The Urban Yoga Den

…where it's all yoga.

Yoga Class Focus: Foundations for Freedom July 2, 2014

During June, my class focus was “Foundations.” I told students that I felt like I was starting over as a teacher, after a 7-month absence from the Washington, DC yoga community. So together, we started from scratch.

September 2013 "farewell" party with DC teachers and students. Little did we know, I'd be back in 7 months!

September 2013 “farewell” party with DC teachers, students, friends. Little did we know, I’d move back from Nashville after 7 months!

Each practice, we arrived together. With the Eight Limbs as our guide, we observed and then shaped our thoughts, our physical being, our breath and our senses. We meditated on Sankalpa (deep intention or purpose), and then chanted OM to transition into Asana. We flowed through six traditional Integral Yoga sun salutations, focusing on each of the 1st three Chakras for two repetitions.

Always, we set these foundations of the Limbs, Sankalpa and the Chakras. And OM. That essential syllable that syncs up the room’s vibrations.

And then the practice opened up for variety. One week we explored Yoga Sutra 1.2: “Yogas Chitta Vritti Nirodhah” (“yoga calms the mind’s disturbances”) with a heart-centered set. Another time it was Sutra 2.46: “Sthira Sukham Asanam” (“postures are both steady and easeful”) with a set of strong lunges and chair poses. Next we deepened our Pranayama (breath work) and Dharana (meditation) skills. Finally, we wrapped up the month with the story of Shiva, the original yogi (or, the O.G. – Original Guru, LOL) and an intensive on twists.

The beautiful morning light at my yoga HOME in DC: Embrace Yoga.

The beautiful morning light at my yoga HOME in DC: Embrace Yoga.

And yes, we practiced twisting from the foundation of the spine.

Personally, I cannot imagine practicing yoga without these foundational elements. Therefore, I certainly cannot imagine teaching without them, either.

I feel extremely grateful that my teacher, Faith Hunter, invited me back to my twice-weekly sunrise yoga slots and sub regularly at her studio, Embrace Yoga DC after I returned to DC in March. June was, indeed, a fresh start for my teaching. And thanks to my students, my personal practice is also rejuvenated.

Our July class focus is “Freedom.” For Asana, we will build on last week’s twisting set, and explore how physical mechanics can liberate the body for safety and ease, plus, strength and stamina. Conceptually, we’ll discover the Yoga Sutras’ keys to freedom from resentment…freedom from attachment…freedom from whatever trips us up, pushes us down or holds us back.

In fact, my July 4th “Declaration of Independence” class, 10-11:30am at Embrace, addresses exactly that: What do I want to be free of in order to live my truth? As the amazing 70s soul band Funkadelic said, “Free your mind…and your a** will follow,” brilliantly illustrating how Sankalpa (shaping the thoughts) should always proceed Vinyasa (flowing yoga poses). Heeheehee. Join us on Friday and witness the proof.

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

 

Putting On My Big Girl (Yoga) Pants July 7, 2013

I AM FUCKING AWESOME.

Yup.  Those are the words that recently rang clear as the Liberty Bell, at the tail end of a particularly freeing Ganesha-themed practice, when the teacher invited us to place our hands over our hearts and affirm the truth of who we are.

I am fucking awesome.

This – one day after feeling that I was failing my 85-year-old father, that I was an embarrassment to his community, that I was a burden to my family.  This – one day after a near stranger’s opinion of my family and me drove my self-esteem into the ground.  This – one day after wrestling my anger, my self-loathing, my anger, my self-loathing.  This – one day after completely losing hope.

I am fucking awesome.

My god, yoga is a mighty transformer.  Jai Ganesha!

*  *  *

OFF THE MAT, DOWN TO NASHVILLE

A week before Father’s Day, I received an e-mail from my dad’s Rabbi in Nashville about a serious concern.  (Referenced in my last post, Holly Go Lightly).  Thankfully, it was not about Dad’s physical health – at 85, the man is strong as an ox.  However, the e-mail did reveal a matter requiring urgent attention.  I was already scheduled to visit for Father’s Day – therefore, I was already preparing for a week of emotional ups and downs (par for the course with family visits), and, a lot of physical service work (my sister and I were planning to tackle some major tasks around my dad’s house).

If ever there was a time when my yoga practice would kick into action “off the mat” – it was surrounding this Nashville trip and the tough news received prior.  I tapped into the reserve of my 20 year practice, dug into the resources of my yoga toolbox, and, surrendered to the guidance of great teachers.

11HoopsMegFaithHolly(cropped)

Meg, Faith and me, DC’s Yoga On The Mall, spring 2013. (Photo: Rob Beifus)

I attended my DC teacher Faith Hunter’s workshop on Chakras 1-3 the weekend before my trip.  Nice timing on many accounts!  The workshop grounded me and boosted my confidence before two potentially nerve-wracking situations involving roots, relations and identity – my 30-year high school reunion that same evening, and then, the family visit.  Additionally, my 3rd Chakra, which usually looks grey and feels dull when I am working with it, burst into a vibrant, golden yellow during the closing Yoga Nidra.  Most notably, I gained incredible insight, relief and hope about the family dynamics that, over many decades, led straight to my father’s current hardship.

I took copious notes about suggested actions toward balancing the 1st three Chakras, and therefore, strengthening trust, acceptance and self empowerment.  In the margins of our worksheets, I wrote, “Follow up by adding Faith’s recommendations to my practice,” and then tucked the papers into my journal, to work with during my Nashville trip.

The week after the workshop, I attended four studio classes.  My home practice usually focuses on a meditative, slow flow.  However, to get through the many calls and e-mails regarding my father’s situation, and, to strengthen for the trip itself, I decided to attend more challenging Asana classes.  There’s nothing like frequent practice with trusted teachers to get mentally and physically prepared for potential challenges.  Thanks to Michael Peterson and Faith, I enjoyed some butt-kicking, sweat-drenching power Vinyasa practices that week – with two very mindful teachers.

*  *  *

DECISIONS, DECISIONS

When I received the Rabbi’s e-mail, the Father’s Day trip took on new meaning.  I would, truly, have to put on my big girl pants in order to face, address and be of service surrounding my father’s situation.  I would also have to evaluate my own life priorities.

I have been considering moving from DC to Nashville since about 2011.  My father’s overall health is declining at a natural pace; and over the next important years, I would like to be of service to him and my family.  Although my yoga teaching is active and fulfilling, it does not completely sustain my foundational well-being – which means I cannot sustain true service to my father.  Because my search for full-time work here has been dry as a bone, I have not been able to help financially, nor visit long enough to usefully make a difference in his well-being.

So for about two years, I have waffled back and forth.  DC, TN, DC, TN.

Before this recent trip, I resolved to not jump into any decisions – to simply witness my dad’s situation, and observe my flow of ideas, feelings, attitudes and actions.  I also vowed to, upon returning home, meditate, visualize and discern about what I witnessed while down there.  And by July 1st, decide – DC or TN?

I arrived in Nashville on Father’s Day.  My sister and I teamed up to make a plan for the week.  She and I became true allies for my father’s best interest; and, our relationship strengthened as well.  We accepted help from the Rabbi’s suggested helpers, and all together, we tackled the to-do list!

By mid-week, we accomplished a lot – for example, on Tuesday, after taking dad to an appointment, we returned to the house for some serious yard work.  At times, I thought my arms would fall off.  I wasn’t sure I had to strength to continue.  But I kept repeating to myself, “My arms extend from my heart center.  I’m doing this work from my heart.”  I seriously think I found the strength in my heart – the 4th Chakra – because my 3rd Chakra was so energized from Faith’s workshop.  Three hours and many bushes wacked later, my hands were vibrating from the electric hedge cutters – and my heart was vibrating from helping someone I love.

Wednesday morning, on the way to yoga class with one of my Nashville teachers, Amy Barnes, I listened to a voice mail from the evening before.  I was invited to interview for a job I’d applied to in DC.  Wow.  By description, the job is ideal: a historically reputable non-profit organization that assists youth in my own neighborhood – the neighborhood and youth that are so dear to me – needs a Student Support Specialist to motivate young adults along their journey from high school or GED to higher education and/or career opportunities.

I couldn’t help but wonder: Is the universe asking me to choose between serving my DC community, and, serving my own father in Nashville?

AmyHollyClip

Amy and me, Nashville’s Studio Dakini, fall 2012.

I simply asked.  Then I continued to witness and observe.  To open class, Amy explored the definitions of ambiguity: 1) Open to more than one interpretation; having a double meaning.  2) Unclear or inexact because a choice between alternatives has not been made.  (Ahem.)  We then chanted to Durga, the goddess of motherly protection.   (My mother is from Nashville.  Should I move to Nashville?)  I dived into the very high-energy, mandala-style class.  (Feelings of fresh creativity stirred within.  Should I take this job if offered?)  The practice included a great amount of opening the shoulders and reaching from the heart – and Amy reminded us: Grief and joy come from the same place.

I felt strong, I felt empowered, I felt alive.  And I did not make any decisions.

*  *  *

OBSTACLE OR EMPOWERMENT?

Friday was to be the grand finale of a very gratifying week.

My sister and I took Dad to the most important appointment on our list.  He would sign some urgent documents, and we would be done with our work.  Done!

Yet, due to a near stranger’s negative influence, my father changed his mind about signing the documents.  And then, this woman proceeded to insult our family and me.  The setback knocked me for a loop.  I almost lost it.  That afternoon, I had to use every tool in the book just to cool down – ranting to a friend, sitting in recovery fellowship meetings, soothing breathing, praying.  Ranting some more.  The resentment nearly consumed me.  Even at Shabbat services with my dad, it felt impossible to let go of my anger toward this person – and, the self-loathing that was triggered by her comments.

At yoga class the next morning, my other Nashville teacher, Raquel Bueno, serendipitously themed our practice around Ganesha: The Remover of Obstacles.  This elephant-headed god, known for clearing our paths of distraction and blocks, contains the sweet nectar of life in his big, round belly.  Although quite large, Ganesha is so spiritually light, he rides around on a mouse.

GulchGaneshaRaquel

Me and Raquel, Nashville’s Sanctuary Studio, spring 2013.

Raquel started by inviting us to dedicate our practice to something we need to release.  Instead of identifying something, I asked Ganesha to make me aware, and then dedicated my mind to the practice.  My teacher followed with a story that I’d never heard:  Ganesha and his mouse were coming home from a party, when a snake crossed their path.  The mouse felt spooked and threw Ganesha, whose big belly split open when he landed.  BAM, he lost his sweet nectar of life, which exploded everywhere.  Little by little, the mouse and him gathered the pieces and put them back into his belly – which wouldn’t stay closed.  So Ganesha took the snake and wrapped it around his belly, to contain the sweetness.

The point?  Obstacles can reveal what needs to be released; they can remind us of what needs to be nurtured; and they can help fortify our strengths.

The class – another innovative mandala practice – was playful and challenging.  I laughed at myself quite a bit.  Toward the end, we squatted into a deep Goddess Pose, threw our arms outward, and folded forward with a forcefully exhaled “HAH!”  As we did this, Raquel cheered, “Let go of what needs to be released!”  Without any forethought, I HAH-ed out FEAR AND DOUBT.  And then, OTHER PEOPLE’S OPINIONS OF ME.

I immediately remembered the lemon-yellow dress of the woman who insulted our family the day before.  The woman who stole my hope for securing my father’s well-being.  The woman who assassinated my character.  She was the obstacle.  At the same time, she’d released a fierce sense of alliance with and love for my family.  She’d awakened my belief in my self, and, in the work I am doing for my dad.  As these thoughts flowed through my mind, I envisioned myself wrapping the yellow dress around my 3rd Chakra – my belly – to contain and nurture this sense of identity among my family and within me.  At the end of our deep relaxation, I placed my hands over my heart center and affirmed the truth:

I am fucking awesome.

*  *  *

SYNCHRONICITY

On the flight back to DC, I realized I’d not revisited my notes from Faith’s Chakra workshop.  I looked at the worksheets, which included ideas like: “Start each day slowly, taking time to feel the feet on the earth upon awakening.”  “Ask for help and identify your allies.”  “Dance!”  “Try powerful Asana and energetic Vinyasa yoga.”  “Write down how cool you are, and why you are so cool.”

I am fucking awesome!  And, my teachers – who somehow synced up – are, too!  (And not just my yoga teachers – sometimes, the greatest lessons emerge from near strangers with harsh opinions.  Ahem.)

This morning I attended my 1st class with Faith since before my trip.  Musically, she drew upon empowering chants to Ram and the sassiness of Big Mama Thornton to churn out a rockin’, sweaty practice.  At times I thought my arms would fall off…and then I remembered that my arms extend from my heart center…and…I rested.

I allowed my heart to rest.

*  *  *

OH, GROW THE “F” UP!

There’s nothing like a family emergency to make me wake up and grow up.  And it’s about time – I’ll turn 48 at the end of this month.  After this last Nashville trip, I felt…matured.  I am aging, and I welcome it.  Responsibility is life, and life is responsibility.  None of this family stuff is off-the-charts shocking – everything that is happening with my dad is simply a natural part of life.

Because I earnestly hope for the best outcome with my approaching job interview here in DC, I’ve allowed my July 1st decision deadline to pass.  This Sunday night, the New Moon rises and I’ll start my monthly 24-hour fast; Monday morning, I’ll begin a morning ritual of singing 108 “Asato Ma” chants through the Full Moon; and Tuesday is the job interview.  Soon after, decisions will be made.

Dad and me, Nashville, Father's Day 2013.

Dad and me, Nashville, Father’s Day 2013.

So the discernment about everything that occurred – as well as everything I felt, sensed, thought and witnessed on my Father’s Day Nashville trip – continues.  As does the discernment about my opportunities and observations here in DC.  However, I will openly admit something.  When I think about leaving DC for Nashville, I used to say, “I should move to Nashville,” or, “I think I have to move to Nashville.”  Lately, the language has changed.  “I want to move to Nashville.”

More will be revealed.

May life continue to bring the eye-openers that spark me to draw upon all of my teachers’ guidance.  And may I trust that, with help, I can show up for myself and for others, with strong roots, relations and identity.  OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

 

Holly Go Lightly June 15, 2013

Filed under: Inspiration,Philosophy,Spirituality — Holly Meyers @ 5:56 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

Image“There is a light and it never goes out.”  ~ Morrissey

*  *  *

There’s some drilling or sanding or sawing going on in one of the apartments beneath me; and it’s piercing enough to make my skull feel like there’s a dentist office in its core.

I’m using all of my yoga tools to navigate this minor annoyance.  Slowing my breathing into three parts through the nostrils; listening to the whisper of each inhale and exhale; releasing the tension in my jaw with each breath out.  I’m also tapping into the Somatic Experiencing Therapy practices I’ve learned in my PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) treatment.  Softly focusing my eyes on the room around me, feeling the contact of both feet on the floor, observing sensations in my body.

PTSD exercises to address some bothersome construction noise?  Well, yes – because before this morning’s noise came last week’s bad news.  And I’ve been in and out of my body ever since.  Trauma includes experiencing, witnessing and/or absorbing violation or shock.  Responses to trauma vary, and can include physical pain and dissociation.  So last week, when I was blindsided by some tough news about a loved one’s hardship, my body tightened to the point of deep pain.  And I checked out.  I checked out of my body.  (This response, BTW, can happen to anyone, not just trauma survivors.)

Since last week, I’ve jumped into action to respond to the situation, and, I’ve committed to a healthy amount of self-care for stress relief.  Still, there are times when small annoyances – such as unexpected and seemingly endless piercing noises – can increase stress and consequently trigger the physical check out.

Hence the yoga and Somatic practices in response to this morning’s noise.  Because I need to feel my fingers in order to type.

*  *  *

“Murdha jyotishi siddha darsanam.”

Aphorism III.33 in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (one of yoga’s primary ancient guides) describes a light at the crown of the skull, which – after steady practice of concentration and meditation, and, a consequent liberation of the mind – illuminates great knowledge, lessons, teachers, masters.

I’d prefer to have a light in my skull than the sensation of a dentist’s drilling!  Thus the importance, for me, of practicing yoga’s Eight Limbs, and, including Chakra-based Hatha Yoga exercises.  Beyond the instant gratification of simply getting on a mat and moving my body, Chakra work and the Limbs offer me long-term solutions for life off the mat.

As described above, through the practices of Dharana (the 6th limb, concentration) and Dhyana (7, meditation), we can reach Samadhi (8, liberation).  Clearly, though, there are five limbs before these final three.  I believe that when the Eight Limbs are practiced in order – either within one session of yoga practice, or, as applied to specific life situations – they become a journey from the basic human condition of challenge, distraction and frustration to the liberated state of enjoying an easeful body, peaceful mind and useful life.

The first two limbs have nothing to do with the physical exercise that most consider as “yoga.”  The Yama (1, things to abstain from) and Niyama (2, things to practice more of) invite us to consider values-based or ethical intentions.  Only then, after setting intentions for how we want to behave toward ourselves and others, do we step into Asana (3, poses).  Once the foundational bodily systems – the digestion; the organs; the nerves; the joints and muscles; and everything in between – are stimulated, balanced and strengthened through physical exercise, the body presents fewer obstacles to mental focus.  In addition, after Asana, our lungs are primed for Pranayama (4, breath regulation), which connects our physical attunement to our ability to concentrate.  There are many forms of Pranayama, and they are all designed to decrease distractions such as emotional imbalance (anxiety, anger, etc.), environmental discomfort (heat, cold), and even fatigue.

Through Asana and Pranayama – or, Hatha Yoga – the Chakras can be activated.  Chakra work is part of Ayurveda, India’s traditional medical system.  Loosely described, Chakras are energy centers throughout the body, which affect our physical and psychological functions and well being.  In yoga, we primarily explore seven Chakras along the top half of the body, from the tailbone to the peak of the skull.  As with the Limbs, I believe that our Chakra work is progressive – through poses and breath work, we initially activate the energy at the base of the spine, and then make efforts to raise that vibration to the crown of the head.  In the first three Chakras, we visit our basic foundations of origins (tailbone), connections (sacrum) and identity (belly).  In the next three Chakras, we ascend through our higher centers of passion (heart), expression (throat) and intuition (forehead).  The crown Chakra represents an energy of great clarity and illumination.

This is an extremely simplified description of the Chakras.  Chakra work also includes Ayurvedic diet, “Kriyas” and many related practices, and, would take an entirely separate blog (and much additional study) to describe.  I highly recommend attending Chakra-focused classes and workshops to learn more and feel the profound affects of using poses and breath work to become physically and emotionally balanced.

Getting back to the Eight Limbs – Pratyahara (5, senses regulation) comes prior to the aforementioned trifecta of Dharana/Dhyana/Samadhi (6, 7 & 8), takes many forms of practice and addresses sensitivity to external distraction.  So, by the time we reach Dharana, we have deliberately pointed the mind, awakened the body and shaped the breath toward intention; the senses have softened; and concentration can deepen.  When our single-pointed focus deepens to the point where we no longer concentrate on something, but actually experience it, we have crossed the line to Dhyana.  For example, when silently repeating a word or mantra, such as “Peace” or “Shanti,” at some point, the meditator may actually begin to feel peaceful.

Ahhh, the 8th Limb…Samadhi.  My favorite way for describing Samadhi, or, liberation, is to compare it to “The Zone.”  When an athlete is “in The Zone,” she has finely-tuned her practice with such resolute intention and action that she no longer has to think about her feet, her arms, her technique, her pace, the goal post, the plate, etc.  When in The Zone, she becomes one with her purpose and easily flows toward it.

The Patanjali’s Sutras prescribe practicing yoga much like a disciplined athlete prepares to perform – consistently, over a long period of time and with total earnestness.  As we say in addiction recovery programs, the steps are in order for a reason – and so are the limbs and the Chakras.  We grow through each; we take two steps forward and one step back; and if we have an issue with one limb/Chakra, we can retreat to the previous for its wisdom and strength.

*  *  *

I just spent the month of May digging into our class focus on “Light,” and exploring Sutra III.33 and the Chakras.  The timing was perfect.  Because when I got punched in the gut by bad news last week, although initially rocketed into anxiety and worry, I was able to navigate toward solution and action.  I posted a vague update on Facebook and then stayed off for a day.  I drew upon all of my healthiest resources (which, due to my history of trauma, extend way beyond yoga alone) and was able to – despite extreme stress – show up for life.

The evening after receiving the news, I jumped onto Facebook to check in…

“Hello out there. I am hopping onto FB to thank everyone for responding to last night’s post with messages, texts, comments and calls. I feel your support, care and love.
Last night I received blindsiding news about a serious situation in a dear one’s life. It is not a health situation; it is, however, a very private situation. And it will demand a lot of my energy, immediately and over the coming months.

“Yoga, Judaism, addiction recovery, spirituality, mindfulness, intentional living…thankfully, all of these wonderful influences fuel me with everything I need to get through any situation. And I feel comforted to know that, if I run out of fuel, the community that has emerged from my life circles will lend me some of theirs. I am so, so grateful.

“You are probably familiar with the airlines’ brilliant philosophy to ‘put your own mask on before attempting to help those around you.’  I am taking action toward simplification, fortification and self-care. For example, a visit to the chiropractor and a heart-opening practice with my teacher got me back into my body this morning. Plus, I ditched my current Ayurvedic cleanse/New Moon fast plans and am diving into healthy sustenance…ok…and some comfort food…! And sadly, I had to cancel/postpone some of my volunteer projects; but I am still hoping to serve in simple ways. Because being of service not only supports others – when I am struggling, it truly strengthens me.

“I am neck-deep in calls and e-mails and action about this situation; so please forgive me if I haven’t responded to your messages. Again, thank you for reaching out. I will reach back as soon as I can, because I treasure you and want to connect. Sending so much love. OM Shanti.”

*  *  *

Approaching yoga through the Eight-Limbed journey – particularly when we reach Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi – we are promised an “everyday enlightenment.”  Through consistent focus on, attention to and respect for the Eight Limbs and constant awareness of Chakra energy, I’ve enjoyed longer and longer periods of union with my highest values, therefore supporting sustained ease, peace and service.

I aim to access that light at the crown of my skull, not for the sake of being higher or better or separate from other yogis or beings, rather, in order to find my teachers, discover my lessons, deepen my knowledge and work toward mastering my craft of living life on life’s terms.  For me, the teachers have appeared in many different forms – including tough experiences.  Phew!  Thank goodness, after a long life of hardships, I became willing to learn; and I have discovered a valuable lesson from every challenge.  Over time, I have learned how to apply yoga, related resources and an eclectic toolbox to address all of life’s annoyances, traumas and tough news.

Today, I can walk lightly despite very heavy realities.  And may you, as well.  OM Shanti.

*  *  *

“Lead me from that which is false, dark and temporary to that which is true, light and everlasting.”  ~ Hindu Prayer
“I stood in the sunlight at last.”  ~ Bill Wilson, Co-Founder of Alcoholics Anonymous
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  ~ John 1:5
“Blessed are You, L
ORD, Who creates the lights of the fire.”  ~ Jewish Prayer
“May the light of truth overcome all the darkness.”  ~ Integral Yoga Prayer