The Urban Yoga Den

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The Happy Heart Project: The Halfway Mark October 20, 2011

“Hey, I’m trying to hard to see the light, to see the light – to see it burn thru.”  – Abigail Washburn

When it comes to maintaining and manifesting an intention over 100 days – and that intention is to overcome a nagging internal darkness and move deliberately toward joy – it is imperative to know which tools, resources, practices and people support that intention.

So here I am, halfway into a project I started on a whim (for background, please see final note, bottom of page), and I am clearly learning what works – and what doesn’t work.

Back in August, when I started this daily ritual, joy felt elusive.  The origin of that challenge was a string of unfortunate, traumatic and painful experiences beginning in June 2010.  So the “Project” actually represented much more than a flippant whim.  It became a “Sankalpa” (deep intention, commitment, resolution) that would hopefully free my mind – and life – from the grip of PTSD, depression, anger and resentment.

And a shift is happening.  Of course, there are days when fear, negativity and doubt emerge.  Normal stuff.  At the same time, I have to be careful to not let those days stretch into a mindset.  So I reinforce my Sankalpa.

*  *  *

Move.  Toward.  Joy.

MOVE does not happen in the mind.  MOVE denotes a deliberate effort.  MOVE is an action word.

In yoga, when I think of action, I consider how I can take my practice off the mat and into everyday life.  To me, “practice” is a synonym for “action.”  Ashtanga Yoga founder Sri K. Pattabhi Jois used to say, “Practice yoga, and all is coming.”  A simple metaphor – when we take action, things happen.  Aphorism I.14 of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali states, “Practice becomes firmly grounded when efforts are made over a long period of time, constantly, and with great love (or devotion, earnestness, zeal).”

So again I mention the importance of tried-and-true tools, resources, practices and people to support my 100-day Sankalpa ritual.  They have encouraged my efforts, motivated my practice and strengthened my devotion.  Other influences, however, have been downright derailing at times.

What works and/or doesn’t work as I aim to maintain and manifest my intention to move toward joy:

WORKS: Being honest.  With myself and others.   This, by far, has been rule #1 for me.  THE best elixir for battling the stinking thinking.  Not convincing myself that everything is OK when it is not.  Not writing a bunch of “happy” lies in this blog.  Sharing my process with my circles, communities, co-humans.  Being honest about everything – feelings, ideas, plans.  Saying when I feel scared.  Saying when I feel confident.  “Sticking a pin in it” when my balloon of negativity, doubt and fear gets too inflated.  Getting it out.  Sometimes constructively, sometimes like a vent.

WORKS: Being listened to – being heard.  This means choosing the listeners carefully.  To truly be heard, I want to talk to those who have the patience, compassion and love to listen to everything I need to share.  People who care to know my insides.  People who care for my well-being, who have my best interest in mind.  People who do not immediately launch into fixing the problem.  I know this about myself: I need to let it all out – my stories, my theories, my feelings, my problems, my solutions.  Once I’m empty, I become spacious, calm and able to listen to feedback.

WORKS: Listening to, considering and/or heeding well-informed suggestions from people who know me well, who’ve stuck by my side through thick and thin, with whom I connect regularly, who are mental health professionals and/or who are trusted teachers whose experience I trust.  Listening to others’ stories.  Being as open-minded and willing as possible – yet still discerning, keeping my peace, purpose and sustainability in mind.  This is explored further in #1-4 below.

WORKS: Listening to and truly hearing loved ones’ and trusted beings’ encouragement and positive opinions.

WORKS: Staying close to those loved ones and trusted beings.

DOESN’T WORK: Trying to do this alone.

DOESN’T WORK:  Tolerating bossy, know-it-all recommendations (thinly disguised as concerned advice) from people who don’t know me very well (or who mistakenly think they do know me very well because maybe they used to know me a long time ago, or maybe they’ve read my writing or have heard me speak, or for whatever reason, they believe that we are alike), who have shown that they don’t care to know me authentically, whom I have not seen in a very long time, who intrusively beeline over to me because they’ve “heard what I’m going through,” who give medical advice without medical credentials and/or whom I absolutely do not trust.  And do you know what else doesn’t work?  Allowing these people to get under my skin; allowing myself to feel judged by these people; allowing myself to cop a resentment.  Indeed, at times, my vulnerable mind lets this happen!  What works then?  Taking a pause, replacing the false thoughts with a positive belief, and then understanding that these people are coming from a place of fear and/or a need to control.  I can have compassion for them, nod politely…and move on.  Or, avoid them altogether.  Or, be direct and say, “Thank you for your concern; I have a great team of supporters whose advice I am following.  So at this time, I want to stay on track and not add other suggestions. ”  Smile.  Walk away.  Bam.

Phew, that was a sassy little rant!  Sometimes I create my own frustration by being so open and honest about my process.  But, I’d rather have the opportunity to discern between appropriate/useful advice and inappropriate/fear-based advice than not get any advice at all!

*  *  *

In addition to clarity about support and action, I’ve also started to feel very clear about the process of cultivating positive change.  Thankfully, I’ve learned so much of this from the infinite influences I’ve said “yes” to over the years.  Here are the steps I’ve taken this time around:

1 – Let go of what doesn’t serve.  I’ve heard it a-thousand times, and it really is the best starting place for me.  This past summer, after what seemed like a year-long endurance test of trials and tribulations, I started letting go of anything that doesn’t represent deep peace, true purpose and long-term sustainability for me.  Jobs, relationships, belongings.  I took risks.  In the case of jobs and relationships, if I couldn’t leave immediately, I began to cultivate an exit strategy.  One by one, I started saying good-bye.  I will be honest – financially, it is beyond stressful.  But I really needed to let go and be liberated.

2 – Take time in the spaciousness created by letting go.  I learned to not fill the space YET.  To grieve the losses.  To feel uncomfortable.  To admit and accept my mistakes.  To witness my doubts, dreams, stories – positive and negative, real and imagined.

3 – Reflect on what brings deep peace, explore what constitutes true purpose and envision what looks sustainable in the long-term.  I have exposed myself to influences I might not normally consider.  I’ve read-up on the Occupy Wall Street efforts; I’ve started taking a high-power Jivamukti class; I’ve listened to Pema Chodron CDs (I love Pema, but am not typically a fan of audio learning).  And I have indulged in activities I absolutely love – that nourish me and bring instant joy.  I have seen live concerts, bought new CDs (please see the bottom of this blog to check out the video for the above-quoted Abigail Washburn song), listened to comedy, practiced yoga outdoors, watched baseball games, enjoyed inspiring films, participated in the Jewish High Holy Days.  I have let ideas and passions brew.

4 – Define peace, purpose and sustainability.  During the peak of Occupy Wall Street and the Jewish High Holy Days, I was struck with the strongest sense of self I’ve experienced in a long time.  It seems like a combination of the results of numbers 1-3 above, the pressure of calls to action in the media, and, the intensity of moral inventory, atonement and forgiveness sparked an energy of self-definition for me.  From Facebook, other media and other sources, I gleaned quotes that called to my soul, compiled them in a journal, and started aiming to live them, day in and day out.  They include: “Occupy within: a movement in awakening;” “While you are proclaiming peace with your lips, be careful to have it even more deeply in your heart;” “The unexamined life is not worth living;” and, “Do I feel happy?  No.  But I feel progress.”

5 – Take action – fill the space.  A few days ago, a yoga teacher friend exclaimed, “How’s your new life?”  She’s referring to the many changes I’ve made since the summer, when I started this process.  I reflected silently for a moment.  “It’s very empty…” and just then, a light bulb clicked on in my mind.  “It’s time to fill it,” I answered, with resolve.

This is coming up for me now that I clearly understand what works and what doesn’t to practice my Sankalpa with consistency and zeal.  With that support, I can tackle some next steps, which include: seek a  job that fulfills my true needs and allows me to continue teaching yoga; seek new yoga teaching opportunities; continue deepening my PTSD sessions and exploration; conduct a fearless self-inventory that not only identifies how I was harmed over the past year, but that also identifies what my part, mistake and/or contribution may have been to those troubles; practice forgiveness of myself and others; commit to other practices that direct me toward joy.  Thank goodness, there are many!

Let’s see what happens over the next 50 days…taking it one day at a time, of course.

Wishing all beings peace, joy, love – and a light that burns thru.  OM Shanti.

(Here is the lovely song containing the opening quote of this blog.  Enjoy!)

*  *  *

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 will wake up, burn a stick of Happy Heart incense and set an intention to grow toward joy.  Each day I’ll post a “Happy Heart Project” status (and accompanying song for that day’s mood) on Urban Yoga Den on Facebook, then see what happens during the day.  Periodically, I’ll post an UrbanYogaDen.wordpress.com blog that covers my journey.  I’m excited that one yoga teacher friend unexpectedly exclaimed, “I’m with you!” and is sharing the journey!  Join us – 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!

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Focus: Why Yoga? – Healing Physical Injuries August 19, 2010

One year ago, I couldn’t raise my right arm above my head.

I’d started teaching at Past Tense Studio when it opened last July.  Just before that, I’d jammed my right shoulder and neck while bracing my fall, tripping up some stairs at my dad’s house.  As usual, I went straight to the chiropractor and started rehabbing the damage.  Then, about a week after we opened Past Tense, I tore my right rotator cuff while grabbing a guard rail, slipping down a flight of stairs.  (It was a bad summer for stairs.)

During this same time, I was teaching percussion at a summer camp, which meant lots of drumming, tambourine-ing and shaker-ing – and therefore, lots of shoulder stress.  Plus, I was busing tables at a pizza joint, which meant lifting stacks of heavy white Italian plates.  (It was a good summer for work.)

For that first month at Past Tense, I was in excruciating pain while teaching.  I would wince when raising my arms to start a Sun Salutation.  Demonstrating Warrior 2, my right arm would weakly sink to my side.  Cleaning up the studio after class, I couldn’t lift the blankets to pile them atop the storage shelf.

Little by little, with lot of ice, chiropractic, massage and conscientious yoga practice, the injuries started to heal.  While this combination of therapeutics was important, the daily – all-day – awareness and application of yoga’s alignment principles brought the most ease, decreased the pain and supported the healing.  The wonderful lessons learned from structural yoga teachers like Sumi Komo (also an Alexander Technique expert – http://www.alexandermovingarts.com), Megan Davis (yoga therapeutics wonder – http://www.yogaforliberation.com) and Dr. Steven Weiss (chiropractor and yoga teacher – http://www.alignbydesignyoga.com) gave me everyday tools for feeling and getting better.

When camp ended in August, I took off for an Alexander Technique and Yoga workshop taught by Sumi.  This was the beginning of my healing through yoga.  Later in the Fall, I attended an Anatomy and Physiology Teacher Training with Dr. Weiss.  His fine-tuning of the shoulder area reinforced that healing.  And thankfully, a library of structural cues was stored in my mind from so many past classes with Megan.

(For more background on these teachers and their modalities, check out their websites, plus my “Why I Spend So Much Time On Alignment” post from February 2010, and, “Alignment Principles in Tadaasana” on the Tips-n-Tools page of this blog site.)

Increasing mobility was the first step in using yoga to heal my injuries.  Rather than focusing on the strengthening benefits of Asana, I stuck with the safest versions of every pose – for example, tracing the mid-line with my palms during a forward fold vs. doing a swan dive, and, doing knees/chest/chin vs. Chaturanga.  I avoided shoulder stand completely and did wall-based alternatives.  In Downward Facing Dog, I paid special attention to the pressure between my thumb and forefinger, and gently curled my upper arms down and inward toward my face.  I moved slowly and deliberately – even in fast-paced Jivamukti classes!  This took a lot of patience!

But it paid off.

After a few months, my mobility had returned and the pain had decreased immensely.  Now it was time to strengthen the muscles.  Chaturanga became my best friend!  Thankfully Dr. Weiss taught us a really cool strap prop trick to guarantee proper alignment in that pose.  In addition, I attended a Shoulders Intensive workshop with Emma at Past Tense, where her simple use of a block and my own two arms subtly brought the power back to my rotator cuff.

I won’t lie, the healing took an entire six months of rehabilitation.  And lots of patience.  By January, I was in top form.  I’ve heard through the grapevine, “No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.”  Not only did I rise-up from my injured state, I was prepared to impart my experience to the Catholic University Swim Team and an infielder for the Tampa Bay Rays’ minor league system.  I shared how to prevent and rehab shoulder problems, and, was not limited by my own injury while teaching.

Someone once told me that, when I talk about the benefits of proper alignment in yoga, I sound like a Volvo ad!  Indeed, following the alignment principles maximizes mobility, power and safety!

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

 

100(+1)% May 13, 2010

Back on April 8th, I attended a Krishna Das Kirtan concert, where he told an inspiring story about learning to apply himself 100%.  At the time, I was stuck in discernment-process limbo, trying to decide between two career paths.   Should I continue applying for full-time communications jobs, or expand my yoga teaching, music performance/teaching and promotion of both into a full-time profession?  I was applying myself approximately 1% to each option and feeling about 1% peaceful with that ugly truth.

“When – and to what – will I apply myself 100%?” I asked myself (and you guys) in a blog dated April 9th.

On April 20th, I wrote the following e-mail to my friend Manu at Yogaville:

There has been SO much synchronicity swirling about life this month.  Primarily regarding my mother’s influence and my career path discernment.  When I returned from my Florida trip at the end of March, I planned to gauge my motivation, to see which direction I should travel professionally – would it be a full-time job in communications, or, a collection of part-time gigs/projects in yoga, music, marketing/promotion?  Of course, after Spring Training, I was brimming with enthusiasm about teaching yoga to athletes.  And so my energy was a bit tilted in that direction.  One of the first things I did was meet with my friend, Emma, who teaches yoga full-time, to get a clear picture of the pros and cons.  The pros definitely won.  Then my computer broke down, so I couldn’t search or apply for full-time jobs.  Still, I resolved to continue gaining counsel from friends and advisers, to make the best decision.  On Easter Sunday, I was remembering that 20 years ago in mid-March, I was emerging from a very dark period which included many destructive events and toxic habits.  That April Easter of 1990 represented a resurrection of sorts, when I resigned to clean up, stick around and see what life had to offer.  So this year for Easter, I was pretty emotional and reflective about life’s purpose and calling.  The next day, Easter Monday, I was invited to speak to an addiction recovery group that meets at the synagogue where my mother converted to Judaism in the 1950s.  So mom – one of my biggest creative motivators – was in the back of my mind as I told my story of transformation that night.  On Tuesday, I donated my services to lead a Yoga Nidra for young cancer survivors at the Smith Farm Center (my mom had cancer three times).  Wednesday I took a very intense Jivamukti class; Thursday I fasted and went to a Kirtan with Krishna Das – his between-song banter kicked my butt into positivity (see the “100%” blog for more); and Friday morning I took another Jiva class to finish my one-day detox.  My computer was also fixed the day before – and what was the first thing I did?  Apply for full-time communications jobs?  No!  I wrote three yoga blogs within 12 hours!  Saturday and Sunday I attended two workshops with heart-opening teacher Max Strom and Mom was with me the whole time (see “Oh Death” blog for more on that experience).  And in asking her about the career journey, the answer was, “Follow your heart.”  What else?  By Monday I don’t think I needed any more counsel about my work life; but somehow I still felt the need to continue this discernment process “responsibly.”  Digging deep with a trusted friend on Tuesday, we pretty much put an end to my waffling.  That day – April 13 – was also the 8th anniversary of my mom’s death.  And the day I found out that my Uncle Bill had died (again, see “Oh Death”).  Uncle Bill was a man of great faith – if he were here, he’d say, “If it’s god’s will, you will be OK.  Go for it, Holly!”  A couple of days later, I traveled to Nashville for Bill’s funeral; and when long-estranged family/friends asked, “So what do you do?” I answered, “I’m a teacher – I teach yoga and music.  And I write.”

It’s funny because, BEFORE I went to Florida for Spring Training, I’d said to my friend Athena, “I have a dream – I want to teach yoga, teach music and perform music full-time – using my communications skills to promote my efforts and the activities of others in those professions.”

So the journey of being an independent business operator begins.

Wow.  Since writing that letter, I have: started teaching a new private client twice weekly (referred by my chiropractor – thanks, Dr. Bahnson!); answered an opportunity to pick up three classes at another studio (fingers crossed!); taught a two-hour Integral Yoga class at the Happy Destiny Retreat; shared my prayer and meditation experience with another addiction recovery group; been accepted to Seane Corn’s Off the Mat/Into the World Leadership Training program (with partial scholarship!); begun attending a weekly Level 2 class with Caroline Weaver and a Dharma Mittra style series with Laura Ivers; and been offered a part-time job with a yoga-related organization (whose name I won’t mention because I haven’t given my answer yet…I’m back in discernment-process mode!).

Now to catch up with my blog writing!

But what really blew me away as this momentum started to pick up was an amazingly thoughtful letter from Stacey, the teacher coordinator at Past Tense Studio, where I teach regularly.  Without getting into the details of her positive feedback from a class she attended, I’ll share that she pretty much affirmed my big-picture life purpose – to give back to people what has been so generously shared with – and therefore has healed – me.

Stacey also shared the following quote.  I’ll leave you with this.  OM Shanti.

UNTIL ONE IS COMMITTED – W.H. MURRAY

CONCERNING ALL ACTS OF INITIATIVE (AND CREATION) THERE IS ONE ELEMENTARY TRUTH, THE IGNORANCE OF WHICH KILLS COUNTLESS IDEAS AND SPLENDID PLANS:

THAT THE MOMENT ONE DEFINITELY COMMITS ONESELF, THEN PROVIDENCE MOVES TOO.

(P.S. Thank you, Cathy Duarte, for motivating me to write this tonight!)

 

This Too Shall Pass April 9, 2010

I just floated home after Ximena Gutierrez’s Jivamukti class at Past Tense Studio (one of the places where I teach yoga).  Today’s theme was “This Too Shall Pass” – a phrase with which I am very familiar from a variety of spiritual paths and programs.  The premise is to remain detached from and have faith through all experiences – positive/negative, good/bad, easy/difficult.  Because eventually, all will change.

Over and over and over.

Complementing the normally uplifting effect of Ximena’s classes (and today’s perfectly crisp and sunny weather), I am feeling quite light-spirited from fasting.  I have not had a “solid” meal since Wednesday evening.  For this liquid fast, throughout yesterday I drank: many glasses of water with fresh organic lemon, cayenne and honey; one cup of fresh-made carrot/celery juice; two cups of Yogi Detox tea; and two bowls of miso soup with lemon juice and seaweed flecks to balance my blood sugar with proteins and aminos.

As you know from last night’s post, I attended a Kirtan yesterday.  Combined with my daily Sadhana, the fast removed many physical distractions and heightened my focus on the task at hand – chanting my devotion to a Higher Power.  Again citing Native American ritual, I remember that many people fasted for 24 hours prior to our sweat lodges, to intensify their presence within the ceremony.  Last night, I definitely felt more connected and aware during the event.

I have tried fasting a number of times throughout my decades of exploring spiritual paths and natural health.  Being prone to hypoglycemia, straight water fasts and the legendary “Master Cleanse” (water, lemon, cayenne, honey) do not work well for me.  At Yoga Teacher Training, we were invited to fast every Thursday with the cleanse formula – and for one day at a time, I did fine.  Overall, longer fasts that combine cleansing and nutritious liquids, juices and broths leave me the most energized and strong.

For example: in class this morning, lifting myself into wheel was like flying into the sky heart-first, with limbs dangling lightly below.

For me, fasting is easier if I remember that “This Too Shall Pass.”  The first day can be very challenging.  Every smell or reminder of food brings a hunger pang.  But I simply remind myself, “That food will be there when I finish my fast.  No need to dwell on it now.”  (Just like all those times I thought that depression or bliss would last forever – “Balance will return when this condition dissolves.  Be present with the emotion for these moments.”)

Today, after morning Sadhana and this journal entry, I will break my fast with a simple bowl of steel-cut oatmeal, cinnamon and fresh organic ginger.  I’ll ease back to a clean diet throughout the day, probably munching on dried goji berries and perhaps a bowl of miso with collards and onion.  All good tonic foods.

For dinner tonight, I’ve been invited for salmon at my friends’ house (yes, I eat fish – maybe I’ll journal about my choice to eat fish sometime) and am to bring a chocolate dessert!  Most likely, my fish portion will be small; and I might take a moment of conscientious indulgence for a small bite of dessert.  But maybe not.

More will be revealed.

The point is that I am willing to grow along this path of yogic life.  This fast did not take a bunch of planning.  I decided on Wednesday evening to stop eating for a day, and was going to break the fast without going to yoga class this morning.  But I went anyway, because I was feeling so great after last night’s Kirtan and yesterday’s liquid diet.  And if I didn’t have dinner plans this evening, I might have kept going through this day and beyond.  This clarity, lightness and serenity that comes from cleansing is a beautiful gift.

And of course, This Too Shall Pass.  And that’s A-OK with me.  OM Shanti.

“Be good, do good, feel good.”  – Swami Satchidananda

 

To Rock or Not to Rock December 11, 2009

It IS difficult to please everyone, eh?!

What is “appropriate” (or non-) music during yoga classes?

Coldplay

As a yoga student, I’ve been through phases of liking/disliking lyric-based or non-devotional music during class.  Pop music, like Coldplay, for example.  Sometimes I felt “put-upon” by the teachers’ tastes or moods.  Many, many years ago, I even wrote a similar complaint to the owner of DC’s premiere yoga studio stating this opinion!  I’m quite certain these complaints pop up in studios around the world.

These days, I simply understand and accept music as part of the teacher’s unique voice and spirit.

As a teacher, during the Integral Yoga classes taught at Past Tense Studio, I typically do not use music during Asana – just a meditative sound CD if anything, then something meditative or devotional for Nidra.  The studio is on the first floor of a city intersection, so I like to dull the street sounds with yoga sounds at times.  IY teachers are trained to not use music, so I try to follow suit out of respect for Satchidananda’s teachings.

However…

…lately I am choosing lyric-based Yoga Nidra songs to match our “comfort” theme for December (see set list in the “Comfort…” post).  I admit that I could be forcing my idea of “comfort” onto the class!  But I’m letting them know ahead of time that we’re trying it out for this month only.

On the other hand, for this month’s special Sunday Seva Nidras (see “Events” page), I’m using relaxing devotional Sanskrit chants only.

When I choose music for sub-ing non-IY classes, I use set-lists of rhythms and lyrics that support the feel of the class style.  For example, swinging and groove-y for Vinyasa’s dance; or driving and energizing for Hatha’s longer holds.  Indeed, a mix of genres – singer/songwriter, folk, Brazilian, Latin pop, R&B, Sanskrit devotional, American gospel, and so on – but all themed to a spiritual and encouraging nature.  (In my opinion, of course!)  Even on most current yoga-mix CDs (i.e. Shiva Rea’s collections), there is a mix of genres – from reggae to new age to chant – that are mostly devotional songs.

I recently attended a very intense Iyengar class where the teacher matter-

B.K.S. Iyengar

of-factly instructed a crowded list of detailed anatomical directions with little space to breathe (I’m out of breath just typing that sentence) – but with a soundtrack of beautifully moving Sanskrit chants of many styles.  Eventually, the odd juxtaposition faded and I melted into his amazing yogic knowledge and authentic yogic sounds.

And not so long ago, I attended an Anusara-inspired class where the teacher played Cuban “Timba” (like Puerto Rican Salsa, but better) – with lyrics that might be inappropriate for a yoga atmosphere.  But the energy of the music drove the class, who probably didn’t know Spanish!  I loved it, honestly.

Then there was the time I was outside the door of a Jivamukti class and heard the teacher blasting “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin.  I figured it was a heart chakra focus!

All that to say – lord only knows what people think of our music at any time!  I know one student who cringes when he hears Krishna Das – a well-respected yogi and Kirtan musician!  To this friend, it’s over-used and really distracts his peaceful practice.

Go figure!

There is probably world-wide debate on the subject of “yoga music.”  Frankly, as a yoga teacher AND musician, I can have a very liberal opinion of what’s “appropriate” music for a yoga class.  But mostly, I try not to analyze it too much – instead, I trust the teacher’s intention to pass on teachings and share vibrations.  I hope others can allow that freedom, as well.

If not, there are millions of classes and teachers to choose from!

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.