The Urban Yoga Den

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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.

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March Focus: The Eight Limbs of Yoga – Intro & Yama April 4, 2011

As I’ve said before, I wouldn’t dare try teaching the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali to my classes.  First, my knowledge of this ancient text is based on my four-week Teacher Training, during which we primarily studied the 1st two books; since then, my study has been on my own.  Second, there are some great Raja Yoga teachers out there whose experience included decades of studying, translating, interpreting and practicing the Sutras; they are the true teachers.

I do, however, like to design yoga classes where (I hope!) our actions on the mat find purpose through the wisdom of the Sutras.  In the beginning of March we embarked on an eight-month exploration of the Eight Limbs of Yoga, as introduced in Sutras 28 & 29 of Book Two of the Sutras.  Drawing from my 2010 blog about the Eight Limbs:

“Book Two of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras lays out yoga’s Eight Limbs.  Probably the most widely known and practiced are Asana (poses), Pranayama (breathing exercises) and Dharana (concentration as a form of “meditation”).

“But there are five additional limbs – and I believe they are in order for a reason.

“The Eight Limbs represent a process of growth from heady self-examination to soulful universal connection. The first two limbs – Yama and Niyama – list the ethical premises of yoga.  After we’ve set our intentions for values and virtues, we move on to Asana, to address physical limitations such as aches and toxins.  Next, Pranayama continues detoxification, awakens our life force energy and balances our nervous system.  With the 5th limb, Pratyahara, the senses are softened to remove outer distractions.  During Dharana, we concentrate intently on one point of focus.  Deepening into the 7th limb, Dhyana, our concentration shifts into meditation, and there is no separation between the meditator that point of focus.  The 8th limb, Samadhi, is generally described as “enlightenment” – but to me, that harkens of apart-ness.  I like to think of Samadhi as one-ness.  It occurs the moment when our practice of yoga’s previous seven limbs brings such peace and confidence that we are selfless.

“For me, Samadhi would be a state of consistently being my best self and offering that self in service to the world.”  (From https://urbanyogaden.wordpress.com/2010/05/21/focus-mayjune-the-eight-limbs/).

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The month of March has been an introduction to the Limbs with emphasis on the 1st limb, Yama (or abstinence).

When considering how I might practice the ethical or philosophical virtues of yoga, I ask myself, “Who do I want to be as I walk down the street?  How do I want to treat myself and others?”  In response, I return without fail to the very 1st Yama – that essential virtue that sets the foundation for all other virtues: Ahimsa. Non-harming.

It’s a tough question to ask, “How might I be harming myself and others?”  Ugh.  Do I really want to look at that?  Well, no.  But, yes. And so, when our classes started our journey through the Eight Limbs, I set the deep intention to squarely face my own vulnerability and begin to abstain from whatever harming tendency (or tendencies) I might have.

More will be revealed.

OM Shanti.

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Post Script

“An ounce of practice is worth more than tons of preaching.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Frankly.

Lately I’ve been using “we” instead of “I” when teaching and writing.  For example, “When we practice X, we experience Y.”  Hello?  Who am I to decide what anyone outside of myself is experiencing  in practice?  And so, to finish off this particular blog about living yoga in daily life, I want to apologize.  It is wrong of me to take the position of “we” when aiming to simply pass along what “I” have experienced.

I am hoping this awareness will end the pattern.  Feel free to call me out when necessary.  OM Shanti.