The Urban Yoga Den

…where it's all yoga.

The Happy Heart Project: 100 Days! December 8, 2011

“Whoever is happy will make others happy too.  He who has courage and faith will never perish in misery.”  – Anne Frank

My whole body is vibrating.

Just now, I lit my 100th stick of “Happy Heart” incense and repeated the words I’ve said each morning since August 28th – “My intention today is to grow toward joy.”  Today the intention felt larger, more expansive than a practiced Sankalpa or resolution.  Today, that statement felt like a responsibility.
Instead of re-hashing my entire journey from August forward, I invite you to check out my “The Happy Heart Project: 100 Days Toward Joy” and other blogs I wrote along the way.  It’s been quite a trip, and at times a stumble.  Over time, The Project became more than a simple morning ritual.  It motivated more effort than I’ve ever made in my decades of spiritual practice.

I don’t do any of this for myself.  By “any of this” I mean the 100-day rituals, the blogging, the yoga, the recovery work, the healing practices.  Well, OK, yes.  First I do it for myself – so I can transform, strengthen.  But only so I can share experiences with, pass-on resources to, show up for and be of service to others.

*  *  *

“It is plain that a life which includes deep resentment leads only to futility and unhappiness.  For when harboring such feelings we shut ourselves off from the sunlight of the Spirit.”  – Anonymous

Resentment is ongoing anger or bitterness due to insult or injury.  The etymological root of the word simplifies the meaning even more: a repeated feeling.  Any feeling.  So a resentment could be full of anger or fear, pride or longing.  The fact is, if we are re-feeling something related to a past experience, clearly, we are unable to live in the present.  Our past pains or even successes haunt us.  We are shut off.

I consider myself a happy person.  Someone who leans toward the light.  Generally, I am able to accept life’s ups and downs while maintaining a hopeful and positive attitude.

This summer, after a mugging in June I had a series of PTSD responses that magnified negative stories, limited beliefs and destructive patterns cultivated from what seemed like a lifetime of unresolved trauma.  I was harboring major resentments – against past aggressors, against myself, against the world.  By August, I’d become hopeless.  It was a dark, dark time.

*  *  *

“It is through practicing and living through a series of agreeable and disagreeable situations that we attain full awakening.”  – Suzuki Roshi, author and Zen Master

Over the past 100 days, one of my foundational beliefs was constantly validated: Moving toward joy does not mean escaping pain, avoiding discomfort nor skirting around darkness.  It means greeting that pain, discomfort and darkness with an informed reality instead of habitual despair.  It means digging deep to reach that informed reality, to trudge toward the answers, to sit in the messiness, to look straight at the fears and patterns.  It means surrendering to help and change instead of resigning to the same old despair, depression and rage.

In life there is ease, there is tranquility and there is light…and at times, there is not.  In that very acceptance, I can cultivate happiness.  I can experience joy.  And with strong, committed and consistent effort, the habitual despair can be completely undone.

As Roshi says, it takes “practicing” and “living.”

Burning a stick of incense each morning was a tiny and symbolic gesture.  Although the repeated intention that accompanied that act truly set the wheel in motion, reinforcing a Sankalpa involves much more than words.

Over the past 100 days, there were layers and layers of practices and life.  There was the changing of seasons; there was an Ayurvedic diet for Pitta Pacification; there were increased actions in my recovery program and the huge exhale when reaching nine years clean and sober; there was daily 5:30am Sadhana of prayer, Pranayama and meditation; there were willing visits to medical professionals who specialize in PTSD and related conditions; there was the swallowing of unusual vitamins and supplements; there were specific songs that I listened to and sang until sobbing from liberation; there was soulful abandon during concerts by spiritual songwriters and chanters; there were awkward moments with trusted friends, reunions with old pals and exciting connections with new soul mates; there was immersion in the Occupy movement’s writings and videos in order to challenge my own fears of conflict and solidly reinforce my purpose of peace; there were the Jewish High Holy Days, with their sorrow, atonement, forgiveness and love; there were transformational workshops, retreats and classes with Seane Corn, Max Strom, Amy Barnes, Corrine Champigny and many others; there was the glowing Hindu holiday of Diwali, with its stories of the triumph of light over darkness.

What a trip.  And it was 100% worth it.  Because now, not only have I ceased fighting everything and everyone, I have also come to profoundly accept, appreciate and stop apologizing for my humanness.

“May we live like the lotus, at home in the muddy water.”  – Rachel Meyer, yoga teacher

*  *  *

“May all the sky be pervaded by great bliss.

“If suffering, I bear the suffering of all beings.

“May the ocean of samsara’s suffering dry up.”

My soundtrack for this 100th moment is the traditional Buddhist Offering Chant, quoted above, and sung tenderly by Lama Gyurme in the video below.  As I write, the Happy Heart sends its wafts of rose, rosewood, geranium, cubeb, oakmoss, lavender and patchouli smoke throughout my space.

To me – no matter how much I live and practice through all conditions – it would seem miraculous to reach a bliss like Nirvana or Samadhi or Enlightenment, where I would completely transcend my own suffering, cease carrying and contributing to the suffering of all, and ultimately, experience the end of Samsara – the earthly cycle of birth, decay, death.

What I can grasp, however, is Buddhist nun Pema Chodron’s simple take on attaining a “higher” state: “Enlightenment is a very grand word for fundamental happiness.  Your life becomes a path of awakening or a path of becoming enlightened.”

*  *  *

“What is important is not to have a goal but to see if our daily existence has a meaning in itself.”  – J. Krishnamurti, philosopher and author

Note that my daily statement was, “My intention today is to grow toward joy,”  not, “I want to be happy forever.”  The Project reinforced that life is truly One Day At A Time.  Gradual.  Forgiving and honest.  If today I don’t feel joy, I can try again tomorrow.

There is no goal, only intention, reinforced frequently, through a process of openness, willingness, action and growth.

*  *  *

“The spiritual life is not a theory.  We have to live it.”  – Anonymous

Simply said.  The Happy Heart Project does not end here, at the 100-day mark.

Great gratitude to the numerous teachers who appeared along the way, in so many shapes and forms.  Yoga students, yoga teachers, friends, family, strangers, co-workers, ankle-biters, outright attackers.  Road trips, songs, trees, Asana, injuries, deities.

All mirrors, all messengers.

*  *  *

May all beings find the courage and faith to grow through misery and toward joy.  Thank you for sharing the journey.  OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

*  *  *

*  *  *

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 woke up, burned a stick of Happy Heart incense and set an intention to grow toward joy.  Nearly each day I posted a “Happy Heart Project” status (and sometimes an accompanying song for that day’s mood) on Urban Yoga Den on Facebook, then saw what happened during the day.  Even though the 100 DAYS are over, it’s not too late to 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!

Advertisements
 

Focus: Why Yoga? – Challenge August 18, 2010

If we learn to open our hearts, anyone – including the people who drive us crazy – can be our teacher. – Pema Chodron, Buddhist monk and teacher

I would take the above quote a step further and say, “Anyone or anything – including the people or situations that drive us crazy – can be our teacher.” To me, this is challenge.  Challenge comes in many forms.  Perhaps we are facing tough difficulties; or, maybe we are offered great opportunities.  With all challenge, we are invited to jump into or go through something big, something new, something nerve-racking.

The question is – can we SEIZE opportunities…can we GROW through our difficulties?

For me, all challenge is a teacher and brings the chance to grow. But I did NOT always feel this way!  Hah!  All challenge meant inconvenience and discomfort!  Difficulties meant stuffing emotions in order to look strong.  “That’s OK, I’m fine!”  And opportunities meant finding ways to side-step toward a more comfortable route.  “I don’t feel safe doing that.”  What I’m really saying in those cases is, “I am afraid – afraid to feel my feelings; afraid to try something new.”

The funny thing is, these responses to challenge are related.  When I act strong on the outside but feel broken within, consequently, I stop taking healthy risks because I strongly crave comfort.  On the other hand, when I get honest with myself and others about my brokenness, my shadows and my difficulties, I find the support, conditioning and strength to seize opportunities and grow through challenge.

Yoga helps me do this.

Using yoga to face difficulties. In the past, my practice decreased when life got tough.  I remember a rough loss in February 2008.  Prone toward restless sleep, lazy mornings and naps on the couch, I most certainly did not prioritize my yoga practice.  People had to coax me from my apartment just to hang out and eat a little.  Ugh.  Then one day I received a “We Miss You” promotion from Flow Yoga Center.  It had been a while since I “belonged” to a studio.  At that very moment, I felt a need to belong.

I dove in.

Getting back into the DC yoga community truly re-awakened my life.  With a new set of teachers who helped me rehab structural injuries and regain physical confidence, consistent exposure to yogic philosophy, and regular connection with fellow yogis, I started to heal emotionally. By the end of that summer, I’d remembered my past yearning to teach yoga.  And in Fall of 2008, I became a certified instructor.

Using yoga for seizing opportunity. For 15 years I attended Level 1 yoga classes.  Talk about fear of healthy risk!  Granted, I’d been healing from a number of physical injuries; and, I’d been through some emotional losses.  So I had all the excuses in the world to stick with the comfort of my precious Level 1 practice.  After becoming certified to teach in 2008, I felt excited to teach beginners, and share the fundamentals that established my yoga foundation.  At the same time, that foundation was just that – a blank slab with nothing rising out of it.  I started to feel limited and stagnant in my own yoga practice.  And I noticed that same stagnant quality in my life, as well.

I had no faith.

I only had fear of newness, fear of being vulnerable, fear of failing.  I was living the same story every day – no risks, no opportunities, no challenges – and therefore, no growth.  So this year, I resolved to try Level 2 Asana!  Instead of saying, “I can’t do that pose because of my shoulder injury,” I asked for modifications to build the strength toward that pose.  Instead of claiming, “My core is not strong enough,” I asked for assistance in order to experience the full pose.  Instead of listening to my self-limiting stories, I committed to gradual conditioning and I accepted outside support.

If you’ve read past posts (i.e. April’s “100%” and May’s “100%+1”), you know that this year has been immensely progressive and I have seized a number of opportunities! I owe it to yoga – and the consequent inspiration and motivation I have received all around.

On that note…some of you know that I am a crier.

For me, shedding tears is a huge part of my path toward growth.  Tears keep me honest. Tears will sneak up on me in the middle of a yoga class – perhaps pigeon pose unlocks those stuffed emotions, or, a song triggers my heart to melt.  Or both.  I find that, if I allow myself that good “I can’t hold onto my tears because my body is so challenged by Asana right now” cry…I feel refreshed.  I feel stronger.  I feel clear.  I feel able to face what’s next.

I fondly recall two memories of transformations from fear to feeling, and from fear to faith.  I was terrified of “flipping the dog” – this fairly new and dance-like practice of moving from Downward Facing Dog into Wheel by, essentially, flipping the body.  I would watch people next to me in class and say, “That’s not yoga.”  The fact was – I was scared, and my self-limiting stories manifested in my judgment of others!!!

Then one night this Spring – during the height of my discernment about life’s direction – I was at John Horan’s class at Past Tense Studio.  John’s classes are beyond inspiring – with fairy tales and cosmic lighting, they take us to another world.  I guess my self-limiting brain was not functioning in this other world!  John was playing songs from the new Sade CD, all about love and strength and empowerment. So I was already a bit emotional.  There we were, in Downward Facing Dog, when John extended the invitation to “flip the dog.”

Suddenly, I felt as though strong hands reached down from the heavens and lifted me into the pose.

My leg rose, my hip opened high, I floated on my fingertips and I easefully settled into Wheel.  And I cried.  Pure tears of surrender.  All of my “no”s washed away.  Yes, I can flip my dog, and yes, it is yoga.  Yes, I can develop faith by practicing yoga.

I can also tap into stuffed feelings in class.  Recently, I went through weeks of struggle about a relationship, which finally ended.  Sometimes I think I’m totally in touch with that loss and am processing it authentically.  And sometimes yoga class tells me otherwise.

Just yesterday, I was feeling “ahhh-some” in yet another lovely class with Caroline Millet.  She guided us through a true Sun Salutation for the entire set.  The music was perfect for the summer sunrise – mellow acoustic folk and sweet Hindu chants.  And then, while in Downward Facing Dog, Caroline invited us (as she often does) to find something new in the pose.  So I was hanging out and waiting for the revelation. And BAM, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s sweet and heart-breaking version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” nailed me right in the heart.

I sunk to my knees and wept in child’s pose.

Apparently, I am still grieving my loss.  And lately, I have been too busy to feel.  Thankfully, I can reach and release these feelings in the safe space of a yoga practice, surrounded by community members and guided by a caring teacher.

How does yoga help you face challenges – whether new opportunities, or difficult times?  If not by releasing emotions or presenting new poses, then how does your practice support your growth – on and of the mat?  When you meet life’s teachers – even those people and situations that drive you crazy, make you uncomfortable, rock your security – can you embrace them with an open heart?

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.