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Peaceful Warrior April 2, 2012

“Meditate.  Meditate that the truth will come out.  The whole truth.”  – Civil Rights Activist Dick Gregory at a DC Rally for Trayvon Martin

*  *  *

At the end of my last blog, I promised to report back after the “Stand Up for Trayvon Martin Justice Rally” here in DC.

Leaders from the media, politics, churches, schools and civil rights groups spoke from the steps of a federal building.

Since last Saturday’s rally, I have been meditating on my truth about the situation.  I have started and stopped writing this blog a million times.  I have immersed myself in the news stories, social media, shouted opinions.  I have observed the range of emotion; I have considered many opinions.

I have pondered why this situation is so important to me.  I have come to peace with my own heart-felt perspective.

So what is my truth?

Any killing – of any person, by any person, by any means, in any environment, under any circumstances – saddens me beyond description.

I am not a behavioral scientist.  But I have some firm beliefs about human behavior based on my experience as a witness, victim and – yes – instigator of much too much violence spanning my 46 years on this planet.  So I know from experience: The impulse to commit harm comes from great pain, fear and/or hatred.  And it breaks my heart to know how much pain, fear and hatred there is in our world.

I have no way of categorizing Trayvon Martin’s killing.  I don’t know the details of what happened.  I don’t know what motivated George Zimmerman.  But I know this: Whether it’s street crime, police action, hate crime, death row execution, involuntary manslaughter, war…when killing happens, I grieve the death of two beings.  I grieve the loss of the dead; and equally, I grieve the deadening of the killer’s soul.

Nobody escapes violence unscarred.  Not the victim, not the observer, not the instigator.  Not the families, the cops, the rescue workers, the undertakers.  Everyone is traumatized.  It has taken deep, difficult and committed work to look squarely in the face of the history of violence in my life, to understand it, to grieve it and to heal from it.  I survived and I remain scarred.  So I have a choice: to

The crowd looked like a "big ol' bag of Skittles" to spirited rally MC Reverend Tony Lee.

dwell in the pain of past actions around me, against me and by me, and allow that pain to rule my behavior in community, toward others and toward myself…or…

…to cultivate an inner peace by moving forward with a new perspective, firm beliefs and deliberate actions against violence.

*  *  *

I feel that my primary purpose is to utilize practices and resources to sustain my own inner peace and outward peacefulness, and to share those practices and resources with others who have experienced the pain of violence.

In my adult life – particularly since examining my childhood, training to be a yoga teacher and discovering my purpose – I have felt drawn toward and concerned about the well-being of kids I teach, work with or live near.

In 2009, I grieved heavily over the deaths of two specific children: Eric Harper – an 11-year-old yoga student at the public school where I used to teach – who was killed by his mother’s boyfriend Joseph Randolph Mays (who is now serving 45 years for Eric’s, his brother’s and his mother’s murders); and Oscar Fuentes – a 9-year-old neighbor – who was killed by local gang member Josue Peña (who hung himself while in prison, shortly after Oscar’s death).

In addition, over the past few years, I have grieved the ceaseless gang hits, retribution killings and incarcerations of neighborhood youth.  I see these kids on the street one day; and the next day they are dead or in jail.

Again: I grieve the loss of the dead; and I grieve the deadening of the killers’ souls.

Each killing is motivated by pain, fear and/or hatred.  All of the killers – whether caught or not – will suffer/have suffered the tangible and emotional pains of consequence.  Plenty of people will harbor hatred and resentment toward the killers.  And the cycle of pain, hostility, violence and killing will continue.

Unless new perspectives are gained and peace becomes the priority.

*  *  *

Eric Harper’s death truly shook me.  I loved this little guy.  He was hyper-vigilant, fidgety and mischievous like I was at his age.  I could only imagine why.  When I was 11 (and there was no yoga in schools), I started using alcohol to dull the effects of living in violence.  The yoga seemed to help Eric a little bit.  The day before Spring Break – and the day before he was murdered – I asked Eric

There were hoodies of all sizes at the rally.

to “assistant teach” a yoga class when we got back to school.  During break, I went on a short tour with a band and received the bad news during the drive from Cleveland to Pittsburgh.  I can’t even remember who called me; clearly, someone from the school.  I got off the phone and said, “One of my students was murdered.”  The guys in the band responded with condolences.  They were not my close friends, so despite their kind attention, I felt alone in processing Eric’s death.

As soon as we got to Pittsburgh, I called a dear friend in DC and asked him to read me any media coverage he could find about the murders of Eric and his family.  My friend told me to sit down.  As I listened to the horrifying account of what happened, I sat on a curb and sobbed.  Eric’s defenselessness in the attacks killed me.  He did not have a chance.  It broke my heart to think of this poor child, trying to escape, trying to hide – but totally helpless.

When school re-opened after break, I spent the day roaming from classroom to classroom, offering grounding and breath-work lessons to accompany the crisis intervention professionals’ exercises.  Or I simply sat in the hallways consoling bunches of children crying into my lap.  That week we held a special yoga class for Eric.  The kids were wide-eyed as I cried.

How did I regain my peace?  How did I not harbor hatred and resentment?  How did I not feed the cycle of pain, hostility, violence and killing?

At the funeral service for Eric and his family, we heard some celebrations of the family’s lives…but mostly outbursts of anger, promises of retaliation, gut-wrenching guilt and more.  After the long line of emotionally charged testimonies, the pastor pacified us with the Serenity Prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”  We repeated this over and over and over and over and over…

Try it.  See if it brings peace where there is unrest.  For me, it works every time.

Hands were joined and raised in prayer and solidarity.

In addition, I used yoga’s many tools for maintaining peace despite all kinds of challenges – which I will blog about throughout April, during our monthly focus of “Peace.”

*  *  *

I now understand exactly what triggered me to awaken to the Trayvon Martin case.  When I listened to the 911-calls during an NPR story, I heard the howls and screams of a helpless being.  And I was triggered to recall the helplessness of a little being I’d known and loved.  Whose screams for help I never heard.

As I wrote before the DC Rally last week, I was nervous about keeping my cool in the midst of a very heated environment.  Once at the rally, I confidently walked to the front of the crowd; I patiently and tolerantly listened to some opinions that I disagreed with; I lovingly took the hands of fellow activists to pray; and I intuitively sensed that deep down, we were all there to express, share and be supported through shades of sadness and grief.

Afterward, a friend who knew I’d been anxious, and who witnessed my participation in the rally, texted me: “You are a peaceful warrior.”

And so I have taken my head out of the sand to find that my instinct regarding my role in “activism” has shifted a bit.  I serve best when I take action to get informed, when I show up when/where it makes sense, when I do my job to stay peaceful and when I work to share that peace with others.  My inclination is to pray.  Pray real hard.  Pray for the well-being of all involved and affected.

As Dick Gregory implored, I continue to meditate that the truth will come out about Trayvon Martin’s killing.

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

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Spiritual Activism November 3, 2010

“I don’t want to talk anything political, and will stick just to music and other art forms. There are instant super stars and they also fade away very quickly. What is it that gives the staying power? It is when you can communicate…to your listeners and touch their soul.” – Ravi Shankar

This past Saturday, you could hear a pin drop in my 200+ resident apartment building.  My entire neighborhood was as hushed as during a blizzard.  The “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” was in full throttle down the hill.  I was home, doing this and that.  My Facebook status read, “I am not at the rally.”  Two people “liked” it.

Today – on Election Day, three days after the Comedy Central rally and during a thick period of “activist” invitations via Facebook and e-mail – I am preparing my “Yoga Update” e-newsletter, wrapping up our September/October “Yoga In Action” class focus.

I’ll be frank – the term “yoga activism” is not my personal fave for describing how I might take my practice off the mat and into the world.  Born in DC in 1965 and having grown up here, the word “activism” reminds me of raised fists, raised voices and raised conflict.  I understand that folks want their values, their yearning for change and their messages to be seen and heard on a wide scale; yet I tried that “raising” in my college days and it just didn’t feel right.

Thanks goodness for yoga.  Through its “Karma Yoga,” “Seva” and “selfless service” teachings I have discovered my most comfortable and therefore effective venue for what I (and countless others) call “spiritual activism.”  What distinguishes it from “yoga activism?”

In recent years, many yoga organizations and practitioners have stretched Karma Yoga (or Seva) to a level of “activism,” offering trainings, organizing groups and sponsoring events that raise awareness about causes, purpose and service.  Over this time, I have observed four distinct ways that “yoga activism” manifests.

  1. Some yogis believe in their responsibility to participate in traditional activism (protests, rallies, petitions, campaigns, etc.) to carry messages;
  2. Some share their yoga with at-risk populations, having experienced their own transformation from the practice, and wanting to pass along those tools for change;
  3. Others see the yoga practice itself as a form of values-based activism – in other words, living a spiritual life is the activism.
  4. And others devote themselves to all of the above.

To me, anyone with sincere intentions to carry a message, inspire change and share values through their own attitudes and actions is a spiritual activist.  For me, #3 above is the most natural way for me to express my yoga in action.  In that spirit, I also do a fair amount of #2-like work.

Yoga’s ancient book of Sutras generously offers a design for living where my personal choices can be productive, useful and helpful.  The only thing I have to “raise” is my consciousness.  In this subtle venue, I can indeed be “seen” and “heard” – perhaps not by massive crowds, politicians and media, but definitely seen and heard.

Recently, the barrage of well-intended e-mails and Facebook campaigns, the swarm of do-good organization canvassers on every DC street corner and the excitement-driven pressure to “sign-on” started to feel as assaulting as uninvited telemarketer calls to me.  So I invite you to please let me know if I ever seem pushy or invasive about the things that inspire me.

I earnestly applaud yoga activists for expanding yoga’s purpose and reach.  Most of the time, I feel accepting of their way, my way, all ways.  I may not always hit the mark, but my intentions to live spiritually are strong and in-check.  Some may think I have my head in the sand; I think I have my head atop my neck, hovering above my heart center.

OM Shanti,

Shanti,

Shanti.

Peace,

Peace,

Peace.

 

Focus: Why Yoga? – Giving Back August 24, 2010

“When we are in pain, we become self-centered and myopic.  When we heal, we become more empathetic, self-less, and sympathetic to the pain and welfare of others.  It is our gift to others to heal ourselves.”  – Max Strom, writer and yoga instructor

The Bi-Monthly Focus in our yoga classes has been “WHY YOGA?” We spent July and August pondering why we come to the mat.  Since July was my birthday month, I reflected about how yoga has carried me through so many life challenges and celebrations since starting my practice in 1993.  And these days, how it allows me to give back to the world that has supported me along the way.

So tell me…why do you practice yoga?

Max’s quote (above) definitely describes my story – nearly two decades ago, pain brought me to yoga; and today, healing allows me to be of service to others.

At the same time, I don’t believe that pain is the only path that can lead a yogi toward a deeply generous practice.  In fact, I hope and pray that healthy and happy people flock to yoga for their own personal reasons.  And I believe that these fortunate people can be of great service when they bring their yoga off their mats and into their worlds.

Because no matter what brought us to yoga in the first place, or, what brings us to return over and over – if we are indeed practicing yoga’s Eight Limbs, and healing ourselves for the sake of reaching Samadhi (what I would describe as a oneness with all), we will inevitably be of service to those around us, in small and great ways.

For example, practicing any of the Yama or Niyama can make us so conscientious that we become more aware of the human condition.  Practicing Pranayama can make our immune system so strong that we are able to show up for work through the flu season.  Practicing Dharana can make us so calm that we end up practicing Ahimsa in the gnarliest of traffic!

What propels me to practice the Eight Limbs of yoga?  Personally, if I’m only practicing some of those limbs, my motives will be self-centered.  That’s just me.  Some people can just practice Asana and find it in their hearts to think of others.  Me?  If I’m just practicing Asana, I’m only thinking about what’s in it for me – my strong arms, my perfect alignment, my awesome balance.

The other day in Caroline Weaver’s Strong Hold Level 2 class, I felt like a million bucks.  Typically, I feel very physically challenged.  The difference?  Caroline asked us to set an intention for our practice.  I silently repeated my usual pre-class prayer, “I dedicate this class to you, my teacher, and to all of my teachers.”  Then Caroline up-ed the ante – she asked us to deepen our intention until something was at stake, basically.  Immediately I heard myself say,  “This is not for me, this is for You, this is for all.” I swear, this was the first thing that popped into my mind; and I repeated it through the entire set.  Despite the fact that Level 2 poses typically kick my butt, I had an easeful practice, full of light, smiles and even giggles at times.  I was propelled by the thought of helping others.

Above all, my motive must be gratitude. Gratitude for all that yoga has given me.  For this I feel a responsibility to share those gifts with others.

Call it Seva, call it Karma Yoga, call Yoga/Spiritual/Conscious Activism, or simply call it Giving Back.

So, for this final week of “WHY YOGA?” – our July/August Bi-Monthly Focus – we are exploring the evolution from self-centered motivations toward other-centric reasons.  How can we be of service by keeping ourselves well through and using the tools of yoga?  This will segue into our September/October Focus of “Yoga In Action” – a campaign that I’m leading for Off The Mat Into The World (www.offthematintotheworld.org) here in DC.  More later…

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.