The Urban Yoga Den

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My Mother is My Guru November 2, 2011

Mom’s been on my mind a lot lately.

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

I miss her.  I miss her right now.

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

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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.

 

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.)