The Urban Yoga Den

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Guest Blog for Quiet Mind Yoga – 2012 Intention: There is No “On” or “Off” the Mat February 2, 2012

Guest Blog for Quiet Mind Yoga (Reprinted by permission)

2012 Intention: There is No “On” or “Off” the Mat

Life’s ironies are entertaining, no?

At the beginning of each class, I invite students to set an intention for their practice. “This ‘Sankalpa’ is a positive reflection, affirmation or dedication that brings purpose to your time on the mat,” I say. At the end of each class, I encourage students to live their Sankalpa in everyday life. “Make a gentle intention to carry this purpose off your mat and into the rest of your day.”

As a DC-area Community Builder for nonprofit Off the Mat, Into the World, I use “yoga off the mat” terminology frequently. To be frank, however, I am not comfortable with the idea of dividing my yoga practice into two separate entities – “On” or “Off” the mat.

To me, yoga is life, and life is yoga.

It wasn’t always this way. In the early 90s, my messy life was emotionally painful. Yoga was something I did to feel better. I didn’t think about how the practice might affect me after class – much less how it might affect the world around me. My 1st style was Kundalini (funny thing – there are no mats in Kundalini yoga!). Although I may not have realized it then, our closing song planted a seed about yoga’s potential beyond the room where I was practicing: “May the long-time sun shine upon you, all love surround you, and the pure light within you guide your way on.”

Around 1999, I started practicing Hatha yoga and the teacher’s closing dedication said, “May our bodies and minds be healthy, may our thoughts be filled with love. May our practice be free of obstacles, and may we carry its benefits into the world.” This same teacher talked about yoga’s Eight Limbs, which I understood as a process of growth from intention, through action, and to manifestation. That seed planted in the early 90s? It started to sprout conscientiousness about my responsibility to somehow share the gifts that I had so generously received from this healing practice.

In November 2008, I completed my Yoga Teacher Training at an Ashram, where for four weeks we were immersed in yoga – everything we did with our bodies, hearts and minds came from ancient origins. The trainers’ primary advice as we ran off into the wild blue yonder of teaching yoga? “Be a yogi.” And the seed grew into a tree whose cycle of life would organically nurture its own needs and nourish the earth from which it came.

At my very 1st teacher meeting at my very 1st yoga studio job, we were asked to introduce ourselves, describe our yoga style, and then say what we do “off the mat.” In other words – what do we do in our non-yoga life? I was stumped. Because it’s all yoga – whether I’m practicing flexibility in a studio or with co-workers…whether I’m practicing balance in a pose or in planning my commitments…whether I’m practicing compassion for my own pain or for unhappy people around my neighborhood…or whether I’m practicing presence in my breathing or with a loved one.

So my 2012 yoga intention is to nourish the roots that stem from my early days of practice, and re-commit to living yoga day-in and day-out. No mat required.

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Falling Off The Yoga Wagon July 22, 2011

Why does it take a sick day for me to realize I have totally abandoned my yoga practice?

For the past two days, I’ve been battling a sinus infection.  This morning, after sleeping 11 hours, I woke up, chanted mantras, said prayers, wrote in my journal, practiced breathing exercises and sat to meditate.  All of the fear, anger, distrust and resentment of recent weeks (due to a mugging and other trauma triggers) melted into pure, big-picture, heartfelt acceptance.  Everything made sense.  I felt peaceful and whole.

This collection of rituals is a simple 30-minute Sadhana (routine) that I like to practice every morning.  Today I realized that it’s been months since I’ve committed to these efforts on a daily basis.

In my experience, I can count on a daily reprieve from all kinds of “dis-ease” as long as I maintain my spiritual condition.  For someone like me – a trauma survivor who drowned pain and reality with alcohol for 25 years, and who has been undoing old patterns for the last eight years – that maintenance is essential to my ongoing growth away from my past and toward a healthy future.  Daily Sadhana guarantees that I will be liberated of self-centeredness, grounded in peacefulness and therefore available to serve others.

Yoga is the umbrella for all of my maintenance efforts.  During my yoga teacher training, we studied the six branches of Integral Yoga – Hatha (primarily poses, breathing, cleansing), Raja (philosophy, ethics, mindfulness), Jnana (reflection, self-inquiry, analysis), Karma (selfless service), Japa (mantra repetition) and Bhakti (devotion to and worship of a higher power).  In the Yoga Sutras, we hear, “Yogas Chitta Vritti Nirodhah” – yoga negates disturbances of the mind.  Therefore,  the goal of yoga is to cultivate a peaceful mind.  IY founder Swami Satchidananda believes, “There are many ways to reach the same goal. Whatever you call it, it is called Yoga.”

Indeed, it’s all yoga.

When I say that I have abandoned my yoga practice, I don’t just mean that I haven’t been going to class or practicing poses. I mean that I have not been greeting the day with chants, prayers, reflection, breath work, meditation.  I have not been ending the day by reading positive literature, making a gratitude list, praying for others.  In between rising and bedtime, I have not been serving as I could.  I have not been well enough to show up for others.  And I most certainly have not been surrendering to a higher power.

And so, right here, right now, I take the first step toward a solution and admit – I have fallen off the wagon.

“The origins of this phrase lie in the 1800s, with the temperance movement. During this era, many people felt that alcohol was an extremely harmful substance, and they abstained from alcohol while encouraging others to do the same. The term references the water wagons which were once drawn by horses to water down dirt roads so that they did not become dusty. Members of the temperance movement said that they would sooner drink from a water wagon than touch a drop of alcohol, so when someone failed to keep a temperance pledge, people would say that he or she had fallen from the wagon.”  – http://www.wisegeek.com/

For me, daily Sadhana is the “water wagon” that keeps me from falling back into all sorts of unhealthy habits.  And I intend to jump back on that wagon the moment I press “Publish” on this Post.  Because, with You as my witness, a publicly stated intention will be hard to break.

Wish me luck.  OM Shanti.

 

Focus: Abundance – Love & Light December 31, 2010

I have long believed that people are beautiful beings, inside and out. Our humanness, our perfect imperfection, our state of constant growth gives me faith in the beauty of life as a whole.

Tonight a street drunk and I watched a meteor fireball together. I was walking to yoga class when a huge white comet-looking thing with a long firey tail burst across the sky then disappeared. “Wow.” We stopped dead in our tracks. “Ha lo visto?” I asked in my unpracticed Spanish. Yes, he saw it. He told me that it would keep going. We stood together for a few moments, faces lifted toward the sky. Then we went on our respective ways. Before we got too far, he yelled to me and gave two thumbs up. I waved goodbye to my new brother.

The gift of light and a moment of love between the two strangers who witnessed it. Seriously. Love.

This is how I experience humanity – when I’m not stuck in fear, distrust, anger and disgust, I look around and I love everyone. I love the street drunk, I love the pushy drivers, I love the grumpy shoppers, I love the crying babies, I love the lashing out friends. I love them in addition to the smiling, cheerful and sober people. So thankfully, it’s been a very loving couple of weeks.

Finally. The return of love and light.

I didn’t plan for the weeks to unfold like this. I didn’t will any of this beauty to happen. I simply wrote a decidedly revealing blog about pain and healing and bouncing back (see “Focus: Abundance – Growth”) a few weeks ago, and soon after, the fog started to lift.

Too simple to be true?

For me, the fact is, when I look squarely at and then honestly share my “stuff,” it’s no longer in the shadows. Writing out my “stuff” sheds light on it. I take action, I spark the flame. I turn my face toward the light. I stretch my arms out to it.

And the light reaches back to me in all kinds of ways…

*  *  *

It all started on Friday the 17th. I practiced a slow and prayerful Vinyasa with my 7am class. We were flowing to Alexi Murdoch’s “Orange Sky,” a spiritual ballad about the power of fellowship on the long road of life. I paused to look outside – and the sunrise sky was a radiant orange! Of course, I was brought to tears.

And from there forward, I have been shifting away from past troubles and toward inner happiness. Hallelujah!

It doesn’t hurt that our December Class Focus has been Abundance, and in my own practice, I have been savoring the sweetness of a favorite Asana among the challenging. Dwelling on that instead of loathing the other poses. Knowing that somewhere along the set, that sweetness is coming. I can bank on it.

Just like life. I’ve been dwelling on light.  And love is coming. I can feel it.

*  *  *

The day after that beautiful orange sunrise, I curled up at a cafe for hot drinks with a friend, and mused about living in the solution of a spiritual life. We were both weighing out certain situations in our paths. I encouraged her to trust her instinct, to research rather than run away from seemingly risky situations. To live. And to discern.

And breath by breath, I am taking my own advice, diving in a little bit while exercising healthy caution.

That evening, I popped around the corner to DC Supersonic Kirtan’s monthly chant fest. Kirtan is like a can opener for my heart. No caution here! With everyone around me singing their lungs out to the gods, there is no room, no need for caution. I leave every Kirtan blissed-out with love. Fearless. It’s like rebirth.

Fueled by Bhakti bliss, the next day was deeply connective, relaxed and joyous. I felt I had more to offer the day, the world, my life. My tiny studio apartment (aka The Urban Yoga Den) became a wonderfully crowded house of chilled-out, indulgent women, celebrating a few rare hours of down-time together at my annual (pre-) Solstice gathering. I love to just stay in the background and soak in how these wonderful women relate, interact, connect.

People are precious! And spending carefree quality time with like-spirited pals is priceless.

Later that night a friend and I discussed the world of dating. He mentioned the sensitivity of navigating what we like and don’t like about our mates – or what they may or may not like about us. I looked him straight in the eye and said, “I like everything about you.” He was stunned. “Perhaps even the things you don’t like about yourself.” He paused to absorb the news. “No one has ever said that to me,” he revealed.

We are all works in progress. Growing, stumbling, flying, crawling.  For me, it’s easy to love someone for all that they are. The way I would like to be loved.

The way I would like to love myself.

*  *  *

Moving along the holiday week, the good vibrations kept flowing. I started a temp job. Typically I spend my days alone, at my home office, working on my own projects. Deeply fulfilling, yet also primarily self-serving. There’s nothing like suiting up and showing up for a group of workers and supporting their goals. I am certain this interaction and service to something beyond my personal intentions has also encouraged my softening heart.

To end the week, I attended Caroline Weaver’s “Warm the Heart” workshop on the morning of Christmas Eve. I love Caroline because she’s not afraid to bring god into a yoga class. (Hello, god!) Or god as some personal concept of higher power or a virtue that’s worth our full commitment. The uplifting, devotional energy of her class was so enveloping, I don’t remember much about it, except getting to a point in Warrior 1 where Caroline reminded us, “Remember, you are dedicating all of this to your highest virtue.” I felt this breathtaking swell of gratitude in my heart.

“Thank You Thank You Thank You Thank You” I whispered repeatedly like a Mantra.

I strive to remember to dedicate ALL of this – not just my yoga moves, but my entire life – to something beyond me. When I remember that life is about playing a small role of service in the big picture of the universe, the great mystery, the infinite abyss, nature, Jesus, compassion, generosity – whatever name you pick for your god idea or highest virtue – I feel an abundance beyond “having.” I feel the abundance from giving.

*  *  *

Earlier in the week, during Winter Solstice, I’d visited family in Nashville and experienced a totally spontaneous opportunity for pure service, for giving without expectation of receiving. Karma Yoga. I awoke on Solstice morning, after what is known as the darkest night of the year – maximized this December by the the full-moon lunar eclipse. I thought, “THIS is like New Year to me. I truly feel different.”

I continued to lay in bed, in and out of post-alarm clock dozing. My brain started to play that age-old “should” game – I should get up, should do Pranayama/Asana, should pray, should make tea – and then it locked in on one thing. The broken bird house and bottle of Elmer’s Glue sitting on the desk across the room. My dad’s fix-it project. But he’s never been a fix-it guy. Since childhood, I have always been the fix-it girl. If you’ve read my story in other blogs, you know that at times I had to be.

I admit that sometimes my “fix-it” nature is not productive in adult life and relationship worlds. But in this instance, looking at my dad’s broken bird house, “fix-it girl” was the appropriate role to play. My 1st preferences (Hatha Yoga and prayer) were all about my routines for well-being – which I do believe are essential to being able to show up for others. On this morning, however, lazying around in bed after a full night’s rest – I am fine, my well-being is intact. But Dad’s bird house – something that brings him great joy – is not. It’s broken. And I can fix it (and with strong staples, not Elmer’s Glue).

My dad was so excited. He filled up the bird house with seed, went out the back door, and shouted, “Hey guys, we’re back!”

Karma Yoga occurs when love sets the priority. When priority outweighs preference. When big picture beats self-centered routine.

*  *  *

There are many more little stories of heart opening, light shining, exhaling, melting moments from the past weeks. I’ve been basking in the small yet profound pockets of joy.

For instance, while driving to the airport early in the morning, listening to Paul Duncan’s “The Lake, Pt. 2” I watched streams of sunlight (aka “Jesus rays”) burst through the clouds. I thought, “Hmmm, last Friday the sunrise burned radiant orange, and now it’s bright and golden.” And at that moment, I felt a jolt of realization that the days, the universe, my world is getting progressively brighter! The lunar eclipse proves that it’s always darkest before the dawn. It dawned on me – there is personal significance to this year-end season, more than just “The Holidays” and gift shopping and programmed cheer. BRIGHTNESS RETURNS. And at that moment, driving and crying joyfully, it felt like the 1st time I’d ever recognized that significance.

Also, while on my Nashville trip, I felt my 11-month-old grand-nephew burrow his little body into my heart center in the most loving embrace ever. (Ever.) I reunited with my ex-brother-in-law (who has always been like a true brother to me, and my only brother) and got a big bear hug. I witnessed the passion for life returning to my big sister after a very heavy number of years.

And remember that friend who I like everything about? A few days later, during a different tone of conversation, he said he cares about me. “Yeah? How and why do you care about me,” I angrily snapped back. He then proceeded to list the ways and reasons that he cares for me. I was floored as I silently absorbed his penetrating truths. He told me he loves me. And we continued to dwell in that love all evening. I haven’t felt that loved in a long time.

To no fault of the people who love me – just my own obstacles.

On Christmas morning, snow swirled softly outside my window and the swirly songs of Sea & Cake warmed the air inside. My 1st 100% free day in what felt like forever – I flowed with the solitude here in my cozy little home…writing, lounging, being. (Milking that isolation as long as I can. Hehe.) Then I got my butt out the door to accept invitations from the loving and caring people in my life.

*  *  *

In my December classes, I have been encouraging students to concentrate on the space between poses. To take time to grow into each shape.  To be present with the transition, the process, the breath. To make room for discovering abundance where it was unexpected or unplanned. I guess my own instruction has been rubbing off on me. Bit by bit, I have been opening up where I was once firmly sealed shut. Leaving space for orange skies and Jesus rays. Allowing the darkness of an eclipse to reveal joyous Solstice light. Making room for love.

To be honest, it doesn’t always feel safe. But I’m opening up anyway.

For a few of my classes, to complement our Abundance theme and reinforce that we are all surrounded by a supportive community, I taught an Asana set that built to a group pose. We held hands in a big circle for a collaborative Warrior 3 (not my most stable balancing pose). As we leaned into the circle, I felt the entire group unite with a strong energy of responsibility toward each other. We floated into and held the pose for a few long breaths.

Now that’s love. The dedication to serving your neighboring yogi. Or maybe just your neighbor. Or maybe just the random stranger with whom you watched a fireball streak across the dark sky.

* * *

Thanks to friends, family, students, strangers for the beauty of life. Your humanness fortifies me. Happy holidays, merry new day, abundant being.

OM Shanti. h*

P.S. No kidding – after drafting this blog, I checked e-mail and found the following holiday wish from yoga teacher and writer Max Strom:

“Dear Friends, I hope that on this day you experience a rise of the sun within you, the return of the light within your life, the embrace of your family who surrounds you, and the knowing that you can begin again anew. I write this as I witness the sunrise out my window and hear the winds of change blowing the trees outside.”

(Photo credit: “This exceptionally bright fireball meteor trail was photographed with a fish-eye camera at a Czech Republic station of the European Fireball Network on January 21, 1999.” [GSFC, 1999])

 

In the OM Zone November 11, 2010

You can hear the OM sound everywhere. It vibrates every cell in your body. It brings such a nice feeling of peace.  – Swami Satchidananda

There are times, at the end of a yoga class, when the closing OM is so sweet I have cried.  And there are times when it is so cacophonous that I have giggled with delight. I love both!

Personally, I’m a soft “OM”er.  My hope is to not hear my chant above any other, and to experience blended voices.  Still, I appreciate when students bring their loud, bright and even gravelly voices into the mix.  OM-style is an individual choice, probably influenced by a favorite teacher.  I used to get a bit rattled when the chant sounded noisy; but now I experience Santosha and feel content with all forms of OM-ness.

Chanting “OM” is a pure and soulful experience for me.  I do it everywhere and frequently – throughout my morning Sadhana; three times to open and once to close classes; as much as necessary to become present; three times before I start the car.

Over nearly two decades of yoga practice, I have heard many descriptions of OM’s origins and meanings.  Despite these varying definitions, I believe one consistent truth.  When we join our voices in OM, I feel that we are uniting.

To me, OM is a simple syllable that brings a vibration into the room, among us and within each.

I recently had the chance to experience the sheer power of this simple syllable during Ricky Tran’s DC Yoga Immersion (http://www.rickytranyoga.com/).  In approaching the Eight Limbs of Yoga, Ricky fuses authentic reverence with contemporary playfulness.

One of his favorite phrases was, “You’re in the OM Zone now!”

The morning began with Bhakti practice, including devotional chanting with Rudra Das Kirtan recordings (http://www.rudradas.com/home/).  The energy in the room started to rise. Next we moved into hips-centric Asana toward the goal of Lotus Pose.  Some poses challenged me immensely, others felt totally easeful.

(Side note: I believe that a great teacher supports students silently with prayerful and energizing vibrations.  Otherwise, there’s no way I could have effortlessly expressed poses beyond my present Asana level in Seane Corn and Max Strom workshops!  I focus more on the philosophical, lifestyle and service aspects of yoga than on higher-level poses.  So I felt totally at ease with Ricky’s accepting and encouraging Asana instruction.)

Happily, by the end of this brilliantly effective hip opening sequence, I was able to sit comfortably in Half Lotus – on both sides – for the first time!  Jai!  And it’s a good thing, because seated Pranayama was next on the docket.  I love me some Pranayama!  So any chance to sit and breathe for longer periods is welcome.

After Pranayama came what I call Ricky’s “Dharana Challenge” and what he calls “The Perfect 10.”

Glowing from Bhakti and Hatha, we were ready to meditate.  Ricky suggested focusing the mind by repeating OM 10 times in a row without distraction. If we wandered from OM, we were to start over at one.  If we reached 10 uninterrupted OMs, we should continue to 20, and on.  Ricky gave us the choice to chant silently or aloud.  One by one, students voices began to fill the cavernous studio with swirling, howling, beautiful chants of OM.  We chanted with conviction, a blend of bright and gravelly, loud and soft.  All sweet and pure and soulful.

And then it happened.

Perfect unity.  That simple syllable brought us together as one.  I couldn’t tell where my voice started and someone else’s ended. It seemed like the entire room of OMs originated from my mouth.  Then it switched.  Everyone else’s voices swirled through my lips, into my mind, penetrating my being.  There was no separation.

We were, indeed, in the OM Zone.

Gratitude to Ricky Tran and all the Eight-Limb-ers who stuck around after Asana practice to create this unforgettable experience.  It was the wildest OM moment of my life.  I feel thrilled to have more brothers and sisters with whom to explore the infinite promises of the Yoga Sutras.

OM Shanti.

P.S. Thanks for the photos, y’all!