The Urban Yoga Den

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How May I Serve You? August 12, 2014

“For as long as space endures and the world exists, may my own existence bring about the end of suffering in the world.”
– Shantideva (8th Century Indian Buddhist Scholar)

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I’ve written countless blogs, posts, comments and remarks about suicide, addiction, depression and trauma. I’ve described how the power-trio of recovery programs, yoga and therapy is responsible for my hard-won desire to live – which exists despite my ongoing battle with the desire to die.

So although the suicide of Robin Williams is on my mind and affecting my heart, I don’t want to write another piece about how I stay alive despite the odds. I don’t want to write about my belief that some people – whether ailing from addiction or depression or cancer or poverty or drive-by-shootings – are not meant to make it through…and that I could be one of them. I don’t want to write what I’ve written before. (Although, if you’re interested in those stories – which I poured my heart into – they are listed at the bottom of this blog.) Instead, right now, I want to write about the difference between practicing yoga solely for my own well-being, and, practicing yoga for the sake of supporting the well-being of others. Because at a certain point in my 20+ year practice, I became strong enough to shift my focus from me to you. And I believe that shift is the main reason I’m not dead.

Today, the only reason I continually work so hard to heal myself (it’s a life-long commitment!) is to be of service to others. Yes, those efforts do yield a much welcome reward of feeling better and loving life. Still, my primary purpose is to serve.

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EmbraceInterior(12Aug14)

Embrace Yoga, in Adams Morgan, DC. I’m fortunate and grateful to call this beautiful space my yoga HOME – for practicing, teaching, and today, blogging!

In 2008 and 2009, just after receiving my Yoga Teacher Certification, I was hired to design and teach a yoga program at a DC public charter school. Back then, I had no intentions of teaching children. Although my personal practice had always been quite mindful, I wanted to be a Yoga Trainer, pass on physical alignment benefits and work with injured yogis and athletes. But it was a good first job, and, paid quite well. So I started teaching 30 kids per session – at-risk inner-city youth, who were literally climbing the walls, with little interest or ability in slowing down long enough to practice a series of yoga poses, no matter how many physical benefits I touted. One day, out of pure frustration, my approach shifted from the physical to the psychological – and I paused the class to tell them my story. To share that I’d grown up in an environment of addition, chaos and violence. That I was a distracted student and troubled teen. That, potentially, a simple yoga practice might have changed my direction from self-destructive to healthy and productive. And that I may have side-stepped years and years of struggles and pain. They heard me. And although some were still incapable of being present for the practice, they did try harder. One student, Erik, made notable progress. Seriously – this was a kid who could not sit still for 10 seconds, who was constantly being kicked out of his academic classes, who was every teacher’s challenge. The Friday before Spring Break, I asked him to co-teach a class when we returned to school. Tragically, Erik was murdered by his mother’s boyfriend the next day. Upon returning to school, all teachers were asked to reinforce the city’s crisis response team. I ended up sitting in the hallway with six children crying into my lap, asking difficult questions and listening to honest answers. And then I visited each class, leading mindful breathing exercises and listening to honest feelings. I even led a session for the crisis response team and teachers.

Right there, the seed of offering yoga as a sustaining tool for service workers was planted. And as I encountered more and more opportunities to share practices for emotional healing, resilience and empowerment, my own practice became rich and resourceful.

Hanuman pic from Wikipedia

Hanuman, a model of devotion and service.

And thank goodness. Because in 2010 and 2011, I would endure a wide range of major life difficulties. First, I experienced a relationship betrayal. I continued to teach, carefully keeping my emotions separate from class, and drawing upon my personal practice to stay centered and sane. Second, later that year while I was on my way to teach, I learned of the horrible car accident and near death of a dear, dear family member. I could think of no other response but to show up for class. Sitting on the train, walking down the block and pausing before entering the studio, I used my spiritual tools. I sent Metta (prayers for well-being) to my family, I breathed deeply and evenly, I grounded into my feet. And then I walked into the room, put on the music, sat down…and started to cry in front of a crowd of students. We held eye contact and each others’ hearts for a brief moment. I took a cleansing breath, got centered, and invited the group to close their eyes and bring into their hearts anyone in their families who may be suffering. We practiced with more earnestness than any class I’d taught before. The closing OM was one of the most healing moments of my life – and after class, student feedback was positive. Third, I was mugged in front of my apartment on a summer night. Early the next morning, without mentioning the incident, I taught meditation and yoga classes themed on compassion. Just as our Yoga Sutras suggest, I recommended decreasing resentment by cultivating compassion for those that are hurting – including those who direct their pain outward and therefore hurt others. Yes, I was helped by those teachings that morning – and, I would end up devoting months to additional PTSD work to address the anger and fear that would gradually begin to surface and powerfully rule my every breath. Fourth, I ended up extremely depressed. There’d been just too much emotional trauma over the course of those years. In the late summer, I started playing percussion and singing in a Kirtan group and pointing my practice toward Bhakti (devotional) Yoga, which resulted in a growing sense of safety and trust. I also took a break from teaching and focused on addiction recovery activity – attending daily morning meetings, sharing with rigorous honesty, re-connecting with community and offering to be of service however possible. When I returned to teach that autumn, I incorporated Bhakti and Karma (serviceful action) Yoga into my classes.

Some might say that I was teaching for my own benefit. Because clearly, I did benefit. To bring the truth of my life into the safety and care of beloved communities; to gain trust where there was paranoia; to discover new depths of love from connecting with a higher power  – what amazing gifts to myself. At the same time, I believe I offer others my example of acceptance and humanness, and, an infinitely wide-open invitation to bring their authentic selves into my classes…to be messy and bold and honest in the company of caring friends and mindful strangers…to feel the safety and embrace of sacred space..and to take their own precious time to heal and grow.

On a winter Friday, 2012, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting occurred. I was scheduled to teach an evening “Happy Hour” yoga class. After hearing the news, I walked slowly around the city, looking into the eyes and faces of passers-by, wishing wellness for all beings, praying, crying. I knew that my responsibility was to be present with my own response, my own grief, my own needs. To take ample time for that processing. And then, to show up for students. That evening and the next day, my classes were packed – as were classes all over the city and country, I imagine. How noble, when yogis bring their troubles into communal space! I brought my truth to those classes – I shared yoga’s solutions for navigating resentment, anger, grief, pain. I encouraged open minds and hearts. I cried a little. I caught my breath and silently prayed for those crying in front of me. And although my job was to hold space, together, we held space for each other.

None of this is new. For 15 years before becoming a yoga instructor, I brought my struggles, grief, confusion and emotion to yoga classes, and my amazing teachers passed down their tools and solutions. Community connected and supported each other’s healing. Yoga started to chip away at the patterns of pain. Now, as a teacher, all I do is pass that on.

How may I serve you?

How may I serve you?

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Yoga does not magically make everything better. But it does offer practical strategies for more gracefully and constructively navigating difficulties. I am driven and honored to share those practices. Today, I teach children, adults, athletes, nonprofit workers, ailing people, healing people, healthy people, studio yogis and kids on the streets. Although I accept many volunteer yoga gigs for cause-related organizations and under-resourced individuals, for the most part, I get paid to teach yoga. Still, I call it Seva – service. I show up for no other reason but to facilitate the students’ practice. I don’t wear fancy pants, I don’t teach exercise, I don’t care to demonstrate hard poses. Simply, I share the foundational yoga tools that have helped me cultivate wellness in a challenging world. And yes, I receive financial compensation for some of it. Because in order to live sustainably, and therefore be available to teach, I need to earn money.

Teaching yoga is an honor and a gift. More importantly, however – practicing yoga is a responsibility. Without that essential sustenance, I have nothing to offer. Without the unmatched benefits of a daily practice that consistently teaches me how to heal, grow and serve (and I will tell you, honestly: on depressed days that practice might only be a little Pranayama and prayer – or a great, big, cleansing cry), I cannot contribute to the healing of the world around me. Each day, I yearn to effectively ask, “How may I serve you?” Each day, if I am useful, I am alive.

Thanks for reading. OM Shanti.

 

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Past blogs about experience with and recovery from addiction, depression and trauma:

Jumping Off Of Bridges (From The UYD Archives)

Running Into Nature

Growing Pangs

Shiva And The Darkness

The Yoga Of Being Mugged

Yoga In Action

Wine And Kirtan

Surrender, Recovery And Death

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Diwali’s Balance of Darkness with Light November 13, 2012

Filed under: Inspiration,mental health,Spirituality — Holly Meyers @ 11:06 pm
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“What is important for a movie?  Both – light to make it; darkness to show it.  The minute you learn to respect and see both sides of the coin as equally good, you can enjoy both.  It is only a matter of understanding and acceptance.  Let us have that light of understanding.  Accept things as they are.  Then, life is worth living.  The world becomes a heaven on earth for you.”
– Swami Satchidananda

In less than one hour, I’ll teach my annual Diwali-themed yoga class.  This Indian holiday is commonly known as the “Festival of Lights,” signifying the triumph of light over darkness.  Ancient history tells of a number of battles across the nation ending, with great victories over evil forces.  To welcome home the heroic warriors on the dark eve of a New Moon, villagers lit their paths with glowing oil lamps.

Hence the ongoing tradition of celebrating this particular New Moon with lamps, fireworks and other uplifting festivities.

For me, Diwali reminds me of the necessity of both darkness and light.

I used to be very, very scared of the “dark.”  The moment a hint of sadness or lowness or depression showed up, I was in action – figuratively lighting my oil lamps to brighten things up.  These days, I have found a strength in welcoming times of darkness, struggle, challenge.  Not that I like to dwell there for long – I can appreciate a rough patch and at the same time know that I must do some reflection and practice to shed light on its lesson.

So there is a balance.  Darkness and light must exist.

As for battles – I will admit that sometime my greatest battle is with myself.  Although I have come to be at peace during most of my dark times, there are still situations where my fears can get the best of me.  They can lead me into poor choices, rash decisions, intense self-protection.  But less and less.  Thankfully.

So today, my greatest victory is not when I “win a battle,” but when I surrender my fears and allow the battle to dissolve.

What are your battles?  Which have you “won?”  Celebrate them tonight!  And which have you surrendered from?  Celebrate them, too.  Recognize your victories.  If you are currently in a dark time, have hope for the triumph of light.

‘Tis the season of shortening days.  Autumn calls us to enjoy the comfort of candles, fires, warmth.  To cultivate our own light.  This very natural, womb-like, growing darkness can be an invitation to experience a balance of darkness with light, of light with darkness.  Enjoy.

Happy Diwali.

OM Shanti.

 

The Happy Heart Project: The Halfway Mark October 20, 2011

“Hey, I’m trying to hard to see the light, to see the light – to see it burn thru.”  – Abigail Washburn

When it comes to maintaining and manifesting an intention over 100 days – and that intention is to overcome a nagging internal darkness and move deliberately toward joy – it is imperative to know which tools, resources, practices and people support that intention.

So here I am, halfway into a project I started on a whim (for background, please see final note, bottom of page), and I am clearly learning what works – and what doesn’t work.

Back in August, when I started this daily ritual, joy felt elusive.  The origin of that challenge was a string of unfortunate, traumatic and painful experiences beginning in June 2010.  So the “Project” actually represented much more than a flippant whim.  It became a “Sankalpa” (deep intention, commitment, resolution) that would hopefully free my mind – and life – from the grip of PTSD, depression, anger and resentment.

And a shift is happening.  Of course, there are days when fear, negativity and doubt emerge.  Normal stuff.  At the same time, I have to be careful to not let those days stretch into a mindset.  So I reinforce my Sankalpa.

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Move.  Toward.  Joy.

MOVE does not happen in the mind.  MOVE denotes a deliberate effort.  MOVE is an action word.

In yoga, when I think of action, I consider how I can take my practice off the mat and into everyday life.  To me, “practice” is a synonym for “action.”  Ashtanga Yoga founder Sri K. Pattabhi Jois used to say, “Practice yoga, and all is coming.”  A simple metaphor – when we take action, things happen.  Aphorism I.14 of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali states, “Practice becomes firmly grounded when efforts are made over a long period of time, constantly, and with great love (or devotion, earnestness, zeal).”

So again I mention the importance of tried-and-true tools, resources, practices and people to support my 100-day Sankalpa ritual.  They have encouraged my efforts, motivated my practice and strengthened my devotion.  Other influences, however, have been downright derailing at times.

What works and/or doesn’t work as I aim to maintain and manifest my intention to move toward joy:

WORKS: Being honest.  With myself and others.   This, by far, has been rule #1 for me.  THE best elixir for battling the stinking thinking.  Not convincing myself that everything is OK when it is not.  Not writing a bunch of “happy” lies in this blog.  Sharing my process with my circles, communities, co-humans.  Being honest about everything – feelings, ideas, plans.  Saying when I feel scared.  Saying when I feel confident.  “Sticking a pin in it” when my balloon of negativity, doubt and fear gets too inflated.  Getting it out.  Sometimes constructively, sometimes like a vent.

WORKS: Being listened to – being heard.  This means choosing the listeners carefully.  To truly be heard, I want to talk to those who have the patience, compassion and love to listen to everything I need to share.  People who care to know my insides.  People who care for my well-being, who have my best interest in mind.  People who do not immediately launch into fixing the problem.  I know this about myself: I need to let it all out – my stories, my theories, my feelings, my problems, my solutions.  Once I’m empty, I become spacious, calm and able to listen to feedback.

WORKS: Listening to, considering and/or heeding well-informed suggestions from people who know me well, who’ve stuck by my side through thick and thin, with whom I connect regularly, who are mental health professionals and/or who are trusted teachers whose experience I trust.  Listening to others’ stories.  Being as open-minded and willing as possible – yet still discerning, keeping my peace, purpose and sustainability in mind.  This is explored further in #1-4 below.

WORKS: Listening to and truly hearing loved ones’ and trusted beings’ encouragement and positive opinions.

WORKS: Staying close to those loved ones and trusted beings.

DOESN’T WORK: Trying to do this alone.

DOESN’T WORK:  Tolerating bossy, know-it-all recommendations (thinly disguised as concerned advice) from people who don’t know me very well (or who mistakenly think they do know me very well because maybe they used to know me a long time ago, or maybe they’ve read my writing or have heard me speak, or for whatever reason, they believe that we are alike), who have shown that they don’t care to know me authentically, whom I have not seen in a very long time, who intrusively beeline over to me because they’ve “heard what I’m going through,” who give medical advice without medical credentials and/or whom I absolutely do not trust.  And do you know what else doesn’t work?  Allowing these people to get under my skin; allowing myself to feel judged by these people; allowing myself to cop a resentment.  Indeed, at times, my vulnerable mind lets this happen!  What works then?  Taking a pause, replacing the false thoughts with a positive belief, and then understanding that these people are coming from a place of fear and/or a need to control.  I can have compassion for them, nod politely…and move on.  Or, avoid them altogether.  Or, be direct and say, “Thank you for your concern; I have a great team of supporters whose advice I am following.  So at this time, I want to stay on track and not add other suggestions. ”  Smile.  Walk away.  Bam.

Phew, that was a sassy little rant!  Sometimes I create my own frustration by being so open and honest about my process.  But, I’d rather have the opportunity to discern between appropriate/useful advice and inappropriate/fear-based advice than not get any advice at all!

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In addition to clarity about support and action, I’ve also started to feel very clear about the process of cultivating positive change.  Thankfully, I’ve learned so much of this from the infinite influences I’ve said “yes” to over the years.  Here are the steps I’ve taken this time around:

1 – Let go of what doesn’t serve.  I’ve heard it a-thousand times, and it really is the best starting place for me.  This past summer, after what seemed like a year-long endurance test of trials and tribulations, I started letting go of anything that doesn’t represent deep peace, true purpose and long-term sustainability for me.  Jobs, relationships, belongings.  I took risks.  In the case of jobs and relationships, if I couldn’t leave immediately, I began to cultivate an exit strategy.  One by one, I started saying good-bye.  I will be honest – financially, it is beyond stressful.  But I really needed to let go and be liberated.

2 – Take time in the spaciousness created by letting go.  I learned to not fill the space YET.  To grieve the losses.  To feel uncomfortable.  To admit and accept my mistakes.  To witness my doubts, dreams, stories – positive and negative, real and imagined.

3 – Reflect on what brings deep peace, explore what constitutes true purpose and envision what looks sustainable in the long-term.  I have exposed myself to influences I might not normally consider.  I’ve read-up on the Occupy Wall Street efforts; I’ve started taking a high-power Jivamukti class; I’ve listened to Pema Chodron CDs (I love Pema, but am not typically a fan of audio learning).  And I have indulged in activities I absolutely love – that nourish me and bring instant joy.  I have seen live concerts, bought new CDs (please see the bottom of this blog to check out the video for the above-quoted Abigail Washburn song), listened to comedy, practiced yoga outdoors, watched baseball games, enjoyed inspiring films, participated in the Jewish High Holy Days.  I have let ideas and passions brew.

4 – Define peace, purpose and sustainability.  During the peak of Occupy Wall Street and the Jewish High Holy Days, I was struck with the strongest sense of self I’ve experienced in a long time.  It seems like a combination of the results of numbers 1-3 above, the pressure of calls to action in the media, and, the intensity of moral inventory, atonement and forgiveness sparked an energy of self-definition for me.  From Facebook, other media and other sources, I gleaned quotes that called to my soul, compiled them in a journal, and started aiming to live them, day in and day out.  They include: “Occupy within: a movement in awakening;” “While you are proclaiming peace with your lips, be careful to have it even more deeply in your heart;” “The unexamined life is not worth living;” and, “Do I feel happy?  No.  But I feel progress.”

5 – Take action – fill the space.  A few days ago, a yoga teacher friend exclaimed, “How’s your new life?”  She’s referring to the many changes I’ve made since the summer, when I started this process.  I reflected silently for a moment.  “It’s very empty…” and just then, a light bulb clicked on in my mind.  “It’s time to fill it,” I answered, with resolve.

This is coming up for me now that I clearly understand what works and what doesn’t to practice my Sankalpa with consistency and zeal.  With that support, I can tackle some next steps, which include: seek a  job that fulfills my true needs and allows me to continue teaching yoga; seek new yoga teaching opportunities; continue deepening my PTSD sessions and exploration; conduct a fearless self-inventory that not only identifies how I was harmed over the past year, but that also identifies what my part, mistake and/or contribution may have been to those troubles; practice forgiveness of myself and others; commit to other practices that direct me toward joy.  Thank goodness, there are many!

Let’s see what happens over the next 50 days…taking it one day at a time, of course.

Wishing all beings peace, joy, love – and a light that burns thru.  OM Shanti.

(Here is the lovely song containing the opening quote of this blog.  Enjoy!)

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THE HAPPY HEART PROJECT.  Under the new moon of Sunday, August 28, 2011 I launched “The Happy Heart Project: 100 Days Toward Joy” – an effort to document my daily journey away from an annoyingly encroaching emotional darkness and toward the hopeful light of happiness.  For 100 days from 8/28 through 12/5, I will wake up, burn a stick of Happy Heart incense and set an intention to grow toward joy.  Each day I’ll post a “Happy Heart Project” status (and accompanying song for that day’s mood) on Urban Yoga Den on Facebook, then see what happens during the day.  Periodically, I’ll post an UrbanYogaDen.wordpress.com blog that covers my journey.  I’m excited that one yoga teacher friend unexpectedly exclaimed, “I’m with you!” and is sharing the journey!  Join us – choose one simple heartfelt ritual for your morning, intend to practice it daily, “Like” Urban Yoga Den on Facebook, and let us know how you’re doing from time to time!

 

Bi-Monthly Focus: July/August – Why Yoga? August 10, 2010

Filed under: Chakra,Health,Kundalini Yoga,Wellness,Yoga — Holly Meyers @ 3:03 am
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In the Spring of 1993 I attended my first yoga class. I was living in New Orleans and hitting an emotional bottom.  Nothing in life made sense anymore.  Someone suggested yoga.

I arrived at a candlelit basement and felt a little scared.  It was dark and I didn’t know anyone.  But I surrendered to the experience, which I can barely recall.  What do I remember?  Crying. Whatever that lady told us to do, it struck an emotional chord and I melted into a puddle on her basement floor.  I knew something inside of me was shifting.  After class, I left with my head down, spoke to no one, and never returned.

Later that same month, some musician friends from DC came through town to play a concert.  That evening, I spent most of my time chatting with the bass player about – of all things – yoga.  I told him about my first experience and he related to the emotional release.  Knowing I would be moving back to DC soon, he suggested I attend the Kundalini Yoga studio near Dupont Circle.  He sensed that I was craving change (he was right), and knew that this practice would bring it.

Boy did it!

The psychological transformation from working with the Chakras was immense. Chakras are, simply, energy centers along the spine.  One of my fave resources for basic Chakra info is Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chakra).  For in-depth details about each energy center’s qualities, imbalances, potential and healing, Anodea Judith’s “Eastern Body, Western Mind” is beyond compare (http://www.amazon.com/Eastern-Body-Western-Mind-Psychology/dp/1587612259).  In short, there are seven primary centers, which start near the tailbone, rise through the heart, and extend to the crown of the head.  Kundalini is energy that rests in the root chakra (tailbone).  The intention of the related yoga practice is to encourage the Kundalini upward along the spine, thus distributing and balancing the energy among all of the Chakras.

Hence the rapid transformation.  Suffice it to say – with the lifestyle I was living in New Orleans, my lower Chakras and their related elements (i.e. digestion, sexuality, creativity, security, relationships, identity) were out of wack. When I returned to DC and started the Kundalini practice, my emotions continued to churn – lots more crying – awakening a more realistic attitude and outlook toward life.  I cultivated a regular yoga practice at the Ashram and started hanging out with fellow students.  Our teacher would go eat huge bowls of spaghetti with us after class.  He was a humble man who used to say, “I’m just a recovering junkie passing on what was taught to me.”  By 1995 I was experiencing fewer depressive phases; I was exploring a healthier lifestyle all around; and, I started teaching beginners – passing on what was so generously shared with me.

This was the beginning of my yoga journey.

For our July and August class focus, we are pondering the question, “Why Yoga?” What brings us to the mat on any given day, after a hiatus, or at all?  My reason #1 for “Why Yoga?” – I needed to feel better, I needed to change, and I needed support. Practicing yoga in community was the answer.

Today it is exactly the same.  With the life troubles described in my previous “Life on Life’s Terms” post, I still need yoga as a refuge at times.  Last week I attended Caroline Millet’s class at Past Tense – it was challenging and nurturing…and exactly what I needed.  A little push with a lot of care.  While we were in Downward Facing Dog, Caroline invited us to “find something new in the pose.”  Hilariously, the words “I love you, yoga!” popped into my mind!

I am so grateful for yoga.  It saved my life in 1993 and continues to enliven my existence today. Even through the toughest of times – even when I forget that solutions exist – I can teach or take a class and feel completely different afterward.  What a gift.

Reason #2 for “Why Yoga?”  Physical healing from major injuries. More next time…

Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.  Peace.