The Urban Yoga Den

…where it's all yoga.

Ahimsa Now: 100 Days of Intention – The Final Word July 20, 2012

Ahimsa Now.  I just spent 100 days exploring violence, its patterns, its causes and the tools for avoiding it.  (For background, see “The Roots of ‘Ahimsa Now: 100 Days of Intention’” at the bottom of this post.)

What rings true in all of my observations and experiences – when someone is in pain, that person is likely to inflict pain on others.  This is on my mind today, as I consider the news from Aurora, Colorado.  What pains a man so deeply that he must kill?  I am always saddened not only for the victims of violence, but also for those who commit such harm.

I grieve over the profound presence of pain and the cycle of hurting others in our world.

How can I – one breath, one thought, one action, one day at a time – observe, address, process and decrease my own pain in order to decrease the cycle of violence?  How can I modify my actions and interactions to aim high, and to cultivate kindness, acceptance, tolerance, understanding, compassion, love?  This is tough, deep and challenging work.  Ask any of my very kind, accepting, tolerant, understanding, compassionate, loving friends who have been the recipients of my overreactions when I am triggered into great fear or pain.

I am not trying to be “perfect,” but I do feel responsible for my behavior.  And although often weary from the work, I am committed to discovering and using the tools and practices to cultivate a less reactive, more peaceful Holly.

Once I have those tools and practices in place – and try to use them with the humanness of fallibility, honesty, humility and forgiveness – how can I help decrease, process and decrease the pain of those around me?  Can I influence family, friends, neighbors or strangers?

I can only start by using yoga and other tools that nourish my own inner peace.  By committing to these practices.  Never skipping them.  It’s just too essential.  When I feel peaceful, I share that peace with those around me.  As I maintain accountability for feeding a cycle of peace, that energy inevitably vibrates outward.

I believe that one breath, one thought, one action, one day and one person at a time, this violent world will be touched.  Pain will diminish.  And acts of violence will no longer occupy our hearts, minds, lives.

Ahimsa Now.

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

*  *  *

The Roots of “Ahimsa Now: 100 Days of Intention”

“Ahimsa” is a Sanskrit word meaning, “Avoidance of Violence.”  It is mentioned in many ancient texts, including the Yoga Sutras, a collection of aphorisms handed down by yogic sage Patanjali approximately 5- to 7-thousand years ago.  In the Sutras, Ahimsa is one of the “Yama” – five recommended abstentions, or rules of conduct rooted in abstinence.  The five Yama comprise the first limb of Patanjali’s prescribed Eight Limbs of Yoga.

Avoidance of something takes great effort.  And if violence were not naturally inherent in human beings, we wouldn’t have to try to avoid it.  So, dreaming of launching “Ahimsa Now” – a nonprofit whose mission is rooted in Ahimsa – my responsibility is to come to understand the human impulse toward violence, and, to explore every available practice that impedes that impulse.

So from April 5 through July 13, 2012, I committed to a 100-day exploration of Ahimsa.  And after July 13th, I will continue to share my series of “Peace Tools” – practices for cultivating dependable inner peace and living with accountability.  Thanks for coming along.  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!

 

Clearing the Obstacles August 6, 2011

I am sorry to hear your pain.  You are a wonderful human being and deserve tranquility, peace, and love.  I would suggest that you stay focused on what is good for YOU, rest will follow.  –  letter from a friend

This quote sounds like something I would say to a student or friend.  Instead, it is an e-mail that a friend just sent to me.  I know he meant to write, “…stay focused on what is good for YOU, THE rest will follow.”  Yet the fact is, if I stay focused on what is good for me, indeed, rest will follow.  And I really, really need some rest.  The kind of rest that allows the heart to remember its yearnings, yearnings to cultivate clarity, clarity to turn into action, and action to yield change.

This has been the hardest blog to write, ever.  I keep starting and stopping; switching directions; adding this and that.  Stopping.  Sobbing.  And starting again.

It’s difficult to be 100% honest, and that’s what I need to do.  It’s difficult to not shade my current negative state with the positive solutions of yoga.  Is it yogic to admit that I am in pain, and that my usual solutions seem out of reach?

*  *  *

I feel it’s time for big change and I’m starting with small things.  But I wish I could crack myself open and re-program.  – letter to a friend

Last week, on my 46th birthday, I started parting my hair on the opposite side.

Ganesha, new hair part, pneumonia and me on my 46th birthday.

Immediately, I felt like a new person.  I saw myself differently.  My eyes looked happier.  My head felt lighter.  My mind was clearer.

The weekend before, I’d hit an emotional bottom where I spent an entire day acting very un-yoga-like.  OK, I’ll say it – although I haven’t had a drink or drug in nearly 9 years, I was acting as toxic as a drunken addict.  It was not pretty, people.  Some who went through that day with me were very forgiving.  Some were not.  Some recognized that stress from recent physical illness and emotional difficulties fueled my offensiveness.  Some didn’t care, because they were hurt.  And still others (thank goodness for the others) offered amazing advice and insight – including the belief that I’m hitting a bottom because big change is coming.

So last week, after a series of Facebook posts about fighting demons, letting go and changing…I parted my hair on the other side.

*  *  *

In the past month alone, notable events forced me to reevaluate my behaviors, activities and needs, and to reignite my practices, beliefs and vision.  – August “Yoga Update” (see “newsletter” tab)

To complement my fresh hair style, I’ve also been wearing my Ganesha charm more frequently.

Not only have I felt a need for newness, but also for a strong shove of old things out of the way.  When I first started practicing Vinyasa yoga, my teacher constantly spoke of “letting go of what doesn’t serve in order to make room for what does.”  I don’t frequently pray to specific deities, but being reminded of Ganesha’s power to clear obstacles (and provide protection) has been motivating.

These days, I know I need to release many things that compromise my deepest well-being in order to create space for what cultivates sustainable, lasting inner peace.  For instance, on mornings between the full and new moons, I used to pray, “Let me let go of anything that gets in the way of your will for me.”  Regretfully, that practice has faded off…but it’s time to bring it back.

*  *  *

Hindsight is 20/20.  – popular phrase

As you might know, I was mugged in June.  Feedback on my blog, “The Yoga of Being Mugged” has been positive.  People have used words like “resilient” and “compassionate” regarding my response to the situation.  I agree, and am thankful to be someone who uses yoga and other tools to recover from and address life’s difficulties.

Now here comes the 100% honesty – because I don’t want you to think that I am responding with perfect strength and forgiveness to an assault.  I want you to know that it hurt.  I want you to know that I now walk around scared and suspicious and over-reactive.  I want you to know that my past traumas have been triggered since the mugging.  And I want you to know that I sometimes act like a jerk because of this state.

If you’ve read my other blogs, you know a bit about my painful childhood and rough road toward adulthood.  These last 18 years of yoga practice, complemented by 8+ years of addiction recovery, have sparked a journey of mending and growth.  Still, I am just hitting the tip of the iceberg in undoing 25 years of destructive patterns and related consequences.

When I look back on my life’s traumas, I see the lesson behind each one.  So why am I so stuck in the pain of the past?  Because, due to my childhood isolation and later impulse to kill emotions with substances, I did not properly process and/or grieve these traumas at the time that they took place.  Making sense of them is one thing; authentically expressing and healthily processing the emotions is a whole other ball game.

Thankfully, these days I am feeling weary from past traumas robbing me of day-to-day happiness.  I am feeling a low tolerance for anything that does not match my craving for inner peace.  I am fed up with these obstacles keeping me from my intentions to be of service in this world.

So I am willing to do whatever it takes to change.

At the same time that I am willing to let go of limitations, I am somehow holding on.  I have taken the reigns, and have been gripping them tightly.  Terrified of feeling more pain, I have taken complete control of my life.  Regretfully.  Because when I am in complete control, there’s little room for you, for anyone, for a higher power, for healthy risk, for trust, for faith.

*  *  *

I’ve been learning to drive, my whole life. – Arcade Fire, “In The Backseat”

It’s time to let someone else take the wheel.  Let go.  Change.

In the Mahabharata – an ancient Hindu text – there is a story about true surrender.

A king wants to ruin a man’s reputation, and so decides to shame the man’s wife, Draupadi, by stripping off her sari in public.  A sari is a traditional Indian dress, made from several yards of material wrapped around the body.  In the story, the king begins to unwrap the sari, and in turn, Draupadi clings tightly in fear.  She continues to use all her strength while crying to god for help.

After much struggle, Draupadi realizes that, as long as she clings in fear, there will not be space for god to help her.  Bravely, she lets go of the sari, holds her hands up and exclaims, “If you want me to face this disgrace I will accept it.  I totally trust you; my life is in your hands.”  Miraculously, Draupadi’s sari becomes infinitely long, and the king becomes exhausted.  Draupadi was saved.

The first time I read this story around three years ago, I was struck by Draupadi’s willingness to accept god’s will, even if it means disgrace.  In the margin of the book I wrote, “WOW.  I wish for this surrender.”

At this very moment, I feel that exact yearning.  Since June, I have been so racked by fear that I wake up each morning with my fists clenched so tightly that my thumbs come out of their joints.

Shifting from self reliance to accepting help takes deep work.  A PTSD therapist has been helping me work through my past so I can heal from it.  Most days, I feel quite vulnerable, like a wounded animal, backed into my protective corner.  You know what “they” say about wounded animals – don’t go near them.

But circumstances have prohibited this isolation, and demanded togetherness.  Shortly after the mugging, I came down with pneumonia and had to ask for a lot of support.  All through my birthday week, my home was filled with friends bringing fresh produce, fun gifts and positive energy.  It chipped away at my rock-hard walls of “That’s OK, I can do it myself.”

I am continuing to reach out for the company, wisdom, experiences and advice of those prepared to step into the corner with me.  Yes, when they come near me, I might act overly protective.  I might swat them away.  I might misunderstand their concern for judgment.  I might mistake their discomfort for dislike.  I might offend them.  I might piss them off.  And they might or might not forgive me.

I will, however, forgive myself.

*  *  *

Here is the hardest part to write.  In my current state of imbalance, can I honorably teach the Eight Limbs, and how they outline a simple process for taking yoga’s principles off the mat and into everyday life?  How can I share “Yogas Chitta Vritti Nrodhah” and encourage yoga as a practice for calming the mind, when my mind is far from calm?  How can I authentically pass on yoga’s tools, when they don’t seem to be working for me in this time of extreme challenge?

Or does this messy phase of life illustrate yoga’s transformation?  Maybe this is my own version of “Draupadi’s Sari.”  Maybe my wish for absolute surrender is coming true.

One thing is for certain – this is my emotional bottom, and the only way out is up.

*  *  *

My god, Holly, you got mugged and now you have pneumonia?  The universe is trying to tell you something.  – a friend

My sassy answer to this remark?  “Uh-huh, the universe is telling me that I am a tough broad who can get through anything!”  Perhaps.  That would certainly match my self-reliant conditioning.  At the same time, I’m open to a totally different point of view.  By sending me a mugging, pneumonia and related challenges, the universe could be urging me to ‘fess up and say, “Come closer to me.”

See me, accept me, love me for exactly who I am – right now.  Vulnerable, fearful, distrustful and resentful.  Wounded.  Ready to focus on what’s good for me.  And more than ready for (the) rest.

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

 

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? – Giving Back August 24, 2010

“When we are in pain, we become self-centered and myopic.  When we heal, we become more empathetic, self-less, and sympathetic to the pain and welfare of others.  It is our gift to others to heal ourselves.”  – Max Strom, writer and yoga instructor

The Bi-Monthly Focus in our yoga classes has been “WHY YOGA?” We spent July and August pondering why we come to the mat.  Since July was my birthday month, I reflected about how yoga has carried me through so many life challenges and celebrations since starting my practice in 1993.  And these days, how it allows me to give back to the world that has supported me along the way.

So tell me…why do you practice yoga?

Max’s quote (above) definitely describes my story – nearly two decades ago, pain brought me to yoga; and today, healing allows me to be of service to others.

At the same time, I don’t believe that pain is the only path that can lead a yogi toward a deeply generous practice.  In fact, I hope and pray that healthy and happy people flock to yoga for their own personal reasons.  And I believe that these fortunate people can be of great service when they bring their yoga off their mats and into their worlds.

Because no matter what brought us to yoga in the first place, or, what brings us to return over and over – if we are indeed practicing yoga’s Eight Limbs, and healing ourselves for the sake of reaching Samadhi (what I would describe as a oneness with all), we will inevitably be of service to those around us, in small and great ways.

For example, practicing any of the Yama or Niyama can make us so conscientious that we become more aware of the human condition.  Practicing Pranayama can make our immune system so strong that we are able to show up for work through the flu season.  Practicing Dharana can make us so calm that we end up practicing Ahimsa in the gnarliest of traffic!

What propels me to practice the Eight Limbs of yoga?  Personally, if I’m only practicing some of those limbs, my motives will be self-centered.  That’s just me.  Some people can just practice Asana and find it in their hearts to think of others.  Me?  If I’m just practicing Asana, I’m only thinking about what’s in it for me – my strong arms, my perfect alignment, my awesome balance.

The other day in Caroline Weaver’s Strong Hold Level 2 class, I felt like a million bucks.  Typically, I feel very physically challenged.  The difference?  Caroline asked us to set an intention for our practice.  I silently repeated my usual pre-class prayer, “I dedicate this class to you, my teacher, and to all of my teachers.”  Then Caroline up-ed the ante – she asked us to deepen our intention until something was at stake, basically.  Immediately I heard myself say,  “This is not for me, this is for You, this is for all.” I swear, this was the first thing that popped into my mind; and I repeated it through the entire set.  Despite the fact that Level 2 poses typically kick my butt, I had an easeful practice, full of light, smiles and even giggles at times.  I was propelled by the thought of helping others.

Above all, my motive must be gratitude. Gratitude for all that yoga has given me.  For this I feel a responsibility to share those gifts with others.

Call it Seva, call it Karma Yoga, call Yoga/Spiritual/Conscious Activism, or simply call it Giving Back.

So, for this final week of “WHY YOGA?” – our July/August Bi-Monthly Focus – we are exploring the evolution from self-centered motivations toward other-centric reasons.  How can we be of service by keeping ourselves well through and using the tools of yoga?  This will segue into our September/October Focus of “Yoga In Action” – a campaign that I’m leading for Off The Mat Into The World (www.offthematintotheworld.org) here in DC.  More later…

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

 

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 (www.alignbydesignyoga.com) 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.”