The Urban Yoga Den

…where it's all yoga.

Kirtan Is Like A Can Opener For My Heart February 28, 2012

“We never know what’s gonna happen with our emotions.  We try to control them.  We try to suppress them.  But…those old yogis knew that wasn’t really the way – they knew that these emotions were a crucial part of bringing the human being to divine consciousness.”  – Kirtan leader Jai Uttal

*  *  *

Leading into February and our monthly focus of The Heart, I attended a Kirtan with Bhagavan Das.  This is what I wrote in my journal the morning after:

Bhakti.  Devotion.  Kirtan.

Crying out to god.  Crying out my love to/for god.  Gratitude to god.  Reverence for god.

This big voice, crying out a huge “Hello!  I love you!  I thank you!  I surrender to you!  Please be with me!”

After a short time, I could no longer hear my voice as separate from the room.  Could no longer hear my voice at all.  Could only hear one voice, made of about 100 beings, all singing their hearts out to god.

When a chant was unfamiliar to me, I chose to listen deeply until I felt totally comfortable with one small part, and then a whole verse, and then maybe the whole chant.  When I didn’t get the chant, I allowed this sacred cavern of voice to fill my ears, my heart, my soul – and so, still, we prayed together.

Beyond any Kirtan experience so far.  The closest comparison would be the many times the group in a Lakota style sweat lodge reached pure oneness from the weaving together of heart-felt prayer or gut wrenching petition to god, which brought us so close in our yearning and love and respect.

That, too, was Bhakti, I am now realizing.  Those lodges led to such awareness of the power of surrender to the great mystery, as well as the power of service to others as a way of giving back for the great nourishment we received.

Bhagavan Das – 2 & 1/2 hours non-stop Bhakti.  Very reminiscent of those clock-free sweat lodges.

For me, Bhakti is such deep devotion and liberated love, it leads to unswerving trust and therefore total surrender.  It’s what I crave.

Each morning for years, I have prayed: “I am yours.  Please build with me and do with me as you will, as you need, as you wish,” and “Grant me strength to do your bidding.”

Courtesy of DC Supersonic Kirtan

This, to me, is Bhakti Yoga.  And Kirtan is one form of this yoga of devotion.

*  *  *

The first time I said “Kirtan is like a can opener for my heart” was the day after an extra-special,

female-led DC Supersonic Kirtan near my house.  I was honored to play percussion for the all-gal

group.  The event fell toward the end of the Off the Mat, Into the World “Yoga, Purpose and Action” Intensive here.  So my heart was already quite worked up from that deeply stirring training.

I felt the infamous “Bhakti Bliss” during and after the evening of responsive Sanskrit chanting.  Indeed, Kirtan was like a can opener for my heart.

The next day, when we wrapped up our Off the Mat training, I ran outside and gave my phone number to a total stranger!  Hah!  I’d seen this guy all week – he was working on a nearby park’s landscaping.  We’d greeted each other each morning on my way in to training, and each afternoon during lunch.  So at the end of the Intensive, with my heart wide open (and some of my gal-pals urging me on), I took the plunge and ran out to introduce myself.

About one hour later, he texted me to say that he had a girlfriend, but that he’d still like to meet.  YUCK!  I asked him to throw away my number and I never heard from him again.

I’ll tell you, in the past I might have said “OK” to such an arrangement.  In the past, my heart rebounded from drama to drama because I had no faith that love could take any form other than low self-esteem matched up with deception leading to inevitable betrayal.  Sad but true.  So…

Phew!  A close call.  Thankfully I wised up quickly enough to recognize this as one of those times when the heart – wide open and vulnerable – was not the best voice to follow.  Live and learn.

Over the past 10 years, I have come to understand that the heart must be healthy before I follow it.  Yoga teacher and writer Josh Schrei is currently exploring that point in his 8-part Elephant Journal series, “Your True Heart And How To Follow It,” which has become a kind of University of The Heart for me.  I highly recommend it.

*  *  *

“Love is not a monochromatic feeling.  We have passion…fear…longing…ecstasy…we have the absolute bliss of that moment when the individual self dissolves into the great oneness.”  – Jai Uttal

Courtesy of DC Supersonic Kirtan

So what in the world is happening when I chant Kirtan, that could make me so vulnerable?  As I said above, practicing Bhakti Yoga “leads to unswerving trust and therefore total surrender.”  After chanting Kirtan, I can walk out of the yoga studio or concert hall and mistakenly give that trust and surrender to whomever or whatever comes next.  So again, it is important to find the balance between a beautifully open heart, and a dangerously exposed heart.

My healthy heart is not locked closed, but it is wisely contained.

*  *  *

Sometimes I look back at what I’ve published with HUGE fear that readers will judge me as stupid, crazy – or even cursed!  Stories about major breakups, past addictions, family brokenness, loss, grief and pain expose pieces of my life that are potentially embarrassing, or worse.

The reason I am able to tell honest stories about difficult events, is that I am living proof of change.  I am not my past – I am not my yesterday, I am not even my moments ago.  I know that, at this very moment, I am not the girl who mistakenly chose harmful boyfriends, I am not the girl who grew up drinking away her pain, I am not the girl who used to leave jobs, cities and relationships because my upbringing had not taught me how to stay.  I am me, here, now – resilient after setbacks, learning and ever-growing.

In my blogs, I not only expose the tough truths – I also aim to highlight the triumphs of yoga over all of life’s perils!  I also hope to share my process of emotional growth in case others relate.  As Jai Uttal says, “…these emotions were a crucial part of bringing the human being to divine consciousness.”

With its forceful (yes, forceful) habit of prying my heart open despite my Krypto-locks and iron chains, and its time-tested tradition of uniting hearts with an ever-benevolent, all-knowing and protective energy – call it god, higher power, the divine, great mystery, whatever – Kirtan has taught me that in this very moment I can celebrate my beautiful, broken, healing, human, hard-won life.

*  *  *

“The singing voice, enriched with a full breath directly touches that well of emotions inside.”  – Jai Uttal

Now that Kirtan plays a bigger part in my life, and I have faith in sacred singing’s power to shift the mind, I am also practicing non-responsive chanting on my own.  Each Saturday and Sunday morning, after prayers and Pranayama, I chant 108 recitations of the popular mantra, “Asato Ma, Sat Gamaya; Tamaso Ma, Jyotir Gamaya; Mrityor Ma, Amritam Gamaya.”  Lead us from non-truth to truth (or from unreal to real); from darkness to light; from death to immortality.

Repetitions of this powerful chant steer my sometimes misguided mind from pettiness to importance, from negative to positive, from destructive to productive.  It took a little while for me to find personal meaning in “from death to immortality,” because I don’t necessarily accept immortality in a religious sense.  Recently, though, after I started the 108 weekend repetitions, I embraced the idea of being led from things that die to things that last.  For example, my self-centered fear is something that comes and goes according to experience, environment, situation.  But love is something that exists eternally, despite conditions.

*  *  *

“…the mantras…are words that have been sung for centuries…by people just sitting and patiently, patiently, saying god’s name over and over and over again to create a connection from their own heart to that great, great heart.”  – Jai Uttal

A few weekends ago I attended another fabulous “DC Supersonic Kirtan” in this Bhakti-filled town.  When I got home, I wrote this in my journal:

Kirtan is the musical manifestation of Bhakti yoga.  Devotion takes many forms.  Jubilant.  Festive.  Mischievous.  Rowdy.  Reverent.  Mellow.  Serious.  Intense.

I feel at home in my heart these days.

I no longer need intense ritual to pry open the doors of a firmly shut heart.  No longer need clever practice to pick the lock.

My heart is well. 

And so I will follow it.

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.


Be A Yogi August 15, 2011

Graduation bliss - me, Sam & Linda at the Ashram.

When I graduated from my Yoga Teacher Training at the Integral Yoga Academy, I heard a lot of advice.

  • Make a list of all the potential places you could teach – not just studios, but other spaces.
  • Market your classes in this way or that way.
  • Remember that not all yoga instructors can make a living teaching.
  • And so on.

But the most important tidbit, to me, came from one of the teaching assistants.

“Be a yogi.”

I had just spent four weeks living at the Satchidananda Ashram; rising before dawn; practicing daily Asana, Pranayama and meditation; studying yoga philosophy; eating a pure vegetarian diet; and wrestling with my humanness amongst the sacredness of yoga.  Despite discomfort and challenge at times, I was grateful for every minute of it.

To be a yogi is ALL that I yearned for.

When I returned home, I didn’t even intend to teach right away.  I offered free classes in my little studio apartment (“The Urban Yoga Den”) to stay in practice.  And then an opportunity to start a yoga program at DC’s SAIL Public Charter School arose.  Once that assignment wrapped up with the end of the school year, I was ready to look for work teaching adults.  Just down the street from me, a new yoga studio called Past Tense was opening.  And in July 2010, I started teaching three weekly classes there.

On August 24th, I will end my stint at Past Tense to take an end-of-summer break from teaching (except for my three classes at Trinity University’s Fitness Center).  I am grateful to Past Tense for inviting me to pass on yoga to the Mt. Pleasant community over the last two years!  As you might have gathered from my last post, I have been sensing a need for change, pondering my integrity and prioritizing my well-being.  Leaving Past Tense will create a simplicity and spaciousness in my schedule, life and mind.  As my friend wished, “I pray that whatever occupies that space brings peace and joy.”  Me, too.

“The Urban Yoga Den” blog is all about living yoga off the mat and in my every day world.  So for now, rather than teaching a bunch of classes, I will be practicing more – on and off the mat.

One hope is to practice Karma Yoga by bringing morning Pranayama practice to the police officers that serve overnight in my neighborhood.  In October, I will travel to Philly for a Kirtan with Jai Uttal to awaken the Bhakti Yoga spirit; then I’ll bounce over to Easton Yoga for a two-day workshop with Max Strom.  In December, I will visit Sanctuary Yoga in Nashville for Seane Corn’s three-day “Detox Flow” workshop.  And in between, I will be here in DC, practicing with my beloved local teachers, until I find the next right fit for a teaching location.

But my biggest wish is to simply be able to walk down the street with an inner peace and joy that shapes my attitudes and actions.  That might mean embracing one or all of the many beautiful suggestions from my caring friends.   For example, practicing “Samtosha” (contentment with exactly what is – i.e. acceptance of and compassion for my own humanness), sending myself Metta (sending myself loving-kindness and well-wishing), and basically, not being so hard on myself.  It also might mean re-committing to the routines that without fail nourish my inner peace and joy.  It also might mean falling off the yoga wagon and getting on again – and off and on again.

Because I realize to be a yogi is to – simply and honestly – be me.

I hope to see and hear from you as I take the steps to re-embrace my core motivation to Be A Yogi.

Wishing you peace, joy, love and light.  OM Shanti.