – I could rebuild from scratch.

Over the past year, I have been ostracized by my sisters and by my father’s community. I understand where their blurred perspectives originate, and know that my side of the street is clean. I was the one who showed up for him devotedly and dependably since my mother died more than a decade ago. Because throughout our lives, Dad and I have shared an authentic love beyond description. This October, he told me he was having surgery for skin cancer on his head. Our last conversation was November 9th, the day before his procedure. And now, I can’t reach him, he’s not reaching out to me, my sisters and his friends are not contacting me, I have no idea how he is, and I can only guess where he is.

And…I AM GRATEFUL? How?

PathWithHeartThis is a case where I cannot (yet) see the positive in the situation itself. And so, to lighten my heavy heart, I choose to give thanks for related gifts:

  • I am not the only one who loves my father. Dad has his own higher power(s). I must have faith that he is being cared for. Plus, I have the chance to utilize my own toolbox of wellness resources in order to love him, forgive my sisters and cultivate compassion about the family dissonance. My prayers are for his whole health, and, for a joyous Thanksgiving, wherever he is.
  • My friends are my family. This year, I was invited to multiple Thanksgiving meals. There is an “Orphans Dinner,” a “Vegetarian Friendsgiving,” a “Gluten Free Thanksgiving” and assorted gatherings in communities I’ve been part of for years and years. My “family of choice” has also chosen me – we share similar roots, shared experiences and a yearning for healing and growth.
  • What a difference a year makes. Last winter in Nashville, I accepted a Second Harvest food donation for my family. It was one of the most humbling experiences of my life – but, that box of food went a long way when resources were short. This past week, I joined a group of volunteers at a DC nonprofit, giving turkeys and groceries to families in need. This experience widened my gratitude for where I stand today. Things are far from stable, but thanks to seven months of recent steady work, I have food in my fridge…thanks to returning to DC, I’ll share holiday meals with dear ones…and thanks to gleaning the best from a past of hardship, I am able to serve others in ways that I once needed.

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“Once you know that suffering is for your benefit… You’ll gladly go through it.”
~ Swami Satchidananda

#2: I was recently fired from my restaurant job.

Exactly four weeks before, my boss sat me down for a glowing progress review. A month later, she scornfully scolded and terminated me. I’m a willing, honest and dedicated worker. When I make mistakes, I take responsibility and seek solutions for improvement. Over that last month, however, there was scrutiny. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. And then, bam…see ya.

And you know what? I AM GRATEFUL.

Oh, sure, I’m also feeling a mixture of injustice, anger, financial worry and general upset. With slight hints of self pity. I’m human. But in the end, this is clearly a case (as many friends have remarked in their own ways) where “god” or “the powers that be” are doing for me what I could not do for myself.

LifeIsBeautifulAbsolutely grateful:

  • It is a blessing to be free. I have been liberated from a place that handles professional affairs in a manner that I will not accept.
  • When one door closes, another one opens. Since being fired, I have received numerous offers to teach yoga in studios, at schools, for birthday celebrations, for nonprofits and more.
  • My confidence is boosted! I still must look for sustaining work (because teaching yoga does not pay the bills). And that last job – my first as a waitress/server – was at one of the most popular and busy restaurants in the city. So I am thankful for seven months of training and experience. Even while navigating interpersonal challenges with staff, I honed all of my past professional skills in customer service, marketing, event coordination, catering and more to become an awesome server. And I can take that anywhere. In the meantime, generous friends at a family-owned restaurant are giving me a few shifts, so I can keep up my chops.
  • That job was a gift. One of the managers knew that I’d had a tough year away and – knowing that I had little restaurant experience – gave me work, so I could come home to DC and start strong. Over those seven months, I was able to get on the road to financial recovery. And for these next five months, thanks to generous landlords, I have a roof over my head, and the potential to continue chipping away at bills and debt through new work.
  • I have some healing to do. I believe that I am a healthy woman. Truly. In body, mind and spirit. Thanks to that workplace experience, I am tackling yet another layer of sacred inner work. I had the opportunity to see how staff dynamics can trigger my PTSD – particularly now, after such a tough year with family dysfunction. Thanks to being healthy enough to take accountability for my part and see where I need to grow, I am venturing on a fresh direction toward wholeness.

*  *  *

“…she learned that surrender is quiet.” 
~ from “Snake Oil: The Art of Healing and Truth-Telling,”by Becca Stevens, founder of Thistle Farms, a nonprofit serving women recovering from addiction and sexual trauma.

I’m a fighter.

That’s exactly why the recent job termination meeting was such an ironic victory. I had good reason to defend myself. However, I was silent. As the list of “wrongs” was aired, I squirmed internally and took mental notes. At times, I couldn’t help but look surprised. Although frustrated, I pursed my lips. I kept my feet firmly on the ground, my hands resting on my legs, my mind clear and my mouth shut.

Surrender is quiet.

Funny – I’d read the above line from “Snake Oil” on the bus ride to the meeting with my boss. Chapter 3, “Seeds of Healing,” introduces us to a number of Thistle Farms program participants, who work producing healing balms, bath salts and oils for the nonprofit. “Val, like every employee of Thistle Farms, began every morning in the meditation circle before she began to work. She said during her time at Thistle Farms she learned that surrender is quiet. She says in order for her to heal and forgive, she has to surrender everything. Through the journey of surrender, she learned how much quieter it was than all the fighting in prison, with family, with the world.”

Interesting timing, eh? The evening after being fired, it hit me – I had been fighting a lot at that job. Fighting my own fear of failure and financial insecurity; fighting my own negative voices; fighting other’s accusations; fighting for consistency; fighting for staff accountability. After that much battle, it’s clear: the job simply wasn’t meant to be.

As for the family situation, I’m not as quiet. My grief tends to shout, and, I’m having a tough time quelling that voice. There’s still a bit of wrestling; but I know most of it is within my own soul.

Still, it can feel good to give up. To wave the white flag, and accept what’s here, now, real and true. That job is gone, and it’s time to move on. I can’t reach my father, so I must focus on other joys. For me, acceptance is the 1st step toward Samtosha – one of yoga’s five Niyama, or value-based observances, as described by the Eight Limbs in the Yoga Sutras. Samtosha means complete contentment with whatever exists. And such contentment has the potential to transmute into GRATITUDE for the silver linings or lessons. With consistent observance and practice of surrender, acceptance, contentment and gratitude comes the mindful serenity that yoga promises.

I have to ask myself:

Do I want to walk around in misery and resentment about my adversity; or, do I want to cultivate inner peace despite hardship and nurture forgiveness despite hurt – and therefore contribute to harmony around me and in the world?

*  *  *

Aside from mentioning it in the August Yoga Class Focus blog, I never officially wrote about the September and October theme of GROWTH. I reckon I was too busy growing, and encouraging the process in others. So here we are in November, jumping on the GRATITUDE bandwagon! It simply cannot be helped. C’mon, aside from being connected to Thanksgiving marketing, it’s the perfect tie-in to yoga philosophy. Not to mention, exploring GRATITUDE invites us to take stock, offering an inroad toward New Year’s Intentions.

Nearing the end of 2014, I might say that my last year included a doozy of bumps and bruises. Justifiably, I could focus on the family problems, the job loss, my ongoing PTSD issues and my related fears about the future. On the other hand, I could exercise the yogic tenant of Pratipaksha Bhavana, and replace those negatives with the positives listed above.

The act of being grateful gives me something warm to hold in my heart, even when the chill of adversity breaks it. Gratitude softens me enough to squarely face my wounds. It keeps my mind open to – eventually – giving thanks for what initially shut me down.

No matter where you are in the world, I wish you a day of THANKS-GIVING. Heck, with yoga’s guidance, we could enjoy an entire lifetime of gratitude. I’m certainly aiming for that.

*  *  *

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

 

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.

 

Gratitude, Samtosha and Pratipaksha Bhavana (From The UYD Archives) November 28, 2013

This post was originally part of my “Ahimsa Now” series regarding Peace Tools – everyday yogic actions that can create peace in our inner and outer worlds.  Today I post it as a NOTE TO SELF: reminding Holly to put these tools into action, particularly during this difficult time of transition, responsibility, instability and sadness. (Cliff Notes version: I moved from Washington, DC to Nashville, TN in September to support my aging father, and have hit some big bumps along many avenues since.)

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RockCreekFallenTreeCntr2(Jan13)Peace Tools: Pratipaksha Bhavana, Samtosha & Gratitude
(Originally posted June 2012, proving that Gratitude is not just for Thanksgiving, y’all!)

Thank god for great teachers.

I got my butt kicked yesterday morning in an Intermediate Vinyasa class.  Well, admittedly, I often get my butt, hips and thighs kicked in this teacher’s classes!  (But it’s a sweet, Ahimsa-like kick.)

Today, however, the real smacker was when the teacher told a story about wanting something she didn’t have.  She was feeling stressed by being without this particular thing (a typical modern household convenience item); and she believed her stress would be relieved if she had this thing.  Life, in general, would be better.  Then, someone close to her pointed out that if she had that thing, she would inevitably be challenged by its related stresses and difficulties.  And, this someone added, there are places where they don’t even have access to such a luxury, and where they make out just fine.

Thank god for great teachers – in the form of those certain someones who bring perspective.

Perspective can bubble up from many sources.  If I am willing to hear it, I can use perspective to practice “Pratipaksha Bhavana” (replacement of negative thoughts with positive ones) and “Samtosha” (contentment).  And, if I really want to live the concept “Ahimsa” (non-harming) and cultivate inner peace, I can carry my positive thought and contentment a step further to practice “Gratitude” (gratitude).

Because by allowing myself to stew in negativity and malcontent, I am harming myself.  When I harm myself, I am far from peace.  And when I am far from peace, I am closer to harming others.

*  *  *

Sunday morning, when my yoga teacher told her story in class, I immediately thought about my long period without full-time employment, the related fear and stress (which has come to quite a head lately), and, my frequently repeated statement of: “If only I had a job, everything would be better.”

Would it?  I can attest to the harmful wear-and-tear of being in the wrong work situation – whether it’s being underpaid, overworked, over-ego-fed, physically strained, sexually harassed, verbally abused or mis-matched in any way – and how that discomfort can negatively affect everything in my life.  So the last thing I want is to desperately jump into any ol’ job.

In addition, having the “right” job can also add stress to life.  Less free time.  More suits.  New relationships.  Office politics.  And so on.  “Everything would be better” is inaccurate after all.

Still, being without a full-time job over the long-term is a seriously challenging state.  I don’t simply “want what I don’t have” – on a fundamental, life-sustaining level, I actually don’t have what I need.  So how do I nurture inner peace when the justifiable anxiety of  “If only I had a job…” pops into my mind?  What is the antidote?

Pratipaksha Bhavana.

In his book “Raja Yoga,” Swami Vivekananda explains, “When thoughts obstructive to yoga arise, contrary thoughts should be employed.”  In simpler terms, when my inner peace is rattled, I can restore serenity by replacing negative beliefs with positive thoughts.  This is Pratipaksha Bhavana, which is mentioned Book Two of the Yoga Sutras.

This doesn’t mean replacing “If only I had a job…” with “If only I had a financially sustaining job that enhances my emotional, physical and spiritual well-being and complements my lifestyle…”  Because the fact is, even if I had this supposedly ideal thing, there is still no guarantee that “everything would be better.”

The only true, guaranteed, peace-inducing contrary to “If only I had a job…” is “I have a job.”RockCreekPileBranchCrossroads(Jan13)

Bingo!  I have a job!  In fact, I have many jobs – some with traditional paychecks; some with other types of “payment.”  I teach yoga part-time; I manage a yoga studio part-time; and each year I teach percussion and yoga full-time at a summer camp.  I was recently invited to guide Latin dancing lessons for a group of school kids because of my background in Hispanic culture.  I sometimes accompany great songwriters on tours and gigs.  And because of my music and yoga background, I am invited to play Kirtan.  I play volunteer roles in my community, and I play supportive roles in my family.  I could not ask for more wonderful jobs.  I get paid to pass on the beautiful teachings of yoga.  I get paid to contribute to a yoga business’s well-being.  I get paid to facilitate youth’s arts education.  I get paid to play music.  And I have the opportunity to be of service in many ways.  Through these “jobs,” I receive more than money.  I enjoy unlimited, much-needed, free yoga classes where I teach.  I feel the satisfaction of using my operational skills at the studio.  I get to hang around kids eight hours a day for the six weeks of summer camp.  I get to work alongside amazingly talented musicians.  My yoga and music communities are strong and the circles are widening.  I enjoy true friendships.  Overall, I receive immense “compensation” being involved with yoga, music and youth.

A life of this much purpose and passion certainly can sustain me through tough times…when I focus on the positive.

*  *  *

“If only…” in itself is a negative belief.   When I walk around thinking that everything would be better “if only this or that,” I am existing in illusion.  I am negating the worth of the present moment.  And I am living in complete malcontent.  What is the ultimate remedy for the “If only…” plague?

Samtosha.

Instead of thinking “If only…”, I aim to embrace whatever is directly in front of me as my path, my work, my opportunity.  Life is exactly as it should be, right now, with all its struggles and surprises and ups and downs.  Now is all I have.  So why not accept what currently exists and choose to be content?  And this is Samtosha – being at peace with whatever exists at this very moment.

Can I be content with my nearly jobless, penniless existence?  And if so, how do I get there?

For me, contentment requires a blend of footwork, surrender, acceptance and faith.  Footwork means I am proactive to my best ability.  Surrender means I acknowledge how much is beyond my control.  Acceptance means I embrace all outcomes.  And faith means I believe that I will be OK no matter what.  Inevitably, when I practice this combo, I feel content.

For example, in my work search, I must take appropriate action by applying for jobs that make sense for my long-term goals and sustainability.  After I make these efforts, I must remember that there are way too many factors that figure into these scenarios, and therefore completely let go of the results.  I must accept any news without getting stuck in pride, disappointment or resignation.  And when the news is bad, I must believe that there is something worth waiting for – and what helps most here is remembering exactly how big the “Big Picture” is.

“As a result of contentment, one gains supreme joy,” Swami Satchidananda says of Samtosha, in his exploration of the Yoga Sutras.  Who could ask for anything more?

*  *  *

Practicing Pratipaksha Bhavana and Samtosha, I can be positive and accepting instead of negative and wanting.  Usually.  But can I gain “supreme joy” and true serenity?

The truth is, most days I am still trying to shake off the nagging belief that I might never have what I need; that stability and security are impossible; that I am destined to die homeless, jobless and penniless in a gutter.  Those days, more than any others, it is imperative that I practice Pratipaksha Bhavana and Samtosha, and that I take the extra step of doing a Gratitude List.

Monday, 18 June, 2012 – I am grateful for…GreatFallsYomKippur20099(Brighter)

  • Part-time work that I absolutely love.
  • Talents, education and experience to lend to new jobs.
  • The “umph” to keep on keepin’-on despite challenges.
  • Free yoga where I teach.
  • Living in a city with many free activities.
  • Friends who treat me to baseball games so I can relax.
  • A caring circle of family, friends and community.
  • My mom’s and dad’s inspirational work ethic.
  • My dad’s unending encouragement, confidence and support.
  • My sister’s love, understanding, advice and periodic butt-kickings.
  • Beautiful spring/summer weather.
  • Living near Rock Creek Park for hiking.
  • A lifetime of tools and resources for trudging this road – and the willingness to use them.
  • So, so much more.

I am truly lucky to have so much.  I may not have everything I need, but I do have a lot.  And when I reinforce appreciation, the self-pity dissolves, the worry of paying the bills decreases, the fear of becoming homeless disappears, the anxiety of the unknown dissipates.

When I practice Gratitude, I can actually forget what the problem is…I can relax…I can smile!

*  *  *

It’s a lot of work to manage and reduce stress.  Why do I do any of this?

The concepts of Pratipaksha Bhavana, Samtosha and Gratitude do not change the fact that, month-after-month, I wonder whether I’ll be able to pay my rent.  That stressful reality definitely exists.  But as practices, they can change my state of mind during these challenging times.  Instead of dwelling in worry, fear and anxiety – when I am willing to hear perspective and embrace these practices – I can dwell in presence, hope and joy.  Instead of harboring self-harming thoughts, I can enjoy inner peace.  And I can share that peace with all around me.

Ahimsa Now!

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

 

Namaste: A Journey From Resentment To Relief April 21, 2013

Namaste.

I honor you. All of you.

The good and the bad.
The light and the dark.
The divine and the human.

NashvilleClouds2Flipped(June2011)I honor every part of you.

The parts that doubt.
The parts that feel certain.
The parts that don’t know.

The parts that leave.
The parts that stay.
The parts that hide.

I honor the whole you.

The you that stumbles.
The you that falls.
The you that rises…and falls again.

The you that gracefully balances.
The you that is rooted.
The you that is buoyant.

I honor you.

The you that is hurting.
The you that harms.
The you that grows.

The you that loves.
The you that can’t.
The you that will.

I bow to you. I bow to you. I bow to YOU.

*  *  *

My first yoga teacher used to tell us, “I’m just an old junkie, passing on what helped me change. Sat Nam.”

With a strong Kundalini practice and immersion in American Sikh communities for the first 10 years of my yoga journey, “Sat Nam” became an everyday greeting. Whether I said it silently or out loud, I reverently offered this prayer to my friends, to my co-workers, to strangers. “Sat Nam: I honor your truth.”

As with the Native American, Yoruban, Jewish and other spiritual perspectives that started shaping my view of myself and others in the early 90s, I embraced the inclusive nature of “Sat Nam.” When someone pressed their palms into prayer position at their heart, and said, “I honor your truth,” I felt genuine and total acceptance.

When I started practicing Vinyasa style yoga in about 2001, I heard a new greeting. Teachers would end class saying, “Namaste: the light in me bows to the light in you.” Or, “Namaste: the divine in me bows to the divine in you.” Or, “Namaste: I bow to all that is good and light and divine in you.”

Ick.

Sorry, but that was my first reaction! “Ick.” What about the imperfect, the dark, the messily human parts of me? If you know even a little of my story (and you might guess some of it, based on my respect for NashvilleCloudsLines(June2011)and admiration of my first yoga teacher), you know that those very non-good, non-light and non-divine parts ruled my world for a good long time. I also grew to understand, accept, appreciate and deeply love those parts after yoga came into my life in the 90s, and I started growing toward a healthier balance.

Yoga continued to be a huge part of my life; and I started to feel defensive at the end of classes, when teachers pressed their palms into prayer mudra at their heart and – with all the best intentions – bowed to the light in me. Sadly, I grew to resent this highfalutin’ “Namaste.”

*  *  *

After 15 years of yoga practice, I decided to become an instructor. I chose the residential Integral Yoga Teacher Training at Satchidananda Ashram in Virginia. At the IYTT, we ended classes (and meetings, texts and e-mails!) with “OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.” I didn’t notice at the time, but am now realizing that I did not hear one single “Namaste” during the four weeks. As the days passed, our immersion in the Yoga Sutras and the Eight Limbs nourished my craving for a sustainable inner peace – and, my yearning to share yoga’s tools for cultivating that peace. I became very comfortable ending classes with “OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti: Peace, Peace, Peace.”

Then came the dilemma. Teaching at studios in DC, I would end sessions with “OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti,” and some students would bow and answer “Namaste.” Ack! Did these students think that I didn’t appreciate their light? Mama mia. Quickly, I had to let go of that worry and continue to believe in my choice to simply wish my students peace.

*  *  *

Over recent years, I started hearing different definitions of “Namaste.”

In 2011, I attended a yoga workshop with Max Strom. He both greeted us with and explained “Namaste.” “I bow to you,” he said, firmly. “That’s all it means. If you go to India, you will be greeted the same way by everyone, whether saying good morning at a temple, or, buying a drink at a tea shop.”

In 2012, one of our summer camp teaching assistants was from Nepal. He told me that in his Hindu culture, “Namaste” (or “Namaskar”) is a basic greeting. As common as “Hello,” and as meaningful as “I honor you.”

Earlier this spring, 2013, at the Shiva Navaratri ceremony I attended, the Hindu priests would periodically invite devotees to take some “Namaskaram.” I saw people doing prostrations, offering themselves in deep bows and lowering themselves to the ground. With this visual illustration, I finally understood that Namaskar is the most humble way to show respect, honor, gratitude. (It also redefined my own practice and teaching of Surya Namaskaram, or, Sun Salutations.)

Quite recently, I noticed a residual jolt of resentment when someone offered a bow to the divine in me. I’ll admit it – I needed academic validation that “Namaste” is inclusive of our entire being. I asked a Sanskrit expert for the literal translation. His response: namas = I bow/ honor/salute; te = NashvilleCloudsThunderhead(June2011)to you. “I bow to you.” “I honor you.” “Salutations to you.” It is a reverential expression of greeting and/or thanks. Used as hello, goodbye, and thank you.

What a relief!  No matter what other teachers say, I can finally focus on the true meaning of the greeting when I hear it.  I can feel the essence of unqualified acceptance.

*  *  *

I’ve chosen to continue closing my classes with my IY-influenced “OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti…Peace, Peace, Peace.” But for the month of April, I have been experimenting. Replacing “OM Shanti” with “Namaste.” And I have to admit, it still feels very uncomfortable. Because I know students have heard other teachers share their adapted definitions of the greeting. And I don’t want them to think that I only honor the good, the light, the divine. I want them to know that I deeply bow to every single part.

From this, the above poem evolved.

I will always remember and yearn for the humility of my first yoga teacher. That old junkie, just sharing what changed him. So whether I offer “Namaste,” “Sat Nam,” “OM Shanti,” “Yo, wha’s up?” “Hi!” or even a silent smile, I offer my greeting with 100% honor for the whole of you.

*  *  *

I still wonder: What influenced the new “Namaste?” Where did the good/light/divine skew come from? Why would millions of yogis – in the studios and the trainings and the magazines and the videos – want to stray so far from the real thing?

Well…that’s another can of worms, for a different writer to tackle!

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

 

Clearing the Obstacles August 6, 2011

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

Hindsight is 20/20.  – popular phrase

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will, however, forgive myself.

*  *  *

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

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

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

 

Falling Off The Yoga Wagon July 22, 2011

Why does it take a sick day for me to realize I have totally abandoned my yoga practice?

For the past two days, I’ve been battling a sinus infection.  This morning, after sleeping 11 hours, I woke up, chanted mantras, said prayers, wrote in my journal, practiced breathing exercises and sat to meditate.  All of the fear, anger, distrust and resentment of recent weeks (due to a mugging and other trauma triggers) melted into pure, big-picture, heartfelt acceptance.  Everything made sense.  I felt peaceful and whole.

This collection of rituals is a simple 30-minute Sadhana (routine) that I like to practice every morning.  Today I realized that it’s been months since I’ve committed to these efforts on a daily basis.

In my experience, I can count on a daily reprieve from all kinds of “dis-ease” as long as I maintain my spiritual condition.  For someone like me – a trauma survivor who drowned pain and reality with alcohol for 25 years, and who has been undoing old patterns for the last eight years – that maintenance is essential to my ongoing growth away from my past and toward a healthy future.  Daily Sadhana guarantees that I will be liberated of self-centeredness, grounded in peacefulness and therefore available to serve others.

Yoga is the umbrella for all of my maintenance efforts.  During my yoga teacher training, we studied the six branches of Integral Yoga – Hatha (primarily poses, breathing, cleansing), Raja (philosophy, ethics, mindfulness), Jnana (reflection, self-inquiry, analysis), Karma (selfless service), Japa (mantra repetition) and Bhakti (devotion to and worship of a higher power).  In the Yoga Sutras, we hear, “Yogas Chitta Vritti Nirodhah” – yoga negates disturbances of the mind.  Therefore,  the goal of yoga is to cultivate a peaceful mind.  IY founder Swami Satchidananda believes, “There are many ways to reach the same goal. Whatever you call it, it is called Yoga.”

Indeed, it’s all yoga.

When I say that I have abandoned my yoga practice, I don’t just mean that I haven’t been going to class or practicing poses. I mean that I have not been greeting the day with chants, prayers, reflection, breath work, meditation.  I have not been ending the day by reading positive literature, making a gratitude list, praying for others.  In between rising and bedtime, I have not been serving as I could.  I have not been well enough to show up for others.  And I most certainly have not been surrendering to a higher power.

And so, right here, right now, I take the first step toward a solution and admit – I have fallen off the wagon.

“The origins of this phrase lie in the 1800s, with the temperance movement. During this era, many people felt that alcohol was an extremely harmful substance, and they abstained from alcohol while encouraging others to do the same. The term references the water wagons which were once drawn by horses to water down dirt roads so that they did not become dusty. Members of the temperance movement said that they would sooner drink from a water wagon than touch a drop of alcohol, so when someone failed to keep a temperance pledge, people would say that he or she had fallen from the wagon.”  – http://www.wisegeek.com/

For me, daily Sadhana is the “water wagon” that keeps me from falling back into all sorts of unhealthy habits.  And I intend to jump back on that wagon the moment I press “Publish” on this Post.  Because, with You as my witness, a publicly stated intention will be hard to break.

Wish me luck.  OM Shanti.

 

Focus: Yoga In Action – Acceptance September 4, 2010

This brought me to the good healthy realization that there were plenty of situations left in the world over which I had no personal power… – Bill Wilson, “As Bill Sees It”

I’ve just returned from an intentionally slow walk down the hill, to the creek, and back.  I paused to lean against a bridge railing and watch the creek ripple then swirl then ripple again.  Bugs traveled along the railing’s highway, detouring to the underside when encountering my resting arms.  Leaves dropped and danced their way to the water.  I was silent.

Clearly I have no personal power over nature’s course, I observed.  I felt relieved.  Because I am just a small part of that process.  I must accept that there is much beyond my control.

This morning, I really needed that slow and silent walk.  Yesterday (Wednesday) there was a hostage situation at my former employer, Discovery Communications, in nearby Silver Spring, MD.  I happened to be in Silver Spring at that time, giving a talk to a 12-step recovery group.  The talk’s theme?  Acceptance.  Of all things.

I didn’t know exactly why I was stuck in unmoving traffic after the talk. Judging by the variety and number of law enforcement vehicles and officers along the roads, I guessed it was something quite threatening.  And because Discovery is the only fairly controversial and very high-profile organization in downtown Silver Spring, I guessed it was there.

Where did my mind go?  To the fact that I needed to be back downtown in 30 minutes for a business meeting with someone whose phone number I did not have.  Yup.  Completely self-centered!  I was worried.  At the same time, I was pretty darn patient in traffic, understanding that the magnitude of the situation would not warrant any fast movements or clever detours.  I also considered the number of people inconvenienced and changing directions at that very moment.  I listened to the radio awaiting the news, sat up straight and breathed.

I accepted the situation and therefore was able to feel peaceful in the moment, rather than disturbed by worry and lack of control over the situation.

Referring back to our opening quote from Bill Wilson, and the idea of acceptance, which in yoga is known as Samtosha

Acceptance means letting go of expectations, plans, wishes and such for the sake of cultivating a peaceful mind – which we learn from Patanjali’s Sutras, is the goal of yoga.  I inch toward acceptance using two tools. I write a gratitude list nightly; this helps me focus on the gifts in my life and let go more easily of the disappointments.  In addition, I try to look at the BIG picture – if my little plans do not work out as I wish, perhaps it’s because conditions had to be right for someone else’s day to work out.

Wednesday, the day worked out differently than many imagined. In the Discovery situation, three people experienced how it feels to be held hostage.  A company of about 1900 utilized their oft-practiced emergency drill procedures for a true emergency.  Hundreds of drivers and travelers were delayed.  And Discovery’s intruder was killed by police.

That night, we dedicated our Yoga In Action self-care practice to all of these people.  We reflected on whether we can accept that there is much beyond our control. We explored whether we can accept that people who inflict pain are often in pain themselves.  We brought in as much self-care as possible in an attempt to reduce pain – in ourselves and others.

Maybe this is a stretch, connecting hostage situations and yoga.  But to me, any opportunity to share compassion and practice care is a chance to practice Yoga In Action.

OM Shanti.