The Urban Yoga Den

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Healing Kids’ Scars With Yoga July 12, 2011

I grew up in the suburbs of Washington, DC – Potomac, MD to be exact.

Potomac was once known as “The Beverly Hills of the East Coast.”  The town was quite wealthy and had its own brand of celebrities – diplomats, politicians, famous doctors.  Yet there were some plain-old middle class neighborhoods, as well.  That’s where we lived.

I am the youngest of four daughters and was unplanned.  In fact, after the birth of her 3rd girl, my mom had a tubal ligation (aka “had her tubes tied”)…and then I was conceived.  So there’s about 0.02% chance for me to be writing this today.  Yet here I am.

My family members struggled with addiction and endured all that comes with it – violence, chaos, depression, alienation, economic insecurity.  As a young child, I once overheard my parents fighting about family finances.  They said that if I were never born, they wouldn’t have money problems.

This scar has motivated pretty much all of my life patterns (known in yoga as Samskara) – particularly the unhealthy ones.

Believing that I was an unwanted problem, I grew up with a pretty fierce habit of self-destruction.  I’ll spare you the squirmy details of how I used to harm myself and act out.  Due to the amount of pain throughout my entire family, however, there was little attention to or solution for mine.

Once a spiritually inspired, congenial and loving child, I turned into a self-reliant, isolated and troubled teen.  Without the necessary interventions for healing and true growth, I continued my toxic development into adulthood.  No relationship tools, no career path, no future plans.  To be rigorously honest – I spent most of my life either wanting to or trying to die in one way or another.

In my late 20’s, I started to long for inner peace, social connection and maturity.  After finally hitting a spiritual, psychological and physical bottom in 2002, I embraced the right combination of help and have been growing up ever since.

In 2008, I received my yoga teaching certification after 15 years of practice.  My 1st job was designing a yoga program for at-risk youth in a DC public charter school for grades K-7.  The kids were literally climbing the walls.  I once had to yank some down from scaling the hallways by way of door frames.  You might imagine how they initially responded to the yoga program – and to me.  They saw me as a privileged outsider and offered no respect.  To shrink the great divide, I frankly told them about my childhood and consequent adult challenges.  Jaws dropped.  I told them, “If only I’d had the opportunity to escape the chaos inside my classroom, my home and my head to breath, stretch and meditate for one class period, I might have grown up differently.”  Although not all attitudes shifted, a few students opened their minds and hearts and practiced with commitment.  And I enjoyed the incredible honor of witnessing human transformation.

I relate to a great number of inner city kids – we share that core wound of being told in one way or another that we are an unwanted problem.  This brokenness manifests in a variety of destructive behaviors and outcomes.  It fills the streets, supermarkets, buses and trains as urban children endure public shaming and beatings.

In the suburbs, this brokenness and abuse exists behind closed doors.

Like many “do-gooders” I used to focus on working with inner-city populations.  These days I gravitate toward suburban upstarts like me.  Each July and August I teach yoga and percussion to grades 1-6 for a prestigious music school’s summer camp, just four miles from the house where I grew up.  There is a mix of well-adjusted children, kids going through typical growing pains, and others who resemble my own childhood patterns of fear, depression, anxiety, shame, isolation, distraction and destruction.  It is at once heartbreaking and motivating.

I am devoted to the transformational power of ensemble percussion and yoga.  I discovered these amazing practices in adulthood and feel grateful to pass-on their benefits to these summer camp kids.  While learning folkloric Caribbean poly-rhythms, campers open up to team work and trust.  I see the loners gradually shine with talent, the divas turn into helpful guides and the trouble makers take leadership roles.  In yoga class, spazzy and often hyperactive energy transmutes into meditative calm.  Kids who already love and practice yoga (there are more each year) champion the practice; and the troubled ones get a welcome respite from their internal unrest.  In both percussion and yoga class, all are empowered by collaboration and rejuvenation.

I rarely turn yoga into a game for my youth classes (except for the really little guys).  We start class with calming three-part breathing; we set an intention/Sankalpa (typically I ask them to think of something beautiful and breathe it into their hearts); we flow through Sun Salutations/Surya Namaskar; and we practice additional poses depending on the energy of the students.  I have led Pratyahara meditations to balance out the senses and decrease distraction; I have read stories of Hindu deities to much delight; and I have introduced breathing exercises/Pranayama (three-part Deergha Swasam calms them immediately; over-the-tongue Sitali cools hot tempers; belly-pumping Kapalabhati wakes them up when lethargic).

Basically, whatever I teach in my adult classes, I also teach in my kids classes.  Below are a few stories of transformation.  I credit yoga for these stories; I’m simply sharing what centuries of teachers have passed on to each other.

Story #1.  Erik, 11-years-old.

During my time at the DC public charter school, I had an 11-year-old student named Erik.  He was one of those kids I had to peel down from high climbs.  When we started group yoga sessions in January he couldn’t follow directions, stay on his mat or concentrate for a second.  He was constantly looking around, hyper-vigilant and completely distracted.  With good reason – his home life was chaotic and violent.  So I recognized his acting out from my own youth.  After three months of weekly yoga, Erik became more eager to participate in yoga, and was able to concentrate most of the time.  On Friday, March 20th, we decided he would assistant-teach our first class upon returning from Spring Break.  Tragically, Erik and his family were murdered by his mother’s boyfriend the next day.

Erik’s destiny was way beyond my control.  It is bittersweet to recall his transformation through yoga’s gifts; I still access this inspiration and hope when teaching yoga to other youth.

Story #2.  Alyson, 10-years-old.

Another student from that Charter School is still a “private client” today.  Back in Spring 2009, “Alyson” awakened after I’d told the kids my life story.  She bee-lined directly to me and said, “You know how you said that yoga helps you heal emotional pain?  Can I do more yoga with you?”  How honest and revealing!  Alyson excelled in all of her school activities and seemed pretty mature; yet, she frequently set herself apart from classmates.  I soon learned that Alyson’s parents were in serious trouble and she was being raised by her grandparents, who encouraged her to do well.  I was happy that she had support; at the same time, I wondered how it felt to lose one’s parents and end up with another family member.  Since the end of that school year, Alyson’s grandmother has brought her to my home about four times a year for a seasonal yoga “tune-up,” during which we catch up on her latest challenges, and practice a yoga set designed to address those stresses.

Over time, I have witnessed Alyson develop into a graceful young woman and tool-using yogini!

Story #3.  Billy.  11-years-old.

Just last Friday, “Billy” freaked out during Games Day at summer camp.  Billy is a super-smart, overly-eager, talkative camper.  More than others, he needs to be heard, he needs to be recognized as doing well – and he tends to dominate and monopolize the class because of these needs.  Last week, in the Bean Bag Toss, he just could not hit the target.  With each miss, his exclamations became more and more dramatic, and included remarks of great self-disgust.  On his third try (and miss) he yelled “F***!” and stomped off to hide behind some bushes.  “Whoa,” I intervened.  “Let’s take a walk.”  During our stroll, I listened.  Billy was angry because he’d forgotten his water bottle; and he was feeling like he couldn’t do anything right.

He was over-heated, over-sensitive and losing it.  I totally related!

While we headed inside for water, I took yoga’s Pratipaksha Bhavana approach and encouraged him to replace his negativity about Games Day with positive thoughts about his many musical accomplishments.  In fact, I reminded Billy, I’d just paid him a huge complement in front of the entire class that very morning.  He embraced this immediately, saying, “You’re right; this is just one thing,” referring to the bean bags.  Then, on the way back outside, we practiced Sitali Pranayama (inhaling through the mouth and over the tongue; exhaling through the nose) to cool his temper.  It worked.  Billy happily joined the campers and jumped right into the next game.

I wouldn’t dare guess whether these children are/were hurting the same way I did at their age.  However, I vividly recall killing my emotional pain with alcohol at age 11.  So, I can’t help but wonder – what if I’d been exposed to yoga in childhood, instead of finally discovering it (and other healing resources) in adult life?

In the inner city and the outer suburbs, I teach yoga so any child who feels like an unwanted problem might find refuge in and strength through these ancient practices for stilling the mind.  “Yogas Citta Vritti Nrodhah,” I tell them.  Yoga restrains disturbances of the mind.  I pray that these generously healing practices might liberate all hurting children from the pain of family or community chaos before their Samskara mirror mine.

Wishing all beings peace, joy, love and light.  OM Shanti.

 

Focus: The Yoga Sutras – Love & Murder February 28, 2011

Each morning when I rise, I try to spend about 30 minutes praying, meditating and doing some Pranayama.  When I do, my soul feels infinitely more peaceful throughout whatever the day tosses my way.

For me, this is the point of yoga.

From what I’ve learned, this was also the point of yoga for the ancients who invented this deeply balancing art  – ancients like Patanjali and others, who thankfully passed yoga along for thousands of years so it could reach us. Yogas Citta Vritti Nrodhah is the 2nd aphorism in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.  “Yoga restrains disturbances of the mind.”  The only Sutra that comes before this is the statement, “Now we will explore yoga.”

So clearly, cultivating a calm mind is the most important goal of yoga practice.

In our February classes, we have been exploring a very basic introduction to the Yoga Sutras.  I am sharing five aphorisms from Patanjali’s wisdom that, for me, are practical tools and inspiring promises.  (Please see “February Focus: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” for an introduction to the five.)  On and off the mat, they inform my discernment process when making large and small decisions; they remind me how to live in peace with all others; they guide me toward self-acceptance, -love and -compassion; and they give me hope.

Last week we covered Sutra 1.33, which is a tough order.  In my opinion.

In Sutra 1.33, Patanjali introduces “The Four Locks & Four Keys.”  He suggests that (in order to fulfill yoga’s purpose of a calm mind) we cultivate the following attitudes toward the following types of people: friendliness toward the happy; compassion for the unhappy; delight in the virtuous; and disregard (or indifference, or equanimity or detachment) toward the non-virtuous.

As I prepared to teach my seven weekly classes on this theme, I decided to share the story of my 11-year-old yoga student who was murdered in March 2009 – and how I used the four locks/keys to navigate that deeply disturbing situation.  I meditated on this decision, realizing that such a dark story could potentially shake up the room.  I prayed, “May I be relieved of self-centeredness, that I may better play a small, useful role in your big picture.  I pray to be relieved of anything that stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows.  Grant me strength to do your bidding.”

I checked my motives, reminding myself that I do not teach for my own needs, but for the well-being of my students.  In the end, I decided to share my personal experience in order to demonstrate yoga’s solutions for every possible situation.

Even a situation as severe as murder.

*  *  *

In my early experience, the toughest part of Sutra 1.33’s “advice” was offering anything but anger, disgust and all kinds of judgment toward the non-virtuous.  Even today, as harmful things occur around me and happen to me, I can naturally (and humanly) sink into all kinds of harsh emotion.

Thankfully, in his commentary on The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Swami Satchidananda nudges me, “We come across wicked people sometimes.  We can’t deny that.  So what should be our attitude?  Indifference.  ‘Well, some people are like that.  Probably I was like that yesterday.  Am I not a better person now?  She will probably be alright tomorrow.'”  Simply put.  And with an underlying vibe of self-forgiveness.  Beautiful.

What of the people who are habitually “wicked” – who commit harm as a reaction to being harmed themselves; or due to fear; or to fulfill a sense of survival?  How do I keep a peaceful mind in the midst of serious threat?  I first recognize that in order to commit harm, a person is most likely deeply unhappy.  Therefore, as the 2nd lock/key suggests, I offer compassion to that person.  And I disregard the non-virtuous deed as the result of that very human state of unhappiness.

I was inspired toward this approach by the beautiful book, “Why We Fight: Practices for Lasting Peace” by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait.  “…if someone is ‘non-virtuous’ according to our definition, the judgmental part of our personality comes forward and we label those people as ‘bad.’  We try to maintain a distance, either my withdrawing ourselves or by pushing them away from us.  Any of these actions sets the stage for violence.”

And then he makes the strongest point.

“Cultivating indifference for people we believe to be non-virtuous damages our sensitivity to others and destroys our capacity for forgiveness, kindness, and selfless love.”  He reinforces, “But by cultivating indifference toward the deeds themselves, we remain free of animosity for those whose actions are non-virtuous.”

Hmmmm – a mind free of animosity sounds like an undisturbed mind.  Therefore, if I want to practice yoga as the Sutras suggest, I must disregard the deed, have compassion toward the doer…and perhaps even forgive her.  I had to practice this recently.  And believe me, it works.  And it’s worth it.  For peace of mind.

In his May 2010 Yoga Journal article, “Love in Full Bloom,” Frank Jude Boccio takes this Sutra one step further.  He invites us to offer ourselves these same attitudes – friendliness or lovingkindness, compassion, delight or joy, and equanimity.  He asks, “How would you like to be unconditionally loved, just as you are, without having to be or do anything special?  What would it be like to feel truly, completely, radically accepted, without feeling as though you had to hide or deny or apologize for any aspect of yourself?”

And I add – can you imagine how peaceful the world and our own mind states would be if we offered this unconditional acceptance to all beings?

So let’s start with ourselves.  Can we remember to offer ourselves lovingkindness, compassion, joy and equanimity?  Can we forgive ourselves for mistakes, accept our humanness, see ourselves as worthy?  Boccio points out, “…if we cannot love and accept ourselves just as we are, we will find if difficult to truly love anyone else in such a limitless, unconditional way.”

Remember, yoga’s ultimate goal is an undisturbed mind.  So how do we cultivate love when it feels impossible?  If I am firmly stuck in harsh judgment toward myself or another, the most effective elbow-to-ribs is the tool we learned in Sutra 2.33 – Pratipaksha Bhavana.  The replacement of negative thoughts with positive.

In his ever hopeful way, Swami Satchidananda says, “If the thought of hatred is in the mind, we can try to bring in the thought of love.  If we can’t do that, we can at least go to the people we love and, in their presence, forget the hatred.  So, although the hatred comes to the surface, we can keep if from coming out or staying long by changing the environment.”

May all of your yoga classes be an Environment Of Love.  May you feel surrounded by love.  May you feel secure, safe and supported during your practice.  May you find peace of mind.

*  *  *

Over the past week, I have witnessed students’ profound dedication to cultivating the virtues suggested in Sutra 1.33.  I have seen them apply The Four Locks & Keys during their Asana practice.  I have watched them wrestle with discomfort, re-commit to cultivating a peaceful mind, and choose positive over negative.  I have felt the love in the room; and I am certain it has found its way off the mat and into the world.

Since hearing the “murder story,” many students have confided in me about difficulties or hardship they are going or have been through.  I pray that, during our classes, they feel support for their healing.  I pray they get an ounce of relief, a break from troubles and tools to cultivate the peacefulness to face whatever life tosses their way.

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