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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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












Peace Tools: Infinite Compassion June 28, 2012

Filed under: Inspiration,Life,Philosophy,Spirituality — Holly Meyers @ 3:13 am
Tags: , , , , ,

“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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For the final quarter of my 100-day exploration of Ahimsa (for a brief background, see “The Roots of ‘Ahimsa Now: 100 Days of Intention’” at the bottom of this page), I am compiling my favorite Peace Tools – fail-safe practices for cultivating a reliable inner peace, which leads to a serene life and accountability to others.

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For three days, I have been trying to write a blog about being assaulted by a little kid (about 7 years old) from my neighborhood last Saturday – just days before the 1-year anniversary of being robbed by a bigger kid (about 13 years old) from my neighborhood.

Totally different situations.

For instance, last year, although I ran after my mugger, he got away.  Although I envisioned the police catching him and the court sentencing him to 90-days of yoga with me, that lofty dream never happened.  (Yet.)

In contrast, last weekend, there was a conversation following the assault.  The little kid’s friends told me that he was angry because he just learned about slavery.  They angrily pointed out, “You’re white, and we’re black.”  I stood my ground, reminded them that we all have red blood, pointed out that I didn’t do anything to hurt them, and demanded an apology.  After the apology I reminded the group of kids that we’d met numerous times, and they were even more apologetic.  I said that we can’t just go around hitting people because we’re angry.  And then the kid that hit me told me that earlier the same day, a man smashed his toy gun – he was shooting his cap gun and a man took it, threw it on the ground, and stomped on it.  So how is this little guy going to learn how to constructively process his anger?

Ahimsa Now.

When I was a little kid, I struck out plenty.  I was full of pain and anger and rage.  Not because I learned about slavery (although I guess I could have acted out about the Holocaust, coming from a Jewish family) or because someone on my street broke my treasured toy.  I was full of pain and anger and rage because of the pain and anger and rage surrounding me in my own home.  Now, I could guess that my little 7-year-old friend has pain and anger and rage in his household, as well.  But I can’t be certain.  What I can relate to, however, is his feeling of being hurt, and the lack of tools, guidance or experience for processing related emotions.  In my case – I harmed others, I harmed myself.  It took me until adulthood, when yoga came into my life in 1993, to start (start) to learn how to healthily process my own pain so I would stop causing more.  I am still learning.

This is why I want to start a nonprofit called “Ahimsa Now,” where the mission is to share yoga and related practices in order to increase inner peace within at-risk youth and therefore decrease violence in at-risk communities.  Haha – so, really, it’s a selfish mission.  I just don’t want to be attacked in my neighborhood again!

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Now seriously – how do I maintain my peace when I am violated?  In my neighborhood, near my home, by kids I see, smile at and even chat with day after day?

It is hard work.  And I am devoted to it.

Yoga promises peace of mind, IF I take certain actions.  I have written numerous times about aphorism I.33 in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.  “By cultivating attitudes of friendliness for the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard toward the wicked, the mind-stuff retains its undisturbed calmness.”

So without fail, when someone hurts me, I aim to separate the harmful act from the person, to view the person as unhappy, and to have compassion for that person.

This does not mean that I condone harmful actions.  It does not mean that I skip making police reports and holding people accountable.  It does not mean that I bypass feeling anger and other emotions when harmed (although I have – only to have those emotions come out sideways in unrelated situations).

It means that I allow myself the humanness to process the trauma…to recount, to vent, to rage, to cry, to grieve – in safe spaces and constructive ways.  Then as soon as possible, I shift my mind into compassion.

A very adult way of approaching harmful situations.  Will it work for kids?

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I love this group of kids, the ones from the street last Saturday.

Back in April, we had a super-fun bus ride home from downtown.  I had just come from the Trayvon Martin rally, and was weary from seriousness and activism.  The kids were sitting at the back of the bus, loud and boisterous and avoided by all.  Except me.  I bee-lined straight back there and sat in the middle of the group.

One of the girls was pretending to stealthily shoot riders with her umbrella.  I took out my umbrella and started to do the same.  They got a kick out of that and we started talking.

Holly: “What were you guys up to today?”

Kids: “We saw The Hunger Games!”

Holly: “Oh, cool, was it good?”

The excited remarks flowed.  They described all of the violence with such detail, right down to the part where a dog eats some humans.  (Yes?)

Holly (after some time): “So, was it just a bunch of killing, or was there a story?”  (I seriously know nothing about The Hunger Games.)

Kids: “Yeah, all the teenagers have to kill each other.  There’s one girl who saves her little sister by volunteering.  And the last one alive wins.”

Holly: “What do they win?”

Kids: “They get to be rich!  They get to live in a big house and have whatever they want!”

Wow.  A movie about kids who have to kill each other – unless they are saved by their sibling, apparently – in order to live a comfortable life.  Wow.

Holly: “Ahhhh, so if they win, they get to be safe?!?!”

Kids (a little more quietly): “Yeah.”

I’ve run into these kids regularly in our ‘hood since then.  Every time, I reintroduce myself as “the lady from the bus, after The Hunger Games” and we chat for a bit.  They range from about 6 to 12.  Their boldness, their excitement, their mischievousness strikes a chord with me.  They boss each other around like siblings or even parents.  At least a few of them always hang together at any given time.  Always.

One in particular seems to be out on the street a lot.  With wide eyes and a certain urgency he likes to tell me something important – like his favorite part of the Hunger Games movie (where the dog eats the people), or what movies he’s seen lately, and which movie I should go see next.  He’s a little guy, probably around 7 years old, with neck-length braids and a wild yet earnest disposition.

And this past Saturday, in a fit of blind rage, he stepped into my path and hit me in the front of my body with a newspaper.

When I stopped in my tracks, totally shocked, and exclaimed, “No-you-did-not just hit me with that newspaper!”, the kids scattered everywhere, hiding behind the bus stop and each other, shouting remarks about this and that.  And that’s when, sandwiched between my chasing them around the bus stop and them bullying-up on me, I got the whole story, and we came to understanding.

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The world is full of violence.  And in my experience and observations, people commit violence when they themselves are hurting.

One of my friends says, “Violence is not natural for the atma, the spiritual being who is having a human experience.”  But I believe that we are spiritual and human at once – there is no separation.  To me, it seems that if the ancients created a word for “avoidance of violence” (“Ahimsa”), then they knew and accepted that violence was a natural part of being alive.  And therefore yoga – whose goal is to remove disturbances of the mind and whose result is inner peace – presented a system of practices for avoiding causing harm.

One of those practices is compassion.

Now that the harmful situations are behind me (now that I have processed them and they are simply memories), if I find myself stewing in resentment, it is imperative that I used every tool possible – a little Pratipaksha Bhavana (described in my last entry), for example – to replace that resentment with the opposite.  I must replace anger with compassion if I want to cultivate a calm mind, and feed the cycle of good will and peace in this world.

Ahimsa Now!

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

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The Roots of “Ahimsa Now: 100 Days of Intention”

“Ahimsa” is a Sanskrit word meaning, “Avoidance of Violence.”  It is mentioned in many ancient texts, including the Yoga Sutras, a collection of aphorisms handed down by yogic sage Patanjali approximately 5- to 7-thousand years ago.  In the Sutras, Ahimsa is one of the “Yama” – five recommended abstentions, or rules of conduct rooted in abstinence.  The five Yama comprise the first limb of Patanjali’s prescribed Eight Limbs of Yoga.

Avoidance of something takes great effort.  And if violence were not naturally inherent in human beings, we wouldn’t have to try to avoid it.  So, dreaming of launching “Ahimsa Now” – a nonprofit whose mission is rooted in Ahimsa – my responsibility is to come to understand the human impulse toward violence, and, to explore every available practice that impedes that impulse.

So from April 5 through July 13, 2012, I am committing to a 100-day exploration of Ahimsa.  Thanks for coming along.  OM Shanti Shanti Shanti.