The Urban Yoga Den

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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Clearing the Obstacles August 6, 2011

I am sorry to hear your pain.  You are a wonderful human being and deserve tranquility, peace, and love.  I would suggest that you stay focused on what is good for YOU, rest will follow.  –  letter from a friend

This quote sounds like something I would say to a student or friend.  Instead, it is an e-mail that a friend just sent to me.  I know he meant to write, “…stay focused on what is good for YOU, THE rest will follow.”  Yet the fact is, if I stay focused on what is good for me, indeed, rest will follow.  And I really, really need some rest.  The kind of rest that allows the heart to remember its yearnings, yearnings to cultivate clarity, clarity to turn into action, and action to yield change.

This has been the hardest blog to write, ever.  I keep starting and stopping; switching directions; adding this and that.  Stopping.  Sobbing.  And starting again.

It’s difficult to be 100% honest, and that’s what I need to do.  It’s difficult to not shade my current negative state with the positive solutions of yoga.  Is it yogic to admit that I am in pain, and that my usual solutions seem out of reach?

*  *  *

I feel it’s time for big change and I’m starting with small things.  But I wish I could crack myself open and re-program.  – letter to a friend

Last week, on my 46th birthday, I started parting my hair on the opposite side.

Ganesha, new hair part, pneumonia and me on my 46th birthday.

Immediately, I felt like a new person.  I saw myself differently.  My eyes looked happier.  My head felt lighter.  My mind was clearer.

The weekend before, I’d hit an emotional bottom where I spent an entire day acting very un-yoga-like.  OK, I’ll say it – although I haven’t had a drink or drug in nearly 9 years, I was acting as toxic as a drunken addict.  It was not pretty, people.  Some who went through that day with me were very forgiving.  Some were not.  Some recognized that stress from recent physical illness and emotional difficulties fueled my offensiveness.  Some didn’t care, because they were hurt.  And still others (thank goodness for the others) offered amazing advice and insight – including the belief that I’m hitting a bottom because big change is coming.

So last week, after a series of Facebook posts about fighting demons, letting go and changing…I parted my hair on the other side.

*  *  *

In the past month alone, notable events forced me to reevaluate my behaviors, activities and needs, and to reignite my practices, beliefs and vision.  – August “Yoga Update” (see “newsletter” tab)

To complement my fresh hair style, I’ve also been wearing my Ganesha charm more frequently.

Not only have I felt a need for newness, but also for a strong shove of old things out of the way.  When I first started practicing Vinyasa yoga, my teacher constantly spoke of “letting go of what doesn’t serve in order to make room for what does.”  I don’t frequently pray to specific deities, but being reminded of Ganesha’s power to clear obstacles (and provide protection) has been motivating.

These days, I know I need to release many things that compromise my deepest well-being in order to create space for what cultivates sustainable, lasting inner peace.  For instance, on mornings between the full and new moons, I used to pray, “Let me let go of anything that gets in the way of your will for me.”  Regretfully, that practice has faded off…but it’s time to bring it back.

*  *  *

Hindsight is 20/20.  – popular phrase

As you might know, I was mugged in June.  Feedback on my blog, “The Yoga of Being Mugged” has been positive.  People have used words like “resilient” and “compassionate” regarding my response to the situation.  I agree, and am thankful to be someone who uses yoga and other tools to recover from and address life’s difficulties.

Now here comes the 100% honesty – because I don’t want you to think that I am responding with perfect strength and forgiveness to an assault.  I want you to know that it hurt.  I want you to know that I now walk around scared and suspicious and over-reactive.  I want you to know that my past traumas have been triggered since the mugging.  And I want you to know that I sometimes act like a jerk because of this state.

If you’ve read my other blogs, you know a bit about my painful childhood and rough road toward adulthood.  These last 18 years of yoga practice, complemented by 8+ years of addiction recovery, have sparked a journey of mending and growth.  Still, I am just hitting the tip of the iceberg in undoing 25 years of destructive patterns and related consequences.

When I look back on my life’s traumas, I see the lesson behind each one.  So why am I so stuck in the pain of the past?  Because, due to my childhood isolation and later impulse to kill emotions with substances, I did not properly process and/or grieve these traumas at the time that they took place.  Making sense of them is one thing; authentically expressing and healthily processing the emotions is a whole other ball game.

Thankfully, these days I am feeling weary from past traumas robbing me of day-to-day happiness.  I am feeling a low tolerance for anything that does not match my craving for inner peace.  I am fed up with these obstacles keeping me from my intentions to be of service in this world.

So I am willing to do whatever it takes to change.

At the same time that I am willing to let go of limitations, I am somehow holding on.  I have taken the reigns, and have been gripping them tightly.  Terrified of feeling more pain, I have taken complete control of my life.  Regretfully.  Because when I am in complete control, there’s little room for you, for anyone, for a higher power, for healthy risk, for trust, for faith.

*  *  *

I’ve been learning to drive, my whole life. – Arcade Fire, “In The Backseat”

It’s time to let someone else take the wheel.  Let go.  Change.

In the Mahabharata – an ancient Hindu text – there is a story about true surrender.

A king wants to ruin a man’s reputation, and so decides to shame the man’s wife, Draupadi, by stripping off her sari in public.  A sari is a traditional Indian dress, made from several yards of material wrapped around the body.  In the story, the king begins to unwrap the sari, and in turn, Draupadi clings tightly in fear.  She continues to use all her strength while crying to god for help.

After much struggle, Draupadi realizes that, as long as she clings in fear, there will not be space for god to help her.  Bravely, she lets go of the sari, holds her hands up and exclaims, “If you want me to face this disgrace I will accept it.  I totally trust you; my life is in your hands.”  Miraculously, Draupadi’s sari becomes infinitely long, and the king becomes exhausted.  Draupadi was saved.

The first time I read this story around three years ago, I was struck by Draupadi’s willingness to accept god’s will, even if it means disgrace.  In the margin of the book I wrote, “WOW.  I wish for this surrender.”

At this very moment, I feel that exact yearning.  Since June, I have been so racked by fear that I wake up each morning with my fists clenched so tightly that my thumbs come out of their joints.

Shifting from self reliance to accepting help takes deep work.  A PTSD therapist has been helping me work through my past so I can heal from it.  Most days, I feel quite vulnerable, like a wounded animal, backed into my protective corner.  You know what “they” say about wounded animals – don’t go near them.

But circumstances have prohibited this isolation, and demanded togetherness.  Shortly after the mugging, I came down with pneumonia and had to ask for a lot of support.  All through my birthday week, my home was filled with friends bringing fresh produce, fun gifts and positive energy.  It chipped away at my rock-hard walls of “That’s OK, I can do it myself.”

I am continuing to reach out for the company, wisdom, experiences and advice of those prepared to step into the corner with me.  Yes, when they come near me, I might act overly protective.  I might swat them away.  I might misunderstand their concern for judgment.  I might mistake their discomfort for dislike.  I might offend them.  I might piss them off.  And they might or might not forgive me.

I will, however, forgive myself.

*  *  *

Here is the hardest part to write.  In my current state of imbalance, can I honorably teach the Eight Limbs, and how they outline a simple process for taking yoga’s principles off the mat and into everyday life?  How can I share “Yogas Chitta Vritti Nrodhah” and encourage yoga as a practice for calming the mind, when my mind is far from calm?  How can I authentically pass on yoga’s tools, when they don’t seem to be working for me in this time of extreme challenge?

Or does this messy phase of life illustrate yoga’s transformation?  Maybe this is my own version of “Draupadi’s Sari.”  Maybe my wish for absolute surrender is coming true.

One thing is for certain – this is my emotional bottom, and the only way out is up.

*  *  *

My god, Holly, you got mugged and now you have pneumonia?  The universe is trying to tell you something.  – a friend

My sassy answer to this remark?  “Uh-huh, the universe is telling me that I am a tough broad who can get through anything!”  Perhaps.  That would certainly match my self-reliant conditioning.  At the same time, I’m open to a totally different point of view.  By sending me a mugging, pneumonia and related challenges, the universe could be urging me to ‘fess up and say, “Come closer to me.”

See me, accept me, love me for exactly who I am – right now.  Vulnerable, fearful, distrustful and resentful.  Wounded.  Ready to focus on what’s good for me.  And more than ready for (the) rest.

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.