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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.

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Gratitude, Pt. 2: Shiva and the Darkness November 25, 2011

Filed under: Gratitude,Recovery,Yoga — Holly Meyers @ 3:08 am
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I recently found myself apologizing to god.

It was the umpteenth time that I’d broken out in sobs while singing along with Jai Uttal’s “Om Namah Shivaya.”  To be exact, it was Monday, October 24th.  I was driving to rehearse with The Shaktis, an all-female Kirtan group with whom I play percussion.  Two days before, I’d returned from a little road trip to Pennsylvania – first, Philly to see Jai Uttal in-concert; then, Easton for a two-day Max Strom yoga workshop.  The day after the road trip, back home in DC, The Shaktis lead one of our most joyous and spirited Kirtans yet.

So as I drove to the rehearsal that Monday, I was brimming with contentment.  Chanting my little heart out.  And suddenly, sobbing uncontrollably.

I am accustomed to being emotionally moved by singing and chanting.  The vibration tends to hit me right in the heart.  Even Jai says, “The singing voice, enriched with a full breath, directly touches that well of emotions inside.”  Still, I had to ask myself, “Why have you been crying every single time you chant ‘Namah Shivaya’ repetitively?  What are you feeling?”

photo: Holly Meyers

Gratitude!  I was crying my thankfulness, realizing I’d come full circle.  I mean, my goodness, since the Spring I’d been through intense periods of questioning everything.  My yoga practice, my yoga teaching, my yoga jobs, my other jobs, my relationships, my associations, my everything!  I started to let go of what felt wrong, what felt like sandpaper against my skin, what felt threatening to my wholeness.  I let go of a lot.  And I ended up feeling completely lost.  Lost in a darkness that felt like drowning.

As they say, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

Come end of Summer, I began to emerge.  I launched “The Happy Heart Project” and set the firm intention to grow toward joy by practicing a symbolic ritual – burning a stick of “Happy Heart” incense 1st thing each morning for 100 days.  I took a Labor Day retreat to the Satchidananda Ashram and had a heart-to-heart conversation with a twisted old pine who seemed to beautifully signify the trials and triumphs of my life.  The Jewish High Holy days stirred my sorrow, yet also reinforced my softening, my surrender.  Friendships challenged me; and friends cherished me, despite my awkwardness.  Autumn – my most transformational season – crept in, grey and wet, and dampened my growing inner glow.  And then I sunk lower than ever, my emotional sobriety on edge, my physical sobriety at risk.  The week before I would reach my 9th anniversary without alcohol or drugs, I craved their comfort.  I stayed honest.  I stayed close.

I took a road trip.  There’s something about a geographical cure.  There were no twisted, story-telling pines on this journey.  Just a change of scenery.  A break from my “stuff.”  Strolling the country’s oldest Farmer’s Market, breathing northern air, driving new highways.  Chanting with Jai and other transplanted pals in Philly.  Breathing with Max and long-lost Off the Mat Into the World sisters in Easton.

So returning from this trip, I was – after a period of tormenting darkness – finally back in the light.  I was sober, safe and sound.  That Monday, singing my heart out to Shiva, I cried.  I cried because I made it through.

Then for some reason, I shamefully said, “I’m so sorry.”

I apologized for having become depressed, for being in the dark so long.  As if I had left god’s side, influence, presence, light.  And it hit me – NO!  God took me there.  God took my hand and led me into that darkness, because there was something I needed to see.  Remember all of that questioning and letting go that started in the Spring?  It sprang from a mugging – an incident I wouldn’t wish on anyone, but that brought out a fierceness in me.  I started to put my foot down, to set strong boundaries.  I also started to overreact to certain upsets.  Because in fact, the mugging was a trauma, which triggered unresolved past trauma that needed attention.  And it didn’t just tap me on the shoulder.  It broke down my door.  By force, I had to get the help I needed in order to look at it, start to heal from it…and no longer be ruled by it.

photo: Holly Meyers

So there might be a light at the end of the tunnel – but sometimes, the tunnel itself is well-lit, and leads into the dark.

And into the darkness we went.  God and I.  So I could experience that depth of despair and subsequent transcendence to joy.  So ultimately, I could share the story with others, in case they ever go through something similar.  God was with me the whole time.  No apology necessary.  I went where I was meant to go.

From singing Kirtan, I have come to embrace that god has many faces.  For example, Lord Shiva plays many roles: devout yogi, cosmic dancer and drummer, menacing protector.  Shiva is commonly called “The Destroyer,”  but he actually governs destruction, transformation and regeneration.  As Jai says, “He wipes the slate clean so that new writing can be written.  He destroys everything so that rebirth can occur instantly.”

It makes sense to me that god, in the form of Shiva, led me deep down to the bottom.  To show me the realities that needed to be faced.  The same realities that now inform my purpose, inspire my actions and give me something to share in service to others.  During that dark period, I was yearning for surrender, security and trust the whole time.  Now I know that I was never alone.  I was always safe.  And I was always loved.

And for that, I cry tears of gratitude.  OM Namah Shivaya.

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

 

My Mother is My Guru November 2, 2011

Mom’s been on my mind a lot lately.

And y’know, it makes sense.  I’ve been singing a lot (my mother taught me to sing).  It’s Autumn (October 2nd would have been her 81st birthday).  Thanksgiving is approaching (my family celebrated our last holiday season with Mom 10 years ago).  And I recently celebrated my 9th year clean and sober (my mom died as a result of long-term alcoholism).

I miss her.  I miss her right now.

Nearly a decade after her death, she still taps me on the shoulder at times.  She taps me when I’m playing percussion with bands, chanting devotional prayers at Kirtans, singing Gospel standards at open mics and lighting the Chanukah candles.  She taps me when my yoga instructor asks me to think of my most important life teacher.  She tapped me this morning while I was meditating.  She taps me when I’m pruning plants or arranging flowers.  She taps me when I’m decorating my home.  She taps me when I’m cooking a soup.

There are times when I reach out to tap her, too.  To hear her opinion.  To ask for her embrace.  To thank her for my life.  To apologize for any harm I did to her.  To grieve the pain of her life.  To send her the love she deserves.

I didn’t always love my mom the way I came to love her later in my life…later in her life…and then after she died.

*  *  *

I’m about to tell you some very personal and difficult stories.  Some are smiling and shiny; some are gritty and rough.  All are bittersweet.  I’ve selected these stories because they specifically prove that, indeed, my mother is the greatest Guru ever.  For me.

When I was young I hated my mother for being an alcoholic.  As an adult, I would learn more about the disease of alcoholism and honor the tragedy of her life.  But while growing up, I simply resented how drunk she got.   I was constantly afraid that my friends and the community would see her drunk; and because they frequently saw her, I was frequently embarrassed.  One time I spilled out the drink that she intended to take in the car on our way to Shabbat services – and she slapped me.  It was a gin martini.  To this day, I cannot stomach the smell of gin.

There were times when she came through as a great mother.  She was a hard worker, had full-time jobs, and did not drink during the day.  She truly wanted to show up, and when she could, she did.   But what I understand now is that her efforts to parent were overshadowed by the neglect.  In the end, alcohol always won her attention and became her priority.  Spill it out, and you became a threat.  So I learned to keep a distance.

*  *  *

During my college years, I grew to appreciate my mother.  My attitude shifted after I took my family to see a friend’s concert.  The next day at lunch, my friend said, “It was great to meet your mom.  For the longest time, I thought she’d died before we met.  You always talked about your dad – you never mentioned your mom.”  Whoa.  I had no idea I’d erased her so completely.  And then my friend said, “Y’know, you get a lot from her.”  I was so pissed off!  I argued, “No way, I have nothing in common with her!”  So he stated the obvious, judging by what I had told him in the rare instances of speaking about my mom, and his impression the night before.  She grew up singing; music is her passion; she gravitates toward soul music; she loves talking with other musicians; and, she was so comfortable backstage – it was the most natural place she could be.

That day, I surrendered my resentment and admitted that my mother had been an ally and soul-mate all along.  Clearly, I got a lot from her!  The passion for music, for soulful cultures, for gardening, for cooking, for interior design, for spirituality.  My mother taught me to sing, primarily through chanting the Sh’ma, a Jewish prayer, in harmony.

My mother did so much to inspire and encourage creativity.  Every morning, she’d have her coffee and cigarette while listening to WMAL-AM, when it was a jazz station.  Over breakfast I was exposed to the music that my mom had sung in talent shows and concerts – great vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Doris Day, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and more.  Although a blue eyed farm girl from the capitol of country music, my mom gravitated toward jazz and gospel.  In fact, I have her 1948 song book of Negro Spirituals.  This immersion in soulful music influenced me to write my own songs and perform them at my parents’ frequent parties.  Mom enrolled me in voice lessons.  On beach trips, she’d blast the radio and we’d all sing along.  She invited my high school New Wave band to hold a house concert.  When I was a little older, my drummer boyfriend invited me to tour California with his band – Dad said a firm “no” but Mom fought for me.  (I went to Cali.)  And so on.

At the same time, many opportunities were missed.  For example, there was a lot of self-taught musicianship and talent that was never deepened with consistent instruction or plans for ongoing development.  I do regret this and often feel that music education might have been my best choice for college.  Looking back, I don’t blame my mom for any of this, because I am certain she would have guided me in that direction if she could have.  I blame the disease of alcoholism.

*  *  *

As my mom became progressively ill, my love for her grew immensely.  Alcoholism and related troubles continued to take its toll in more serious ways.  In her 60s, Mom had cancer three times.  On the outside, she remained the strong-willed woman who could get through anything.  She continued planting gardens, harvesting herbs, cooking from scratch, building an art studio in her bedroom, doing crafts, listening to music, smoking cigarettes, drinking gin.

But there were points where I witnessed her heartbreaking vulnerability.  With each cancer, my mother never completely healed – more and more complications arose.  She became scared.  I once heard her crying in bed the night before one of her many surgeries.  When she was diagnosed with emphysema, she quit smoking and remarked with self-disgust, “I could have done that a long time ago.”  She would willingly try my yoga and diet suggestions, but was so sick that she’d end up feeling worse.  Toward the end, I remember laying next to her tired body on yet another day that she woke up with a “bug” that left her vomiting and weakened.  I will never forget the terror in her eyes when I urged her to go to the hospital.  Perhaps she knew she was dying and wanted to stay at home as long as possible.

That was Thanksgiving, 10 years ago.  I think the family dinner included Mom, Dad, two of my sisters, three of their kids and me.  That night, in my mom’s art studio, I drew an abstract of the scene.  My mother and father were angels at the heads of the table – Mom’s garden spade and a green vine enveloped us on one side; Dad’s cigar and its smoke on the other.  To me, both the vine and the smoke represented protection.  I sensed it was Mom’s last Thanksgiving.  I was right.

*  *  *

After my mom died, I developed a deep, knowing compassion for her.  Interestingly enough, I got sober six months after her death.  I’d started drinking at age 11, to calm the childhood chaos and hush the deep resentments.  Twenty five years later, as I came to understand the cunning, baffling and powerful disease that nearly killed me, I also came to understand the disease that succeeded in killing my mom.  Listening to other recovering alcoholics’ speak, I heard my mom’s story.  I saw how the disease had destroyed her life and consequently affected mine.  And I loved her even more.

My greatest awakening about my mom’s life came about four years ago.  By complete surprise, I found out that she had a child before meeting my father.  Stories said that she’d been hanging out with musicians in her native Nashville, might have been drinking, might have been raped…and ended up pregnant.  Her parents sent her away, to a “home for women” in DC.  The home arranged the birth and subsequent adoption.  They say that Mom was so angry, she never forgave her parents.  And so I found yet another thing that my mother and I had in common – we both drank to kill life’s pain and drown our resentments.

The biggest difference is: I got lucky and got sober; she did not.  I take that very, very seriously.

*  *  *

So yes, my mother is my Guru.  Throughout all the phases of my relationship with her – dead and alive – she has been my most influential teacher.  She teaches me with the light, and she teaches me from the darkness.  She teaches me through what she did, and what she would/could/did not do.  Her influence drives my passions and my purpose.

I love everything about her.  The singing lessons, the slaps, the strong will, the vulnerability.  She is the ultimate model of the perfectly imperfect human that I strive to be.

It’s taken me a day to write this.  I started when I finished meditating this morning.  I stopped and started and stopped and started again.  I cried my heart out.  There’s so much more than what you’ve read above, so many more experiences and stories, so much more grief and love.

*  *  *

Back in 2009, I went on tour with a folk-pop band and I took along a photo of my mom.  I’ve heard that the picture was taken in DC, at the women’s home, some time after she had the baby. She is beautiful and glamorous; she is too thin and her eyes look cold; she stands tall and her hands fumble with each other self-consciously. So I wanted to take this version of her on this exciting musical journey. Every night before I went to sleep, I lit a candle and thanked my mom.  I now play percussion and sing sacred chants in an all-female Kirtan group.  I’ve noticed that Kirtan leaders and spiritual teachers typically create an altar with a picture of their Guru.  Coming full circle, I can think of no one more perfect to place on my altar than the woman who sang Hebrew prayers with me, every night at bedtime.

Good night, Mom.  OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

 

The Happy Heart Project: Days 1-31 September 29, 2011

I’ve read that we replace 1% of our cells daily. Every 100 days we have a new body. What that new body consists of is the food we eat, air we breathe, water we drink, exercise we take and thoughts we think.  – A friend

Three-plus boxes of incense and 31 days ago, I launched “The Happy Heart Project: 100 Days Toward Joy” as a simple way to set an intention.

Under the new moon of Sunday, August 28th, I lit my first stick of “Happy Heart” (an incense by Maroma) and made a commitment to move toward joy for that day, and that day only.  Because that’s really all I have – one day at a time.

When I started this “project,” I understood there would be no guarantees.  The dark funk of the past year (or so) would either stay or go.  And indeed – over the past month, that funk has left, returned, become darker, been replaced by light, strengthened, weakened, disappeared, appeared again…you get the picture.

Still, it’s the intention that makes the difference.  It’s the intention that gives the journey purpose, that keeps me honest with myself, that drives me toward solutions, that sparks change.

*  *  *

“Sankalpa” is a Sanskrit word loosely meaning “intention.”  Other definitions include: commitment, resolution, resolve, will, purpose, determination, motivation.  I have heard from yoga experts that the act of reinforcing a Sankalpa has the power to replace and erase destructive habits, unwanted thoughts and false beliefs, aka negative “Samskara” (patterns created by the “scars” of life).  Setting this positive, committed intention is like a deep practice of “Pratipaksha Bhavana” – replacing negative thoughts with positive.

“Yogas Citta Vritti Nirodhah” – yoga restrains disturbances of the mind.  I cling (loosely, hehehe) to this promise that my sometimes dark, anguished and seeking (aka human) mind can be calmed by yoga.  And not just the movement of my body on a mat, but all of yoga’s calming practices, from Pranayama (the movement of vital energy through oxygenation, aka, breathing) to setting a Sankalpa.

*  *  *

So how did the 1st month of “Happy Heart” burning go?

Well let’s see…in no particular order:

During a three-day yoga retreat, I had a soul-bearing conversation with a beautiful old tree, a powerfully silent meditation at Satchidananda’s tomb, and a thankful turn-of-the-corner from darkness to light.  Since returning from retreat, I have awakened between 5:30 and 7am each day to practice Pranayama, meditation and prayer.  I reunited and hung out with wonderful friends; listened to Car Talk and laughed my butt off; took a nourishing Asana class with a teacher I’d never experienced; saw the Washington Nationals’ win their final home game; saw “Our Idiot Brother” (silly comedy) and “The Interrupters” (intense documentary).  After consulting with trusted doctors, I paused my PTSD therapy in order to soften the intense triggers arising after the June mugging.  I finally started sleeping through the night and balancing out during the day with the help of herbal and nutrient-based supplements.  While walking near my home, I saw the guy who mugged me, followed him (again), called the police (again), and lost him (again).  I received very caring attention from DC MPD detectives.  I met with a DC MPD inspector who likes my idea of teaching Pranayama and meditation to traumatized cops.  In response to these recent tough times, and, the approach of my 9th anniversary of addiction recovery, I increased my recovery activities and started receiving regular guidance from a recovery program mentor.  The early-recovery gal that I was mentoring moved on to work with a different mentor.  I showed up for others; picked up my friend’s kids from the school bus stop; listened to friends who are hurting.  I had a panic attack, triggered by a false belief that someone was going to abandon me.  The all-female Kirtan group I’m in – The Shaktis – guided a roof-raising night of chanting at a yoga center.  I continued teaching my three yoga classes per week, with a focus on “Everyday Enlightenment” – observing how we carry our Eight Limb influences off the mat and into daily life.  I showed up for my part-time retail job; I reached the end of my rope with ongoing poor treatment by a co-worker; I quit that job.  Today I interviewed for a new job.

I healed, I worried, I laughed, I grieved.  I walked with confidence, I asked for help.  I felt pissed off; I felt forgiving; I felt human.

In other words, I experienced life.

Somewhere around Day #20, there was one morning that I felt so frustrated that I did not want to light the incense.  I did it anyway.

Because that’s what a Sankalpa is – a commitment, no matter what.  A firm resolution to stick with the positive action despite all challenges.  Or, even better – a firm resolution to meet all challenges with positive action.  Whether that positive action is to grieve authentically or celebrate joyously.

*  *  *

At this moment, under the new-new moon, I am preparing to attend Rosh Hashanah services.  The Jewish New Year launches a period of intense prayer, forgiveness (offered and requested), and atonement.  After 10 days, on Yom Kippur, we seal these efforts with a one-day fast.  I didn’t plan it this way – but after these 31 days of ups, downs, turned corners, endings, clarity and renewed intention…the rituals of the High Holy Days are the perfect way to start my 2nd month of “The Happy Heart Project.”

More will be revealed.  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 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!

 

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.

 

Focus: Abundance – Love & Light December 31, 2010

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

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

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

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

Finally. The return of love and light.

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

Too simple to be true?

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The way I would like to love myself.

*  *  *

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

OM Shanti. h*

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

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

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

 

Focus: Gratitude – Inter-Faith & Cultural Fusion November 25, 2010

Around Thanksgiving, some might grunt and gripe about family dynamics (me included) This year I want to offer huge gratitude to my parents. Because Mom and Dad motivated my passion for fusing spiritual and cultural influences.

Mom (rest her soul) was a blue-eyed Church of Christ farm girl born to Irish settlers near Nashville, TN. Her love for singing was rooted in songs from black culture. I have her 1948 “Negro Spirituals” song book and newspaper clippings from talent shows where she performed the jazz standard “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” She converted to Judaism before marrying my father. Dad came from a gypsy-like Russian-Jewish family and grew from adolescence to early adulthood in Phoenix, AZ, where he gravitated toward Mexican culture. To this day, he tries to remember his Spanish vocabulary, brightens up when he hears Mariachi music and takes himself out for enchiladas just to be around Hispanic families.

Both Mom and Dad brought their musical and religious influences into our home; and I grew up with an appreciation of pretty much every aspect of their eclectic tastes and backgrounds. As my cultural interests matured, I traveled right down the middle of Dad’s Spanish-tinged path and Mom’s Afro-centric inspirations to find myself impassioned for Puerto Rico. Spiritually, I’ve presently evolved into a somewhat pagan yogini who religiously observes the Jewish New Year!

So when I recently saw an advertisement for a “Bomba Kirtan” – an event blending yogic devotional chanting and Puerto Rican folkloric “party” music – I was beyond excited!

When I first heard about the event, I asked myself – is it “OK” to fuse a purely spiritual practice with a primarily social activity? The answer for me – particularly after last weekend’s amazing experience – is a hearty “yes!”

The “Bomba Kirtan” at Baltimore’s Utkatasana Yoga Studio was beyond my dreams. What a beautifully diverse community of yoga teachers, yogis and yoginis, dancers, musicians, artists, parents, children and all! After a meet-n-greet with tea and homemade cacao/fruit balls, we circled up and prepared to pray in the Bhakti Yoga tradition. After Pranayama and meditation – with mellow guitar and drum accompaniment – we transitioned to responsive Sanskrit chanting to various deities. We even included a Native American chant urging each other to “Be Here Now.” Clearly Ganesha heard us because the devotional energy was unobstructed, pure and high!

After a short break the drummers re-directed the room with rhythms rooted in the Afro-Puerto Rican Bomba tradition. People bravely jumped in on instruments, jumped into the middle of the dance floor, jumped into a culture that they were primarily unfamiliar with before those moments. Dancers and drummers played off each others’ movements and hits; chanters offered songs; and singers offered chants. In my tradition of Inter-Faith exploration, I even snuck in a chant to Oshun during a gorgeous 6/8 groove. The freedom! The smiles! When I left to drive home to DC, more drummers were arriving! I heard that the Bomberos carried through into the wee hours.

To me, the seemingly separate traditions of Kirtan and Bomba actually have much in common. The call-response of chanting and singing; the soulful call to sway, move, dance; the conversations between chanter and spirit, dancer and drummer, dancer and dancer, chanter and chanter; the movement toward ecstasy.

To blend Kirtan and Bomba in the sober and sacred space of a yoga studio was ideal for me. I felt 100% comfortable being my Self, and 100% authentic embodying all of my culturally eclectic “selves.” I can’t remember, ever, feeling so loved and loving, accepted and accepting, moved, inspired, true, awake.

Liberated.

So thanks, Mom and Dad, for bringing your spiritual and cultural curiosities, passions, traditions and backgrounds into our home. Also much, much gratitude to those that created and shared the magic of perhaps the world’s 1st (but certainly not last!) Bomba Kirtan: the owners of Baltimore’s Utkatasana Yoga Studio; the musicians gathered by Michael Harris; my fellow OM-Zoners Kendra and Justina; photographer Monica Sizemore (for these beautiful shots!); and so many more who are now connected by this unique bond.

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

To view Monica Sizemore’s complete album of Bomba Kirtan photos, visit http://www.4thchakraphotography.com/. To learn more about Baltimore’s Utkatasana studio, visit http://www.utkatasanayoga.com/live/. For more information about future Bomba Kirtan events, subscribe to my Yoga Update newsletter by e-mailing hmeyers65@yahoo.com or stay tuned to the Events page of this Urban Yoga Den blog.