The Urban Yoga Den

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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.


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 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!


Focus Wrap Up: Gratitude November 30, 2010

Thank god for Facebook!

I NEVER, EVER thought I’d hear myself say those words. Yet indeed, I am grateful for the social media connector that I ignored for years.


Because my Facebook community brims with love-filled, purpose-driven, truth-telling, soul-baring, mistake-making, frustration-sharing, poetically-waxing, wisdom-seeking yogis and other beautiful humans who strive to live an intentional life. Throughout the day, if I need inspiration, I scan their motivational posts and move onward energetically.

To complement my FB “friends,” my “Like” organizations and businesses also share enriching information and shares. Links to blogs, videos, articles and more have brought me to smile, weep, laugh and chant!

As a yoga teacher, my News Feed provides infinite resources for designing classes, attending workshops and growing toward new influences. I appreciate and learn from everything that fellow teachers, students and others post!

This week someone quipped that I need a Facebook intervention. True that if I had a day job, I might have less time for page surfing. When I get that day job, I will happily devote my attention there. Wish me luck. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy reading about moving speeches, devotional songs, yoga classes around the world, daily intentions and even husbands who water the silk plants instead of the real ones.

Hindu deity Saraswati nurtures creative community, eloquent communication and learning. I pray for her guidance as I continue to connect through social media.

On this final day of our November Class Focus of Gratitude, I give thanks for…of all things…Facebook. Strange but true. Thanks for being there!

OM Shanti.


In the OM Zone November 11, 2010

You can hear the OM sound everywhere. It vibrates every cell in your body. It brings such a nice feeling of peace.  – Swami Satchidananda

There are times, at the end of a yoga class, when the closing OM is so sweet I have cried.  And there are times when it is so cacophonous that I have giggled with delight. I love both!

Personally, I’m a soft “OM”er.  My hope is to not hear my chant above any other, and to experience blended voices.  Still, I appreciate when students bring their loud, bright and even gravelly voices into the mix.  OM-style is an individual choice, probably influenced by a favorite teacher.  I used to get a bit rattled when the chant sounded noisy; but now I experience Santosha and feel content with all forms of OM-ness.

Chanting “OM” is a pure and soulful experience for me.  I do it everywhere and frequently – throughout my morning Sadhana; three times to open and once to close classes; as much as necessary to become present; three times before I start the car.

Over nearly two decades of yoga practice, I have heard many descriptions of OM’s origins and meanings.  Despite these varying definitions, I believe one consistent truth.  When we join our voices in OM, I feel that we are uniting.

To me, OM is a simple syllable that brings a vibration into the room, among us and within each.

I recently had the chance to experience the sheer power of this simple syllable during Ricky Tran’s DC Yoga Immersion (  In approaching the Eight Limbs of Yoga, Ricky fuses authentic reverence with contemporary playfulness.

One of his favorite phrases was, “You’re in the OM Zone now!”

The morning began with Bhakti practice, including devotional chanting with Rudra Das Kirtan recordings (  The energy in the room started to rise. Next we moved into hips-centric Asana toward the goal of Lotus Pose.  Some poses challenged me immensely, others felt totally easeful.

(Side note: I believe that a great teacher supports students silently with prayerful and energizing vibrations.  Otherwise, there’s no way I could have effortlessly expressed poses beyond my present Asana level in Seane Corn and Max Strom workshops!  I focus more on the philosophical, lifestyle and service aspects of yoga than on higher-level poses.  So I felt totally at ease with Ricky’s accepting and encouraging Asana instruction.)

Happily, by the end of this brilliantly effective hip opening sequence, I was able to sit comfortably in Half Lotus – on both sides – for the first time!  Jai!  And it’s a good thing, because seated Pranayama was next on the docket.  I love me some Pranayama!  So any chance to sit and breathe for longer periods is welcome.

After Pranayama came what I call Ricky’s “Dharana Challenge” and what he calls “The Perfect 10.”

Glowing from Bhakti and Hatha, we were ready to meditate.  Ricky suggested focusing the mind by repeating OM 10 times in a row without distraction. If we wandered from OM, we were to start over at one.  If we reached 10 uninterrupted OMs, we should continue to 20, and on.  Ricky gave us the choice to chant silently or aloud.  One by one, students voices began to fill the cavernous studio with swirling, howling, beautiful chants of OM.  We chanted with conviction, a blend of bright and gravelly, loud and soft.  All sweet and pure and soulful.

And then it happened.

Perfect unity.  That simple syllable brought us together as one.  I couldn’t tell where my voice started and someone else’s ended. It seemed like the entire room of OMs originated from my mouth.  Then it switched.  Everyone else’s voices swirled through my lips, into my mind, penetrating my being.  There was no separation.

We were, indeed, in the OM Zone.

Gratitude to Ricky Tran and all the Eight-Limb-ers who stuck around after Asana practice to create this unforgettable experience.  It was the wildest OM moment of my life.  I feel thrilled to have more brothers and sisters with whom to explore the infinite promises of the Yoga Sutras.

OM Shanti.

P.S. Thanks for the photos, y’all!


Chakra Chant March 21, 2010

As part of our Bi-Monthly Focus of TRANSITION & BALANCE, we’ve been closing classes with a chakra balancing meditation I learned from Corrine Champigny who teaches the blissful Svaroopa Yoga sessions at Nashville’s Yoga Source studio.

We have seven energy centers, aka chakras, along our spine, from the tail bone to the crown of the head.  Each has its own function, significance, symbolism.  Typically, we burn up a lot of energy exercising the basic functions near the lower three chakras (eating, digesting, eliminating, being sexual, reproducing, and so on) while our higher chakras (from the devotional heart center to the pure consciousness of the crown) are a bit underutilized.

Similar to the practice of Kundalini yoga, this meditation intends to raise the energy from the base of the spine and evenly distribute it along all seven energy centers.

To practice this chant, we sit in a meditative pose and – starting with the root chakra and continuing through the crown – we focus our awareness on each energy center while chanting its corresponding seed mantra.  Each seed mantra sounds like “OM” (the crown chakra mantra), with an additional sound at the beginning of the syllable.  Complete instructions are below and posted on the Tips-n-Tools page.

To flesh out the very brief descriptions of and associations for each chakra below, I really like Wikipedia’s Chakra entries.

As with all of the Tips-n-Tools I share in this blog, I only intend to share the practices and resources that have helped me in one way or another – practices that teachers have generously passed on.  I hope you find something useful!

OM Shanti.


  1. Settle – Sit in a comfortable seated pose, lower body grounded, spine long, heart open.
  2. Breathe – Inhale into the belly, fill the ribs, and then breathe up to the collar-bone.  Exhale and release from the collar bone, ribs and belly.  Continue this deep three-part breathing throught the nostrils until the mind and body relax.
  3. 1st Chakra – Bring the awareness to the base of the spine, the point of rootedness and the area of elimination.  The seed mantra for this chakra is “L-OM.”  Inhale deeply then chant one long “LOM.”
  4. 2nd Chakra – Shift the awareness to the base of the spine, toward the front of the body, near the reproductive organs.  The seed mantra for this chakra is “V-OM.”  Inhale deeply then chant one long “VOM.”
  5. 3rd Chakra – Move the awareness to the belly, the area of digestion.  The seed mantra here is “R-OM.”  Inhale deeply then chant one long “ROM.”
  6. 4th Chakra – Raise the awareness to the heart center, our area of love and devotion.  The seed mantra is “Y-OM.”  Inhale deeply then chant one long “YOM.”
  7. 5th Chakra – Lift the awarness to the base of the throat, our center of communication.  The seed mantra is “H-OM.”  Inhale deeply then chant one long “HOM.”
  8. 6th Chakra – Focus the awareness on the “Third Eye,” the area between the brows, our center of intuition.  The seed mantra is “SH-OM.”  Inhale deeply then chant one long “SHOM.”
  9. 7th Chakra – Rest the awareness on the crown of the head, our center of pure consciousness.  The seed mantra is “OM.”  Inhale deeply then chant one long “OM.”
  10. Sit silently for a little while and enjoy the raising vibrations.

Why I Spend So Much Time on Alignment February 12, 2010

…only true Silence is eternal speech, the one word om (inner sound), the Heart-to-Heart talk.  Silence is the true advice.  – Swami Satyeswarananda Giri

As many of you know, I try to guide an internal and meditative practice when teaching yoga classes.  Paradoxically, I can talk your yogic ear off with detailed alignment instructions.  I talk about safety, mobility and longevity a lot.  And I use the words “engage,” “fine-tune,” “become aware” and “alignment principles” a lot.  Take our January/February Bi-Monthly Focus for example – who needs four separate directions for opening the HEART?

Well, I do.

I tend to shut down in my heart center. My shoulders round forward, my ribs cave inward, my lungs shrink upward and my poor little heart hides behind it all.  And not just in the winter.  Due to multiple neck and shoulder injuries from car accidents, falls and other traumas over the decades, this area of my body can be a little vulnerable.  Yet without fail, practicing yoga’s alignment principles helps my heart find its way back to a balanced center.

This is one reason I spend so much time instructing alignment in our yoga classes!

In addition, for me, there is a connection between physically caving in and emotionally shutting down.  It’s as if the physical distortion causes a psychological darkness – or vice versa.  (Check out the February issue of Natural Health’s article on Anusara Yoga’s approach to the heart and well-being).  So tending to an open heart center is key for this gal.

My favorite teacher for heart-area alignment is Megan Davis, who passed on her knowledge of engaging the intercostal muscles to control the movement of my rib cage and shoulder blades.  She recommended moving the intercostals backward, around the sides of the ribs, then down to “relax the shoulders” by releasing the shoulder blades toward each other and down the back.  That was a true “Ah-ha” moment.  For years, I’d been “relaxing my shoulders” by forcing my shoulder joints down and back.  Utilizing Megan’s tips, I erased a long-term neck ache and was finally able to expand my heart wide!

My second “Ah-ha” moment for the heart center was with Dr. Steven Weiss – chiropractor, yoga teacher and founder of Align by Design experiential Anatomy and Physiology workshop.  The tip he shared was to broaden the collar-bone by curling open the upper arms.  Lining up my middle finger with seam of my pants, he moved my biceps out and back and my triceps under and in.  What an amazing lift and expansion in my chest!

Thanks to these fine-tuned adjustments, my Pranayama practice is stronger (and my asthma symptoms weaker), my neck is free (and therefore free of pain), my shoulder joints move easefully (helping to rehab a rotator cuff injury) and my heart center is open (lifting my spirit, as well).

Aside from heart-center issues, I was also plagued by hip and knee injuries. I used to lock my knees when standing still or twist them when walking on uneven surfaces (snow, rocks, etc).  The inside and back of my knee would swell and ache horribly.  Frequently after yoga class, I would experience that same swelling and ache.

Finally, I took a private session with Andrea Franchini – a dancer as well as a yoga teacher – who completely transformed my knee and hip health.  In poses like Tadaasana and Tree, she noticed that I tended to hyper-extend my knee, causing a “blow out” in the tissue behind the cap.  In poses like Goddess or Warrior, she noticed that I would twist from my ankle and knee to open the hip, rather than – duh – opening the hip!  Thus my positive habits of engaging the quadriceps to safely straighten the leg and utilizing the hip’s ball-socket joint correctly were born.  Knock on wood – I have not blown out my knee since that session with Andrea.

Not only did proper use of the hip-joint facilitate knee mobility, it also eased a long-term and recurring pain in my right hip. (I know what you’re thinking – how did this girl become so injured?  That’s another story and an even longer blog for another time, believe me.  Suffice it to say, many of my injuries and their causes are far behind me.  Thank goodness.)

One of my favorite Asana instructions is “Zip up the belly.” Dancer and yoga teacher Leah Kalinosky describes a “zipping up” from the pubic bone to the belly button.  Add to that Dr. Weiss’s instruction to also zip down and in from the sternum to the belly button.  Distinct from sucking in the belly, this subtle lifting and tucking beneath the ribs liberates my hips to float freely over my legs.  So many teachers, so little time.  I could write a book about the many “Ah-ha” moments I’ve experienced in yoga classes thanks to generations of wisdom passed down.

Getting back to the notion of silence, and meditative yoga practices…

Yoga’s eight limbs are designed to progressively prepare the self for Samadhi, or enlightenment.  The limbs are in order for a reason – without becoming aware of ethical conduct through the Yama and Niyama in limbs one and two, without removing physical distraction through Asana in the 3rd limb, and so on, we cannot reach the level of concentration and meditation necessary to reach the bliss of the 8th limb, Samadhi.  And so, by engaging proper alignment during Asana, I silence the body.  Once the physical noise is quieted, I can move on to deepening practices of Pranayama, Pratyahara, and so on.

During his Align by Design workshop, Dr. Weiss pointed out two concepts from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali that promote proper alignment during Asana practice. He opened the workshop by writing “Heyam Dukham Anagatam” on the board.  “The pains yet to come can be and are to be prevented.”  Through proper alignment, we prevent injury and enhance well-being.  He also pointed out that, since the Yama and Niyama intentionally precede Asana, and non-violence is part of that ethical code, it would be unethical for a yogi to stress themselves into a pose.  Proper alignment erases such strain and honors Ahimsa.

A last word about my role, as instructor, in adjusting and fine-tuning Asana.

When I teach, I am not trying to prove that I know more than a student.  I believe each person contains the wisdom of Asana in his/her body.  Therefore my role is to remind students of what they already know (thanks to Seane Corn for reminding me of that during a recent workshop!).  Verbal cues and physical adjustments are not corrections – rather, they are guidance for students to tap into what’s within their bodies.  Honestly, my compulsion to “fine-tune” Asana comes from a yearning to share with others what has healed my body during my 16 years of yoga practice.  Not to mention my deep longing to end suffering and prevent the pains yet to come!  Please!

To make up for my alignment gab, I promise to end every class with a luxurious period of silence during Yoga Nidra!

May you find the wisdom of alignment, live free of suffering and cultivate the silence within.  OMmmmmmmmm.

The tips, tools and “Ah-ha” moments from so many wise and resourceful teachers are what inspired me to take my teacher training.  I have Dr. Weiss ( and Alexander Technique expert Sumi Komo (www.alexandermovingarts) to thank for cohesively connecting Megan’s, Andrea’s and Leah’s specific adjustments.  For my version of alignment instructions in Tadaasana, please visit the Tips-n-Tools page and scroll to “Alignment Principles in Tadaasana.”


Comfort… December 3, 2009

Again, a yoga class moved me to tears.

Tonight’s closing “OMMMMMMM” had the sweetness and harmony of a lullaby.  It hummed out to the universe to join the OMs I’ve heard in other teachers’ classes lately (thanks, Jenn).  Perhaps there’s something about a mid-holiday season yoga class that releases the peace from students’ souls.  It seems so to me.

Continuing our bi-monthly focus of “Rest,” (see the “Firm and Pleasant” post) we enter this second month with a more conceptual approach – versus our very physical exploration of restfulness in November, when we re-visited Sutra 2:46’s exploration of the balance between a firm steadiness and restful comfort in Asana.  We engaged the heck out of every inch of our body, breath and mind, then released all effort within or between poses to cultivate a deep stillness.

In December, as the pace of the world quickens with work cramming, gift shopping and party hopping, we get to sloooooowwwwww down in yoga class.  We gently shift from the physical aspect of our “Rest” focus to concepts like slowness, comfort and joy.  Focusing on the breath, movements can flow effortlessly.  Between poses, transitions can be quiet and mindful.  Keeping the set simple, eyes can stay closed.  Body, breath and mind float away into a much-needed comfort.

Also this month, Yoga Nidra is a huge part of our practice.  In addition to the usual deep relaxation session toward the end of my classes at Past Tense Yoga (and elsewhere), the studio is hosting a donation-based Yoga Nidra each Sunday, following the normally scheduled 7pm Detox class.  (See “Events” page for details.)  Contributions for this luxuriously restful session of Nidra, Pranayama and meditation benefit Rosemount, an early childhood education center in our Mt. Pleasant neighborhood.  So if you’re burnt out from going, going, going all weekend, join us each Sunday, 8:15-9pm for some stopping, stopping, stopping.

Who knew you could save the world while laying flat on your back?

For Yoga Nidra during regular classes, I’m playing my favorite “comfort songs.”  (Set list below and on the “Tips-n-Tools” page.)  Typically, I use devotional Sanskrit chants, quiet instrumentals or other meditative music.  During December, a variety of folk, alt-country or other artists will sing their nurturing, peaceful messages.  Tonight, we rested our heads on the beautifully dreamy pillow of “(Don’t) Tremble” by The Low Anthem.

“If the wind surrounds your house, do not turn and twist about.  Just wait it out.”

Tonight’s Nidra lullaby connected to the quote we shared to both open and close the class, inviting us to make time this holiday season for comfort, slowness, nurturing and of course, rest.

“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”  – Lao Tzu

Hope to see you Sundays for Yoga Nidra at Past Tense (again, details on “Events” page).  And thank you, students, for tonight’s sweet and soulful OMMMMMMMM.  Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.  Peace, Peace, Peace.



(updated 12/04/09 – how could I forget Joshua James???)

  • The Low Anthem – (Don’t) Tremble; Charlie Darwin; Keep on the Sunny Side (yup); Coal Mountain Lullaby
  • Calexico – Slowness
  • Donna De Lory – Sanctuary
  • Sera Cahoone – Baker Lake
  • Grant Lee Phillips – Little Moon; Nightbirds; Buried Treasure
  • U2 – Grace
  • EastMountainSouth – Hard Times
  • Son Volt – Windfall
  • Neil Halstead – A Gentle Heart
  • Eddi Reader – Lucky Penny
  • Nick Drake – Pink Moon
  • Robert Plant/Alison Krauss – Killing the Blues
  • KD Lang – The Valley
  • Joshua James – Pitchfork