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Peace Tools: Raja Yoga August 14, 2012

(Note: Much of this is adapted from my May 2010 post on “Transition & Balance.”)

According to my teachers, the ancients invented Hatha Yoga so people could sit longer during a specific task.

Back then, yogis were sages who were meditating toward the highest state of harmony, otherwise known as Samadhi.  In his commentary on The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Integral Yoga Hatha founder Swami Satchidananda describes physical yoga as a process created for practitioners to eliminate physical distractions such as body aches and digestive imbalances through Asana (poses); enhance detoxification and energize the body using Pranayama (breathing exercises); reach Pratyahara (softening of the senses) as a result; then, settle comfortably into long periods of contemplation via Dharana (concentration) and Dhyana (meditation).  These are just five of yoga’s Eight Limbs – an eight-step system for reaching Samadhi – which are thoroughly explored within Patanjali’s ancient Sutras.  The Yama andNiyama (ethical considerations) comprise the 1st two limbs; and Samadhi is the 8th limb.

Today, yogis are regular-old-people who are sitting through work days, concentrating on family affairs, digesting world crises and seeking peace in daily challenges.  Our contemporary version of reaching Samadhi might be fulfilling our highest intentions for living mindfully on any given day.  Personally, the Eight Limbs have taught me tools for addressing all of this and more.  Their physical and ideological recommendations have been the greatest gift of my life.  Thus far.

Contemporary commentary on the Sutras has become progressive and expansive, enhancing what used to be mere physical exercise for many modern yogis.  Thankfully, there are more and more writings on Raja Yoga – the philosophy and ethics behind yoga’s “spiritual” side, or values-based practices.

When I say “spiritual,” I generally mean ethical, mindful and service-oriented; to me, a spiritual life maintains these qualities.  To achieve this intention for a values-based life, I focus on the tangible benefits of Hatha Yoga; and, I also contemplate the “spiritual” foundations for cultivating emotional and psychological balance within myself in order to share it with the world.

In my understanding, Patanjali’s Sutras are recognized as the most comprehensive treatment of Raja Yoga.  I have been most influenced by the following explorations of the Sutras:

  • The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – translation and commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda (
  • Raja Yoga – by Swami Vivekananda (
  • Why We Fight: Practices for Lasting Peace – by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait (
  • Yoga Journal, May 2010 Issue – “Love In Full Bloom” by Frank Jude Boccio; “Journey to the Light” by Kate Holcombe (
  • Integral Yoga Magazine, Spring 2010 Issue – “Yoga Sutras Unveiled” section with multiple authors (
  • And numerous teachers’ blogs.

In my personal Raja Yoga studies, I turn to four favorite Sutras for nurturing balance in the midst of life’s twists and turns.  I think of them as Peace Tools.

*  *  *



Early in Book One, Sutra 1.2 says, “Yogas Citta Vrtti Nerodhah” or “Yoga restrains the disturbances of the mind.”  We’ve probably experienced a bit of this at the end of a luscious yoga class!  That remarkable liberation of the mind, free of worry and forgetful of fear, glowing with presence and brimming with confidence.  So in the very beginning of Patanjali’s aphorisms, we are assured: using yoga as described in the Sutras, we can still the mind and show up for life with serenity and peace.  We don’t have to force our mind into restraint – YOGA does it for us.


Sometimes I need more than my regular Asana practice to restrain disturbances of my mind.  If I sneak forward to Book Two, I find the remedy.  Sutra 2.33 says, “Vitarka Badhane Pratipaksha Bhavanam” or “When disturbed by negative thoughts, contrary thoughts should be employed.”  There are days when I find myself repeating “Pratipaksha Bhavana!” like a mantra, in order to snap out of negativity.  My Uncle Bill was the king of replacing negative with positive.  I remember one conversation in particular.  I was feeling hopeless and believed I’d made too many mistakes during my early adult life to ever repair the damage and pursue my dreams.  I’d been swimming in self-pity and doubt for a while.  As I defended my despair, Uncle Bill interrupted – “Well, Holly,” he said with his soothing Tennessee twang and churchgoers’ faith, “I believe you sort of lived your life backwards – when you were younger, you made all of your mistakes and somehow survived all of your trials.  Now you get to move forward based on what you’ve learned and live a better life!”  And you know what?  Since learning to replace negativity with positive or constructive thoughts, many of my dreams and intentions have been realized!  Pratipaksha Bhavana, indeed!


To further pacify the citta (mind), we backtrack to Book One.  Sutra 1.33 says, “Maitri Karuna Muditopeksanam Sukha Duhkha Punyapunya Visayanam Bavanatas Citta Prasadanam.” The many lengthy translations and commentaries on this aphorism offer an overall belief that there are four locks in our own minds and in the character of other people: happy, unhappy, virtuous and non-virtuous.  To confront these attitudes – whether ours or others’ – Patanjali suggests: “Befriend the happy; have compassion for the unhappy; delight in the virtuous; be indifferent toward the non-virtuous.”  To properly discuss this Sutra would take many blog entries.  I refer you to the Yoga Journal articles and Pandit Rajmani Tigunait book cited above for my inspirations to have mercy toward unhappy mindsets (i.e. being compassionate with myself when feeling low) and to compassionately detach from non-virtuous acts (i.e. the violence of murder – see my November 2009 “Compassion for Killers” post).

The previous Sutras offer immense assurance.  If we practice yoga in this way, we can count on these results.  When we show up for our practice in this way, we give back to the world with these offerings.

And then comes…


Sutra 2.16 is my most favorite idea in the whole-wide-world.  “Heyam Duhkham Anagatam.” “The misery which has not yet come is to be avoided.”  By using yoga’s tools on and off the mat, we can avoid future suffering!  Yea!  Not only can we decrease physical injuries by practicing Asana with respect for our bodies, we can also decrease mental anguish by embracing Raja Yoga’s ideas.  This doesn’t mean that we can avoid bad experiences, because life will deal us whatever cards we are meant to hold.  But we can decrease and abbreviate misery and suffering while going through any difficulties by utilizing yoga’s resources.

*  *  *

For me, the most beautiful thing about these promises and suggestions is that, at any time of the day or night, no matter what is happening, I can reach into my Peace Toolbox to deepen my practice, my inner peace and my connections among others.

I don’t ever want to take this for granted.

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.


Peace Tools: Pratipaksha Bhavana, Samtosha & Gratitude June 18, 2012

Filed under: Inspiration,Philosophy,Spirituality — Holly Meyers @ 6:54 pm
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For the final quarter of my 100-day exploration of Ahimsa (for a brief background, see “The Roots of ‘Ahimsa Now: 100 Days of Intention’” at the bottom of this page), I am compiling my favorite Peace Tools – fail-safe practices for cultivating a reliable inner peace, which leads to a serene life and accountability to others.

* * *

Thank god for great teachers.

I got my butt kicked yesterday morning in an Intermediate Vinyasa class.  Well, admittedly, I often get my butt, hips and thighs kicked in this teacher’s classes!  (But it’s a sweet, Ahimsa-like kick.)

Today, however, the real smacker was when the teacher told a story about wanting something she didn’t have.  She was feeling stressed by being without this particular thing (a typical modern household convenience item); and she believed her stress would be relieved if she had this thing.  Life, in general, would be better.  Then, someone close to her pointed out that if she had that thing, she would inevitably be challenged by its related stresses and difficulties.  And, this someone added, there are places where they don’t even have access to such a luxury, and where they make out just fine.

Thank god for great teachers – in the form of those certain someones who bring perspective.

Perspective can bubble up from many sources.  If I am willing to hear it, I can use perspective to practice “Pratipaksha Bhavana” (replacement of negative thoughts with positive ones) and “Samtosha” (contentment).  And, if I really want to live the concept “Ahimsa” (non-harming) and cultivate inner peace, I can carry my positive thought and contentment a step further to practice “Gratitude” (gratitude).

Because by allowing myself to stew in negativity and malcontent, I am harming myself.  When I harm myself, I am far from peace.  And when I am far from peace, I am closer to harming others.

*  *  *

Sunday morning, when my yoga teacher told her story in class, I immediately thought about my long period without full-time employment, the related fear and stress (which has come to quite a head lately), and, my frequently repeated statement of: “If only I had a job, everything would be better.”

Would it?  I can attest to the harmful wear-and-tear of being in the wrong work situation – whether it’s being underpaid, overworked, over-ego-fed, physically strained, sexually harassed, verbally abused or mis-matched in any way – and how that discomfort can negatively affect everything in my life.  So the last thing I want is to desperately jump into any ol’ job.

In addition, having the “right” job can also add stress to life.  Less free time.  More suits.  New relationships.  Office politics.  And so on.  “Everything would be better” is inaccurate after all.

Still, being without a full-time job over the long-term is a seriously challenging state.  I don’t simply “want what I don’t have” – on a fundamental, life-sustaining level, I actually don’t have what I need.  So how do I nurture inner peace when the justifiable anxiety of  “If only I had a job…” pops into my mind?  What is the antidote?

Pratipaksha Bhavana.

In his book “Raja Yoga,” Swami Vivekananda explains, “When thoughts obstructive to yoga arise, contrary thoughts should be employed.”  In simpler terms, when my inner peace is rattled, I can restore serenity by replacing negative beliefs with positive thoughts.  This is Pratipaksha Bhavana, which is mentioned Book Two of the Yoga Sutras.

This doesn’t mean replacing “If only I had a job…” with “If only I had a financially sustaining job that enhances my emotional, physical and spiritual well-being and complements my lifestyle…”  Because the fact is, even if I had this supposedly ideal thing, there is still no guarantee that “everything would be better.”

The only true, guaranteed, peace-inducing contrary to “If only I had a job…” is “I have a job.”

Bingo!  I have a job!  In fact, I have many jobs – some with traditional paychecks; some with other types of “payment.”  I teach yoga part-time; I manage a yoga studio part-time; and each year I teach percussion and yoga full-time at a summer camp.  I was recently invited to guide Latin dancing lessons for a group of school kids because of my background in Hispanic culture.  I sometimes accompany great songwriters on tours and gigs.  And because of my music and yoga background, I am invited to play Kirtan.  I play volunteer roles in my community, and I play supportive roles in my family.  I could not ask for more wonderful jobs.  I get paid to pass on the beautiful teachings of yoga.  I get paid to contribute to a yoga business’s well-being.  I get paid to facilitate youth’s arts education.  I get paid to play music.  And I have the opportunity to be of service in many ways.  Through these “jobs,” I receive more than money.  I enjoy unlimited, much-needed, free yoga classes where I teach.  I feel the satisfaction of using my operational skills at the studio.  I get to hang around kids eight hours a day for the six weeks of summer camp.  I get to work alongside amazingly talented musicians.  My yoga and music communities are strong and the circles are widening.  I enjoy true friendships.  Overall, I receive immense “compensation” being involved with yoga, music and youth.

A life of this much purpose and passion certainly can sustain me through tough times…when I focus on the positive.

*  *  *

“If only…” in itself is a negative belief.   When I walk around thinking that everything would be better “if only this or that,” I am existing in illusion.  I am negating the worth of the present moment.  And I am living in complete malcontent.  What is the ultimate remedy for the “If only…” plague?


Instead of thinking “If only…”, I aim to embrace whatever is directly in front of me as my path, my work, my opportunity.  Life is exactly as it should be, right now, with all its struggles and surprises and ups and downs.  Now is all I have.  So why not accept what currently exists and choose to be content?  And this is Samtosha – being at peace with whatever exists at this very moment.

Can I be content with my nearly jobless, penniless existence?  And if so, how do I get there?

For me, contentment requires a blend of footwork, surrender, acceptance and faith.  Footwork means I am proactive to my best ability.  Surrender means I acknowledge how much is beyond my control.  Acceptance means I embrace all outcomes.  And faith means I believe that I will be OK no matter what.  Inevitably, when I practice this combo, I feel content.

For example, in my work search, I must take appropriate action by applying for jobs that make sense for my long-term goals and sustainability.  After I make these efforts, I must remember that there are way too many factors that figure into these scenarios, and therefore completely let go of the results.  I must accept any news without getting stuck in pride, disappointment or resignation.  And when the news is bad, I must believe that there is something worth waiting for – and what helps most here is remembering exactly how big the “Big Picture” is.

“As a result of contentment, one gains supreme joy,” Swami Satchidananda says of Samtosha, in his exploration of the Yoga Sutras.  Who could ask for anything more?

*  *  *

Practicing Pratipaksha Bhavana and Samtosha, I can be positive and accepting instead of negative and wanting.  Usually.  But can I gain “supreme joy” and true serenity?

The truth is, most days I am still trying to shake off the nagging belief that I might never have what I need; that stability and security are impossible; that I am destined to die homeless, jobless and penniless in a gutter.  Those days, more than any others, it is imperative that I practice Pratipaksha Bhavana and Samtosha, and that I take the extra step of doing a Gratitude List.

Monday, 18 June, 2012 – I am grateful for…

  • Part-time work that I absolutely love.
  • Talents, education and experience to lend to new jobs.
  • The “umph” to keep on keepin’-on despite challenges.
  • Free yoga where I teach.
  • Living in a city with many free activities.
  • Friends who treat me to baseball games so I can relax.
  • A caring circle of family, friends and community.
  • My mom’s and dad’s inspirational work ethic.
  • My dad’s unending encouragement, confidence and support.
  • My sister’s love, understanding, advice and periodic butt-kickings.
  • Beautiful spring/summer weather.
  • Living near Rock Creek Park for hiking.
  • A lifetime of tools and resources for trudging this road – and the willingness to use them.
  • So, so much more.

I am truly lucky to have so much.  I may not have everything I need, but I do have a lot.  And when I reinforce appreciation, the self-pity dissolves, the worry of paying the bills decreases, the fear of becoming homeless disappears, the anxiety of the unknown dissipates.

When I practice Gratitude, I can actually forget what the problem is…I can relax…I can smile!

*  *  *

It’s a lot of work to manage and reduce stress.  Why do I do any of this?

The concepts of Pratipaksha Bhavana, Samtosha and Gratitude do not change the fact that, month-after-month, I wonder whether I’ll be able to pay my rent.  That stressful reality definitely exists.  But as practices, they can change my state of mind during these challenging times.  Instead of dwelling in worry, fear and anxiety – when I am willing to hear perspective and embrace these practices – I can dwell in presence, hope and joy.  Instead of harboring self-harming thoughts, I can enjoy inner peace.  And I can share that peace with all around me.

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 am committing to a 100-day exploration of Ahimsa.  Thanks for coming along.  OM Shanti Shanti Shanti.


Running Into Nature April 23, 2012

Filed under: Inspiration,Life,nature,Spirituality — Holly Meyers @ 8:39 pm
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The couch can be a dangerous place for me.

Running into nature is like running to safety.

Today I went into the woods with great mental confusion, weighty worry and enough fear to call “terror” – and I left it all there.  I came out with strength, hope, faith and belief.

*  *  *

I lost my peace this morning.

I’ve been facing misfortune for a while now.   I have been looking for full-time work without success, piecing together some part-time work with teaching and “working from home” on the job hunt and my yoga projects.  I am more isolated than ever, worried about how my bills will get paid and constantly wrestling with a negative mind.  I don’t sleep well, I grind my teeth and my dreams are weird.  I feel overwhelmed, burnt out and under-fed.  And lately, I have been getting in touch with the huge amount of fear I am existing with day-in and day-out.

The good news is: if it weren’t for my devoted yoga practice, I’d be feeling even worse.  Somehow I get through the days smiling (most of the time), able to connect (most of the time) and able to give (most of the time).

But to be completely frank – my primary mode of functioning through this is to deny the fear and push through.  So sometimes I crumble.  Like this morning.

*  *  *

There is a pattern.

I’m sitting at my desk, knowing what I should do, for the sake of accountability to others, for the sake of getting a job, for the sake of my well-being.  I start off with vigor and resolve.  And then like a shot of morphine creeping into the veins, the exhaustion hits.  I rapidly fade into fatigue.

And the couch calls out to me.

So today, just as I was curling up on the couch with my pillow and blankie, boo-hoo-ing about succumbing to slumber, a friend called.  Knowing I was sinking into oblivion and after already canceling a work-related meeting, I’d texted him to cancel our post-work plans.

When he called to see if I was OK, I fumbled for words, not wanting to tell the truth: “I am sinking into oblivion and would not be very good company.”  As I grasped for a good story, he figured it out.  “You need to get out,” he ordered.  I continued trying to explain that I was not feeling well and he repeated, “You need to get out.”  So I asked if he would come and hike with me after work and he answered, “No; you need to get out now.  For yourself.”  I continued mumbling…

“GET OUT!” he commanded, with urgency.

So I got out.

*  *  *

Into the woods I ran, as if something or someone was chasing me.

I don’t even remember the first 1/3 of the hike.  Somewhere along the way, I took a turn I’d never made before and walked toward the sound of rushing water until something about the trees and sky stopped me in my tracks.  I looked up, crying.  I searched for the right thing to pray.  I cried more.  I told the truth.  “I don’t have what I need.  I’ve tried everything.  I’m terrified.”


After a series of heart-felt confessions, prayers and sobs, I paused and listened.  The next thing that came to mind was:

“What do I need?”

The first answer was, “Money.”  I immediately realized it’s not that simple.

“Income.  And in order to have income, I need work.”  Yes.

And then the anxiety started to build again.  So again, the question arose:

“What do I need?”

And louder than bombs, I heard the words:




and then


Realizing that I not only needed to tap into my own resources, but that I’d need the strength, hope, faith and belief of others, I added:


I knelt and touched the earth.  I awakened to the day, the forest, the water, the moss, the rain.  The smells and sounds of it all.  And I cried some more.

Returning along the path, I came to the crossroads where I’d turned off earlier.  I stood still with my eyes closed, doing nothing but listening, smelling, feeling.  Trying to figure out if I should head back home or walk a little more.  And then it came to me, “Running into nature is like running to safety.  So why would I leave?”  And onward I hiked.

*  *  *

Admittedly, I haven’t touched anything on my “to do” list since returning from the forest.  I made hot chocolate with cayenne and cinnamon; I ate some toast with sunflower butter and pomegranate jam; I wrote this blog.  And now I’m pretty darn tired and will most likely curl up on the couch for a nap.

Later this evening, I’ll reach out to friends and tell them that I need support.

I may have lost my peace today – but I also knew to take a break from my own mind (and the couch) to get into the vast expanse of nature.  Thanks to the willingness to ask for help, listen to suggestions and run toward safety, I am feeling the ease of accepting exactly where I am.  Which is much more peaceful than being paralyzed by confusion, worry and fear.

Tomorrow, I will see where this acceptance takes me when I sit down at my desk with that “to do” list again.

Wishing that all beings receive exactly what they need.  OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.


Haiku for George Zimmerman April 12, 2012


And justice for all:

May peace – and not resentment –

Guide our hearts and minds.

*  *  *

In the very first pages of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras – one of the ancient texts that guides yoga practice and teaching – we learn that yoga’s primary purpose is to cultivate a peaceful mind.

The text then offers us four books (or chapters) of recommended practices to attain and sustain this peace.  One practice is known as the Four Locks & Four Keys – described in Sutra 1.33 – which invites us to cultivate an attitude of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight toward the virtuous and disregard for the non-virtuous in order to retain our own calm.  In his commentary on this recommendation, Swami Satchidananda encouraged, “Whether you are interested in samadhi (loosely translated as “enlightenment”) or plan to ignore Yoga entirely, I would advise you to remember at least this one Sutra.  In my own experience, this Sutra became my guiding light to keep my mind serene always.”

Mine, too.

And even more so after I studied an interpretation of Sutra 1.33 by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, Ph.D., of the Himalayan Institute.  About 10 years ago, I clipped his Yoga International Magazine article shedding an uplifting, shining light on the aphorism’s most difficult plea (for me, at least) to cultivate disregard for the non-virtuous.  Because I feel if I am disregarding someone, then I am committing harm; and therefore, I become non-virtuous and perpetuate the cycle of violence.

I was so deeply moved by Dr. Tigunait’s interpretation that I have kept the article and often refer to it when wrestling with the unfortunate reality of our violent world.  Here are some excerpts; I hope someone finds this useful if questioning any act of violence, harm or disregard.

*  *  *

None of us has the power to force others to rid themselves of darkness.  The only power we have is to demonstrate how delightful it is to live in the light.

According to yoga, one who cultivates transparency of mind, clarity of thought, and firmness of will becomes light and cheerful.

[Regarding] indifference toward the non-virtuous:

We each have our own definition of “virtue,” and if someone is “non-virtuous” according to our definition, the judgmental part of our personality immediately comes forward and we label those people “bad.”  This colors our thought, speech, and action toward them.  We try to maintain a distance, either by withdrawing ourselves or by pushing them away from us.  Or we try to force them to change.  Any of these actions sets the stage for violence.

Again, the only way to change this pattern is to change our own attitudes.  Those whom we consider reprehensible or wicked are living according to their own level of understanding, and trying to correct them by criticizing their way of life and values is counterproductive.  According to yoga, if it is possible to model the higher values of love, compassion, selflessness, and non-possessiveness for the “non-virtuous,” then that should be done.  Often a glimpse of the higher virtues is enough to cause someone to reevaluate his or her behavior and to find a way to begin the process of self-transformation.

If we have not acquired the skill of leading someone who we believe to be non-virtuous gently in the direction of self-transformation , the only other option is to cultivate an attitude of indifference – not for the doer but for the deed.  Cultivating indifference for people we believe to be non-virtuous damages our sensitivity to others and destroys our capacity for forgiveness, kindness, and selfless love.  But by cultivating indifference toward the deeds themselves, we remain free of animosity for those whose action are non-virtuous.  We allow them their rightful place, and by refusing to associate the person with the deed, we avoid becoming smug and punitive.

Practicing these four principles will purify the mind and heart.  And once we have developed friendship for those who are happy, compassion for those who are unhappy, cheerfulness toward those who are virtuous, and indifference to the actions of those who are not, we will no longer pose a threat to others, and they will be neither defensive nor self-protective in our presence.  Pure love, compassion, selflessness, and self-acceptance radiate from us when we have purified our hearts.  …  Love, compassion, cheerfulness, selflessness, and self-acceptance will begin to radiate from the individual level and affect the community, the society, and finally the world.

…there will be nothing to fight about.

–  From Yoga International Magazine; adapted from “Why We Fight: Practices for Lasting Peace” by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, Ph.D.

*  *  *

So how does Sutra 1.33 help me digest the story of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman?  First, it reminds me that in order to be of service in any way in this world – whether that’s sharing an opinion or joining a social justice action – I must maintain my own inner peace.  Second, if I think and act from a place of peace, then I do not judge, I do not attach personal resentments, I do not confuse unrelated history with this unique story – instead, I am able to be fair-minded.  When I am fair-minded, I can see the pain, misfortune and unhappiness of all involved.  I can have compassion.  I can keep my peace.  I can be of service.  I can be fair-minded.  I can have compassion.  I can keep my peace.  I can be of service.  I can…

And instead of perpetuating the cycle of violence, I am cultivating a cycle of peace.

OM Shanti Shanti Shanti.  Peace.  Please.


Ahimsa Now: 100 Days of Intention April 6, 2012

Beautifully hopeful mural in my neighborhood.

*  *  *

In a recent blog entry, I mentioned “Ahimsa Now” – my idea for a non-profit organization whose mission is to use yoga and related practices to address emotional pain and increase inner peace in at-risk youth and those that serve them, consequently decreasing violence in at-risk communities.

When I called my friend Ronni to tell her about this long-envisioned, presently hibernating dream, she responded, “Sounds like it’s time for another 100-day ritual!”  She’s referring to last year’s “Happy Heart Project,” during which I awoke each morning between August 28th & December 5th, lit a stick of incense, and affirmed: “My intention today is to grow toward joy.”  My main takeaway after 100 days?  I grew to embrace that there are no goals, only intentions – reinforced frequently, through a process of openness, willingness, action and growth.

Equally as important – I came to profoundly accept, appreciate and stop apologizing for my humanness.  Now that’s a happy heart.

*  *  *

Ronni joined me in last year’s Happy Heart Project, burning her incense and meditating on her own intention.

So here we are again, launching a deliberate, one-day-at-a-time journey toward July 13th.  This time around, I am simply saying, “Ahimsa Now” as I light my incense.  “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.  In the Sutras, Ahimsa is one of the “Yama” – five recommended abstentions, or rules of conduct rooted in abstinence.

Ahimsa is a principle that I aim toward every breathing moment.  It can manifest in many ways – not causing emotional harm for others through gossip or careless remarks; not taking my bad day out on those around me; not harming my own body by practicing unmindful yoga; not harming my own heart by insulting myself; and on and on.

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 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.

Let the exploration begin.

*  *  *

What are the alternatives to violence?  Luckily, yoga offers many; and I will write about them this April, during which my Monthly Focus for yoga classes is “Peace.”

More will most certainly be revealed.

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


Peaceful Warrior April 2, 2012

“Meditate.  Meditate that the truth will come out.  The whole truth.”  – Civil Rights Activist Dick Gregory at a DC Rally for Trayvon Martin

*  *  *

At the end of my last blog, I promised to report back after the “Stand Up for Trayvon Martin Justice Rally” here in DC.

Leaders from the media, politics, churches, schools and civil rights groups spoke from the steps of a federal building.

Since last Saturday’s rally, I have been meditating on my truth about the situation.  I have started and stopped writing this blog a million times.  I have immersed myself in the news stories, social media, shouted opinions.  I have observed the range of emotion; I have considered many opinions.

I have pondered why this situation is so important to me.  I have come to peace with my own heart-felt perspective.

So what is my truth?

Any killing – of any person, by any person, by any means, in any environment, under any circumstances – saddens me beyond description.

I am not a behavioral scientist.  But I have some firm beliefs about human behavior based on my experience as a witness, victim and – yes – instigator of much too much violence spanning my 46 years on this planet.  So I know from experience: The impulse to commit harm comes from great pain, fear and/or hatred.  And it breaks my heart to know how much pain, fear and hatred there is in our world.

I have no way of categorizing Trayvon Martin’s killing.  I don’t know the details of what happened.  I don’t know what motivated George Zimmerman.  But I know this: Whether it’s street crime, police action, hate crime, death row execution, involuntary manslaughter, war…when killing happens, I grieve the death of two beings.  I grieve the loss of the dead; and equally, I grieve the deadening of the killer’s soul.

Nobody escapes violence unscarred.  Not the victim, not the observer, not the instigator.  Not the families, the cops, the rescue workers, the undertakers.  Everyone is traumatized.  It has taken deep, difficult and committed work to look squarely in the face of the history of violence in my life, to understand it, to grieve it and to heal from it.  I survived and I remain scarred.  So I have a choice: to

The crowd looked like a "big ol' bag of Skittles" to spirited rally MC Reverend Tony Lee.

dwell in the pain of past actions around me, against me and by me, and allow that pain to rule my behavior in community, toward others and toward myself…or…

…to cultivate an inner peace by moving forward with a new perspective, firm beliefs and deliberate actions against violence.

*  *  *

I feel that my primary purpose is to utilize practices and resources to sustain my own inner peace and outward peacefulness, and to share those practices and resources with others who have experienced the pain of violence.

In my adult life – particularly since examining my childhood, training to be a yoga teacher and discovering my purpose – I have felt drawn toward and concerned about the well-being of kids I teach, work with or live near.

In 2009, I grieved heavily over the deaths of two specific children: Eric Harper – an 11-year-old yoga student at the public school where I used to teach – who was killed by his mother’s boyfriend Joseph Randolph Mays (who is now serving 45 years for Eric’s, his brother’s and his mother’s murders); and Oscar Fuentes – a 9-year-old neighbor – who was killed by local gang member Josue Peña (who hung himself while in prison, shortly after Oscar’s death).

In addition, over the past few years, I have grieved the ceaseless gang hits, retribution killings and incarcerations of neighborhood youth.  I see these kids on the street one day; and the next day they are dead or in jail.

Again: I grieve the loss of the dead; and I grieve the deadening of the killers’ souls.

Each killing is motivated by pain, fear and/or hatred.  All of the killers – whether caught or not – will suffer/have suffered the tangible and emotional pains of consequence.  Plenty of people will harbor hatred and resentment toward the killers.  And the cycle of pain, hostility, violence and killing will continue.

Unless new perspectives are gained and peace becomes the priority.

*  *  *

Eric Harper’s death truly shook me.  I loved this little guy.  He was hyper-vigilant, fidgety and mischievous like I was at his age.  I could only imagine why.  When I was 11 (and there was no yoga in schools), I started using alcohol to dull the effects of living in violence.  The yoga seemed to help Eric a little bit.  The day before Spring Break – and the day before he was murdered – I asked Eric

There were hoodies of all sizes at the rally.

to “assistant teach” a yoga class when we got back to school.  During break, I went on a short tour with a band and received the bad news during the drive from Cleveland to Pittsburgh.  I can’t even remember who called me; clearly, someone from the school.  I got off the phone and said, “One of my students was murdered.”  The guys in the band responded with condolences.  They were not my close friends, so despite their kind attention, I felt alone in processing Eric’s death.

As soon as we got to Pittsburgh, I called a dear friend in DC and asked him to read me any media coverage he could find about the murders of Eric and his family.  My friend told me to sit down.  As I listened to the horrifying account of what happened, I sat on a curb and sobbed.  Eric’s defenselessness in the attacks killed me.  He did not have a chance.  It broke my heart to think of this poor child, trying to escape, trying to hide – but totally helpless.

When school re-opened after break, I spent the day roaming from classroom to classroom, offering grounding and breath-work lessons to accompany the crisis intervention professionals’ exercises.  Or I simply sat in the hallways consoling bunches of children crying into my lap.  That week we held a special yoga class for Eric.  The kids were wide-eyed as I cried.

How did I regain my peace?  How did I not harbor hatred and resentment?  How did I not feed the cycle of pain, hostility, violence and killing?

At the funeral service for Eric and his family, we heard some celebrations of the family’s lives…but mostly outbursts of anger, promises of retaliation, gut-wrenching guilt and more.  After the long line of emotionally charged testimonies, the pastor pacified us with the Serenity Prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”  We repeated this over and over and over and over and over…

Try it.  See if it brings peace where there is unrest.  For me, it works every time.

Hands were joined and raised in prayer and solidarity.

In addition, I used yoga’s many tools for maintaining peace despite all kinds of challenges – which I will blog about throughout April, during our monthly focus of “Peace.”

*  *  *

I now understand exactly what triggered me to awaken to the Trayvon Martin case.  When I listened to the 911-calls during an NPR story, I heard the howls and screams of a helpless being.  And I was triggered to recall the helplessness of a little being I’d known and loved.  Whose screams for help I never heard.

As I wrote before the DC Rally last week, I was nervous about keeping my cool in the midst of a very heated environment.  Once at the rally, I confidently walked to the front of the crowd; I patiently and tolerantly listened to some opinions that I disagreed with; I lovingly took the hands of fellow activists to pray; and I intuitively sensed that deep down, we were all there to express, share and be supported through shades of sadness and grief.

Afterward, a friend who knew I’d been anxious, and who witnessed my participation in the rally, texted me: “You are a peaceful warrior.”

And so I have taken my head out of the sand to find that my instinct regarding my role in “activism” has shifted a bit.  I serve best when I take action to get informed, when I show up when/where it makes sense, when I do my job to stay peaceful and when I work to share that peace with others.  My inclination is to pray.  Pray real hard.  Pray for the well-being of all involved and affected.

As Dick Gregory implored, I continue to meditate that the truth will come out about Trayvon Martin’s killing.

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!