The Urban Yoga Den

…where it's all yoga.

Yoga Focus: Taking Stock November 9, 2015

8 November, 2015

This week marks the Indian holiday of Diwali, which is generally known as the Indian Festival Of Lights. Yet, it signifies so much more. Most markedly, the 5-day festival celebrates the triumph of Light over Darkness by recalling the many battles won by virtuous warriors over evil demons. On a social level, it represents a time of families gathering to share sweets and sweetness, couples honoring their partnerships and siblings acknowledging their love. On a practical level, the holiday signifies a fiscal new year, when businesses start a new financial calendar, take inventory and take stock.

For me, the arrival of Diwali marks a period of taking stock in all areas of life, and, of beginning to shape intentions for the next calendar year.

Annually, from late July (my birthday) through the early Autumn (Equinox, Jewish New Year and my sobriety anniversary), I spend time reflecting on the prior year. That reverse reflection shifts into all-wheel-drive when Diwali arrives. There is something about the shift in weather that energizes me inwardly. My dreams start to spark up, my passions start to speak up. I begin taking stock of what I presently “have,” why I presently live and how I presently love. And so on. As I inventory my life, I start to look forward with deep intention. By late December (Winter Solstice and traditional New Year), I am feeling a positive pull toward productivity and manifestation.

So while most yoga studios, yoga teachers and people in general are jumping on the Gratitude bandwagon for November, I am pausing to inventory my life – so I can jump on the approaching Sankalpa train with as much discernment, clarity and resolve as possible.

***

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. But, for now, I’m consumed with planning my New Year’s Eve Sankalpa Vinyasa workshop.

Wait – didn’t I just say that I quit teaching yoga?

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. And among the post’s comments was one question: “What about New Year’s Eve?” I’ve taught my “Let Your Intentions Flow” workshop for five years in DC. Teaching that late-night session of sacred inner work not only facilitates students’ New Year “resolutions,” it fuels me with purpose. So…when my teacher, who also owns a studio, mentioned that I could hold the workshop there, I said “Yes.”

This in itself marks a huge period of Autumn-supported reflection and inventory – I may change what I offer and how I offer it. As this change brews, I’m excited to look into some dark corners and see what I might illuminate going forward.

***

Which brings me back to Diwali. Yoga has always given me permission to be authentic, my whole self. It has encouraged me to look squarely at my past, my present and my potential. It has kept me safe through dark times. It has made me curious about that darkness. And it has consistently guided me toward the light of truth.

For this week’s Diwali observance, I’m re-reading and re-posting 2012 and 2009 blogs about the holiday – my perspectives and experiences have not changed. The ideas and practices are tried and true. I hope you enjoy them.

Happy Diwali! OM Shanti.

***

November 15, 2012 – Diwali Class Featured in Huffington Post!

Photo: Rita Maximilian

Photo: Rita Maximilian

I am honored (floored, really) to be featured in this Huffington Post blog (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dawn-cherie-araujo/diwali-columbia-heights_b_2131582.html) – “Diwali Yoga in Columbia Heights,” by religion journalist Dawn Cherie Araujo – about our special yoga class last night.

As my friend Sachin notes in the article, the practice was mind-blowing.  I will not take credit for that outcome, however – it’s the result of the yoga itself, and a roomful of very strong intentions.  Heartfelt thanks to our students, from our wonderful little 8-year-old guest to the rest of the yoga veterans in the class.

Yoga is such a gift.  Love love love…  OM Shanti.

*  *  *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Diwali.

OM Shanti.

*  *  *

October 20, 2009 – Where the Wild Things Are

“You need good light to make a movie, is it not so?  And then you need good darkness in which to show it.  Isn’t that funny?”  – Swami Satchidananda, founder of Integral Yoga

I have a confession:  I’m scared of the dark.

Well, not “the dark,” as in a dark room, or a dark forest or dark places like that.  I’m afraid of the dark-ness within me.  That’s right, folks.  This Diwali-celebrating, Jewish-new-year-observing, eight-limbs-of-yoga-loving gal gets sucked into the tunnels of doubt, despair and even depression at times.

Another confession: I think sometimes I try too hard to “dissolve” that darkness.

Heaven forbid I head back to that bottom mentioned in my 9/24 “Welcome to the Urban Yoga Den” entry.  Even now, nearly 20 years later, when darkness taps at my door, I feel terrified.  My solution?  Do something.  Quick.  Light candles, exhale and let go, practice more rituals.  Do, do, do.

Y’know all this new moon/Autumn/Diwali activity that I’ve been writing about and practicing lately?  Is it healthy and positive, or is it my way of escaping the discomfort of life’s dark moments?  The fact is – life hurts sometimes.  The question is – should I run away by engaging in non-stop activity; or should I take a deep breath, stick around and see what happens?

I saw Where the Wild Things Are last night.  When I first saw the trailer back in July, I sobbed.  That kid’s pain leaped off the screen and into my chest.  And when he leaped into his fantasy world…wow…without getting into the details of my childhood, let’s just say I related big-time.  And that was only the trailer!

In the original Where the Wild Things Are storybook, it take Max 12 pages to travel from his bedroom forest to the wild things’ island.  His journey in that little sailboat lasts “through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year.”  All of that time and effort to leave the past, the pain, the ickiness behind!  And in the end, where does he end up?  Where the wild things are – an island of monsters.

Seems familiar to me.  Hmmm.

How gratifying to finally see the film after so much anticipation.  Spike Jonze hit the nail on the head.  I’m getting choked up simply recalling how vividly he portrays a child’s reactions to confusion, betrayal, neglect and alienation.  How a child creates a fantasy world in order to cope.  How that child learns that, even in his imaginary kingdom, there is confusion, betrayal, neglect and alienation.

I’m that child.  I mean right now.  I’m that kid.  It’s taken a while, but I’m learning that even with the warm glow of Diwali’s lights, even with the sacred space of yoga, even with the refuge of doing, doing, doing – life happens.

Monsters will always show up – on far-off islands, at home, in loved ones and within my own self.  Where humans are involved, there will be pain.  There will also be joy.  Where reality exists, there will be darkness.  And there will also be light.

So there’s nothing to be scared of after all.

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

*  *  *

October 15, 2009 – Diwali Intentions

Sometimes I feel very emotional after teaching a particularly energized Integral Yoga class.  Tonight was one of those times.

For the months of September and October, our classes have focused on Pranayama (see Tips-n-Tools for more on our bi-monthly focus), or breathing practices.  Complemented by this week’s waning moon and the coming of Fall, our exhales have come to mean more than a mere letting go of air.  Indeed, they’ve become symbols of transformation.

So at tonight’s IY class at Past Tense Studio, under a rainy sky and just four days before the new moon, we imagined our battles, troubles and trials in the palms of our hands.  Holding our palms together at heart-center, we honored this darkness, and perhaps grew to understand it.

Next, after inhaling our fingertips toward the sky, we exhaled and allowed our arms to open wide, releasing our darkness.  With each exhale we began to dissolve what no longer serves.

The intention in the room felt so deeply human, even vulnerable.  How could one not be moved?

Today marks the opening of the Indian holy days called Diwali – from the crescent to the new moon, as that pie-in-the-sky whittles away to nothing, Hindus, Sikhs and others celebrate the proverbial triumph of good over evil within individuals.  During this Festival of Lights, as the night sky darkens to moonless, the golden glow of oil lamps fills streets and homes.

Indian folkloric tales share the journeys of historical characters returning from exile, imprisonment and battles to be welcomed by candlelit temples and rows of oil lamps.

And here in the Mid-Atlantic, as the moon disappears and the change of seasons falls upon us, we exhale in yoga class and let go, let go, let go – making room for more light within.

In Autumn, nature begins its own process of letting go.  Green grass turns dry brown, leaves turn brilliant colors then drop to the ground, blue skies surrender to misty grey and the sun sinks lower each day.  Things appear to be dying in the fall.  At the same time, gardeners plant bulbs that nestle in the ground to be nurtured by fall’s fertilizers.

‘Tis the season to say goodbye to the old, to let it die off and sink away.  So plant your bulbs and let them rest while you live each changing moment of autumn.  Light a candle, wish your darkness farewell, then let yourself glow.

I am setting a Diwali intention.  Between today and the new moon of Sunday, October 18th, as that sliver of a moon disappears, I invite you to join me in envisioning your darkness between the palms of your hands – embrace it, honor it, understand it.  Lift your fingertips to the sky, and exhale to let go, let go, let go.

May the light of truth overcome all the darkness.  OM Shanti.

(P.S.  Gratitude to Liz Workman of Nashville’s Belmont Lotus, and many others who believe that our obstacles can be teachers, for the inspiration.)

Advertisements
 

ATONEMENT October 3, 2014

UnionPrayerBook(Oct2014)“We cast into the depths of the sea
Our sins, and failures, and regrets.
Reflections of our imperfect selves
Flow away.
What can we bear,
With what can we part?
We upturn the darkness,
Bring what is buried to light.
What hurts still lodge,
What wounds have yet to heal?
We empty our hands,
Release the remnants of shame,
Let go fear and despair
That have dug their home in us.
Open hands,
Opening heart –
The year flows in,
The year flows out.”
~ Marcia Falk

+ + + + +

This poem was part of the Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) services I attended with my father in Nashville nine days ago. And today marks the final 24 hours of the High Holy Days. Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – begins at sunset.

The intensity of this poem truly captures the depth of inner work that Jews approach each year at this time. The new year comes first, then a ritual of casting away obstacles, then a period of forgiveness – offered and requested – and finally, Yom Kippur. Tonight’s and tomorrows prayers, reflections and fasting bring us to neutral, gift us with a blank slate. We step forward with healthy, peaceful, loving intentions after having done our best at releasing past transgressions – committed by and against us.

Phew! Like I said: intense. In 12-Step Recovery, there is a similar process. And in many spiritual traditions, there are processes of examining our behaviors, discovering their roots/motivations, making amends, and, forgiving ourselves and others.

SOMETIMES, THE GREATEST AMENDS AND THE DEEPEST FORGIVENESS ARE OWED TO OUR SELVES…

For me, this was one of those years. Yes, I made mistakes in my actions toward others; and I did my best to process, understand, take action about them. There is a bit more work to be done there; and it will be done promptly.

However, reflections this week have led me to a certain “blueness.” Not depression, not remorse. But grief. Grief of years lost to unhealthy, toxic, harmful and self-destructive behavior. This fall – right now – marks the 25th anniversary of my darkest descent into alcoholism’s painful grip…25 years ago, I was in the midst of the worst time of my life. It’s heartbreaking to recall how much I harm I did to myself, how little honor I had for life, how badly I wanted to die.

No details. Not here. Not yet…

So today, I am reflecting back and also standing right here, in this present moment. After September’s Yoga Class Focus of GROWTH…well, I’d say that I have grown a lot this past month! And as I prepare for Yom Kippur’s 24-hour rally, I am setting the following Sankalpa (an intention of deep resolve and purpose, stated as if it is already happening):

I DEEPLY LOVE AND FORGIVE MYSELF.

Because today, 25 years after not even knowing the meaning of these words, I truly do love and forgive myself.

I wish this for you, too.

THANK YOU for being a part of this beautiful life. You help me know that I am loved, accepted, understood, supported and cared for.

LOVE TO ALL. ShalOM Shanti.
(Book was a gift from my dad – one of my family’s original prayer books for the High Holy Days.)

 

Sankalpa: The Space Between December 13, 2012

Filed under: Inspiration,New Year,Spirituality — Holly Meyers @ 10:38 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

The New Year approaches. Perhaps you are considering your resolutions for 2013. Consider this:

Your past. Your experience. Your mistakes. Your embarrassments. Your outright failings. Your fulfilling moments. Your accomplishments. Your successes. Your triumphs.

Your foundation for setting New Year’s Resolutions.

Photo: Holly Meyers

Photo: Holly Meyers

Personally, I cannot look ahead to future goals without deeply (deeply) reflecting on my past. Behind me lie the clues for sensing what might come next. And if I seriously consider these hints, my next steps will be in harmony with whatever makes sense for my ongoing direction. On the other hand, if I do not consider where I’ve come from, then despite having all the best motivations, my path forward will certainly include more bumps, stalls and difficulties than necessary.

In the past, all too often I would set a goal (whether New Year related or not) based on unfounded hopes for the future…correction…based on conjured demands on my future. For example, the future must yield this or that. It must because the present is disappointing, unacceptable, even unbearable. In my past, current conditions would inspire a desire for change – but without recognition that change requires reflection, intention and then resolution.

There is a space between assessing the past and setting goals for the future. In that space dwells Sankalpa – Sanskrit for “deep resolve” or more generally, “intention.”

* * *

At the beginning of every yoga class that I teach, I invite yogis to form a personal intention for the practice – but only after taking time to observe the current, authentic flow of thoughts (without editing or censoring), the present physical state (without judgment), the natural breathing (without shaping it at all) and the senses (without controlling the tug or pull). Next, returning to the mind, we zero-in on one thought that’s been tapping us on the shoulder more than ever – again, without censoring or editing. And based on that thought – regardless of its quality – we shape an affirmation, a dedication or a positive reflection to bring purpose to our time on the mat. We form a Sankalpa.

With that Sankalpa in mind, we check in with how the body feels when the thoughts are positive; we shape the breath into three-parts to deepen the flow of intention on the inhale, and to dissolve and release distractions on the exhale; we notice that, as we embody and breathe with intention, the senses soften and concentration can deepen. In a way, we cycle through the eight limbs as a centering ritual.

During our Asana practice, I encourage yogis to regularly reconnect their body, breath and intention.

By the end of class, all of our initial observations – the mind, the body, the breath, the senses – have become the past, they are behind us. Distracting thoughts, worries or anticipations about the future have softened. What remains is the present intention in our hearts and minds, and our resolve to take that Sankalpa off our mats and into the rest of our day.

* * *

For December, anticipating the approaching flip of the calendar and the related trend of goal-setting, I introduced “Intention and Purpose” as our class focus. And my home studio (Quiet Mind Yoga in DC) chose Warrior II as the Asana of the month. So we’re fusing Sankalpa and Asana for some deliberate work toward New Year’s resolutions, and gearing up for our New Year’s Eve Sankalpa Vinyasa workshop at the studio.

Inevitably, my teaching of these themes and poses is powerfully shaping my personal reflections and practice. (I am so lucky to be devoted to yoga, and to teach it! I can’t imagine trying to navigate life without such intent and purpose.) Here’s what’s been arising for me this month…

When I look back on 2012, I recall these landmarks (in the order they popped into my mind):
– Committing to my “Ahimsa Now: 100 Days of Intention” blog and actions
– Rockin’ out at loads of awesome concerts
– Rockin’ out (and praying my heart out) at the Jai Uttal, Hanumen and DC Supersonic Kirtans; playing percussion and chanting with wonderful Bhakti yogis
– Coordinating and facilitating the 1-year reunion for DC-area Off the Mat, Into the World intensive participants; wrapping up my volunteer Community Builder service for OTM
– Planting roots as a teacher at Quiet Mind Yoga; part-time managing QMY for a temporary spring/summer gig

Photo: Holly Meyers

Photo: Holly Meyers

– Teaching yoga and percussion for another fantastic six weeks of the Levine School of Music’s summer camp
– Being mildly assaulted by a kid in my neighborhood; engaging in a makeshift restorative justice process with him right there and then; enjoying complete reconciliation with him months later
– Leaving a long-term teaching gig on principle; realizing I could have navigated the situation more confidently and potentially stayed
– Celebrating my team – The Washington Nationals – as they clinched the MLB National League East division title and wrestled their way through a noble post season (my god, I still get butterflies in my stomach and tears in my eyes recalling witnessing it all)
– Reuniting with some important friends; losing some relationships with people I care about due to my fear-based triggers and consequent reactions; healing some relationships despite my triggers and reactions; enjoying stronger relationships with those that embrace and practice the process of healing and growing from past patterns; receiving patience and love from those that support my process of healing and growth
– Witnessing, praying for and showing up to support close friends going through very difficult challenges
– Saying a final good bye to a man who betrayed me over and over and over; wising up; honoring my heart and soul
– Enjoying and witnessing ongoing healing and growth within my family of origin
– Attending yoga workshops and trainings focusing on at-risk populations’ issues, including Tommy Rosen’s Recovery 2.0 and James Fox’s Prison Yoga Project; starting a regular practice with Faith Hunter; tuning up the Chakras with Seane Corn and Amy Barnes
– Reaching 10 years of recovery from addiction; continuing to connect with and be of service in my recovery community
– Celebrating my 47th birthday with loving friends and community
– Reaching out far-and-wide with a job search effort; receiving support from many; facing the reality of my un-employability within today’s job market; navigating the doubt, fear and stress of being without full-time employment; using yoga and related practices to remain peaceful despite stress; borrowing money and navigating related shame and despair
– Feeling a very definitive shift from being negatively enmeshed with the pain of my past, to being positively strengthened by that past, and witnessing it inform my present purpose
– Staying open and honest, maintaining my “Nothing To Hide” mantra

* * *

Looking ahead, when I envision my ongoing future, I see these larger goals:
– “Ahimsa Now” as a nonprofit project, program or organization
– The Urban Yoga Den as a physical space for restorative work

Photo: Maria Teresa Henderson

Photo: Maria Teresa Henderson

– Credentials via university degrees or other certifications to support the creation of Ahimsa Now and The Urban Yoga Den
– Contributing to Restorative Justice efforts as a yoga teacher, counselor, social worker and/or lawyer
– The Urban Yoga Den blog evolving into a wider-reaching resource and a full-length memoir
– Contributing to family well-being and supporting the healthy aging of my father
– Remaining an active member of my recovery community, in service to others
– A loving, trusting, devoted, evolving circle of friends
– Playing percussion professionally more often
– A financially sustained life through which I can give more to others, and cultivate more rejuvenation for myself
– Yoga anchoring my every breath, thought, action ‘til the day I die

I’m sure I’m forgetting something! But hey, these are long-term ideas, so they aren’t going anywhere…

To set intentions for next year, I want to look clearly at what has happened this year, and recognize obvious direction, natural patterns, ongoing strengths and challenges. Also, I want to see if that experience is at all related to my vision for the future; and if so, how and where and why. And I must connect the dots between past experience and future dreams. And only then can I set intentions for next steps.

* * *

Behind me lies my past, before me awaits my future…in my heart center dwells my Sankalpa for moving forward – with informed wisdom, deep resolve and realistic intention.

So, when I think about Sankalpa for 2013, I feel these intentions arise in my heart:
– I will continue doing the practices and work to heal (from past brokenness), grow (into new strength) and serve (passing on what helps me heal and grow).
– I will continue to plant seeds for opportunities to share yoga with at-risk beings.
– I will ask peers and teachers for advice re: continuing education to strengthen credentials and knowledge for starting a non-profit organization. I will research their suggestions and options for continuing education. I will contact schools or programs regarding scholarships and other preparatory steps.

Photo: Holly Meyers

Photo: Holly Meyers

– I will practice percussion regularly.
– I will continue to attend concerts and baseball games for rejuvenating, exhilarating, blissful breaks. I will spend healthy time in nature.
– I will continue to pause and witness my own fears when feeling negatively triggered by those I care about. I will continue to slow down reactions and decrease the need to make amends. I will make amends promptly when necessary. I will prioritize developing trust and love.
– I will nurture friendships. I will visit family at least three times. I will make appointments to research services to support my aging father.
– I will continue to seek financially sustaining work that supports my day-to-day living, and, my step-by-step pursuance of continuing education and the founding of a nonprofit.
– I will chant my face off and pray my heart out at Kirtans. I will work with teachers to enhance my Asana practice and pass it on to my students.

This is it. This is what arises in my heart for the coming year. I am keeping it simple, building on the roots that were planted during 2012, which was a very positive year for me. Gratefully. I am feeling myself returning to my essence, my strength, my joy.

When I practice this process of assessing the past, envisioning the future, and setting realistic intentions for each present step forward, I can be true to and consistently fulfill my big-picture purpose. But how do I discover my purpose? Stay tuned for the next December blog, “On Purpose” – inspired by my recent teacher training with the Prison Yoga Project.

Wishing you a reflective December. Hope to see you on the mat, in the ‘hood or among the electronic air waves soon. OM Shanti.

 

Ahimsa Now: 100 Days of Intention April 6, 2012

Beautifully hopeful mural in my neighborhood.

*  *  *

In a recent blog entry, I mentioned “Ahimsa Now” – my idea for a non-profit organization whose mission is to use yoga and related practices to address emotional pain and increase inner peace in at-risk youth and those that serve them, consequently decreasing violence in at-risk communities.

When I called my friend Ronni to tell her about this long-envisioned, presently hibernating dream, she responded, “Sounds like it’s time for another 100-day ritual!”  She’s referring to last year’s “Happy Heart Project,” during which I awoke each morning between August 28th & December 5th, lit a stick of incense, and affirmed: “My intention today is to grow toward joy.”  My main takeaway after 100 days?  I grew to embrace that there are no goals, only intentions – reinforced frequently, through a process of openness, willingness, action and growth.

Equally as important – I came to profoundly accept, appreciate and stop apologizing for my humanness.  Now that’s a happy heart.

*  *  *

Ronni joined me in last year’s Happy Heart Project, burning her incense and meditating on her own intention.

So here we are again, launching a deliberate, one-day-at-a-time journey toward July 13th.  This time around, I am simply saying, “Ahimsa Now” as I light my incense.  “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.  In the Sutras, Ahimsa is one of the “Yama” – five recommended abstentions, or rules of conduct rooted in abstinence.

Ahimsa is a principle that I aim toward every breathing moment.  It can manifest in many ways – not causing emotional harm for others through gossip or careless remarks; not taking my bad day out on those around me; not harming my own body by practicing unmindful yoga; not harming my own heart by insulting myself; and on and on.

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 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.

Let the exploration begin.

*  *  *

What are the alternatives to violence?  Luckily, yoga offers many; and I will write about them this April, during which my Monthly Focus for yoga classes is “Peace.”

More will most certainly be revealed.

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.  Peace, Peace, Peace.

 

Back to Basics: Real Yoga Doesn’t Hurt January 26, 2012

Filed under: Exercise,Health,Yoga — Holly Meyers @ 9:19 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

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.

With 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)

 

Growing Pangs December 26, 2011

Filed under: Life,New Year's Resolutions,Yoga — Holly Meyers @ 10:11 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

Photo: Holly Meyers

“PANG: A sudden, sharp feeling.”

Last night I shut the door on The Past.  I had a sudden, sharp feeling that it was time.  So I shut that door and I shut it hard.  The Past might have gotten a shoelace caught while trying to jam its stubborn little foot in the way.  And one day in the future, that shoelace might thread its way into some pushy PTSD trigger or round of unresolved grief.  But for now, the door to The Past is shut and I’m standing on THIS side of it.  Yes, I am standing in The Present.

*  *  *

I’m not a New Year’s Resolution kind of gal.  I’m an every-day intention setter.  Still, this is a powerful time of year, as the collective conscience of most humans is evaluating the past, assessing the present and changing for the future through the process of making Resolutions.  Because the universe seems to be elbowing me into that process, I’m going with it.

My 2012 New Year’s Resolution is (drum roll please)…to heal, GROW and serve.

Same as my every day intention.

For the sake of this blog (and my personal transformation), I’m capitalizing GROW.  Because I did a lot of intense healing work in 2011.  And in order to transmute that work into being of service in the world, I need to GROW out of and up from The Past, from which I’ve had to heal.

*  *  *

Johnny Cash says: “Close the door on the past.  You don’t try to forget the mistakes, but you don’t dwell on it.  You don’t let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space.”

Recovery literature makes a promise: “If we are painstaking about this phase of our development…we will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.”

Which wisdom will win in my case?

I know from experience that the stakes of personal development are often pain.  Motivator/writer Kris Carr says, “Do the big maddening ouch work. The cosmic honey lives inside the pain.”  I couldn’t agree more.  In 2011, I examined The Past so I could get to the bottom of some negative patterns and start to cultivate positive alternatives.  Although the process has been painful, I have come to forgive, accept and honor my past.  After all of that examination, I don’t regret it.  In fact, I am grateful for all of its mistakes and lessons.

However, because I have been so devoted to understanding The Past, it can sometimes crowd out The Present.  Despite all the discomfort I feel while exploring it, The Past can begin to feel quite comfortable.  My dwelling on and in The Past can get so thick that it becomes a mask, and I hide behind it.  So as the Man in Black suggests, I am closing the door on it.

*  *  *

Surrender the mask.
Pour out the drink. Put down the gun. Unclench your fists. Stop your running.
Surrender the mask.
Turn off the TV. Say so long to the sugar. Flush the pills. Abandon the computer.
Surrender the mask.
You will be loved. You will be safe. You will be true. You will be whole.
Surrender the mask.
Love will feel strange. Safety risky. Truth bewildering. Wholeness scary.
Life will feel messy. Because you will be feeling.
It will be worth it. (We promise.) Because we are all healing.
Surrender the mask.

*  *  *

I get a little stuck in my story sometimes.  The sad, sad story of The Past and the sad, sad places it has taken my family and me.  The story includes many traumatic events.  It includes destructive patterns that led to horrible decisions that led to dangerous, harmful and/or painful consequences.

My story is sad.  But I am not.  Because I am not my story.

I consider myself a happy person.  I’ve said it before, I know.  And it’s true.  Small things bring me great joy.  Even in the midst of a big, fat grump-fest, if I hear a child laugh, or see a leaf float down from a tree, or learn of someone else’s good fortune, I immediately feel happy.

I love to smile.

It’s in my cells, the fiber of my being, to be happy.  I feel most comfortable with inner peace and shining light.  As you may have read, I recently went to battle with “an annoyingly encroaching emotional darkness” during my 100-day ritual, “The Happy Heart Project.”  During that period, I had to face some hard truths about my past, my now and my future.  I re-learned the value of examining and assessing and transforming.  Yup, just like our New Year’s Resolution process.  And just like my daily intention to heal, GROW, serve.

At the same time, I learned something new.  The Past serves an important role in informing The Present; but it can be downright traumatic in itself to get stuck there.  Hence the growing pangs.

Time to get unstuck.  I am not my story.  I am not The Past.

*  *  *

Getting back to last night.  I was crying out of frustration.  An old, familiar dissatisfaction.  The habitual complaint of, “When will anything change?”  Boo-hoo-hoo…and then, PANG!  It hit me like a ton of bricks.  I HAVE CHANGED.  Life has changed.  Everything has changed!  I stopped crying.  I stepped through the door and shut it behind me.  With a powerful, physical sensation, I felt myself standing in my now-ness.  Finally recognizing its amazing people, enriching practices, time-tested talents, joyful activities, defining values.

The now is new.  The now is wow!

As I planted my feet in The Present, I saw that all is waiting.  All is waiting!

*  *  *

I have been dreaming about my teachers.  Family members, yoga instructors, favorite bloggers, authors and others.  A few weeks ago, I dreamed that one of my yoga instructors was reminding me to be teachable.  In another recent dream, my whole family (of origin) was moving to New Orleans.  We were driving in an old station wagon.  I’d had my head phones on for most of the ride, listening to music.  When I noticed it was raining pretty hard, I turned off the music and asked, “You doing OK up there, Dad?”  My sister corrected me, “It’s Mom driving.”  And just last night (after the big shift), I dreamed I was with a yoga instructor whose writing and ideology inspires me.  We were climbing.  He was new to this path and I was leading the way.  I felt eager, awake, on-fire.  Excited to get to the top and share the view that had rocked my world so many times before.

Clearly, it’s time to move onward and upward, and to see what’s in the distance – instead of constantly looking back over my shoulder.

Welcome, 2012.

*  *  *

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.  Peace, Peace, Peace.

 

The Happy Heart Project: 100 Days! December 8, 2011

“Whoever is happy will make others happy too.  He who has courage and faith will never perish in misery.”  – Anne Frank

My whole body is vibrating.

Just now, I lit my 100th stick of “Happy Heart” incense and repeated the words I’ve said each morning since August 28th – “My intention today is to grow toward joy.”  Today the intention felt larger, more expansive than a practiced Sankalpa or resolution.  Today, that statement felt like a responsibility.
Instead of re-hashing my entire journey from August forward, I invite you to check out my “The Happy Heart Project: 100 Days Toward Joy” and other blogs I wrote along the way.  It’s been quite a trip, and at times a stumble.  Over time, The Project became more than a simple morning ritual.  It motivated more effort than I’ve ever made in my decades of spiritual practice.

I don’t do any of this for myself.  By “any of this” I mean the 100-day rituals, the blogging, the yoga, the recovery work, the healing practices.  Well, OK, yes.  First I do it for myself – so I can transform, strengthen.  But only so I can share experiences with, pass-on resources to, show up for and be of service to others.

*  *  *

“It is plain that a life which includes deep resentment leads only to futility and unhappiness.  For when harboring such feelings we shut ourselves off from the sunlight of the Spirit.”  – Anonymous

Resentment is ongoing anger or bitterness due to insult or injury.  The etymological root of the word simplifies the meaning even more: a repeated feeling.  Any feeling.  So a resentment could be full of anger or fear, pride or longing.  The fact is, if we are re-feeling something related to a past experience, clearly, we are unable to live in the present.  Our past pains or even successes haunt us.  We are shut off.

I consider myself a happy person.  Someone who leans toward the light.  Generally, I am able to accept life’s ups and downs while maintaining a hopeful and positive attitude.

This summer, after a mugging in June I had a series of PTSD responses that magnified negative stories, limited beliefs and destructive patterns cultivated from what seemed like a lifetime of unresolved trauma.  I was harboring major resentments – against past aggressors, against myself, against the world.  By August, I’d become hopeless.  It was a dark, dark time.

*  *  *

“It is through practicing and living through a series of agreeable and disagreeable situations that we attain full awakening.”  – Suzuki Roshi, author and Zen Master

Over the past 100 days, one of my foundational beliefs was constantly validated: Moving toward joy does not mean escaping pain, avoiding discomfort nor skirting around darkness.  It means greeting that pain, discomfort and darkness with an informed reality instead of habitual despair.  It means digging deep to reach that informed reality, to trudge toward the answers, to sit in the messiness, to look straight at the fears and patterns.  It means surrendering to help and change instead of resigning to the same old despair, depression and rage.

In life there is ease, there is tranquility and there is light…and at times, there is not.  In that very acceptance, I can cultivate happiness.  I can experience joy.  And with strong, committed and consistent effort, the habitual despair can be completely undone.

As Roshi says, it takes “practicing” and “living.”

Burning a stick of incense each morning was a tiny and symbolic gesture.  Although the repeated intention that accompanied that act truly set the wheel in motion, reinforcing a Sankalpa involves much more than words.

Over the past 100 days, there were layers and layers of practices and life.  There was the changing of seasons; there was an Ayurvedic diet for Pitta Pacification; there were increased actions in my recovery program and the huge exhale when reaching nine years clean and sober; there was daily 5:30am Sadhana of prayer, Pranayama and meditation; there were willing visits to medical professionals who specialize in PTSD and related conditions; there was the swallowing of unusual vitamins and supplements; there were specific songs that I listened to and sang until sobbing from liberation; there was soulful abandon during concerts by spiritual songwriters and chanters; there were awkward moments with trusted friends, reunions with old pals and exciting connections with new soul mates; there was immersion in the Occupy movement’s writings and videos in order to challenge my own fears of conflict and solidly reinforce my purpose of peace; there were the Jewish High Holy Days, with their sorrow, atonement, forgiveness and love; there were transformational workshops, retreats and classes with Seane Corn, Max Strom, Amy Barnes, Corrine Champigny and many others; there was the glowing Hindu holiday of Diwali, with its stories of the triumph of light over darkness.

What a trip.  And it was 100% worth it.  Because now, not only have I ceased fighting everything and everyone, I have also come to profoundly accept, appreciate and stop apologizing for my humanness.

“May we live like the lotus, at home in the muddy water.”  – Rachel Meyer, yoga teacher

*  *  *

“May all the sky be pervaded by great bliss.

“If suffering, I bear the suffering of all beings.

“May the ocean of samsara’s suffering dry up.”

My soundtrack for this 100th moment is the traditional Buddhist Offering Chant, quoted above, and sung tenderly by Lama Gyurme in the video below.  As I write, the Happy Heart sends its wafts of rose, rosewood, geranium, cubeb, oakmoss, lavender and patchouli smoke throughout my space.

To me – no matter how much I live and practice through all conditions – it would seem miraculous to reach a bliss like Nirvana or Samadhi or Enlightenment, where I would completely transcend my own suffering, cease carrying and contributing to the suffering of all, and ultimately, experience the end of Samsara – the earthly cycle of birth, decay, death.

What I can grasp, however, is Buddhist nun Pema Chodron’s simple take on attaining a “higher” state: “Enlightenment is a very grand word for fundamental happiness.  Your life becomes a path of awakening or a path of becoming enlightened.”

*  *  *

“What is important is not to have a goal but to see if our daily existence has a meaning in itself.”  – J. Krishnamurti, philosopher and author

Note that my daily statement was, “My intention today is to grow toward joy,”  not, “I want to be happy forever.”  The Project reinforced that life is truly One Day At A Time.  Gradual.  Forgiving and honest.  If today I don’t feel joy, I can try again tomorrow.

There is no goal, only intention, reinforced frequently, through a process of openness, willingness, action and growth.

*  *  *

“The spiritual life is not a theory.  We have to live it.”  – Anonymous

Simply said.  The Happy Heart Project does not end here, at the 100-day mark.

Great gratitude to the numerous teachers who appeared along the way, in so many shapes and forms.  Yoga students, yoga teachers, friends, family, strangers, co-workers, ankle-biters, outright attackers.  Road trips, songs, trees, Asana, injuries, deities.

All mirrors, all messengers.

*  *  *

May all beings find the courage and faith to grow through misery and toward joy.  Thank you for sharing the journey.  OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

*  *  *

*  *  *

THE HAPPY HEART PROJECT.  Under the new moon of Sunday, August 28, 2011 I launched “The Happy Heart Project: 100 Days Toward Joy” – an effort to document my daily journey away from an annoyingly encroaching emotional darkness and toward the hopeful light of happiness.  For 100 days from 8/28 through 12/5, I woke up, burned a stick of Happy Heart incense and set an intention to grow toward joy.  Nearly each day I posted a “Happy Heart Project” status (and sometimes an accompanying song for that day’s mood) on Urban Yoga Den on Facebook, then saw what happened during the day.  Even though the 100 DAYS are over, it’s not too late to choose one simple heartfelt ritual for your morning, intend to practice it daily, “Like” Urban Yoga Den on Facebook, and let us know how you’re doing from time to time!