The Urban Yoga Den

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Back to Basics: Real Yoga Doesn’t Hurt January 26, 2012

Filed under: Exercise,Health,Yoga — Holly Meyers @ 9:19 pm
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OK, I confess.  I’ve created a sensational title for a simple blog about our January class focus, “Back to Basics.”

“How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” was the sensational headline for a recent New York Times article (link below) that tells a simple story.  That headline – and the article’s content – generated more media reactions, responses and official statements than any article on any topic I’ve seen in a long while.  Perhaps more than “Occupy.”

How exciting!

Lively debate!  Impassioned professions!  True confessions!  All due to a newspaper’s intelligent twisting of heads for their benefit.  All due to a newspaper headline writer’s clever choice of wording.  All due to that newspaper’s strategy to promote its science writer’s upcoming book release!

If you can get past the hype, or accept that the article is only discussing one aspect of yoga (Asana, or, poses), or focus on the words How and Can, or perhaps, erase the headline from your mind altogether – you might find a simple story conveying one yoga teacher’s honest and humble experience.  That’s the story I found.  Therefore, I should have quit while I was ahead.

But no.  In preparing to write this blog, my goal was to read 20 or so online articles (all found by Google-ing “Yoga Wreck Body”) and numerous Facebook comments related to the original New York Times piece.  The pieces span a wide range of discussion: what constitutes “real” yoga; whether yoga should be practiced as exercise; how the NYT article is scientifically incorrect; how the teacher featured in the article is morally wrong; what we can do to practice yoga safely.  And so on.  Truly moved by people’s passionate and intelligent remarks, I wanted to immerse myself in public opinion, and then form my own.

Instead, the more I read, the less interested I became in others’ opinions.

On the contrary, I found myself delightfully reflective and clear about my original, personal, untainted opinion of yoga.  I remembered: the media gains attention by twisting facts, embellishing mediocrity and inspiring controversy; any form of physical activity can lead to serious injury; and the definition of “real” yoga will be relative to each person who experiences it.

So I stopped reading.

Now…getting Back to Basics…

*  *  *

“Tadaasana, Pranayama, Sankalpa.”

There is a reason I repeat these three words each time we regroup at the top of the mat between Sun Salutations.  For me, these three elements – The Pose, The Breath and The Intention – are the basics of yoga.  Although mentioned as three unique parts of yoga’s eight-limbed system, in my practice they are inseparable.  When I align myself in Mountain Pose (Tadaasana), I firmly embody my intention (Sankalpa).  When I breathe deliberately (Pranayama), I exhale obstacles, and inhale my intention with resolve.

When I fuse these three elements together, I fortify my purpose for that session of practice – and that sense of purpose begins to trickle into my life.

*  *  *

The Pose (Asana)

When teaching the basics, I like to start with the body.  In my own practice, focusing on healthy alignment and mechanics have established a practice that will last – I pray – a lifetime.  In addition, I find that the body is the primary reason most students come to yoga classes these days.  Either their doctor recommended this ancient remedy for modern health conditions; or, they’ve decided they want something different from the usual workout.

January yoga classes are traditionally packed.  New Year’s Resolutions and special offers bring row upon row of newbies and long-lost practitioners to studios, gyms and workplace wellness programs.  And so I offer a month-long Back to Basics approach that builds throughout the weeks.  Tadaasana is the perfect starting point, because the alignment cues in Mountain are foundational for many yoga poses.  That same week we flow through and finely tune a basic Sun Salutation; then we break down the mechanics of backward bends.

By the end of week one, beginner students are melting into the comfort of a safe and traditional Asana practice; and more experienced students are rolling their eyes and exhaling loud sighs of frustration!  Thanks to past experience, I smile inwardly, speak encouragingly and trudge forward resolutely!

The 2nd week we focus on bends, folds and twists; the 3rd is inversions and counter-poses.  At this point, the blissful exclamations begin: “Oh my god, I’ve never felt so safe in that pose!” and “I never realized how much pressure I was putting on my neck/lower back/knees!” and “I didn’t think I’d ever be able to do that.”  I include this not to pat myself on the back as a yoga teacher, but to spotlight the effectiveness of patiently committing to healthy alignment and mechanics – and, to give major credit to the teachers who taught me that patience and planted the seeds of a life-long practice.

We finish the month with yogi’s choice, where students request detailed instruction of the poses that frustrate, frighten or baffle them.  This is the fun part!  Just yesterday, I strapped myself up to demo Chaturanga mechanics and the class cracked up as I slithered like a clumsy lizard into the pose.  There’s nothing like the release of a good laugh at the end of four weeks of Asana intensity!

*  *  *

The Breath (Pranayama)

The 2nd aphorism in the most widely used yoga teacher training text – the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – says, “Yogas Chitta Vritti Nirodhah: Yoga restrains disturbances of the mind.”

By practicing Asana, warming up the structure, activating the nervous system and stimulating digestion, we essentially get the body out of the way.  When the body is at ease, the mind can be at peace.  Pranayama practice enhances that peace.

With few exceptions, I complement Asana with the traditional technique of three-part nostril breathing, or Deergha Swaasam.  The benefits of this Pranayama style seem infinite.  It gives the wandering mind something to focus on.  It lays a strong foundation for inner peace.  It increases our oxygenation and consequently strengthens the immune system.  It prevents energetic burn out and dehydration.  It massages our organs and stimulates digestion.  And on and on.

Although I’d been training to breathe through the nose since my 1st Kundalini yoga class in 1993, my 2008 “Yoga for Athletes” training and introduction to John Douillard’s brilliant book, “Body, Mind, and Sport” truly sealed the deal on nostril breathing for me.  This workshop and book reminded me how a peaceful baby breathes through the nose, its belly softly rising and falling with the filling and emptying of the lower lobes of the lungs.  Only when a baby reaches crisis – a congested sinus, a shocking sound, the need for food – does it open its mouth, take chest-height gasps of air, and cry for help.  When the crisis is over, the baby intuitively returns to soft nostril belly breathing.

As adults, however, we somehow depart from that natural state of peace!  As if in constant danger, we habitually take short breaths, in the upper chest, through the mouth.  Our exercise choices reinforce this crisis breathing.  No wonder we fall prey to stress, anxiety, distraction and energy depletion!  In addition to the benefits I’ve already mentioned, Douillard poignantly points out, “This shallow breathing soon becomes a way of life,” and results in serious health considerations, such as excess fat storage, digestive diseases, compromised lymphatic drainage and neck and shoulder tightness.

Ick.

In class we pause between Sun Salutations or other Asana practice.  I invite students to “allow the body to rest, but keep the breath deliberate.”  Returning to Deergha Swaasam regulates the heart rate, breath rate and overall energy.  Plus, if the heart is racing, what do you think the mind is doing?  Racing.

The ancients did not invent yoga as a cardio workout – in their society, they found a great need to calm the mind, and enjoyed the resulting benefits.  Even the Mahabharata – another ancient text that informs yoga practice – highlights a story of finding inner peace for the sake of effective battle.

What is the battlefield in your life?  Deliberate breathing practices can help maintain peace, calm and clarity during disturbances – whether they take the form of a pressing deadline, a workplace conflict, a family crisis, a traffic hassle or an internal struggle.

*  *  *

The Intention (Sankalpa)

Speaking of internal struggle…  I don’t want to tell my entire “What brought me to yoga” story right now; it would distract from the Back to Basics monthly focus.  I will briefly share:  Before I started practicing yoga in 1993, my life included much harm – being harmed and committing harm, in both subtle and more palpable ways.  Over nearly 20 years, this ancient practice has given me tools for healing, transformation and growth.  Yoga is not a physical practice for me.  Its Eight Limbs present a design for living.  They guide me to set ethical intentions, then practice physical and mental exercises that will liberate my body and mind, therefore allowing me to be more effective in and of service to the world.

At the beginning of each class, I invite students to notice what’s on their mind – without editing or judgment.  To honestly notice what’s there, whether pleasant or unpleasant.  We start where we are.  I then suggest focusing on one thought that’s strongly calling for their attention – something that’s been tapping them on the shoulder all day, or perhaps much longer.  This thought, when shaped into a positive reflection, affirmation or dedication, becomes their intention for class.

A Sankalpa is an intention, resolution and/or commitment that brings purpose to our time on the mat – and can affect our day, our world, our lives.

It is also a practical tool for facing challenges – both physical and mental – during the Asana practice itself.  When feeling challenged, I ask myself, “How can I align my reaction with my Sankalpa?  Which gives me more peace of mind and fortifies my efforts – facing or stepping back from the challenge?”  Because sometimes I need to dive into something daunting; other times I need to accept that it’s not the right time to push my limits.

Having a Sankalpa during yoga class not only forms a habit of self-inquiry and motivation, it also guarantees that my practice is harm-free.  It might feel uncomfortable to face or reduce challenge.  Yet, discomfort is different from harm.  While discomfort can yield constructive learning, harm can result in destructive pain.  By having an intention for practice, we become aware of and harness the positive effects of these nuances.

*  *  *

So, indeed, real yoga doesn’t hurt.  There’s just so much more to it than being afraid of potential physical pain, seeking rehabilitation of physical conditions, or plainly, addressing any physical need.

My friend once said, if the goal of yoga was purely physical, the Yoga Sutras would be a very short text: “Touch your toes.”  Hehehe.

Let’s get real…as my favorite teachers like to point out, there must be a reason we’ve chosen yoga.  If we just wanted to “feel the burn,” we have a million other exercise plans to choose from.  I’ll take the plunge and say: we choose yoga because we want more than a workout – we want to change.  We know it is a transformational practice.  Again, even the ancients knew this – there were enough troubles in society that someone invented a practice to cultivate an “easeful body, peaceful mind and useful life.”*

To this end, I like to stick with the basics: keen awareness of body, breath and mind.  Setting our intention, aligning a pose and deepening the breath – and bringing all three elements together to fortify our purpose – we not only exercise the body, but we empower our lives.

May all beings discover their own “real” yoga.  OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.  Peace, Peace, Peace.

*  *  *

The original article that caused an avalanche of opinions:

New York Times, William Broad, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body”

* Quote from Integral Yoga Founder, Swami Satchidananda

Photos: Top – Larkin P. Goff (by permission); Others – Holly Meyers (the author)

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The Happy Heart Project: Days 1-31 September 29, 2011

I’ve read that we replace 1% of our cells daily. Every 100 days we have a new body. What that new body consists of is the food we eat, air we breathe, water we drink, exercise we take and thoughts we think.  – A friend

Three-plus boxes of incense and 31 days ago, I launched “The Happy Heart Project: 100 Days Toward Joy” as a simple way to set an intention.

Under the new moon of Sunday, August 28th, I lit my first stick of “Happy Heart” (an incense by Maroma) and made a commitment to move toward joy for that day, and that day only.  Because that’s really all I have – one day at a time.

When I started this “project,” I understood there would be no guarantees.  The dark funk of the past year (or so) would either stay or go.  And indeed – over the past month, that funk has left, returned, become darker, been replaced by light, strengthened, weakened, disappeared, appeared again…you get the picture.

Still, it’s the intention that makes the difference.  It’s the intention that gives the journey purpose, that keeps me honest with myself, that drives me toward solutions, that sparks change.

*  *  *

“Sankalpa” is a Sanskrit word loosely meaning “intention.”  Other definitions include: commitment, resolution, resolve, will, purpose, determination, motivation.  I have heard from yoga experts that the act of reinforcing a Sankalpa has the power to replace and erase destructive habits, unwanted thoughts and false beliefs, aka negative “Samskara” (patterns created by the “scars” of life).  Setting this positive, committed intention is like a deep practice of “Pratipaksha Bhavana” – replacing negative thoughts with positive.

“Yogas Citta Vritti Nirodhah” – yoga restrains disturbances of the mind.  I cling (loosely, hehehe) to this promise that my sometimes dark, anguished and seeking (aka human) mind can be calmed by yoga.  And not just the movement of my body on a mat, but all of yoga’s calming practices, from Pranayama (the movement of vital energy through oxygenation, aka, breathing) to setting a Sankalpa.

*  *  *

So how did the 1st month of “Happy Heart” burning go?

Well let’s see…in no particular order:

During a three-day yoga retreat, I had a soul-bearing conversation with a beautiful old tree, a powerfully silent meditation at Satchidananda’s tomb, and a thankful turn-of-the-corner from darkness to light.  Since returning from retreat, I have awakened between 5:30 and 7am each day to practice Pranayama, meditation and prayer.  I reunited and hung out with wonderful friends; listened to Car Talk and laughed my butt off; took a nourishing Asana class with a teacher I’d never experienced; saw the Washington Nationals’ win their final home game; saw “Our Idiot Brother” (silly comedy) and “The Interrupters” (intense documentary).  After consulting with trusted doctors, I paused my PTSD therapy in order to soften the intense triggers arising after the June mugging.  I finally started sleeping through the night and balancing out during the day with the help of herbal and nutrient-based supplements.  While walking near my home, I saw the guy who mugged me, followed him (again), called the police (again), and lost him (again).  I received very caring attention from DC MPD detectives.  I met with a DC MPD inspector who likes my idea of teaching Pranayama and meditation to traumatized cops.  In response to these recent tough times, and, the approach of my 9th anniversary of addiction recovery, I increased my recovery activities and started receiving regular guidance from a recovery program mentor.  The early-recovery gal that I was mentoring moved on to work with a different mentor.  I showed up for others; picked up my friend’s kids from the school bus stop; listened to friends who are hurting.  I had a panic attack, triggered by a false belief that someone was going to abandon me.  The all-female Kirtan group I’m in – The Shaktis – guided a roof-raising night of chanting at a yoga center.  I continued teaching my three yoga classes per week, with a focus on “Everyday Enlightenment” – observing how we carry our Eight Limb influences off the mat and into daily life.  I showed up for my part-time retail job; I reached the end of my rope with ongoing poor treatment by a co-worker; I quit that job.  Today I interviewed for a new job.

I healed, I worried, I laughed, I grieved.  I walked with confidence, I asked for help.  I felt pissed off; I felt forgiving; I felt human.

In other words, I experienced life.

Somewhere around Day #20, there was one morning that I felt so frustrated that I did not want to light the incense.  I did it anyway.

Because that’s what a Sankalpa is – a commitment, no matter what.  A firm resolution to stick with the positive action despite all challenges.  Or, even better – a firm resolution to meet all challenges with positive action.  Whether that positive action is to grieve authentically or celebrate joyously.

*  *  *

At this moment, under the new-new moon, I am preparing to attend Rosh Hashanah services.  The Jewish New Year launches a period of intense prayer, forgiveness (offered and requested), and atonement.  After 10 days, on Yom Kippur, we seal these efforts with a one-day fast.  I didn’t plan it this way – but after these 31 days of ups, downs, turned corners, endings, clarity and renewed intention…the rituals of the High Holy Days are the perfect way to start my 2nd month of “The Happy Heart Project.”

More will be revealed.  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 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!

 

Be A Yogi August 15, 2011

Graduation bliss - me, Sam & Linda at the Ashram.

When I graduated from my Yoga Teacher Training at the Integral Yoga Academy, I heard a lot of advice.

  • Make a list of all the potential places you could teach – not just studios, but other spaces.
  • Market your classes in this way or that way.
  • Remember that not all yoga instructors can make a living teaching.
  • And so on.

But the most important tidbit, to me, came from one of the teaching assistants.

“Be a yogi.”

I had just spent four weeks living at the Satchidananda Ashram; rising before dawn; practicing daily Asana, Pranayama and meditation; studying yoga philosophy; eating a pure vegetarian diet; and wrestling with my humanness amongst the sacredness of yoga.  Despite discomfort and challenge at times, I was grateful for every minute of it.

To be a yogi is ALL that I yearned for.

When I returned home, I didn’t even intend to teach right away.  I offered free classes in my little studio apartment (“The Urban Yoga Den”) to stay in practice.  And then an opportunity to start a yoga program at DC’s SAIL Public Charter School arose.  Once that assignment wrapped up with the end of the school year, I was ready to look for work teaching adults.  Just down the street from me, a new yoga studio called Past Tense was opening.  And in July 2010, I started teaching three weekly classes there.

On August 24th, I will end my stint at Past Tense to take an end-of-summer break from teaching (except for my three classes at Trinity University’s Fitness Center).  I am grateful to Past Tense for inviting me to pass on yoga to the Mt. Pleasant community over the last two years!  As you might have gathered from my last post, I have been sensing a need for change, pondering my integrity and prioritizing my well-being.  Leaving Past Tense will create a simplicity and spaciousness in my schedule, life and mind.  As my friend wished, “I pray that whatever occupies that space brings peace and joy.”  Me, too.

“The Urban Yoga Den” blog is all about living yoga off the mat and in my every day world.  So for now, rather than teaching a bunch of classes, I will be practicing more – on and off the mat.

One hope is to practice Karma Yoga by bringing morning Pranayama practice to the police officers that serve overnight in my neighborhood.  In October, I will travel to Philly for a Kirtan with Jai Uttal to awaken the Bhakti Yoga spirit; then I’ll bounce over to Easton Yoga for a two-day workshop with Max Strom.  In December, I will visit Sanctuary Yoga in Nashville for Seane Corn’s three-day “Detox Flow” workshop.  And in between, I will be here in DC, practicing with my beloved local teachers, until I find the next right fit for a teaching location.

But my biggest wish is to simply be able to walk down the street with an inner peace and joy that shapes my attitudes and actions.  That might mean embracing one or all of the many beautiful suggestions from my caring friends.   For example, practicing “Samtosha” (contentment with exactly what is – i.e. acceptance of and compassion for my own humanness), sending myself Metta (sending myself loving-kindness and well-wishing), and basically, not being so hard on myself.  It also might mean re-committing to the routines that without fail nourish my inner peace and joy.  It also might mean falling off the yoga wagon and getting on again – and off and on again.

Because I realize to be a yogi is to – simply and honestly – be me.

I hope to see and hear from you as I take the steps to re-embrace my core motivation to Be A Yogi.

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

 

Falling Off The Yoga Wagon July 22, 2011

Why does it take a sick day for me to realize I have totally abandoned my yoga practice?

For the past two days, I’ve been battling a sinus infection.  This morning, after sleeping 11 hours, I woke up, chanted mantras, said prayers, wrote in my journal, practiced breathing exercises and sat to meditate.  All of the fear, anger, distrust and resentment of recent weeks (due to a mugging and other trauma triggers) melted into pure, big-picture, heartfelt acceptance.  Everything made sense.  I felt peaceful and whole.

This collection of rituals is a simple 30-minute Sadhana (routine) that I like to practice every morning.  Today I realized that it’s been months since I’ve committed to these efforts on a daily basis.

In my experience, I can count on a daily reprieve from all kinds of “dis-ease” as long as I maintain my spiritual condition.  For someone like me – a trauma survivor who drowned pain and reality with alcohol for 25 years, and who has been undoing old patterns for the last eight years – that maintenance is essential to my ongoing growth away from my past and toward a healthy future.  Daily Sadhana guarantees that I will be liberated of self-centeredness, grounded in peacefulness and therefore available to serve others.

Yoga is the umbrella for all of my maintenance efforts.  During my yoga teacher training, we studied the six branches of Integral Yoga – Hatha (primarily poses, breathing, cleansing), Raja (philosophy, ethics, mindfulness), Jnana (reflection, self-inquiry, analysis), Karma (selfless service), Japa (mantra repetition) and Bhakti (devotion to and worship of a higher power).  In the Yoga Sutras, we hear, “Yogas Chitta Vritti Nirodhah” – yoga negates disturbances of the mind.  Therefore,  the goal of yoga is to cultivate a peaceful mind.  IY founder Swami Satchidananda believes, “There are many ways to reach the same goal. Whatever you call it, it is called Yoga.”

Indeed, it’s all yoga.

When I say that I have abandoned my yoga practice, I don’t just mean that I haven’t been going to class or practicing poses. I mean that I have not been greeting the day with chants, prayers, reflection, breath work, meditation.  I have not been ending the day by reading positive literature, making a gratitude list, praying for others.  In between rising and bedtime, I have not been serving as I could.  I have not been well enough to show up for others.  And I most certainly have not been surrendering to a higher power.

And so, right here, right now, I take the first step toward a solution and admit – I have fallen off the wagon.

“The origins of this phrase lie in the 1800s, with the temperance movement. During this era, many people felt that alcohol was an extremely harmful substance, and they abstained from alcohol while encouraging others to do the same. The term references the water wagons which were once drawn by horses to water down dirt roads so that they did not become dusty. Members of the temperance movement said that they would sooner drink from a water wagon than touch a drop of alcohol, so when someone failed to keep a temperance pledge, people would say that he or she had fallen from the wagon.”  – http://www.wisegeek.com/

For me, daily Sadhana is the “water wagon” that keeps me from falling back into all sorts of unhealthy habits.  And I intend to jump back on that wagon the moment I press “Publish” on this Post.  Because, with You as my witness, a publicly stated intention will be hard to break.

Wish me luck.  OM 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.

 

The Yoga of Being Mugged June 29, 2011

Last weekend I was mugged.

Taking yoga off the mat and into the world means forgiving my mugger. (Photo: Larkin Goff)

Sorry to alarm you.  Rest assured, I am fine – with the exception of some anxiety around the ‘hood, a maxed-out adrenal system from the stress, a sore shoulder from wrestling with the mugger, a cut and bruised finger (see photo of fingers) from my purse being yanked out of my hand, and very sore hamstrings from chasing down my mugger barefoot on pavement (see photo of broken sandals).  Help in many forms arrived quickly.  Although we did not catch my mugger, we recovered my purse and all of its contents, except the cash and some chocolate.  The situation made for a late night, yet I was able to wake up early the next morning, enjoy teaching meditation and yoga classes, and spend time with yoga friends.

Lots to be grateful for.

A few things strike me about the situation: my reaction of fighting back; my impulse to ask (and scream and yell) for help; and my ability to completely forgive my mugger and wish him well.  With a smile.  A giggle, even.

Here’s how it went down…

At about 11pm Saturday night, I returned to D.C. from a week in Tennessee.  Shortly after midnight, I left my apartment building to take a gift of local Nashville artisan chocolate (58% dark) to a friend.  I was carrying the gift bag and a small canvas purse in my hand.  Less than 1/2 block from my doorway, two chubby, sweet-faced black youths approached.  One lunged at me and grabbed my purse.  After a struggle, he ran off with it.

His friend kept strolling slowly along.

I kicked off my sandals and took off after the thief.  As I passed the friend, I punched him HARD in the arm and vented “F*** YOU.” 

I think I heard him respond, “I didn’t do anything, m’am.”

I kicked off (and broke) my sandals.

I chased the mugger for a few blocks, screaming for help the entire time.  People perked up, but not quite in time.  I lost him as he disappeared around a corner.  Thankfully, a neighbor saw which direction he’d headed.  I gave up my pursuit in exchange for calling the police.  They came quickly, neighbors offered support, everyone was great.  After much report-taking, one of the officers and I traced the mugger’s steps and recovered my belongings except the chocolate and about $60.  Overall, it could have been worse.

Fighting back felt great.  Wrestling, screaming, punching, running.  Paying attention to details served well.  Following, searching, finding.  Asking for help was a huge relief.  Not-alone, cared for.

Still, what to do with the mixed emotions and adrenaline at the end of the night’s events?

Yoga.

Yoga and related practices, I should add.  I was wired trying to fall asleep, so I accessed my Somatic Experiencing resources, laying flat on my back with my hands on my hips, breathing deeply and settling myself a bit.   After a little while, I was able to turn on my side, curl up, and drift off.

Before falling asleep, though, I giggled at a vision of this young punk, at home with the video game, chili dog and Big Gulp he just bought with my cash…and digging into a big bar of frou-frou artisan chocolate!  He’d be ruined forever.  I could see it – the next day, his friends offer him some M&Ms and he’s like, “Ick, gross, no way.”

The morning after the mugging, I taught my weekly meditation and yoga classes.  For the guided meditation, we practiced an adaptation of Buddhist Metta.  “May all beings be well,” we inhaled.  “May all beings be free of suffering,” we exhaled.  I included my mugger and his friend in those wishes.  After meditation, a student noted, “It can be hard to wish well for those who’ve harmed me.”  I shared that the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (and a great therapist) helped me understand that people who cause pain are most likely in pain themselves.  If I meditate on their well-being and direct compassion toward them, perhaps they will hurt less and therefore hurt others less frequently.

We continued with a set of Asana and Pranayama, focusing on alternate nostril breathing.  I read a story from Integral Yoga’s Swami Ashokananda, where his practice of this calming breath helped him navigate a potentially serious conflict with perfect peace and ease.  These stories motivate me to continue my yoga and other balancing practices no matter what.

It was a powerful “morning after.”

The cord of my purse cut and bruised my finger.

Since the mugging, as I walk my sore body cautiously and anxiously around my ‘hood, I keep my eyes open for my attackers.  If I see them, I am to contact the case detective.  And I hope I do.  Because I have another vision – as part of his punishment, my mugger must do 90 days of yoga classes with me.  I sincerely believe in yoga’s power to transform harmful little punks into helpful human beings.

I believe because it worked for me.

I can’t be sure why this kid stole from me.  But I can guess that he’s in some kind of emotional pain – as I was, for decades.  Through yoga and other tools of recovery, I have changed.  Today, someone asked me, “What keeps you happy?” and I answered, “The chance to help others by sharing the things that have helped me heal.”  Opportunities to practice Karma Yoga keep me happy.

So who knows – maybe this kid and I will share yoga and chocolate and there will be one less hurting/hurtful human being on the streets.  More will be revealed.

Wishing all beings peace, joy, love and light.

 

Focus Wrap Up: The Eight Limbs – Yama April 10, 2011

It was 10:38am on Sunday, April 3rd when I started writing this wrap up, and the New Moon hung invisibly above.

In that Sunday’s classes we wrapped up our March focus on the 1st of the Eight Limbs of Yoga – Yama, or, abstinence. I extended the March focus through April 3rd so the New Moon – at the height of its energy of surrender, letting go and dissolving – could reinforce our liberation from what we might refrain from in our attitudes, our actions, our lives.

During the past month, our classes bravely began a journey of self-examination by way of yoga’s 1st limb.  For me, such exploration of patterns and beliefs is a process.  I have grown to understand that I might not be transformed within the period of one class, one month or perhaps one lifetime!  Each time I step onto the path, I am simply opening a door – maybe even just a little crack – to look inside with curiosity and compassion.  Still, this is deep work, and I try to balance intensity with restoration – during my personal efforts and our classes.

In his commentary about Yama (and Limb #2 – Niyama, or observance) in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Swami Satchidananda says: “These points are for whole-time, dedicated Yogis; and so, for them, Patanjali allows no excuses.  For people who aren’t that one-pointed toward the Yogic goal, these vows can be modified according to their position in life.”  So rather than introducing the Sutras’ list of five yogic abstinences (non-harming, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence, non-greed), I invited students to cultivate their own, personal Yama.  Toward the end of the month, we considered the official Yama from Patanjali’s ancient guidance.

Along with students, I cultivated my own personal Yama based on my “position in life.”  And the position I’ve been playing for most of my life is…

DEFENSE.

Last week, I squarely faced the huge deficit this role has hollowed out of my heart, soul and life.  Ugh.

What happened?

A number of things.  I’ll skip the long story about childhood and other traumas leading to the necessity for self-defense.  If you’ve read my past blogs, you know that I am devoted to looking backward in order to move forward with health.  You might also remember that just last summer I was blind-sided by a serious betrayal that erased all my trust in humans.  My heart was on lock down.  In my yoga practice, with professional counsel and through other spiritual practices, I started to open back up.  More recently, during the Off the Mat Into the World leadership intensive in early March, I revisited my bruised little heart and noticed that it did not feel so safe after all.  It was still in defense mode.  Again, I re-committed to the process of looking inside, taking action, sparking transformation.

But the biggest eye-opener happened last week.

I went through a breast cancer scare after a doctor’s examination.  Thankfully, at the radiologist appointment a few days later, I found out that I do not have cancer.  During those in-between days of fearful anticipation, however, I contacted family and spent a lot of time with friends for support.  Knowing me as well as she does, one friend reached out her arms and said, “Put your hands in mine.”  I did.

Then she told me, with resolve in her voice, firmness in her stance and steadiness in her eyes,  “You are going to be OK.  And you will not be alone.”

I felt my entire body seize up in defense mode.  My stiffened hands could not hold on.  My eyes could barely meet hers.  When I did look her in the eye it was through a hard plate of glass.  I could hear her words but not feel the sentiment in my heart.  I wanted to believe her but could not.  I could not trust for fear of being betrayed again.  I could not accept her love.

What’s the big deal?

If I don’t allow myself to accept love, I will never feel loved.  That’s it in a nutshell.  I don’t think I need to go into the specifics of how humans need to share love; how vulnerability is essential to trust-building; how risk-taking might be the only way to true intimacy.  The fact is, if I don’t take action to continually and consistently address, transform and heal the core wounds of my heart, I will continually and consistently struggle with every relationship in my life – at work, in family, with friends and otherwise.

Realizing this last week, I set a deep intention that will bring purpose to my Eight-Limb work in the coming months.  A Sankalpa.  My own personal Yama:

I aim to abstain from fear-based responses to life’s invitations for connecting, trusting and loving.  I will liberate my icy-cold, walled-up, scared little Anahata Chakra through heart-opening Asana, heart-expanding Pranayama and Bhakti-influenced practices.

Some wounds are hard to heal.  But for the sake of Ahimsa (non-harming – the 1st Yama from the Sutras), I am going to non-harm myself by taking the risk of being vulnerable.  No holds barred, I am rolling my shoulders back, breathing deeply and chanting my heart out. I am abstaining and refraining from, letting go of, dissolving, and surrendering fear.  Damn-it.

Why abstain?

As mentioned in the Intro to this month’s focus, I want to offer my best self in service to the world.  That is what Samadhi (yoga’s 8th Limb) means to me – an interconnectedness that dissolves separation, invites love, cultivates trust.  So in the end, I don’t want to heal my heart so I feel better – although I’m sure that will be a benefit!  In the end, I want to liberate my heart so I can serve others with authenticity, strength and sustainability.

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