The Urban Yoga Den

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Putting On My Big Girl (Yoga) Pants July 7, 2013

I AM FUCKING AWESOME.

Yup.  Those are the words that recently rang clear as the Liberty Bell, at the tail end of a particularly freeing Ganesha-themed practice, when the teacher invited us to place our hands over our hearts and affirm the truth of who we are.

I am fucking awesome.

This – one day after feeling that I was failing my 85-year-old father, that I was an embarrassment to his community, that I was a burden to my family.  This – one day after a near stranger’s opinion of my family and me drove my self-esteem into the ground.  This – one day after wrestling my anger, my self-loathing, my anger, my self-loathing.  This – one day after completely losing hope.

I am fucking awesome.

My god, yoga is a mighty transformer.  Jai Ganesha!

*  *  *

OFF THE MAT, DOWN TO NASHVILLE

A week before Father’s Day, I received an e-mail from my dad’s Rabbi in Nashville about a serious concern.  (Referenced in my last post, Holly Go Lightly).  Thankfully, it was not about Dad’s physical health – at 85, the man is strong as an ox.  However, the e-mail did reveal a matter requiring urgent attention.  I was already scheduled to visit for Father’s Day – therefore, I was already preparing for a week of emotional ups and downs (par for the course with family visits), and, a lot of physical service work (my sister and I were planning to tackle some major tasks around my dad’s house).

If ever there was a time when my yoga practice would kick into action “off the mat” – it was surrounding this Nashville trip and the tough news received prior.  I tapped into the reserve of my 20 year practice, dug into the resources of my yoga toolbox, and, surrendered to the guidance of great teachers.

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Meg, Faith and me, DC’s Yoga On The Mall, spring 2013. (Photo: Rob Beifus)

I attended my DC teacher Faith Hunter’s workshop on Chakras 1-3 the weekend before my trip.  Nice timing on many accounts!  The workshop grounded me and boosted my confidence before two potentially nerve-wracking situations involving roots, relations and identity – my 30-year high school reunion that same evening, and then, the family visit.  Additionally, my 3rd Chakra, which usually looks grey and feels dull when I am working with it, burst into a vibrant, golden yellow during the closing Yoga Nidra.  Most notably, I gained incredible insight, relief and hope about the family dynamics that, over many decades, led straight to my father’s current hardship.

I took copious notes about suggested actions toward balancing the 1st three Chakras, and therefore, strengthening trust, acceptance and self empowerment.  In the margins of our worksheets, I wrote, “Follow up by adding Faith’s recommendations to my practice,” and then tucked the papers into my journal, to work with during my Nashville trip.

The week after the workshop, I attended four studio classes.  My home practice usually focuses on a meditative, slow flow.  However, to get through the many calls and e-mails regarding my father’s situation, and, to strengthen for the trip itself, I decided to attend more challenging Asana classes.  There’s nothing like frequent practice with trusted teachers to get mentally and physically prepared for potential challenges.  Thanks to Michael Peterson and Faith, I enjoyed some butt-kicking, sweat-drenching power Vinyasa practices that week – with two very mindful teachers.

*  *  *

DECISIONS, DECISIONS

When I received the Rabbi’s e-mail, the Father’s Day trip took on new meaning.  I would, truly, have to put on my big girl pants in order to face, address and be of service surrounding my father’s situation.  I would also have to evaluate my own life priorities.

I have been considering moving from DC to Nashville since about 2011.  My father’s overall health is declining at a natural pace; and over the next important years, I would like to be of service to him and my family.  Although my yoga teaching is active and fulfilling, it does not completely sustain my foundational well-being – which means I cannot sustain true service to my father.  Because my search for full-time work here has been dry as a bone, I have not been able to help financially, nor visit long enough to usefully make a difference in his well-being.

So for about two years, I have waffled back and forth.  DC, TN, DC, TN.

Before this recent trip, I resolved to not jump into any decisions – to simply witness my dad’s situation, and observe my flow of ideas, feelings, attitudes and actions.  I also vowed to, upon returning home, meditate, visualize and discern about what I witnessed while down there.  And by July 1st, decide – DC or TN?

I arrived in Nashville on Father’s Day.  My sister and I teamed up to make a plan for the week.  She and I became true allies for my father’s best interest; and, our relationship strengthened as well.  We accepted help from the Rabbi’s suggested helpers, and all together, we tackled the to-do list!

By mid-week, we accomplished a lot – for example, on Tuesday, after taking dad to an appointment, we returned to the house for some serious yard work.  At times, I thought my arms would fall off.  I wasn’t sure I had to strength to continue.  But I kept repeating to myself, “My arms extend from my heart center.  I’m doing this work from my heart.”  I seriously think I found the strength in my heart – the 4th Chakra – because my 3rd Chakra was so energized from Faith’s workshop.  Three hours and many bushes wacked later, my hands were vibrating from the electric hedge cutters – and my heart was vibrating from helping someone I love.

Wednesday morning, on the way to yoga class with one of my Nashville teachers, Amy Barnes, I listened to a voice mail from the evening before.  I was invited to interview for a job I’d applied to in DC.  Wow.  By description, the job is ideal: a historically reputable non-profit organization that assists youth in my own neighborhood – the neighborhood and youth that are so dear to me – needs a Student Support Specialist to motivate young adults along their journey from high school or GED to higher education and/or career opportunities.

I couldn’t help but wonder: Is the universe asking me to choose between serving my DC community, and, serving my own father in Nashville?

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Amy and me, Nashville’s Studio Dakini, fall 2012.

I simply asked.  Then I continued to witness and observe.  To open class, Amy explored the definitions of ambiguity: 1) Open to more than one interpretation; having a double meaning.  2) Unclear or inexact because a choice between alternatives has not been made.  (Ahem.)  We then chanted to Durga, the goddess of motherly protection.   (My mother is from Nashville.  Should I move to Nashville?)  I dived into the very high-energy, mandala-style class.  (Feelings of fresh creativity stirred within.  Should I take this job if offered?)  The practice included a great amount of opening the shoulders and reaching from the heart – and Amy reminded us: Grief and joy come from the same place.

I felt strong, I felt empowered, I felt alive.  And I did not make any decisions.

*  *  *

OBSTACLE OR EMPOWERMENT?

Friday was to be the grand finale of a very gratifying week.

My sister and I took Dad to the most important appointment on our list.  He would sign some urgent documents, and we would be done with our work.  Done!

Yet, due to a near stranger’s negative influence, my father changed his mind about signing the documents.  And then, this woman proceeded to insult our family and me.  The setback knocked me for a loop.  I almost lost it.  That afternoon, I had to use every tool in the book just to cool down – ranting to a friend, sitting in recovery fellowship meetings, soothing breathing, praying.  Ranting some more.  The resentment nearly consumed me.  Even at Shabbat services with my dad, it felt impossible to let go of my anger toward this person – and, the self-loathing that was triggered by her comments.

At yoga class the next morning, my other Nashville teacher, Raquel Bueno, serendipitously themed our practice around Ganesha: The Remover of Obstacles.  This elephant-headed god, known for clearing our paths of distraction and blocks, contains the sweet nectar of life in his big, round belly.  Although quite large, Ganesha is so spiritually light, he rides around on a mouse.

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Me and Raquel, Nashville’s Sanctuary Studio, spring 2013.

Raquel started by inviting us to dedicate our practice to something we need to release.  Instead of identifying something, I asked Ganesha to make me aware, and then dedicated my mind to the practice.  My teacher followed with a story that I’d never heard:  Ganesha and his mouse were coming home from a party, when a snake crossed their path.  The mouse felt spooked and threw Ganesha, whose big belly split open when he landed.  BAM, he lost his sweet nectar of life, which exploded everywhere.  Little by little, the mouse and him gathered the pieces and put them back into his belly – which wouldn’t stay closed.  So Ganesha took the snake and wrapped it around his belly, to contain the sweetness.

The point?  Obstacles can reveal what needs to be released; they can remind us of what needs to be nurtured; and they can help fortify our strengths.

The class – another innovative mandala practice – was playful and challenging.  I laughed at myself quite a bit.  Toward the end, we squatted into a deep Goddess Pose, threw our arms outward, and folded forward with a forcefully exhaled “HAH!”  As we did this, Raquel cheered, “Let go of what needs to be released!”  Without any forethought, I HAH-ed out FEAR AND DOUBT.  And then, OTHER PEOPLE’S OPINIONS OF ME.

I immediately remembered the lemon-yellow dress of the woman who insulted our family the day before.  The woman who stole my hope for securing my father’s well-being.  The woman who assassinated my character.  She was the obstacle.  At the same time, she’d released a fierce sense of alliance with and love for my family.  She’d awakened my belief in my self, and, in the work I am doing for my dad.  As these thoughts flowed through my mind, I envisioned myself wrapping the yellow dress around my 3rd Chakra – my belly – to contain and nurture this sense of identity among my family and within me.  At the end of our deep relaxation, I placed my hands over my heart center and affirmed the truth:

I am fucking awesome.

*  *  *

SYNCHRONICITY

On the flight back to DC, I realized I’d not revisited my notes from Faith’s Chakra workshop.  I looked at the worksheets, which included ideas like: “Start each day slowly, taking time to feel the feet on the earth upon awakening.”  “Ask for help and identify your allies.”  “Dance!”  “Try powerful Asana and energetic Vinyasa yoga.”  “Write down how cool you are, and why you are so cool.”

I am fucking awesome!  And, my teachers – who somehow synced up – are, too!  (And not just my yoga teachers – sometimes, the greatest lessons emerge from near strangers with harsh opinions.  Ahem.)

This morning I attended my 1st class with Faith since before my trip.  Musically, she drew upon empowering chants to Ram and the sassiness of Big Mama Thornton to churn out a rockin’, sweaty practice.  At times I thought my arms would fall off…and then I remembered that my arms extend from my heart center…and…I rested.

I allowed my heart to rest.

*  *  *

OH, GROW THE “F” UP!

There’s nothing like a family emergency to make me wake up and grow up.  And it’s about time – I’ll turn 48 at the end of this month.  After this last Nashville trip, I felt…matured.  I am aging, and I welcome it.  Responsibility is life, and life is responsibility.  None of this family stuff is off-the-charts shocking – everything that is happening with my dad is simply a natural part of life.

Because I earnestly hope for the best outcome with my approaching job interview here in DC, I’ve allowed my July 1st decision deadline to pass.  This Sunday night, the New Moon rises and I’ll start my monthly 24-hour fast; Monday morning, I’ll begin a morning ritual of singing 108 “Asato Ma” chants through the Full Moon; and Tuesday is the job interview.  Soon after, decisions will be made.

Dad and me, Nashville, Father's Day 2013.

Dad and me, Nashville, Father’s Day 2013.

So the discernment about everything that occurred – as well as everything I felt, sensed, thought and witnessed on my Father’s Day Nashville trip – continues.  As does the discernment about my opportunities and observations here in DC.  However, I will openly admit something.  When I think about leaving DC for Nashville, I used to say, “I should move to Nashville,” or, “I think I have to move to Nashville.”  Lately, the language has changed.  “I want to move to Nashville.”

More will be revealed.

May life continue to bring the eye-openers that spark me to draw upon all of my teachers’ guidance.  And may I trust that, with help, I can show up for myself and for others, with strong roots, relations and identity.  OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

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Spring: Transition and Balance March 20, 2012

This morning I rose pre-dawn to rumbling thunder and bright lightning.  Stormy downpours soon yielded to an orange-grey sunrise.  As I stepped out for my habitual dawn stroll, the smell of rich, wet earth halted me.  I inhaled deeply and realized – almost as if by surprise – it’s Spring!  My heart swelled and tears rolled.  I felt excited for this change of seasons, this change of pace, this change of mind.  I took my walk with a chorus of awakening birds, under dripping trees and bursting blooms.

A hopeful anticipation settled into my soul.

Today is Spring Equinox. Well, the actual Equinox occurred earlier at 12:10am, to be exact.  This is the date when night and day are the same length, a supposed time of equilibrium and balance.

Hilariously, my Asana practice this morning was the wobbliest ever!  I laughed at myself as I swayed all over the place while processing toward Dancer Pose.  I drew upon all of my resources for balancing postures: rooting down through my hip and foot; engaging the buoyancy in my pelvis and abdomen; rising up from my heart to the peak of my fingers; breathing long and deep; and especially, fixing my focus on a Drishti – a single raised bump in the texture of a woven blanket on the couch in front of me.

But nothing worked.  I surrendered to wiggling and giggling my way out of Dancer and back to Mountain Pose.  And in that simple stance, I felt as balanced as ever.

I guess it’s going to be a Two-Feet-On-The-Ground kind of Spring!

Hah!  The sun just broke through the clouds as I typed that phrase.  No kidding!  A bright and enlightened moment: two feet on the ground this Spring.  That is fine with me.

Spring’s energy is very pushy.  The intense shift from restful hibernation to forcive sprouting can trigger aggravation, annoyance and impatience.  What tools and resources can I take off my mat and into daily life to address the feeling of being pushed over by Spring’s abrupt changes?

Thankfully, everything from my Hatha Yoga practice can cultivate this balance.  First and foremost – traditional yogic three-part breathing.  Long exhales followed by deep inhales reinforce that there is plenty of space and time between Point A and Point B.  When change surprises me, I can pause to breathe, consider what’s next, then take step-by-step action.  And during flow sequences, reaching a pose at the very end of each slow exhale and energetic inhale – and focusing on the process vs. the pose itself – reminds me that there is always a process from event to event, from intention to goal, from here to there.

Specific practices in balancing poses can also cultivate balance during times of transition.  The most obvious is finding my roots.  In Asana, I connect downward through whatever body part is touching the mat.  (I might be balancing on feet, hands, arms, head, buttocks or belly.)  During unexpected change, I can physically root down for stability.  I can bring attention to my seat or feet, or kneel and touch the earth.  But what if I need more momentum for a situation?  In poses, I cultivate buoyancy by liberating the center of the pose (for example, resting downward from the “sit bones” and/or shoulder blades while lifting through the pubic bone, abdomen and/or heart).  In life, I might ask what frees me to float through changing times.  On the mat, I can focus on the peak of my pose – a feeling of rising through the highest point in the body.  Off the mat, I can consider – what in life lifts me out of a myopic view to a broadened vision and perspective?

Above all, I find that the most supportive practice in balancing poses is using a Drishti – staring at a fixed point.  Gazing at a consistent, dependable, unmoving source of support can take me from shaky and distracted to still and focused.  Just like in life.  There are people, practices and resources that – without fail – restore my balance.  Teachers, healers, friends…meditation, chanting, breathing, praying…reading inspirational writing, walking in nature…beauty, joy, gratitude.

Although sometimes I must be reminded to depend on these powerful stabilizers, once I set my sights there, I feel unshakeable support.

However!  As this morning’s Asana practice proved, sometimes not one tool in the Hatha Yoga kit will work!  And so I fall back on Pratipaksha Bhavana – the mindful replacement of negatives with positives.  Instead of judging or criticizing my wobbly reality, I laugh!  I place two feet on the ground!  I use the precept of Samtosha – contentment – by accepting that I feel off-balance.  Then I take positive action to address (rather than “fix”) it.

What tools for transition and balance will you take off your mat and into your world this Spring?

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.  Peace, Peace, Peace.

 

Focus Wrap Up: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali March 8, 2011

“If I wasn’t making some people uncomfortable, I wouldn’t be doing anything important.” – Justine Siegel, 1st woman to throw batting practice for Major League Baseball and founder of “Baseball for All”

I didn’t plan to write this today.  I have cleaning to do, laundry to fold, breakfast to cook.  But I feel compelled.  Plus, I’m behind on my blogging and have to wrap up our February focus!  Here goes…

A yoga class is definitely NOT the place I go when I need to control things.

But it used to be.  When I was feeling icky, I went to class to feel held, comforted, fixed.  When I was feeling great, I went to class to celebrate, connect, thrive.  I needed to feel that I was in control of my feelings, my well-being, my state.  Therefore, I had expectations on the teacher, the students, the staff, the atmosphere.  I had expectations on yoga.  And guess what.  Surprise, surprise – my needs were not always met. I sometimes spent an entire class in resentment, disappointment and/or frustration.  I sometimes wanted to leave class.  For some reason, I never did (as far as I remember).

Something held me there.  And I kept coming back.

Over the years of attending many, many classes, I have come to realize that on a very tangible level, there are too many uncontrollable factors in a yoga class for me to predict any kind of outcome.  There is the teacher’s style, the teacher’s voice, the teacher’s class format, the teacher’s class theme, the teacher’s background, the teacher’s teachers.  There is the teacher’s music choices, lighting choices, air temperature choices.  And so on.  And then there are the students – sometimes hundreds of them if during a workshop – with their varying energies, moods, needs, backgrounds, strengths, challenges.

A yoga class is a room full of humanness.

Also over the years, on a spiritual level, I started to realize that a yoga class is exactly where I need to go IF I am feeling like controlling things – it is the best venue to practice surrender, willingness and acceptance.  It is a great place to practice self-inquiry, compassion, patience.  It offers the beautiful opportunity to respond to, learn from, and be shaped by whatever happens, whatever comes up, whatever is.

A yoga class is a place to grow.

And that, my friends, is why I so lovingly embrace The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – particularly the five aphorisms that we explored during our February class focus.  If I did not infuse my personal yoga practice with the philosophical, ideological and ethical ideas of the Sutras, I would still be stuck in resentment, still pissed off at whomever rattled me, still personally offended by whatever someone said or did – and I’m talking on AND off the mat.

A yoga class is my chance to develop spiritually.

I honor you, noble students, for so fearlessly taking on Patanjali’s wisdom; for writing to and confiding in me with comments and questions, frustrations and celebrations, concerns and realizations; and for sharing your teachings with me.  You are beautifully human.  We are beautifully human.

Over the past month, we looked at five Sutras as tools for experiencing yoga on and off the mat.  We began with Sutra 1.2, “Yogas Cittas Vritti Nrodhah” – yoga restrains disturbances of the mind.  I like to think of Sutra 1.2 as the 1st “promise” of many in this ancient text.  Here in book one, we learn that although yoga can open our hips and heal our asthma, its primary purpose is to cultivate a peaceful mind. During our classes we made decisions regarding Asana choices based on cultivating and sustaining this peace.  When faced with challenge, we weighed out the options and consequences of seizing that challenge or easing off.

Next we explored the practice of “Pratipaksha Bhavana,” described in Sutra 2.33 as the replacement of negative or obstructive thoughts with positive or opposite ideas.  Here we realized that we cannot replace reality with something opposite – we recognize that our practice (and life) might bring difficulty.  But by sustaining a positive mind through the challenge (i.e. dwelling on a pose’s benefits, concentrating on life-giving breath or focusing deeply on Sankalpa or intention), we can maintain our peace of mind and face troubles gracefully.

With this practical tool in hand, we backtracked to Sutra 1.33, which suggests that we cultivate certain attitudes toward certain types of people – or toward certain types of states within ourselves.  To summarize this complex aphorism (explored more deeply in the last most, “Focus: The Yoga Sutras – Love & Murder), we are encouraged to befriend happy people (or states), have compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous and be indifferent toward the non-virtuous.  A tough order at times; but all for the sake of that ever-serene mind.

After all this hard work of self-witnessing and shaping the mind toward peace, we wrapped up the month with two of Patanjali’s most comforting statements (in my opinion).  Sutra 2.46, “Sthira Sukham Asanam.” (Asana is a steady, comfortable position.) and the promise of all promises, Sutra 2.16, “Heyam Duhkham Anagatam.” (Future pain will be prevented.)  If I practice yoga as prescribed by the Yoga Sutras, I learn that I have permission to express each pose with a balance of effort AND ease, steadiness AND comfort.  And one of the most relieving results of practicing in this way is the prevention of future pain – physical and otherwise.

Beyond the mat, how did this all pan out?  Did the Sutras inform your every day life? From some of your feedback, I know you sought to use the tools, but admitted they escaped you at the most important times.  I heard that they helped you respond compassionately to angry drivers.  I heard that coming to class gave you the tools to navigate tough interpersonal situations (I’m cleaning up the language, here!).  I heard appreciation for the Sutras’ promises and affects in general.

I know for me, as soon as I select a theme to teach, I start hitting all sorts of wonderful “trials” in daily life to test out my tools and learn some new lessons!  It’s been an intense – and intensely lesson-filled – few weeks.  In terms of the quote above from my new Karma Yogini heroine (who probably does not know what Karma Yoga is), Justine Siegel, if I weren’t feeling some kind of discomfort, probably nothing important is happening in my life.  And thanks to the Yoga Sutras and other spiritual practices and resources, discomfort yields growth.

Which to me, is important.

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