The Urban Yoga Den

…where it's all yoga.

Deflated Balloons & Silver Linings June 4, 2014

Photo: Larkin P. Goff

Photo: Larkin P. Goff

I once heard an elder in recovery share that, when consumed by great emotion, it’s essential to “stick a pin in it” by sharing. I’ve followed suit ever since. For me, to harbor negative emotions is to go toward a drink. As a recovering addict, to drink is to die. So, being open and honest is essential.

Particularly with anger or sadness, talking, writing and sharing about the situation decreases the emotion’s hold on me. I connect this tool to the yogic practice of Pratipaksha Bhavana – replacing negative thoughts with positive. After loosening the emotion’s grip on me (or my grip on it!), I promptly turn my thoughts to the Silver Linings of the situation. Not to deny the cause behind the emotion or stuff the problem, but, to free myself enough to handle the issue with more ease and peace.

You might say, “I’m not an addict. Why shouldn’t I let my feelings blow up like a balloon? I love stewing in anger, or, pulling the covers up over my head for a day.” Of course – it’s normal to feel intense emotion. And, it’s healthy to let it out – to release it constructively, with intentions to examine the cause and decrease its repetition. At this point in my 20+ years of practicing yoga, studying its ideology and experiencing its benefits, even if I were not an addict, I would definitely choose to address, process and neutralize my emotions. I have found that, in every case, the wise sages and yogis are correct: reaching a place of inner peace pays off personally, and, globally.

*  *  *

Today, I’m “sticking a pin” in a balloon of sadness: I had to cancel my Father’s Day trip to Nashville. Ugh.

I’ve spent every Father’s Day with Dad since my mom died in 2002. Having just unexpectedly returned to DC after abruptly “moving” to Nashville last fall, I really wanted to continue the annual tradition of seeing him for that special weekend. But the fact is, I cannot afford to miss work. I have one goal right now: to work my way out of debt. And that requires a very, very simplified lifestyle. Without baseball games, without dining out, without travel. With room for the unexpected and essential, like last week’s ER visit, a high-cost monthly asthma prescription, a replacement for a ruined shoe and an upcoming doctor’s appointment.

I could stew in self-pity over this! Poor me, poor me – pour me a drink. Or, I could process my sadness by feeling, honoring and sharing it…and then move on to the positives. And there are many.

Silver Linings of prioritizing debt reduction, and therefore, canceling my Father’s Day trip:
– Although I am sad about not seeing my father, I am very happy that I have steady work.
– Although my father will be sad about the trip cancellation, he’s very happy that I have steady work.
– By prioritizing debt reduction, I’m addressing my own financial responsibilities; and, I can help address my dad’s financial needs – which are stressed partially due to my past “borrowing” from him.
– Since returning from the Nashville family fiasco, I’m exercising more financial independence and accountability than I have in a long time.
– By cutting back on costly entertainment and leisure, I can spend quality time with friends (taking walks, hanging at the park, finding free events, and sharing tea and snacks at home) and be more mindful about my eating habits (cooking nutritious meals).
– I am learning to say “yes” when friends want to treat, which can be difficult; in the past, I’d rather fake an air of stability and go broke than accept a “handout.”
– I am appreciating simple self-care rituals, such as: meandering urban strolls, deep relaxation/Yoga Nidra sessions at home, and, winding down at night with a sweet treat, lavender foot rub and cup of Rasayana (warm milk with spices).

MeditatingLegsMudra(July2011)All of this cultivates a feeling of balance, contentment and ease – which in the end, are the most important outcomes of any situation. Because when I am ill-at-ease, I am adding to the world’s dis-ease. And when I am feeling peaceful, I am adding to the peace around me.

*  *  *

Again, I’m not saying that sadness is a bad thing. And I’m not saying that the cause of my sadness should be blindly replaced with random happy thoughts. By using the “stick a pin in it” tool, and, by practicing Pratipaksha Bhavana, I’m creating space to handle the problem with more gracefulness, and, to focus on the positives within it. Because every challenge has a Silver Lining, if I am willing and able to do the work to discover it – and most importantly, to step forward with its beauty.

So today, in concert with feeling natural sadness about not seeing Dad for Father’s Day, I’m also happily deflated, and gratefully shining.

Thanks for listening. May your emotions be deflated, and the Silver Linings grant you freedom to grow. OM Shanti.

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Gratitude, Samtosha and Pratipaksha Bhavana (From The UYD Archives) November 28, 2013

This post was originally part of my “Ahimsa Now” series regarding Peace Tools – everyday yogic actions that can create peace in our inner and outer worlds.  Today I post it as a NOTE TO SELF: reminding Holly to put these tools into action, particularly during this difficult time of transition, responsibility, instability and sadness. (Cliff Notes version: I moved from Washington, DC to Nashville, TN in September to support my aging father, and have hit some big bumps along many avenues since.)

*  *  *

RockCreekFallenTreeCntr2(Jan13)Peace Tools: Pratipaksha Bhavana, Samtosha & Gratitude
(Originally posted June 2012, proving that Gratitude is not just for Thanksgiving, y’all!)

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.”RockCreekPileBranchCrossroads(Jan13)

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?

Samtosha.

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…GreatFallsYomKippur20099(Brighter)

  • 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.

 

Out Like A Lamb April 1, 2013

DarrowsEasterJesus(Mar31)

Photo: Darrow Montgomery (by permission)

By its nature, Spring brings sudden and intense change.  In my March yoga practice and classes, I like to focus on transition and balance on the mat, often taking the 75 minutes to bloom from an earthy Tadasana (reclining on the back in Mountain Pose), into mindfully flowing, heating sequences, and then peaking with an uplifted Nataraja (Dancer Pose).  I emphasize how many breaths, steps, tiny movements and gradual transitions it requires to grow from lying on our backs, to gracefully lifting our hearts while balancing on one foot!

And this is life off the mat, as well.

We rise up, we take a step.  We wobble, we fall.  We flow, we breathe.  We balance, we sway.  We take one step forward and two steps back.  We awaken.  We move forward again.  We bloom…we lift our hearts…and…we wobble some more.

*  *  *

I tried with all my well-intentioned heart to allow myself some “chill time” yesterday morning.  Friday night before bed, I gave myself permission to sleep in, and then lazily listen to NPR all day.  When I woke up, I did the minimum morning Sadhana – my eye-opening prayers (at around 10am!); but then went directly to the radio and turned on “Car Talk.”  I thought that laughter might be an enjoyable continuation of my relaxed awakening…that cultivating some free-spirited silliness would be an appropriate manifestation of my new freedom from a tendency toward rigid plans and decisions.

However.

The longer I listened to “Click and Clack,” with their truly hilarious banter, the more I became tense and aggravated.  After 30 minutes of the show, I chose radio silence – I opened the windows to fresh Spring air and sounds, lit a candle and a stick of incense, sat for Pranayama, stayed still for meditation, and centered with Shiva chants.

Afterward, I had no desire for radio comedy.  Since pausing, I yearned to continue aligning with my intuition.  To tune in with that presence.  To arise, awaken, sense, breathe and be.

Thanks to the radio’s helpful annoyance, I awakened to my true needs and changed directions.  Despite my best intentions to allow some harmless, unstructured time, I still structured it!  Before I went to bed, I made a plan!  And, that plan did not allow for true openness; and, it did not include the fail-safe and simple 30-minute preamble of Sadhana – mindful morning practices that set the tone for intuition, and, insure avoidance of tension and aggravation.  But it’s all good.  As I said, thankfully I paid attention to the discomfort; and I rewound.  We can start the day over at any time, y’know.

Planning to be present is still planning; and being present sometimes requires a change of plans.

*  *  *

Speaking of change.

For years, since my Fall 2008 Yoga Teacher Training, I have practiced a specific breathing affirmation meditation, suggested by one of the YTT staff.  I sought this Swami’s advice because I was really suffering within my soul throughout the training.  Daily, I was negatively triggered by the dynamics in our large and eclectic group of future Yoga Teachers.  I believe there were about 30 of us, between the ages of 25 and 70, with a wide range of motivations and personalities.  YTTs in general can be a shaky venue for any individual – there is so much vulnerability, passion, excitement, judgment (both of self and of/from others), clique-iness, button pushing, fear and love.  All of this among a bunch of people who may or may not become your trusted friends after journeying together.  For me, YTT was a hot bed of painful family dynamic memories, which led to self-loathing and perceived threats.  I though I might quit, and/or drive myself into a tree, and/or go drinking.  Not good for someone with 6 years of recovery from addiction.  Clearly, I was being seriously triggered into PTSD.

When I confided in the Swami, she gave me the following practice: During all of our meditations (two to three 30-minutes sessions per day), I was to do the nerve-balancing alternate nostril breathing (Nadi Suddhi Pranayama), silently saying “My true nature is peace” on the inhale, and “Nothing can disturb my peace” on the exhale.  And it worked.  That practice helped me stick around, stay alive and keep sober.  To this day, it has the same effect.

It was tough work at first, to pretty much force out unreasonable, trigger-based fears with this devoted practice.  The affirmation basically elbowed the negative stories out of my mind so I could be present and thrive.  Ah, the power of replacing negative thoughts with positive beliefs!  Pratipaksha Bhavana, indeed.

As I always tell students, cultivating positive affirmations and intentions neither erases nor stuffs the very real and valid challenges we face.   For me, the practices of using Pratipaksha Bhavana or setting Sankalpa allow me to address the situation with more peace and strength.  In addition, these practices give me a little break from the very powerful negative mind sets and fears I can encounter as a trauma survivor; and, in that little break, I can clearly see what part of my past might need additional examination and processing.

Like the discomfort of listening to “Car Talk” yesterday, even larger triggers are helpful information.  They guide me to revisit and heal my family history and personal resentments through yoga, therapy and 12-Step recovery program work.  Since my 2008 YTT, I’ve attended many additional trainings and have not been triggered.

Which leads me back to that mention of “change,” at the top of this section.

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed that – without deliberately trying – I’d switched around my 5-year breathing affirmation practice.  Totally organically, I’d started silently repeating “Nothing can disturb my peace” on the inhale, and “My true nature is peace” on the exhale.  It’s as if, after much intention toward living Ahimsa (avoidance of violence) in my everyday life, it finally, naturally, sunk in.  By inwardly affirming and strengthening the peace, I am outwardly sharing it more and more consistently.

I hope and aim to continue cultivating peace, both within and around me.  At the same time, I know from experience that, as long as I am human (!), times of discomfort, aggravation and even violence will arise – and, those times will hold valuable information, which will shed light on opportunities for ongoing healing, growth and change.

*  *  *

Since my March 6th “In Like A Lion” post, I’ve enjoyed an amazing month.  Spring is bursting with positive, renewing momentum.

Last week, I gave up teaching all but two of my studio-based yoga classes, for a few reasons.  First, since the winter holidays, I’d been considering resigning from the studio where I taught most of my classes; and I finally came clear on that decision.  Second, for a number of reasons, I wanted to focus my energy toward the studio where I still lead my two classes.  Third, I realized that, as long as I gained income from my numerous studio classes, I would continue fooling myself to believe that teaching yoga supports my financial responsibilities – and it does not.  Fourth, with more time and less income, my search for full-time work has a new spark beneath it!  Fifth and finally, the fewer studio classes I teach, the more community and Seva classes I can offer.

Letting go of my attachment to being some kind of “important” studio-based yoga teacher brought a welcome humbling.  Now there’s more room in my heart and my ego to be of service.  In fact, since resigning from the studio where I taught most of my classes and workshops, I drew up a plan for incubating my long-envisioned Urban Yoga Den/Ahimsa Now non-profit project idea.

The refreshing energy of Spring has also inspired me to evaluate and get honest about my relationships.  My resentment list is way too long for my conscience and some healing work is in order.  In addiction recovery programs, when we have a resentment, we are certain to look at our potential responsibility in the offending situation.  Another humbling exercise!  This process can reveal that we are accountable for part of the problem, and that we need to admit our wrongs; on the other hand, it can also reveal that the problem was the relationship itself, and that it might be time to address issues, or, let go.

Under the energy of our last Full Moon, I wrote a list of people to whom I owe apologies and amends, and with whom I hope for reconciliation.  Skilled and loving communication will be key as I approach people.  And because there is more consistent peace in my heart, despite feeling a little nervous, I am looking forward to reaching out and seeing what some earnest efforts will yield.

The second half of March has been about connecting.  I am now rehearsing and performing regularly with a sweet little trio, in which we re-imagine known songs as new arrangements.  The work challenges and pushes me in all of the right ways – creatively, collaboratively and personally.  I have also enjoyed road trips and reunions with some yoga teacher colleagues – clearly, this is a new day and age for me, when I can celebrate the trusted friendships cultivated at Yoga Teacher Trainings!

With this week’s Passover and Easter celebrations, I have been reflecting deeply about faith, humility, gratitude and service.  I am looking back at this month of weeding the garden, tilling the soil, planting new seeds and cultivating new growth.  And I feel a gentle yet firm tug at my heart, coaxing me onward and upward.

*  *  *

Oh, Spring –
You have been sweet to me this year.
You relieved me of a wobbly winter
and delivered me to your balancing blooms.
You have replaced losses with dreams and visions,
isolation with love,
pain with peace.

Spring –
You are abundant and generous,
as I aim to be.
Show me how I can serve you –
and every season –
in thanks.

Thanks for reading.  OM Shanti.  h*

 

Spring: Transition and Balance March 20, 2012

This morning I rose pre-dawn to rumbling thunder and bright lightning.  Stormy downpours soon yielded to an orange-grey sunrise.  As I stepped out for my habitual dawn stroll, the smell of rich, wet earth halted me.  I inhaled deeply and realized – almost as if by surprise – it’s Spring!  My heart swelled and tears rolled.  I felt excited for this change of seasons, this change of pace, this change of mind.  I took my walk with a chorus of awakening birds, under dripping trees and bursting blooms.

A hopeful anticipation settled into my soul.

Today is Spring Equinox. Well, the actual Equinox occurred earlier at 12:10am, to be exact.  This is the date when night and day are the same length, a supposed time of equilibrium and balance.

Hilariously, my Asana practice this morning was the wobbliest ever!  I laughed at myself as I swayed all over the place while processing toward Dancer Pose.  I drew upon all of my resources for balancing postures: rooting down through my hip and foot; engaging the buoyancy in my pelvis and abdomen; rising up from my heart to the peak of my fingers; breathing long and deep; and especially, fixing my focus on a Drishti – a single raised bump in the texture of a woven blanket on the couch in front of me.

But nothing worked.  I surrendered to wiggling and giggling my way out of Dancer and back to Mountain Pose.  And in that simple stance, I felt as balanced as ever.

I guess it’s going to be a Two-Feet-On-The-Ground kind of Spring!

Hah!  The sun just broke through the clouds as I typed that phrase.  No kidding!  A bright and enlightened moment: two feet on the ground this Spring.  That is fine with me.

Spring’s energy is very pushy.  The intense shift from restful hibernation to forcive sprouting can trigger aggravation, annoyance and impatience.  What tools and resources can I take off my mat and into daily life to address the feeling of being pushed over by Spring’s abrupt changes?

Thankfully, everything from my Hatha Yoga practice can cultivate this balance.  First and foremost – traditional yogic three-part breathing.  Long exhales followed by deep inhales reinforce that there is plenty of space and time between Point A and Point B.  When change surprises me, I can pause to breathe, consider what’s next, then take step-by-step action.  And during flow sequences, reaching a pose at the very end of each slow exhale and energetic inhale – and focusing on the process vs. the pose itself – reminds me that there is always a process from event to event, from intention to goal, from here to there.

Specific practices in balancing poses can also cultivate balance during times of transition.  The most obvious is finding my roots.  In Asana, I connect downward through whatever body part is touching the mat.  (I might be balancing on feet, hands, arms, head, buttocks or belly.)  During unexpected change, I can physically root down for stability.  I can bring attention to my seat or feet, or kneel and touch the earth.  But what if I need more momentum for a situation?  In poses, I cultivate buoyancy by liberating the center of the pose (for example, resting downward from the “sit bones” and/or shoulder blades while lifting through the pubic bone, abdomen and/or heart).  In life, I might ask what frees me to float through changing times.  On the mat, I can focus on the peak of my pose – a feeling of rising through the highest point in the body.  Off the mat, I can consider – what in life lifts me out of a myopic view to a broadened vision and perspective?

Above all, I find that the most supportive practice in balancing poses is using a Drishti – staring at a fixed point.  Gazing at a consistent, dependable, unmoving source of support can take me from shaky and distracted to still and focused.  Just like in life.  There are people, practices and resources that – without fail – restore my balance.  Teachers, healers, friends…meditation, chanting, breathing, praying…reading inspirational writing, walking in nature…beauty, joy, gratitude.

Although sometimes I must be reminded to depend on these powerful stabilizers, once I set my sights there, I feel unshakeable support.

However!  As this morning’s Asana practice proved, sometimes not one tool in the Hatha Yoga kit will work!  And so I fall back on Pratipaksha Bhavana – the mindful replacement of negatives with positives.  Instead of judging or criticizing my wobbly reality, I laugh!  I place two feet on the ground!  I use the precept of Samtosha – contentment – by accepting that I feel off-balance.  Then I take positive action to address (rather than “fix”) it.

What tools for transition and balance will you take off your mat and into your world this Spring?

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

 

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!

 

Healing Kids’ Scars With Yoga July 12, 2011

I grew up in the suburbs of Washington, DC – Potomac, MD to be exact.

Potomac was once known as “The Beverly Hills of the East Coast.”  The town was quite wealthy and had its own brand of celebrities – diplomats, politicians, famous doctors.  Yet there were some plain-old middle class neighborhoods, as well.  That’s where we lived.

I am the youngest of four daughters and was unplanned.  In fact, after the birth of her 3rd girl, my mom had a tubal ligation (aka “had her tubes tied”)…and then I was conceived.  So there’s about 0.02% chance for me to be writing this today.  Yet here I am.

My family members struggled with addiction and endured all that comes with it – violence, chaos, depression, alienation, economic insecurity.  As a young child, I once overheard my parents fighting about family finances.  They said that if I were never born, they wouldn’t have money problems.

This scar has motivated pretty much all of my life patterns (known in yoga as Samskara) – particularly the unhealthy ones.

Believing that I was an unwanted problem, I grew up with a pretty fierce habit of self-destruction.  I’ll spare you the squirmy details of how I used to harm myself and act out.  Due to the amount of pain throughout my entire family, however, there was little attention to or solution for mine.

Once a spiritually inspired, congenial and loving child, I turned into a self-reliant, isolated and troubled teen.  Without the necessary interventions for healing and true growth, I continued my toxic development into adulthood.  No relationship tools, no career path, no future plans.  To be rigorously honest – I spent most of my life either wanting to or trying to die in one way or another.

In my late 20’s, I started to long for inner peace, social connection and maturity.  After finally hitting a spiritual, psychological and physical bottom in 2002, I embraced the right combination of help and have been growing up ever since.

In 2008, I received my yoga teaching certification after 15 years of practice.  My 1st job was designing a yoga program for at-risk youth in a DC public charter school for grades K-7.  The kids were literally climbing the walls.  I once had to yank some down from scaling the hallways by way of door frames.  You might imagine how they initially responded to the yoga program – and to me.  They saw me as a privileged outsider and offered no respect.  To shrink the great divide, I frankly told them about my childhood and consequent adult challenges.  Jaws dropped.  I told them, “If only I’d had the opportunity to escape the chaos inside my classroom, my home and my head to breath, stretch and meditate for one class period, I might have grown up differently.”  Although not all attitudes shifted, a few students opened their minds and hearts and practiced with commitment.  And I enjoyed the incredible honor of witnessing human transformation.

I relate to a great number of inner city kids – we share that core wound of being told in one way or another that we are an unwanted problem.  This brokenness manifests in a variety of destructive behaviors and outcomes.  It fills the streets, supermarkets, buses and trains as urban children endure public shaming and beatings.

In the suburbs, this brokenness and abuse exists behind closed doors.

Like many “do-gooders” I used to focus on working with inner-city populations.  These days I gravitate toward suburban upstarts like me.  Each July and August I teach yoga and percussion to grades 1-6 for a prestigious music school’s summer camp, just four miles from the house where I grew up.  There is a mix of well-adjusted children, kids going through typical growing pains, and others who resemble my own childhood patterns of fear, depression, anxiety, shame, isolation, distraction and destruction.  It is at once heartbreaking and motivating.

I am devoted to the transformational power of ensemble percussion and yoga.  I discovered these amazing practices in adulthood and feel grateful to pass-on their benefits to these summer camp kids.  While learning folkloric Caribbean poly-rhythms, campers open up to team work and trust.  I see the loners gradually shine with talent, the divas turn into helpful guides and the trouble makers take leadership roles.  In yoga class, spazzy and often hyperactive energy transmutes into meditative calm.  Kids who already love and practice yoga (there are more each year) champion the practice; and the troubled ones get a welcome respite from their internal unrest.  In both percussion and yoga class, all are empowered by collaboration and rejuvenation.

I rarely turn yoga into a game for my youth classes (except for the really little guys).  We start class with calming three-part breathing; we set an intention/Sankalpa (typically I ask them to think of something beautiful and breathe it into their hearts); we flow through Sun Salutations/Surya Namaskar; and we practice additional poses depending on the energy of the students.  I have led Pratyahara meditations to balance out the senses and decrease distraction; I have read stories of Hindu deities to much delight; and I have introduced breathing exercises/Pranayama (three-part Deergha Swasam calms them immediately; over-the-tongue Sitali cools hot tempers; belly-pumping Kapalabhati wakes them up when lethargic).

Basically, whatever I teach in my adult classes, I also teach in my kids classes.  Below are a few stories of transformation.  I credit yoga for these stories; I’m simply sharing what centuries of teachers have passed on to each other.

Story #1.  Erik, 11-years-old.

During my time at the DC public charter school, I had an 11-year-old student named Erik.  He was one of those kids I had to peel down from high climbs.  When we started group yoga sessions in January he couldn’t follow directions, stay on his mat or concentrate for a second.  He was constantly looking around, hyper-vigilant and completely distracted.  With good reason – his home life was chaotic and violent.  So I recognized his acting out from my own youth.  After three months of weekly yoga, Erik became more eager to participate in yoga, and was able to concentrate most of the time.  On Friday, March 20th, we decided he would assistant-teach our first class upon returning from Spring Break.  Tragically, Erik and his family were murdered by his mother’s boyfriend the next day.

Erik’s destiny was way beyond my control.  It is bittersweet to recall his transformation through yoga’s gifts; I still access this inspiration and hope when teaching yoga to other youth.

Story #2.  Alyson, 10-years-old.

Another student from that Charter School is still a “private client” today.  Back in Spring 2009, “Alyson” awakened after I’d told the kids my life story.  She bee-lined directly to me and said, “You know how you said that yoga helps you heal emotional pain?  Can I do more yoga with you?”  How honest and revealing!  Alyson excelled in all of her school activities and seemed pretty mature; yet, she frequently set herself apart from classmates.  I soon learned that Alyson’s parents were in serious trouble and she was being raised by her grandparents, who encouraged her to do well.  I was happy that she had support; at the same time, I wondered how it felt to lose one’s parents and end up with another family member.  Since the end of that school year, Alyson’s grandmother has brought her to my home about four times a year for a seasonal yoga “tune-up,” during which we catch up on her latest challenges, and practice a yoga set designed to address those stresses.

Over time, I have witnessed Alyson develop into a graceful young woman and tool-using yogini!

Story #3.  Billy.  11-years-old.

Just last Friday, “Billy” freaked out during Games Day at summer camp.  Billy is a super-smart, overly-eager, talkative camper.  More than others, he needs to be heard, he needs to be recognized as doing well – and he tends to dominate and monopolize the class because of these needs.  Last week, in the Bean Bag Toss, he just could not hit the target.  With each miss, his exclamations became more and more dramatic, and included remarks of great self-disgust.  On his third try (and miss) he yelled “F***!” and stomped off to hide behind some bushes.  “Whoa,” I intervened.  “Let’s take a walk.”  During our stroll, I listened.  Billy was angry because he’d forgotten his water bottle; and he was feeling like he couldn’t do anything right.

He was over-heated, over-sensitive and losing it.  I totally related!

While we headed inside for water, I took yoga’s Pratipaksha Bhavana approach and encouraged him to replace his negativity about Games Day with positive thoughts about his many musical accomplishments.  In fact, I reminded Billy, I’d just paid him a huge complement in front of the entire class that very morning.  He embraced this immediately, saying, “You’re right; this is just one thing,” referring to the bean bags.  Then, on the way back outside, we practiced Sitali Pranayama (inhaling through the mouth and over the tongue; exhaling through the nose) to cool his temper.  It worked.  Billy happily joined the campers and jumped right into the next game.

I wouldn’t dare guess whether these children are/were hurting the same way I did at their age.  However, I vividly recall killing my emotional pain with alcohol at age 11.  So, I can’t help but wonder – what if I’d been exposed to yoga in childhood, instead of finally discovering it (and other healing resources) in adult life?

In the inner city and the outer suburbs, I teach yoga so any child who feels like an unwanted problem might find refuge in and strength through these ancient practices for stilling the mind.  “Yogas Citta Vritti Nrodhah,” I tell them.  Yoga restrains disturbances of the mind.  I pray that these generously healing practices might liberate all hurting children from the pain of family or community chaos before their Samskara mirror mine.

Wishing all beings peace, joy, love and light.  OM Shanti.

 

Focus Wrap Up: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali March 8, 2011

“If I wasn’t making some people uncomfortable, I wouldn’t be doing anything important.” – Justine Siegel, 1st woman to throw batting practice for Major League Baseball and founder of “Baseball for All”

I didn’t plan to write this today.  I have cleaning to do, laundry to fold, breakfast to cook.  But I feel compelled.  Plus, I’m behind on my blogging and have to wrap up our February focus!  Here goes…

A yoga class is definitely NOT the place I go when I need to control things.

But it used to be.  When I was feeling icky, I went to class to feel held, comforted, fixed.  When I was feeling great, I went to class to celebrate, connect, thrive.  I needed to feel that I was in control of my feelings, my well-being, my state.  Therefore, I had expectations on the teacher, the students, the staff, the atmosphere.  I had expectations on yoga.  And guess what.  Surprise, surprise – my needs were not always met. I sometimes spent an entire class in resentment, disappointment and/or frustration.  I sometimes wanted to leave class.  For some reason, I never did (as far as I remember).

Something held me there.  And I kept coming back.

Over the years of attending many, many classes, I have come to realize that on a very tangible level, there are too many uncontrollable factors in a yoga class for me to predict any kind of outcome.  There is the teacher’s style, the teacher’s voice, the teacher’s class format, the teacher’s class theme, the teacher’s background, the teacher’s teachers.  There is the teacher’s music choices, lighting choices, air temperature choices.  And so on.  And then there are the students – sometimes hundreds of them if during a workshop – with their varying energies, moods, needs, backgrounds, strengths, challenges.

A yoga class is a room full of humanness.

Also over the years, on a spiritual level, I started to realize that a yoga class is exactly where I need to go IF I am feeling like controlling things – it is the best venue to practice surrender, willingness and acceptance.  It is a great place to practice self-inquiry, compassion, patience.  It offers the beautiful opportunity to respond to, learn from, and be shaped by whatever happens, whatever comes up, whatever is.

A yoga class is a place to grow.

And that, my friends, is why I so lovingly embrace The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – particularly the five aphorisms that we explored during our February class focus.  If I did not infuse my personal yoga practice with the philosophical, ideological and ethical ideas of the Sutras, I would still be stuck in resentment, still pissed off at whomever rattled me, still personally offended by whatever someone said or did – and I’m talking on AND off the mat.

A yoga class is my chance to develop spiritually.

I honor you, noble students, for so fearlessly taking on Patanjali’s wisdom; for writing to and confiding in me with comments and questions, frustrations and celebrations, concerns and realizations; and for sharing your teachings with me.  You are beautifully human.  We are beautifully human.

Over the past month, we looked at five Sutras as tools for experiencing yoga on and off the mat.  We began with Sutra 1.2, “Yogas Cittas Vritti Nrodhah” – yoga restrains disturbances of the mind.  I like to think of Sutra 1.2 as the 1st “promise” of many in this ancient text.  Here in book one, we learn that although yoga can open our hips and heal our asthma, its primary purpose is to cultivate a peaceful mind. During our classes we made decisions regarding Asana choices based on cultivating and sustaining this peace.  When faced with challenge, we weighed out the options and consequences of seizing that challenge or easing off.

Next we explored the practice of “Pratipaksha Bhavana,” described in Sutra 2.33 as the replacement of negative or obstructive thoughts with positive or opposite ideas.  Here we realized that we cannot replace reality with something opposite – we recognize that our practice (and life) might bring difficulty.  But by sustaining a positive mind through the challenge (i.e. dwelling on a pose’s benefits, concentrating on life-giving breath or focusing deeply on Sankalpa or intention), we can maintain our peace of mind and face troubles gracefully.

With this practical tool in hand, we backtracked to Sutra 1.33, which suggests that we cultivate certain attitudes toward certain types of people – or toward certain types of states within ourselves.  To summarize this complex aphorism (explored more deeply in the last most, “Focus: The Yoga Sutras – Love & Murder), we are encouraged to befriend happy people (or states), have compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous and be indifferent toward the non-virtuous.  A tough order at times; but all for the sake of that ever-serene mind.

After all this hard work of self-witnessing and shaping the mind toward peace, we wrapped up the month with two of Patanjali’s most comforting statements (in my opinion).  Sutra 2.46, “Sthira Sukham Asanam.” (Asana is a steady, comfortable position.) and the promise of all promises, Sutra 2.16, “Heyam Duhkham Anagatam.” (Future pain will be prevented.)  If I practice yoga as prescribed by the Yoga Sutras, I learn that I have permission to express each pose with a balance of effort AND ease, steadiness AND comfort.  And one of the most relieving results of practicing in this way is the prevention of future pain – physical and otherwise.

Beyond the mat, how did this all pan out?  Did the Sutras inform your every day life? From some of your feedback, I know you sought to use the tools, but admitted they escaped you at the most important times.  I heard that they helped you respond compassionately to angry drivers.  I heard that coming to class gave you the tools to navigate tough interpersonal situations (I’m cleaning up the language, here!).  I heard appreciation for the Sutras’ promises and affects in general.

I know for me, as soon as I select a theme to teach, I start hitting all sorts of wonderful “trials” in daily life to test out my tools and learn some new lessons!  It’s been an intense – and intensely lesson-filled – few weeks.  In terms of the quote above from my new Karma Yogini heroine (who probably does not know what Karma Yoga is), Justine Siegel, if I weren’t feeling some kind of discomfort, probably nothing important is happening in my life.  And thanks to the Yoga Sutras and other spiritual practices and resources, discomfort yields growth.

Which to me, is important.

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