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.

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Be A Yogi August 15, 2011

Graduation bliss - me, Sam & Linda at the Ashram.

When I graduated from my Yoga Teacher Training at the Integral Yoga Academy, I heard a lot of advice.

  • Make a list of all the potential places you could teach – not just studios, but other spaces.
  • Market your classes in this way or that way.
  • Remember that not all yoga instructors can make a living teaching.
  • And so on.

But the most important tidbit, to me, came from one of the teaching assistants.

“Be a yogi.”

I had just spent four weeks living at the Satchidananda Ashram; rising before dawn; practicing daily Asana, Pranayama and meditation; studying yoga philosophy; eating a pure vegetarian diet; and wrestling with my humanness amongst the sacredness of yoga.  Despite discomfort and challenge at times, I was grateful for every minute of it.

To be a yogi is ALL that I yearned for.

When I returned home, I didn’t even intend to teach right away.  I offered free classes in my little studio apartment (“The Urban Yoga Den”) to stay in practice.  And then an opportunity to start a yoga program at DC’s SAIL Public Charter School arose.  Once that assignment wrapped up with the end of the school year, I was ready to look for work teaching adults.  Just down the street from me, a new yoga studio called Past Tense was opening.  And in July 2010, I started teaching three weekly classes there.

On August 24th, I will end my stint at Past Tense to take an end-of-summer break from teaching (except for my three classes at Trinity University’s Fitness Center).  I am grateful to Past Tense for inviting me to pass on yoga to the Mt. Pleasant community over the last two years!  As you might have gathered from my last post, I have been sensing a need for change, pondering my integrity and prioritizing my well-being.  Leaving Past Tense will create a simplicity and spaciousness in my schedule, life and mind.  As my friend wished, “I pray that whatever occupies that space brings peace and joy.”  Me, too.

“The Urban Yoga Den” blog is all about living yoga off the mat and in my every day world.  So for now, rather than teaching a bunch of classes, I will be practicing more – on and off the mat.

One hope is to practice Karma Yoga by bringing morning Pranayama practice to the police officers that serve overnight in my neighborhood.  In October, I will travel to Philly for a Kirtan with Jai Uttal to awaken the Bhakti Yoga spirit; then I’ll bounce over to Easton Yoga for a two-day workshop with Max Strom.  In December, I will visit Sanctuary Yoga in Nashville for Seane Corn’s three-day “Detox Flow” workshop.  And in between, I will be here in DC, practicing with my beloved local teachers, until I find the next right fit for a teaching location.

But my biggest wish is to simply be able to walk down the street with an inner peace and joy that shapes my attitudes and actions.  That might mean embracing one or all of the many beautiful suggestions from my caring friends.   For example, practicing “Samtosha” (contentment with exactly what is – i.e. acceptance of and compassion for my own humanness), sending myself Metta (sending myself loving-kindness and well-wishing), and basically, not being so hard on myself.  It also might mean re-committing to the routines that without fail nourish my inner peace and joy.  It also might mean falling off the yoga wagon and getting on again – and off and on again.

Because I realize to be a yogi is to – simply and honestly – be me.

I hope to see and hear from you as I take the steps to re-embrace my core motivation to Be A Yogi.

Wishing you peace, joy, love and light.  OM Shanti.

 

Healing Kids’ Scars With Yoga July 12, 2011

I grew up in the suburbs of Washington, DC – Potomac, MD to be exact.

Potomac was once known as “The Beverly Hills of the East Coast.”  The town was quite wealthy and had its own brand of celebrities – diplomats, politicians, famous doctors.  Yet there were some plain-old middle class neighborhoods, as well.  That’s where we lived.

I am the youngest of four daughters and was unplanned.  In fact, after the birth of her 3rd girl, my mom had a tubal ligation (aka “had her tubes tied”)…and then I was conceived.  So there’s about 0.02% chance for me to be writing this today.  Yet here I am.

My family members struggled with addiction and endured all that comes with it – violence, chaos, depression, alienation, economic insecurity.  As a young child, I once overheard my parents fighting about family finances.  They said that if I were never born, they wouldn’t have money problems.

This scar has motivated pretty much all of my life patterns (known in yoga as Samskara) – particularly the unhealthy ones.

Believing that I was an unwanted problem, I grew up with a pretty fierce habit of self-destruction.  I’ll spare you the squirmy details of how I used to harm myself and act out.  Due to the amount of pain throughout my entire family, however, there was little attention to or solution for mine.

Once a spiritually inspired, congenial and loving child, I turned into a self-reliant, isolated and troubled teen.  Without the necessary interventions for healing and true growth, I continued my toxic development into adulthood.  No relationship tools, no career path, no future plans.  To be rigorously honest – I spent most of my life either wanting to or trying to die in one way or another.

In my late 20’s, I started to long for inner peace, social connection and maturity.  After finally hitting a spiritual, psychological and physical bottom in 2002, I embraced the right combination of help and have been growing up ever since.

In 2008, I received my yoga teaching certification after 15 years of practice.  My 1st job was designing a yoga program for at-risk youth in a DC public charter school for grades K-7.  The kids were literally climbing the walls.  I once had to yank some down from scaling the hallways by way of door frames.  You might imagine how they initially responded to the yoga program – and to me.  They saw me as a privileged outsider and offered no respect.  To shrink the great divide, I frankly told them about my childhood and consequent adult challenges.  Jaws dropped.  I told them, “If only I’d had the opportunity to escape the chaos inside my classroom, my home and my head to breath, stretch and meditate for one class period, I might have grown up differently.”  Although not all attitudes shifted, a few students opened their minds and hearts and practiced with commitment.  And I enjoyed the incredible honor of witnessing human transformation.

I relate to a great number of inner city kids – we share that core wound of being told in one way or another that we are an unwanted problem.  This brokenness manifests in a variety of destructive behaviors and outcomes.  It fills the streets, supermarkets, buses and trains as urban children endure public shaming and beatings.

In the suburbs, this brokenness and abuse exists behind closed doors.

Like many “do-gooders” I used to focus on working with inner-city populations.  These days I gravitate toward suburban upstarts like me.  Each July and August I teach yoga and percussion to grades 1-6 for a prestigious music school’s summer camp, just four miles from the house where I grew up.  There is a mix of well-adjusted children, kids going through typical growing pains, and others who resemble my own childhood patterns of fear, depression, anxiety, shame, isolation, distraction and destruction.  It is at once heartbreaking and motivating.

I am devoted to the transformational power of ensemble percussion and yoga.  I discovered these amazing practices in adulthood and feel grateful to pass-on their benefits to these summer camp kids.  While learning folkloric Caribbean poly-rhythms, campers open up to team work and trust.  I see the loners gradually shine with talent, the divas turn into helpful guides and the trouble makers take leadership roles.  In yoga class, spazzy and often hyperactive energy transmutes into meditative calm.  Kids who already love and practice yoga (there are more each year) champion the practice; and the troubled ones get a welcome respite from their internal unrest.  In both percussion and yoga class, all are empowered by collaboration and rejuvenation.

I rarely turn yoga into a game for my youth classes (except for the really little guys).  We start class with calming three-part breathing; we set an intention/Sankalpa (typically I ask them to think of something beautiful and breathe it into their hearts); we flow through Sun Salutations/Surya Namaskar; and we practice additional poses depending on the energy of the students.  I have led Pratyahara meditations to balance out the senses and decrease distraction; I have read stories of Hindu deities to much delight; and I have introduced breathing exercises/Pranayama (three-part Deergha Swasam calms them immediately; over-the-tongue Sitali cools hot tempers; belly-pumping Kapalabhati wakes them up when lethargic).

Basically, whatever I teach in my adult classes, I also teach in my kids classes.  Below are a few stories of transformation.  I credit yoga for these stories; I’m simply sharing what centuries of teachers have passed on to each other.

Story #1.  Erik, 11-years-old.

During my time at the DC public charter school, I had an 11-year-old student named Erik.  He was one of those kids I had to peel down from high climbs.  When we started group yoga sessions in January he couldn’t follow directions, stay on his mat or concentrate for a second.  He was constantly looking around, hyper-vigilant and completely distracted.  With good reason – his home life was chaotic and violent.  So I recognized his acting out from my own youth.  After three months of weekly yoga, Erik became more eager to participate in yoga, and was able to concentrate most of the time.  On Friday, March 20th, we decided he would assistant-teach our first class upon returning from Spring Break.  Tragically, Erik and his family were murdered by his mother’s boyfriend the next day.

Erik’s destiny was way beyond my control.  It is bittersweet to recall his transformation through yoga’s gifts; I still access this inspiration and hope when teaching yoga to other youth.

Story #2.  Alyson, 10-years-old.

Another student from that Charter School is still a “private client” today.  Back in Spring 2009, “Alyson” awakened after I’d told the kids my life story.  She bee-lined directly to me and said, “You know how you said that yoga helps you heal emotional pain?  Can I do more yoga with you?”  How honest and revealing!  Alyson excelled in all of her school activities and seemed pretty mature; yet, she frequently set herself apart from classmates.  I soon learned that Alyson’s parents were in serious trouble and she was being raised by her grandparents, who encouraged her to do well.  I was happy that she had support; at the same time, I wondered how it felt to lose one’s parents and end up with another family member.  Since the end of that school year, Alyson’s grandmother has brought her to my home about four times a year for a seasonal yoga “tune-up,” during which we catch up on her latest challenges, and practice a yoga set designed to address those stresses.

Over time, I have witnessed Alyson develop into a graceful young woman and tool-using yogini!

Story #3.  Billy.  11-years-old.

Just last Friday, “Billy” freaked out during Games Day at summer camp.  Billy is a super-smart, overly-eager, talkative camper.  More than others, he needs to be heard, he needs to be recognized as doing well – and he tends to dominate and monopolize the class because of these needs.  Last week, in the Bean Bag Toss, he just could not hit the target.  With each miss, his exclamations became more and more dramatic, and included remarks of great self-disgust.  On his third try (and miss) he yelled “F***!” and stomped off to hide behind some bushes.  “Whoa,” I intervened.  “Let’s take a walk.”  During our stroll, I listened.  Billy was angry because he’d forgotten his water bottle; and he was feeling like he couldn’t do anything right.

He was over-heated, over-sensitive and losing it.  I totally related!

While we headed inside for water, I took yoga’s Pratipaksha Bhavana approach and encouraged him to replace his negativity about Games Day with positive thoughts about his many musical accomplishments.  In fact, I reminded Billy, I’d just paid him a huge complement in front of the entire class that very morning.  He embraced this immediately, saying, “You’re right; this is just one thing,” referring to the bean bags.  Then, on the way back outside, we practiced Sitali Pranayama (inhaling through the mouth and over the tongue; exhaling through the nose) to cool his temper.  It worked.  Billy happily joined the campers and jumped right into the next game.

I wouldn’t dare guess whether these children are/were hurting the same way I did at their age.  However, I vividly recall killing my emotional pain with alcohol at age 11.  So, I can’t help but wonder – what if I’d been exposed to yoga in childhood, instead of finally discovering it (and other healing resources) in adult life?

In the inner city and the outer suburbs, I teach yoga so any child who feels like an unwanted problem might find refuge in and strength through these ancient practices for stilling the mind.  “Yogas Citta Vritti Nrodhah,” I tell them.  Yoga restrains disturbances of the mind.  I pray that these generously healing practices might liberate all hurting children from the pain of family or community chaos before their Samskara mirror mine.

Wishing all beings peace, joy, love and light.  OM Shanti.

 

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.