The Urban Yoga Den

…where it's all yoga.

Remember When I Quit Teaching Yoga? September 7, 2016

Forgive me WordPress readers, it’s been…10 months since my last confession. I mean, since my last blog.

“Fearless” was a rather brief, mid-winter explosion that came just one month after – in the previous blog and all over social media – I announced that I’d quit teaching yoga. “Fearless” disclosed how unsafe I’d been feeling in the world, how my busy-ness helped me hide from that feeling, and, how a friend’s yoga class invited me to be still…and find clarity. In short: “I learned I can simultaneously – and calmly – feel afraid and be safe. If I had run, or hid, or drowned, or denied…if I had not faced and inquired about my fear, I wouldn’t have understood it the way I do now. Although not completely liberated from fear (I need to find the tools to be present and clear with certain everyday things), I own it; and, I distinguish it from situations, places and people. Today, I realized that the hearts of those formerly-perceived scary people are just like mine – and, they are at the fingertips of my fearless, outstretched arms.”

“Fearless” launched months of deep work with my PTSD triggers (which had been popping up since November, and would continue through the holidays), and, a 10-month disappearance from this blog site.

*  *  *
THWL2(18June2011)My November departure from yoga teaching had been abrupt and self-centered.

As explored in my “Taking Stock” blog, “I quit teaching yoga last week. There were so many reasons why; and it was a long time comin’. Still, my decision was rash and reactive – a result of not being honest with myself and not holding myself to truths untold. I might blog about the decision eventually. … The response to my Facebook announcement was full of solidarity from friends, yoga teachers, students and studio owners who are all struggling with, questioning or strategizing against yoga’s shift away from its mindful roots.”

I was scared. Scared that nobody liked my mindful style of teaching anymore. Scared that students would continue to complain. Scared that studio owners would continually pressure me to be something I’m not. And it became hard to remember …what was I, anyway? Was I a traditional Hatha teacher? A modern Vinyasa teacher? An alignment-based teacher? A Chakra teacher? A beginners teacher? A seasoned Pranayama and Meditation teacher? A philosophy teacher?

One thing was certain – I was not an exercise teacher. But yoga trends and studio feedback said “move more, instruct less, explain nothing.” So, I quit. But for my annual New Year’s Eve “Let Your Intentions Flow” workshop, I stopped teaching yoga.

I don’t know what I was thinking! Hahahahaha…

Gradually, I started to get my confidence back. I am a traditional Hatha teacher; a modern Vinyasa teacher; an alignment-based teacher; a Chakra teacher; a beginners teacher; a seasoned Pranayama and Meditation teacher; a philosophy teacher. My practice and teaching was rooted in my first experience with Kundalini yoga, has grown through a variety of teachings and traditions, and, is now thick with 20+ years of reverence for yoga’s incredible value beyond the class slot. Therefore, my classes are never about exercise. They are about passing on every single gem that all of my teachers so generously shared with me. Practical tools that enhance outer strength and inner peace in everyday life – for the rest of our lives.

So, I came back. Tenderly, carefully and perhaps cautiously, I tip-toed toward the yoga arena.

One of the main reasons that I felt secure returning? An invitation from Faith Hunter, the owner of Embrace Yoga DC. Embrace itself had seen its share of pushing/pulling/tugging/nudging/elbowing from the yoga universe. Opened in spring 2012 as a space where Faith could build her brand, guide her Yoga Teacher Trainings, and, develop her trainees as instructors, the studio morphed through a number of incarnations and disappearances over its years. At one point, with the studio offering a skeleton schedule, Faith moved to New York to focus on practicing with her own teachers. Little did we know what else was brewing.

In February of this year, she tenderly, carefully and perhaps cautiously stepped back into the yoga studio biz. Still living in New York, she put the word out to DC teachers: teach from your heart at Embrace. That’s when I dipped my toe in the now-welcoming waters. I offered “Follow Your Heart,” another of my signature, annual workshops. And I started teaching “Yoga For Life,” a weekly pay-what-you-can class.

Over the summer, Faith planted both feet back in DC and cultivated a rock-solid teaching, customer service and management team. In its same bright, beautiful Adams Morgan location, Embrace now offers a full schedule of weekly classes with an amazing group of seasoned teachers. We are one of the most diverse studio staffs in the city – an eclectic collection of yoga influences, cultural backgrounds and life experience.

I am honored to share the schedule, practice and work with these noble beings.

*  *  *
At this moment of writing, I am choked-up with tearful gratitude. The universe works in mysterious ways. And I am just wrapping my head around where I’ve landed, and, what the near future brings.

I am now the Studio Manager at Embrace. During my part-time hours, I team up with Faith, advisers, vendors, teachers and studio assistants who tackle our business head on! We have accomplished so much since my May start; and I am thrilled with the positive energy and outcomes we are generating.

Beginning this week, I am teaching three (!) classes on the Embrace schedule. On Mondays at 7:30pm, I’m leading our “Basics/Level 2” practice, where we dissect and fine-tune sequences, poses and breathing found in typical Open Level classes. We have “Breathe & Meditate” on Wednesdays at 7:45pm, which re-awakens our wonderful weekly mindfulness community, cultivated in 2014. And “Yoga For Life,” our venue for life-long yogic traditions, continues on Sunday mornings at 8:45am.

This coming Sunday, Embrace will observe the 15th anniversary of 9/11 with “9/11: Urban Oasis.” Our regularly-scheduled classes – including Yoga For Life – will be free. Surrounding those practices, the studio will stay open from 8am-8pm, with Embrace staff welcoming yogis, friends and community to a peaceful space for rest and reflection. I hope to share some time with you (away from the crowd of Adams Morgan Day, BTW).

When Faith is away for weekend teaching travels, we are scheduling “guest teachers” in her Sunday 11am slot. From October 16 through November 6, I will guide “Come Together,” a four-week, pre-election exploration of yoga’s immense resources for individual serenity and community harmony. After warming up with intention-based Sankalpa Vinyasa, we will practice partner and group poses, bringing a sense of collaboration and levity to increasingly tense times.

In the midst of all this, “Diwali Intentions” – our annual observation of this 5-day Hindu holiday – will be held by candlelight at Embrace on Sunday, October 30th, 8-9:30pm. This Sankalpa Vinyasa practice supports the sacred inner work of inventory and intention-setting, and serves as a precursor to our New Year’s Eve gathering.

Faith has graciously offered me – and all Embrace instructors – the freedom to bring our hearts to the table in our teachings. In addition, she has entrusted me with staff guidance, operations supervision and community relations. Perhaps, though, the most breathtaking invitation came when Faith asked me to consider being a lead instructor for her Spiritually Fly Yoga Teacher Training, starting this November. This was one of the greatest honors I’ve ever received. I had to sit down for a moment. I cried a little. My heart swelled with gratitude. I said yes.

I can’t lie (nothing to hide, as always) – all of this feels at once exhilarating and daunting. This is the most that I’ve taught since 2011, when my classes were full and the yoga-workout trend was barely blooming. Beyond shadow of a doubt, I am excited to be once-again teaching my most earnest and foundational offerings. Still, at moments…well… Y’know that feeling when you organize a big party or event, and then fear that nobody will show up? Yup. That happens. Inside of my chest. That anxiety arises at times.

Plus, as a Yoga Teacher Training instructor, my responsibility is deep. Not only must I petition divine guidance to humbly serve in this capacity…I also have to design some pretty serious curriculum! (Which I love doing, BTW. I am eager to start.)

*  *  *
Being asked to teach teachers acknowledged the worth of my long and devoted journey with my beloved yoga.

The invitation came after a very committed period of inner sacred work, surrounding self-doubt, relationship fears, trust issues and more. It came when the fruits of this rich work were ripe. It came from a person who is my friend, my teacher and my boss! Coming full circle since I quit teaching last November, I see that I wasn’t done…I was just resting. I am re-rooted in the ancient discipline that shapes every moment of my present existence.

And, although feeling a little anxious, my “Fearless” blog reminds me: “…stability and risk co-exist.”

Great gratitude to the gods, goddesses, gurus, guides, guardian angels, great spirits, eternal mysteries and teachers that accompany my direction and decisions. Thank you knowledge, thank you nature, thank you love. Thank YOU.

May we all know that quitting is sometimes resting, and that resting is always empowering. OM Shanti.

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Yoga Class Focus: The Freedom to Heal August 29, 2014

Make space. Clear the way. Widen the paths. And in this liberation…heal.

The theme of my July classes was FREEDOM; and we kicked off our month of focused practices with a special “Declaration of Independence” workshop.  I teach this July 4th workshop annually; and each year, I’ve approached the session with a hint of motivational speaker style. “You can liberate yourself of obstacles and declare new truths!” Together, in the spirit of our forefathers, we celebrated Sankalpa – resolute intention for change.

MatFeetJournalCandleIncense(Summer2014)This year was different. This July 4th, the fires of freedom were not blazing with glory. I toned down. I got real. I simplified. And I asked: “What is your dissatisfaction with life? Could you still find inner peace if nothing changes?” Because life is a mix of action and change, and, surrender and acceptance. Yoga does not promise us that everything will be exactly as we wish it to be. That if we set a Sankalpa, have strong resolve and work to manifest our deepest intentions, everything will go our way. Nope. On the contrary, “Yogas Chitta Vritti Nirodhah” – the 2nd aphorism in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – teaches us that, even when things don’t go our way, we can still enjoy a calm mind.

So, mirroring the motivations of our country’s founders, we spent the morning of Independence Day professing our dissatisfactions. And then, we got on our mats to explore how we can cultivate flexibility, patience, curiosity, willingness, acceptance, surrender in our bodies. After our Asana practice, we invited those same concepts into our minds and journaled: “What if the change I seek can’t happen right now? What if it can never happen? What if the outcome of the change is not what I expected?” Wrapping up the morning with Yoga Nidra and a guided journey, we invited this spaciousness into our lives.

Over the month, we continued with similar themes, discovering physical liberation in twists and binds. With the Yoga Sutras as our guide, and “Sthira Sukham Asanam” as our mantra, remained devoted to balancing effort with ease in order to unlock life’s pressures. We affirmed that, even in a bind, we can feel free.

Freedom! Freedom to move with ease. Freedom to let go of expectations. Freedom to accept things – and ourselves – exactly as they are.

In August, with spaciousness as our best friend, we moved on to our new class focus: HEALING.

Our precious ancient Sutras promise: “Heyam Dukham Asanam.” As Swami Vivekananda translated: “The misery which has not yet come is to be avoided.” Not “can be” avoided. Not “might be” avoided. IS. TO. BE. AVOIDED. I don’t know about you, but every time I read this aphorism, I breathe more freely. Because I remember our ancient yogis’ simple formula – if I practice yoga as described in our foundational texts, I will sidestep future physical AND emotional pain.

So at this point in development – after setting foundations (June’s focus) and cultivating freedom (July’s focus), there is room to heal. With devotion toward practicing with a balance of effort and ease, action and surrender, and, change and acceptance, I have the spaciousness to heal past pain and patterns, and step into the future with wholeness.

This is not just a monthly theme for practice. This is not just a Sankalpa set for class. This is not just my body on the mat. This is not just my journal in a workshop. This is life.

Note to self…

Thank you for reading; and, thank you for practicing with me – even if/when you are miles away. OM Shanti.

 

Deflated Balloons & Silver Linings June 4, 2014

Photo: Larkin P. Goff

Photo: Larkin P. Goff

I once heard an elder in recovery share that, when consumed by great emotion, it’s essential to “stick a pin in it” by sharing. I’ve followed suit ever since. For me, to harbor negative emotions is to go toward a drink. As a recovering addict, to drink is to die. So, being open and honest is essential.

Particularly with anger or sadness, talking, writing and sharing about the situation decreases the emotion’s hold on me. I connect this tool to the yogic practice of Pratipaksha Bhavana – replacing negative thoughts with positive. After loosening the emotion’s grip on me (or my grip on it!), I promptly turn my thoughts to the Silver Linings of the situation. Not to deny the cause behind the emotion or stuff the problem, but, to free myself enough to handle the issue with more ease and peace.

You might say, “I’m not an addict. Why shouldn’t I let my feelings blow up like a balloon? I love stewing in anger, or, pulling the covers up over my head for a day.” Of course – it’s normal to feel intense emotion. And, it’s healthy to let it out – to release it constructively, with intentions to examine the cause and decrease its repetition. At this point in my 20+ years of practicing yoga, studying its ideology and experiencing its benefits, even if I were not an addict, I would definitely choose to address, process and neutralize my emotions. I have found that, in every case, the wise sages and yogis are correct: reaching a place of inner peace pays off personally, and, globally.

*  *  *

Today, I’m “sticking a pin” in a balloon of sadness: I had to cancel my Father’s Day trip to Nashville. Ugh.

I’ve spent every Father’s Day with Dad since my mom died in 2002. Having just unexpectedly returned to DC after abruptly “moving” to Nashville last fall, I really wanted to continue the annual tradition of seeing him for that special weekend. But the fact is, I cannot afford to miss work. I have one goal right now: to work my way out of debt. And that requires a very, very simplified lifestyle. Without baseball games, without dining out, without travel. With room for the unexpected and essential, like last week’s ER visit, a high-cost monthly asthma prescription, a replacement for a ruined shoe and an upcoming doctor’s appointment.

I could stew in self-pity over this! Poor me, poor me – pour me a drink. Or, I could process my sadness by feeling, honoring and sharing it…and then move on to the positives. And there are many.

Silver Linings of prioritizing debt reduction, and therefore, canceling my Father’s Day trip:
– Although I am sad about not seeing my father, I am very happy that I have steady work.
– Although my father will be sad about the trip cancellation, he’s very happy that I have steady work.
– By prioritizing debt reduction, I’m addressing my own financial responsibilities; and, I can help address my dad’s financial needs – which are stressed partially due to my past “borrowing” from him.
– Since returning from the Nashville family fiasco, I’m exercising more financial independence and accountability than I have in a long time.
– By cutting back on costly entertainment and leisure, I can spend quality time with friends (taking walks, hanging at the park, finding free events, and sharing tea and snacks at home) and be more mindful about my eating habits (cooking nutritious meals).
– I am learning to say “yes” when friends want to treat, which can be difficult; in the past, I’d rather fake an air of stability and go broke than accept a “handout.”
– I am appreciating simple self-care rituals, such as: meandering urban strolls, deep relaxation/Yoga Nidra sessions at home, and, winding down at night with a sweet treat, lavender foot rub and cup of Rasayana (warm milk with spices).

MeditatingLegsMudra(July2011)All of this cultivates a feeling of balance, contentment and ease – which in the end, are the most important outcomes of any situation. Because when I am ill-at-ease, I am adding to the world’s dis-ease. And when I am feeling peaceful, I am adding to the peace around me.

*  *  *

Again, I’m not saying that sadness is a bad thing. And I’m not saying that the cause of my sadness should be blindly replaced with random happy thoughts. By using the “stick a pin in it” tool, and, by practicing Pratipaksha Bhavana, I’m creating space to handle the problem with more gracefulness, and, to focus on the positives within it. Because every challenge has a Silver Lining, if I am willing and able to do the work to discover it – and most importantly, to step forward with its beauty.

So today, in concert with feeling natural sadness about not seeing Dad for Father’s Day, I’m also happily deflated, and gratefully shining.

Thanks for listening. May your emotions be deflated, and the Silver Linings grant you freedom to grow. OM Shanti.

 

Kids These Days July 15, 2013

Hoodies of all sizes at the 2012 Rally for Trayvon in DC.

Hoodies of all sizes at the 2012 Rally for Trayvon in DC.

It seems that Trayvon Martin is on everyone’s mind today.  Who is on my mind?  Children much closer to me.  And Trayvon.  But mostly, the kids directly around me.

*  *  *

The 1st session of summer music/yoga camp wrapped up last week.

As you may have guessed, when teaching, I tend to gravitate toward the “troubled” kids.  Not the hyper, overly physical, excitable ones – although tough to manage, they tend to socialize well and quickly become accepted through lighthearted eye-rolling and general silliness.  I relate to the ones who have a really hard time socializing comfortably…who isolate, or cling, or hide, or run away, or harm themselves or others…who show signs of some sort of emotional hardship.

Over the past three weeks of camp, one little gal in particular struck a deep chord with me.  For the sake of privacy, I’ll call her “Carol.”  Carol was about 7-years-old; and it was her first time at a summer camp.  She was an enigma to most of the teachers and staff; but to me, Carol was completely familiar.  When she arrived, her favorite (and pretty much only) word was, “NO.”  I took my time with her.  First, I met with her group’s apprentices (aka camp counselors) and recommended boundary setting exercises that would liberate and empower both Carol and them.  Then with Carol, I had one-on-one conversations about her actions, suggested alternate behaviors for navigating challenges and encouraged her to apologize when she made mistakes with fellow campers.  Although a tough cookie, she was willing and earnest.  We worked together, and she tried her best.  Each day was up and down.  Still, Carol made subtle – yet profound – shifts in socialization by the end of three weeks.  For example, some days she stopped clinging to the legs of the apprentices and started interacting with other kids; she decreased her tendency to curl up into a ball and hide her face from the world; she more readily responded to my invitations to talk rather than running away; and she participated more and more in our percussion and yoga classes.

When Carol told me nobody was coming to watch her final performances, I asked if I could be her family.  I cheered her on and we smiled at each other through every song and dance.  At yoga class on the last day of camp, she gleefully joined in with the group’s playfulness and stories, as if she’d been integrated the whole time.  Before leaving for carpool, she hugged me multiple times, looked up at my face and said, “I love you.”  I answered, “I love you, too, Carol.”  And I do.

During this camp session, teachers shared theories and opinions about Carol.  Some were surprised I’d had a positive experience, exhaled with relief when she left and hoped she wouldn’t return.  One peer related to my experience and efforts, and said, “These children who need love are the reason we teach.”  Yes, indeed.  And, for me there are other reasons.

I don’t need to know what’s behind parents’ neglect to show up for a child’s needs.  They could be low-income and busily juggling many jobs; or, wealthy and struggling with emotional trauma.  They could be any race and from any background.  All parents give what they know how to give.  In some cases, what they give is insufficient.  So my approach is to recognize symptoms of neglect and, without assumption, judgment or blame – and more importantly, with compassion for the family as a whole – try to offer the child some tools for thriving despite hardship.  Throughout that process, I show the child that she is loved, no matter what she does, says and is.  I reinforce that her fallible humanness is loveable.  And more importantly, I show the child that they can reach out to community for dependable and healthy support.

Carol is the kind of kid most people give up on.  She is the kind of kid I want to spend more time with. I wish the best for this precious soul.

*  *  *

Kids these days
Grow into adults these days.
Kids these days
Become parents one day.

Kids these days
Are in pain.
Transmuting unaddressed emotions into addictions,
Transferring unaddressed emotions through violent actions –
Toward themselves and others.

Kids these days
Are alone.
Who will guide them through their emotions
Toward tools to thrive beyond hardship?
Are they destined to grow into
Suffering adults and struggling parents?

Kids these days
Break my heart wide open
In the most motivating of ways.
They make me look squarely at myself
And continue my sacred inner work.

I am lucky to work with
Kids these days.

*  *  *

Kids these days – just like Trayvon Martin before he died – are being suspended from school.  They are being sent home from summer camp and asked not to return; they are being publicly scolded by visibly disdainful parents; they are being hit for crying, slapped for saying something out loud, ignored for being troublesome, abandoned for being a burden.

And I’m talking all kids.  From all backgrounds.  Kids very, very close to me.

Which is why today, I’m less concerned with the outcome of a situation that I did not witness, in which I did not know the people involved, and more importantly, over which I have little control.  I am more concerned with taking action right here, right now.  In whatever way I am called to serve.

*  *  *

In June 2012, I was assaulted by a kid in my neighborhood.  I’d met him a few months earlier, in April, after attending DC’s Rally for Trayvon Martin.

The rally was my first “activist” action in many, many years.  I am not comfortable around atmospheres of hostility and/or conflict – either I get triggered and begin to feel hostile, or, I get scared of losing someone/something and shut down.  So when I feel passionately about a cause, I pray, I meditate, I have conversations with trusted friends and I write.  But last April, I was moved to witness the group conscience of those demanding justice.

The energy at the Rally was angry, heavy and serious.  At times hostile and conflicting.  At times peaceful.  And at times inspired by purpose.  I stood for hours in the rain, in the midst of a passionate crowd, right up at the front, near the stream of guest speakers.  I did Pranayama, choosing the cooling Sitali breathing to stay balanced and soothed.  To stay spiritually, intellectually and politically neutral, I prayed for the well-being of all beings.  To stay informed, I listened.  Mostly, I heard messages of anger and blame.

Yet, toward the end of it all, I heard Civil Rights Activist Dick Gregory say, “Meditate.  Meditate that the truth will come out.  The whole truth.”

*  *  *

I’ve been practicing meditation since 1990.  Here is the truth that has emerged from that practice:

If I am feeling anything but peaceful, then I am infusing the world with that unrest.  If I want peace in the world, I must address my own unrest, deeply understand its source, bravely face its story, constructively express its pain and resolutely commit to its healing.  When I understand that my unrest with external situations springs from my internal pain – and when I devote myself to the process of growth – I can contribute to a solution.  I can access the strength of my inner peace, share that peace in service, and consequently, increase the peace in our world.

I try not to personalize politics and current events.  If I am emotionally stirred by something I hear on the news, I take responsibility for my emotions by processing as described above.  I am NOT Trayvon Martin; and I am NOT George Zimmerman.  But I feel deeply for both beings.  And it’s my job to know why, so my responses to their situation are not impulsive, harmful or destructive, but informed, healthy and constructive.

When I meditate, I am reminded that I am just a tiny part of this universe…that beyond the horizon there are infinite mysteries that I know nothing about…that there are far too many unknowns for me to think I know better.  When I meditate, I am reminded to let go, let go, let go.  Or as some might say: Let Go and Let God.

*  *  *

After the Rally, I was waiting for the bus home.  As it pulled closer, I noticed the tight crowd toward the front, and spaciousness toward the back.  I heard why when I boarded.  In the back was a group of eight loud, rowdy kids who I recognized from my neighborhood – the well-known 17th and Euclid households, which have been historically plagued by poverty, crime and general unrest.  But y’know what?  These guys sounded like they were having fun; and after an adult-sized morning of seriousness, I wanted to cut loose.  I joined the kids, who told me that they’d just seen “The Hunger Games,” and proceeded to describe the movie with great detail and excitement (and volume!).

I was delighted to be surrounded by their enthusiasm.  One boy in particular told his parts of the story and answered my questions with such earnestness and engagement.  We all said goodbye after getting off the bus in our neighborhood.  From then forward, whenever I saw the group on the streets (they have a daily ritual of heading to McDonald’s at around 6pm), I’d say hi, ask if they’d seen any movies and generally check in.  This is how I became congenial with “Joseph” – the kid who, later that spring, would assault me.

It was 6pm on a sunny Saturday eve.  On the way back from the grocery store, I came across the 17th and Euclid crew.  As I veered toward them to say hello, Joseph jumped in front of me, shoved me, and then ran behind the bus stop.  I demanded an apology.  After some back and forth, Joseph apologized and told me he didn’t realize it was me.  He was in a blind rage about something that had happened that morning.  I was sure to validate his anger; and then we talked about alternatives to violence.

Since then, Joseph and I have run into each other multiple times; we high-five when we pass; and I’ve had the opportunity to intervene when he was striking out toward others, simply by talking about the situation.

This is all it takes with kids these days.  Spending time and sharing solutions.  Ah – and caring to do so.

*  *  *

If you’ve read my blog over the years, you know that, as a child, I experienced things that were so emotionally scarring, I spent years and years misguidedly attempting to mask and make up for that pain with alcohol, drugs and violence.  Finally, decades later I would be compelled to uncover, face and address that wound – or die.  The fact is: addiction is a killer.  And in my 30s, I was on my way down the hole – until a moment of clarity led me to seek help for my habits, and therefore, discover the support and strength to heal and grow.

Not everyone is lucky enough to have a moment of clarity and steer themselves toward solutions.  And I truly consider it simple luck – not Karma, grace, privilege, intelligence nor entitlement – that I found my way to solutions for healing and growth.  I have seen people from all backgrounds recover from addiction, transform away from violence and heal emotional trauma; and, I have seen people from all backgrounds gradually kill themselves while harming others.

My hope is to share my experience, strength and hope with youth – whether through yoga camp or street encounters – long before their childhood scars lead them down an unfortunate path toward violence, addiction or the subtle smothering of their spirits and souls.

*  *  *

This week we return for our 2nd session of summer camp!  And together, the “difficult” campers and I will work on our humanness.  I don’t care how much time and energy it takes to give a child the attention and tools she needs to thrive.  Because that is the reason I teach our kids these days

Ahimsa Now.  OM Shanti Shanti Shanti.

*  *  *

OTHER URBAN YOGA DEN BLOGS ABOUT YOUTH DEVELOPMENT
& ALTERNATIVES TO VIOLENCE:

– Compassion for Killers, Revisited (Dec. 2012)

– A Warm & Fuzzy Feeling (Nov. 2012)

– Ahimsa Now: 100 Days of Intention (Series: April – July 2012)

– Peace Tools: Infinite Compassion (June 2012)

– Haiku for George Zimmerman (April 2012)

– Peaceful Warrior (April 2012)

– Haiku for Trayvon Martin (March 2012)

– Healing Kids’ Scars With Yoga (July 2011)

– The Yoga of Being Mugged (June 2011)

 

Namaste: A Journey From Resentment To Relief April 21, 2013

Namaste.

I honor you. All of you.

The good and the bad.
The light and the dark.
The divine and the human.

NashvilleClouds2Flipped(June2011)I honor every part of you.

The parts that doubt.
The parts that feel certain.
The parts that don’t know.

The parts that leave.
The parts that stay.
The parts that hide.

I honor the whole you.

The you that stumbles.
The you that falls.
The you that rises…and falls again.

The you that gracefully balances.
The you that is rooted.
The you that is buoyant.

I honor you.

The you that is hurting.
The you that harms.
The you that grows.

The you that loves.
The you that can’t.
The you that will.

I bow to you. I bow to you. I bow to YOU.

*  *  *

My first yoga teacher used to tell us, “I’m just an old junkie, passing on what helped me change. Sat Nam.”

With a strong Kundalini practice and immersion in American Sikh communities for the first 10 years of my yoga journey, “Sat Nam” became an everyday greeting. Whether I said it silently or out loud, I reverently offered this prayer to my friends, to my co-workers, to strangers. “Sat Nam: I honor your truth.”

As with the Native American, Yoruban, Jewish and other spiritual perspectives that started shaping my view of myself and others in the early 90s, I embraced the inclusive nature of “Sat Nam.” When someone pressed their palms into prayer position at their heart, and said, “I honor your truth,” I felt genuine and total acceptance.

When I started practicing Vinyasa style yoga in about 2001, I heard a new greeting. Teachers would end class saying, “Namaste: the light in me bows to the light in you.” Or, “Namaste: the divine in me bows to the divine in you.” Or, “Namaste: I bow to all that is good and light and divine in you.”

Ick.

Sorry, but that was my first reaction! “Ick.” What about the imperfect, the dark, the messily human parts of me? If you know even a little of my story (and you might guess some of it, based on my respect for NashvilleCloudsLines(June2011)and admiration of my first yoga teacher), you know that those very non-good, non-light and non-divine parts ruled my world for a good long time. I also grew to understand, accept, appreciate and deeply love those parts after yoga came into my life in the 90s, and I started growing toward a healthier balance.

Yoga continued to be a huge part of my life; and I started to feel defensive at the end of classes, when teachers pressed their palms into prayer mudra at their heart and – with all the best intentions – bowed to the light in me. Sadly, I grew to resent this highfalutin’ “Namaste.”

*  *  *

After 15 years of yoga practice, I decided to become an instructor. I chose the residential Integral Yoga Teacher Training at Satchidananda Ashram in Virginia. At the IYTT, we ended classes (and meetings, texts and e-mails!) with “OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.” I didn’t notice at the time, but am now realizing that I did not hear one single “Namaste” during the four weeks. As the days passed, our immersion in the Yoga Sutras and the Eight Limbs nourished my craving for a sustainable inner peace – and, my yearning to share yoga’s tools for cultivating that peace. I became very comfortable ending classes with “OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti: Peace, Peace, Peace.”

Then came the dilemma. Teaching at studios in DC, I would end sessions with “OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti,” and some students would bow and answer “Namaste.” Ack! Did these students think that I didn’t appreciate their light? Mama mia. Quickly, I had to let go of that worry and continue to believe in my choice to simply wish my students peace.

*  *  *

Over recent years, I started hearing different definitions of “Namaste.”

In 2011, I attended a yoga workshop with Max Strom. He both greeted us with and explained “Namaste.” “I bow to you,” he said, firmly. “That’s all it means. If you go to India, you will be greeted the same way by everyone, whether saying good morning at a temple, or, buying a drink at a tea shop.”

In 2012, one of our summer camp teaching assistants was from Nepal. He told me that in his Hindu culture, “Namaste” (or “Namaskar”) is a basic greeting. As common as “Hello,” and as meaningful as “I honor you.”

Earlier this spring, 2013, at the Shiva Navaratri ceremony I attended, the Hindu priests would periodically invite devotees to take some “Namaskaram.” I saw people doing prostrations, offering themselves in deep bows and lowering themselves to the ground. With this visual illustration, I finally understood that Namaskar is the most humble way to show respect, honor, gratitude. (It also redefined my own practice and teaching of Surya Namaskaram, or, Sun Salutations.)

Quite recently, I noticed a residual jolt of resentment when someone offered a bow to the divine in me. I’ll admit it – I needed academic validation that “Namaste” is inclusive of our entire being. I asked a Sanskrit expert for the literal translation. His response: namas = I bow/ honor/salute; te = NashvilleCloudsThunderhead(June2011)to you. “I bow to you.” “I honor you.” “Salutations to you.” It is a reverential expression of greeting and/or thanks. Used as hello, goodbye, and thank you.

What a relief!  No matter what other teachers say, I can finally focus on the true meaning of the greeting when I hear it.  I can feel the essence of unqualified acceptance.

*  *  *

I’ve chosen to continue closing my classes with my IY-influenced “OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti…Peace, Peace, Peace.” But for the month of April, I have been experimenting. Replacing “OM Shanti” with “Namaste.” And I have to admit, it still feels very uncomfortable. Because I know students have heard other teachers share their adapted definitions of the greeting. And I don’t want them to think that I only honor the good, the light, the divine. I want them to know that I deeply bow to every single part.

From this, the above poem evolved.

I will always remember and yearn for the humility of my first yoga teacher. That old junkie, just sharing what changed him. So whether I offer “Namaste,” “Sat Nam,” “OM Shanti,” “Yo, wha’s up?” “Hi!” or even a silent smile, I offer my greeting with 100% honor for the whole of you.

*  *  *

I still wonder: What influenced the new “Namaste?” Where did the good/light/divine skew come from? Why would millions of yogis – in the studios and the trainings and the magazines and the videos – want to stray so far from the real thing?

Well…that’s another can of worms, for a different writer to tackle!

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

 

Back to Basics: Real Yoga Doesn’t Hurt (Revisited) February 2, 2013

“Tadaasana, Pranayama, Sankalpa.”

There is a reason I repeat these three words each time we regroup at the top of the mat between Sun Salutations.  For me, these three elements – The Pose, The Breath and The Intention – are the basics of yoga.  Although mentioned as three unique parts of yoga’s eight-limbed system, in my practice they are inseparable.  When I align myself in Mountain Pose (Tadaasana), I firmly embody my intention (Sankalpa).  When I breathe deliberately (Pranayama), I exhale obstacles, and inhale my intention with resolve.

When I fuse these three elements together, I fortify my purpose for that session of practice – and that sense of purpose begins to trickle into my life.

(Above is an excerpt from my January 2012 Back to Basics post – repeated in its entirety, below, to summarize our January 2013 Back To Basics class focus.  Because for me, the basics of yoga will never, ever change…)

*  *  *

DoNotPushTruck(Dec11)OK, I confess.  I’ve created a sensational title for a simple blog about our January class focus, “Back to Basics.”

“How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” was the sensational headline for a recent New York Times article (link below) that tells a simple story.  That headline – and the article’s content – generated more media reactions, responses and official statements than any article on any topic I’ve seen in a long while.  Perhaps more than “Occupy.”

How exciting!

Lively debate!  Impassioned professions!  True confessions!  All due to a newspaper’s intelligent twisting of heads for their benefit.  All due to a newspaper headline writer’s clever choice of wording.  All due to that newspaper’s strategy to promote its science writer’s upcoming book release!

If you can get past the hype, or accept that the article is only discussing one aspect of yoga (Asana, or, poses), or focus on the words How and Can, or perhaps, erase the headline from your mind altogether – you might find a simple story conveying one yoga teacher’s honest and humble experience.  That’s the story I found.  Therefore, I should have quit while I was ahead.

But no.  In preparing to write this blog, my goal was to read 20 or so online articles (all found by Google-ing “Yoga Wreck Body”) and numerous Facebook comments related to the original New York Times piece.  The pieces span a wide range of discussion: what constitutes “real” yoga; whether yoga should be practiced as exercise; how the NYT article is scientifically incorrect; how the teacher featured in the article is morally wrong; what we can do to practice yoga safely.  And so on.  Truly moved by people’s passionate and intelligent remarks, I wanted to immerse myself in public opinion, and then form my own.

Instead, the more I read, the less interested I became in others’ opinions.

On the contrary, I found myself delightfully reflective and clear about my original, personal, untainted opinion of yoga.  I remembered: the media gains attention by twisting facts, embellishing mediocrity and inspiring controversy; any form of physical activity can lead to serious injury; and the definition of “real” yoga will be relative to each person who experiences it.

So I stopped reading.

Now…getting Back to Basics…

*  *  *

“Tadaasana, Pranayama, Sankalpa.”

There is a reason I repeat these three words each time we regroup at the top of the mat between Sun Salutations.  For me, these three elements – The Pose, The Breath and The Intention – are the basics of yoga.  Although mentioned as three unique parts of yoga’s eight-limbed system, in my practice they are inseparable.  When I align myself in Mountain Pose (Tadaasana), I firmly embody my intention (Sankalpa).  When I breathe deliberately (Pranayama), I exhale obstacles, and inhale my intention with resolve.

When I fuse these three elements together, I fortify my purpose for that session of practice – and that sense of purpose begins to trickle into my life.

*  *  *

The Pose (Asana)

When teaching the basics, I like to start with the body.  In my own practice, focusing on healthy alignment and mechanics have established a practice that will last – I pray – a lifetime.  In addition, I find that the body is the primary reason most students come to yoga classes these days.  Either their doctor recommended this ancient remedy for modern health conditions; or, they’ve decided they want something different from the usual workout.

January yoga classes are traditionally packed.  New Year’s Resolutions and special offers bring row upon row of newbies and long-lost practitioners to studios, gyms and workplace wellness programs.  And so I offer a month-long Back to Basics approach that builds throughout the weeks.  Tadaasana is the perfect starting point, because the alignment cues in Mountain are foundational for many yoga poses.  That same week we flow through and finely tune a basic Sun Salutation; then we break down the mechanics of backward bends.

By the end of week one, beginner students are melting into the comfort of a safe and traditional Asana practice; and more experienced students are rolling their eyes and exhaling loud sighs of frustration!  Thanks to past experience, I smile inwardly, speak encouragingly and trudge forward resolutely!

The 2nd week we focus on bends, folds and twists; the 3rd is inversions and counter-poses.  At this point, the blissful exclamations begin: “Oh my god, I’ve never felt so safe in that pose!” and “I never realized how much pressure I was putting on my neck/lower back/knees!” and “I didn’t think I’d ever be able to do that.”  I include this not to pat myself on the back as a yoga teacher, but to spotlight the effectiveness of patiently committing to healthy alignment and mechanics – and, to give major credit to the teachers who taught me that patience and planted the seeds of a life-long practice.

We finish the month with yogi’s choice, where students request detailed instruction of the poses that frustrate, frighten or baffle them.  This is the fun part!  Just yesterday, I strapped myself up to demo Chaturanga mechanics and the class cracked up as I slithered like a clumsy lizard into the pose.  There’s nothing like the release of a good laugh at the end of four weeks of Asana intensity!

*  *  *

The Breath (Pranayama)

The 2nd aphorism in the most widely used yoga teacher training text – the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – says, “Yogas Chitta Vritti Nirodhah: Yoga restrains disturbances of the mind.”

By practicing Asana, warming up the structure, activating the nervous system and stimulating digestion, we essentially get the body out of the way.  When the body is at ease, the mind can be at peace.  Pranayama practice enhances that peace.

BreatheDeeplyWith few exceptions, I complement Asana with the traditional technique of three-part nostril breathing, or Deergha Swaasam.  The benefits of this Pranayama style seem infinite.  It gives the wandering mind something to focus on.  It lays a strong foundation for inner peace.  It increases our oxygenation and consequently strengthens the immune system.  It prevents energetic burn out and dehydration.  It massages our organs and stimulates digestion.  And on and on.

Although I’d been training to breathe through the nose since my 1st Kundalini yoga class in 1993, my 2008 “Yoga for Athletes” training and introduction to John Douillard’s brilliant book, “Body, Mind, and Sport” truly sealed the deal on nostril breathing for me.  This workshop and book reminded me how a peaceful baby breathes through the nose, its belly softly rising and falling with the filling and emptying of the lower lobes of the lungs.  Only when a baby reaches crisis – a congested sinus, a shocking sound, the need for food – does it open its mouth, take chest-height gasps of air, and cry for help.  When the crisis is over, the baby intuitively returns to soft nostril belly breathing.

As adults, however, we somehow depart from that natural state of peace!  As if in constant danger, we habitually take short breaths, in the upper chest, through the mouth.  Our exercise choices reinforce this crisis breathing.  No wonder we fall prey to stress, anxiety, distraction and energy depletion!  In addition to the benefits I’ve already mentioned, Douillard poignantly points out, “This shallow breathing soon becomes a way of life,” and results in serious health considerations, such as excess fat storage, digestive diseases, compromised lymphatic drainage and neck and shoulder tightness.

Ick.

In class we pause between Sun Salutations or other Asana practice.  I invite students to “allow the body to rest, but keep the breath deliberate.”  Returning to Deergha Swaasam regulates the heart rate, breath rate and overall energy.  Plus, if the heart is racing, what do you think the mind is doing?  Racing.

The ancients did not invent yoga as a cardio workout – in their society, they found a great need to calm the mind, and enjoyed the resulting benefits.  Even the Mahabharata – another ancient text that informs yoga practice – highlights a story of finding inner peace for the sake of effective battle.

What is the battlefield in your life?  Deliberate breathing practices can help maintain peace, calm and clarity during disturbances – whether they take the form of a pressing deadline, a workplace conflict, a family crisis, a traffic hassle or an internal struggle.

*  *  *

The Intention (Sankalpa)

Speaking of internal struggle…  I don’t want to tell my entire “What brought me to yoga” story right now; it would distract from the Back to Basics monthly focus.  I will briefly share:  Before I started practicing yoga in 1993, my life included much harm – being harmed and committing harm, in both subtle and more palpable ways.  Over nearly 20 years, this ancient practice has given me tools for healing, transformation and growth.  Yoga is not a physical practice for me.  Its Eight Limbs present a design for living.  They guide me to set ethical intentions, then practice physical and mental exercises that will liberate my body and mind, therefore allowing me to be more effective in and of service to the world.

At the beginning of each class, I invite students to notice what’s on their mind – without editing or judgment.  To honestly notice what’s there, whether pleasant or unpleasant.  We start where we are.  I then suggest focusing on one thought that’s strongly calling for their attention – something that’s been tapping them on the shoulder all day, or perhaps much longer.  This thought, when shaped into a positive reflection, affirmation or dedication, becomes their intention for class.

A Sankalpa is an intention, resolution and/or commitment that brings purpose to our time on the mat – and can affect our day, our world, our lives.

It is also a practical tool for facing challenges – both physical and mental – during the Asana practice itself.  When feeling challenged, I ask myself, “How can I align my reaction with my Sankalpa?  Which gives me more peace of mind and fortifies my efforts – facing or stepping back from the challenge?”  Because sometimes I need to dive into something daunting; other times I need to accept that it’s not the right time to push my limits.

Having a Sankalpa during yoga class not only forms a habit of self-inquiry and motivation, it also guarantees that my practice is harm-free.  It might feel uncomfortable to face or reduce challenge.  Yet, discomfort is different from harm.  While discomfort can yield constructive learning, harm can result in destructive pain.  By having an intention for practice, we become aware of and harness the positive effects of these nuances.

*  *  *

So, indeed, real yoga doesn’t hurt.  There’s just so much more to it than being afraid of potential physical pain, seeking rehabilitation of physical conditions, or plainly, addressing any physical need.

My friend once said, if the goal of yoga was purely physical, the Yoga Sutras would be a very short text: “Touch your toes.”  Hehehe.

Let’s get real…as my favorite teachers like to point out, there must be a reason we’ve chosen yoga.  If we just wanted to “feel the burn,” we have a million other exercise plans to choose from.  I’ll take the plunge and say: we choose yoga because we want more than a workout – we want to change.  We know it is a transformational practice.  Again, even the ancients knew this – there were enough troubles in society that someone invented a practice to cultivate an “easeful body, peaceful mind and useful life.”*

To this end, I like to stick with the basics: keen awareness of body, breath and mind.  Setting our intention, aligning a pose and deepening the breath – and bringing all three elements together to fortify our purpose – we not only exercise the body, but we empower our lives.

May all beings discover their own “real” yoga.  OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.  Peace, Peace, Peace.

*  *  *

The original article that caused an avalanche of opinions:
New York Times, William Broad, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body”

* Quote from Integral Yoga Founder, Swami Satchidananda

Photos: Top – Larkin P. Goff (by permission); Others – Holly Meyers (the author)

 

Peace Tools: Gaining Counsel July 9, 2012

Clearly it is my life practice to find the tools to:
pause, assess, gain counsel, decide, then communicate.
Rather than cutting and running.
Yup.
Trying.

– Day 94 of Ahimsa Now: 100 Days of Intention

*  *  *

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.

*  *  *

In these final days of “Ahimsa Now: 100 Days of Intention,” I continue to identify and work on how my own fears and pain can make me act harmfully toward others.  Same old story, I know.  As described in past blogs, I have a history of being harmed, which makes me over-react at times.

There’s nothing like a moment of pause to keep me from striking out (with words or other actions) or running like hell (often in the form of quitting something or someone) when I think I might be in danger.

And in that moment of pause, there’s nothing like remembering to ask for an ear, for perspective, for guidance, for help.

Yoga trains me to take that pause.  And community reminds me to gain counsel.

*  *  *

A friend once remarked that his mind is a dangerous neighborhood…too dangerous to walk through alone.

I possess a great talent for conjuring up and telling myself negative stories.  Under this false reality and stress, I can make some pretty rash decisions on my own!  What if instead I paused to gained counsel…and then made a decision?  In my experience, every time I reach out and get honest with others about my feelings on a stressful situation, I receive immense love, compassion and understanding.  I might also receive rigorously frank opinions and lectures!  Either way, gaining counsel restores my peace instead of allowing me to stew in negativity.

Whether or not I follow my friends’, teachers’ and other guides’ advice, hearing opinions and cultivating perspective always makes my decisions more mature and sane.  And even if the final belief is that, yes, my well-being is at risk and I should get out…I at least leave in a responsible and accountable manner.

Gaining counsel is a Peace Tool for me.  I do it for the sake of my own peace and others’.

Ahimsa Now!

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

*  *  *

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.