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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.

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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!

 

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: Why Yoga? – Resilience August 11, 2010

Today a friend is having a lumpectomy to remove cancer in her breast.

This friend is a strong, solution-oriented, resilient woman.  After reading my news about the betrayal, breakup and decompression process, she wrote to encourage me to join her in a ritual of surrender.  Instead of asking friends to pray for her well-being, she invited us to pray to let go of something that no longer serves us. On Monday evening, under a waning moon, I invited students to use their breath intentionally.  Together, we inhaled something positive into our being.  On the exhales, we let go of whatever might impede that positive intention.

Amazing what happens when I follow my own instructions!  I inhaled, “I trust that I will be taken care of,” and exhaled, “I surrender my fear.” I did this…after a day full of self-centered fear and heart-racing anxiety.  You see, while decompressing from this betrayal (which triggered memories of other traumas), I had become distrustful of humans.  By practicing intentional breathing in class Monday night, my fears and anxieties started to dissolve.

My friend’s proactive and positive attitude cracked open the door of my own resilience. And for that, I am grateful.

In past posts, I’ve written about “Pratipaksha Bhavana.” Essentially, this is what my struggling friend suggested.  This practice (mentioned in aphorism 2.33 of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras) invites us to replace negative thoughts with positives.  This does not mean we should stuff or deny strong emotions that produce “negatives” – the healthy recognition and processing of anger, fear and anxiety is essential to our wholeness and well-being.  At the same time, for a multi-trauma survivor like me, the tendency to dwell in those emotions can cultivate fear-based stories that have nothing to do with the actualities surrounding me.  False beliefs such as, “I can’t trust anyone; everyone is hiding a horribly hurtful truth; I can instruct yoga but not get close to anyone” can invade and pervade.

When actually, I am surrounded by caring, honest, healthy and beautifully-human beings.

For those who know me and know how I teach, you also know that it would be impossible for me to disconnect!  I love engaging deeply and authentically with fellow yogis, students and teachers.  It was scary enough two weeks ago, when I found myself halfway through a class with no recall of what I had taught.  This realization lead me to make better choices for myself.  The end of my relationship has allowed me to reconnect with my truth, my essence, my healthiest me – and therefore, to show up for others.

For me, a path toward true resilience must include this essential aspect of service.

Since Monday evening’s Pratipaksha Bhavana/intentional breathing practice, so many other remedies have surfaced.  In fact, Tuesday was a long string of therapeutics.  I started with a visit to the chiropractor, who, by aligning my structure (post-traumatic-couch-sleeping is not great for alignment), reinforced proper flow of energy through the Chakras.  Then, in a Cranio-Sacral Therapy session, I finally verbalized my anger, disappointment and grief through a gradually-unstuck throat Chakra.  During a noon yoga class, where the teacher spoke of “Samtosha” (the Eight Limbs’ “Niyama” or virtue of contentment with or acceptance of what is), pigeon pose released my tears.  Afterward, talk therapy nurtured my trust and balanced my emotions.

Does this sound like a lot of effort?  Perhaps.  At the same time, through years of experience, I’ve grown to prefer the liberating results of proactive healing to the destructive crawl toward progressive depression.  Let’s see – liberation or destruction?  I know which sounds best to me.

“Therapeutic Tuesday” would not have been complete without sharing my experience, strength and hope with others who also believe in proactive recovery.  So that evening, in a room full of people who surrender to solutions one day at a time, I admitted my distrust of humans, identified this as dangerous, and described the tools I’m using to move away from that false story and toward the positive reality.

And the door to resilience cracked open a bit more.

This morning I woke up to my alarm at 6:30am.  I sprung off the couch (ok, ok, this IS a process!) and zoomed down the street for a 7am yoga class.  Inspired by a Sufi poem, the teacher encouraged us to see flowers growing within…and then to envision an entire garden.  Perhaps in full bloom; perhaps in need of some pruning.  Her music choices were positive and spiritual, organically complementing the bright sunrise.  No crying this time.  I felt energized and excited for change.

I even felt that trust was possible.

When I got home, I popped Joshua James into the CD player and cooked Irish Steel Cut Oatmeal with goji berries and walnuts.  What a shift from lazy comfort foods and mandatory meditation lectures.  Not to say that Dharma talks don’t help!  But to reach this point, where I can listen to Joshua’s soul-stirring stories and hear both the outcry and hope in his voice…I can now cry as a release and have hope, too.

As for the oatmeal, well, a self-nurturing and nutritious home-cooked breakfast beats the fleeting pleasure of potato chips in the long-term!

So on Monday, my friend with cancer helped crack the door open.  (Today, despite her encouragement to surrender my “stuff,” I’ll be praying for her and her only.)  Since Monday, despite my fear of trusting humans, despite my anxiety, despite my gushing emotions after so much holding-in – I have allowed people’s hugs, words, smiles, songs, teachings and prayers to penetrate this broken heart and tired soul.

This morning, the door to resilience is wide open. And I am choosing to walk through it.

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

(P.S. If you have any questions about the remedies, practitioners, teachers or concepts mentioned above, please write me at hmeyers65@yahoo.com.)

 

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!)

 

Oh Death April 15, 2010

“Well what is this that I can’t see, with ice-cold hands takin’ hold of me?”  – Traditional Folk Song

I’ve got Ralph Stanley’s rendition of “Oh Death” in one ear and cheesy music-on-hold in the other, as I wait for a Southwest Airlines phone agent.  I’m wondering if I can make it to a funeral in Nashville ASAP.  My Uncle Bill passed away yesterday.  On the 8th anniversary of my mom’s – his sister’s – death.

The automated voice says I have 22 to 35 minutes to wait for an SWA agent.  So I guess I’ll continue listening to “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and write a blog.

(And as always, I promise to connect this story to yoga when Max Strom makes an important appearance further down the page.)

Bill was Mom’s favorite brother and my favorite uncle.  When my mom died in Nashville on April 13, 2002, Bill (and most of the Farley family) showed up without fail.  In fact, Bill was always there for my mother – in heroic ways at times…even when most of the siblings became estranged from Mom after she became pregnant out-of-wedlock in her early 20s.  That’s how she ended up in DC – my Grandma Farley sent Mom off to the Crittenden Home for Women in Washington for shelter until the birth.  Uncle Bill and wife Nita drove his silent and resentful sister, Peggy, up north.

Peggy Farley gave birth to a son and was instructed to give him up for adoption.  And she vowed to never return to Tennessee nor see her family again.

Somewhere out there, I have a half-brother who would be nearing 60 years old now.  I wonder if he does yoga.

Since Mom’s death back in 2002, Uncle Bill has been there for me, too, revealing more and more about his sister than I ever knew.  Through his stories and photos, I came to embrace how alike my mom and I are.  She was a singer from childhood, was entered in vocal contests, and – once her brothers and sisters vacated the home base for their own family lives and military assignments – branched out to perform in talent shows and hang out with Nashville musicians.

Unlike most female Nashville singers of her era, Mom preferred jazz and Negro spirituals to country and folk music.  I have a newspaper clip announcing her performance of “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” in the 1950 “Shield Shenanigans” review.  I also have her music lesson books, full of traditional gospel songs like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”  While my three sisters and I were growing up in the DC area in the 1960s, Mom would start each day with a cup of coffee, a cigarette and a dose of WMAL AM-630, whose morning programs played only jazz vocals and big band music.  Thus began my musical education.

Mom met my dad in the bohemian Dupont Circle neighborhood where they lived.  Peggy Farley married Irvin Meyers and began her transition from Church of Christ to Judaism.  She enrolled in Temple Sinai’s program and converted before my eldest sister was born.  I have a hunch that part of my mother’s willingness to convert came from resentment toward her family’s religion.  But she didn’t completely shun her childhood roots.  Her Celtic/Pagan ancestry was apparent in her passion for adorning our home with seasonal decorations from nature – wildflowers in the spring, cat tails in the summer, milk pods in the fall, evergreen in the winter.  A farmer’s daughter, gardening became a spiritual practice later in her life.  Hands in the earth.  Growing and eating your own food.  And I am drawn to Farmer’s Markets and nature-based ritual.  Imagine that.

Now the story gets a little heavier.  Forgive me…

Aside from soulful musical preferences, artistic life and earthy spirituality, Mom and I had something else in common – we both started drinking alcohol very early on.  Sadly, she abused it through elder-hood and died with complications from alcoholism at age 71.  Bless her heart.  Her struggle with the disease of alcoholism was long and horribly destructive.  Just six months after Mom died, I was lucky to have a moment of clarity and accept support to recover from alcohol’s cunning, baffling and powerful grip on me.  One day at a time, I now live the life of a musician, yoga teacher, writer and regular old human being – without the compulsion to drink.

And for that I am grateful.

I am also deeply grateful to my mom for all that she was, all that she did, all that she shared.  But I’d never realized this until last weekend, during West Coast yoga instructor Max Strom’s workshops here in DC.  (Thanks to Caroline Weaver for the recommendation.)  Max is a big bear of a man whose firm and motivational tone is what the Voice of God might sound like.  At least, in my imagination.  After a vigorous heart-/breath-centric flow, we had a nice deep relaxation leading into the deepest silent meditation I’ve ever experienced.

Then, the Voice from Above (aka Max) said, “Bring to mind the person…

(dramatic pause)

or being or thing…

(another pause)

to whom you owe the most gratitude.”

And PING, my mom popped into my mind.

Immediately I inwardly battled, “Mom?  No.  Then who?  What?  Huh?  Shouldn’t it be a Higher Power?  Or…or…or…”

And then the Voice from Above said, “Choose the first being that popped into your mind.”

And I started sobbing.  Of course.  My mom.  I am grateful for her creativity, passion for music, talent in singing, active energy in gardening.  For her encouragement of and alliance with me regarding creativity, singing, drumming, having musician boyfriends, traveling with musicians, touring as a musician.  For her strength (although self-reliant and destructive at times), her perseverance, her work ethic.  For her beautiful blue eyes, perfectly penciled brows, stylish outfits.  And finally, for her humanness, her fragile self, her past, her pain, her resentments, her love, her illness, her silliness, her anger, her entire being.  I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed until I was snotty and puffy and drained.  Finally the Big Bear rang the meditation bells, I gathered my wits about me and life moved on.

Between Uncle Bill’s stories and Max Strom’s transformational yoga I am finally able to recognize my mom as my greatest life teacher – and the learning continues long after her death.

It’s been way more than 22 to 35 minutes and I now know that no airlines offer “bereavement discounts” as in the past.  But I owe it to my Uncle Bill to show up, just like he did – for his family, for my mom and for me.  So tomorrow morning, I’m off to Nashville.

In one particular visit with Bill after my mother’s death, he also told me more about himself than I’d ever known.  Woefully, he shared about his guilt and remorse about leaving Peggy in DC, his absence during her teenage years while he served in the military, his lack of familiarity with her backstage life and her experimentation with alcohol.  In addition, he spoke of his gratitude for the way my dad took care of Mom during their 46-year marriage.

Despite the remorse about his sister, Bill was a man of great faith who must’ve realized that we cannot control what’s beyond us.  People, places, things, time, history.  Imagine what would have happened if Mom had NOT come to DC.  I might not have been born!  I hope Uncle Bill realized that he was always the apple of Mom’s eye, that my Dad really loved and respected him, and that I adored him to no end.  I still have the Jew’s Harp that he mailed me when I was about eight years old – in the original box, addressed to “Miss Holly Meyers.”

I think I’ll take it out right now and jam along with the Soggy Bottom Boys.

Thanks for listening, y’all.  OM Shanti.

(P.S.  Appreciation to tonight’s yoga class at Past Tense, who spent their Yoga Nidra with a little Irish music – Damien Rice’s “Older Chests” – in honor of my Uncle Bill Farley.)

(P.S. again – With all due respect to the entire Farley family; I only have the pieces of Mom’s and Bill’s stories that my sisters, dad and Bill shared.  Please forgive me if something is inaccurate.)

 

Irish Yoga Music March 18, 2010

Indeed.

I typically stick to devotional music for yoga classes.  But yesterday afternoon I was pinched by my mother’s ancestors.  So, in the spirit of St. Patrick, I fused spiritual roots and mixed yoga with Irish rock.  Thanks to one of our students for requesting the set list.

During warm-up:

  • Damien Rice – Dogs (“The girl that does yoga…”)

During Surya Namaskaram & Vinyasa:

  • Waterboys – Fisherman’s Blues
  • Van Morrison – Sweet Thing
  • U2 – Beautiful Day
  • Eddie Reader – I Felt A Soul Move Through Me
  • Swell Season (from the film ONCE) – Falling Slowly

During Integral Yoga floor poses:

  • Hothouse Flowers – The Older We Get
  • Interference (from the film ONCE) – Gold
  • Waterboys – When Ye Go Away
  • Damien Rice – Older Chests
  • Swell Season (from the film ONCE) – Once

During deep relaxation:

  • U2 – Grace

And post-class:

  • Waterboys – When Will We Be Married & Jimmy Hickey’s Waltz

‘Twas a lovely class last night, lassies (and our one lad, Patrick…appropriately).  Thanks for spending St. Patrick’s Day in a yoga studio!  OM Shanti.

(PS – Intro to our March/April class focus of TRANSITION & BALANCE, as well as related bloggings on BASEBALL & YOGA coming soon!)