The Urban Yoga Den

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How May I Serve You? August 12, 2014

“For as long as space endures and the world exists, may my own existence bring about the end of suffering in the world.”
– Shantideva (8th Century Indian Buddhist Scholar)

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I’ve written countless blogs, posts, comments and remarks about suicide, addiction, depression and trauma. I’ve described how the power-trio of recovery programs, yoga and therapy is responsible for my hard-won desire to live – which exists despite my ongoing battle with the desire to die.

So although the suicide of Robin Williams is on my mind and affecting my heart, I don’t want to write another piece about how I stay alive despite the odds. I don’t want to write about my belief that some people – whether ailing from addiction or depression or cancer or poverty or drive-by-shootings – are not meant to make it through…and that I could be one of them. I don’t want to write what I’ve written before. (Although, if you’re interested in those stories – which I poured my heart into – they are listed at the bottom of this blog.) Instead, right now, I want to write about the difference between practicing yoga solely for my own well-being, and, practicing yoga for the sake of supporting the well-being of others. Because at a certain point in my 20+ year practice, I became strong enough to shift my focus from me to you. And I believe that shift is the main reason I’m not dead.

Today, the only reason I continually work so hard to heal myself (it’s a life-long commitment!) is to be of service to others. Yes, those efforts do yield a much welcome reward of feeling better and loving life. Still, my primary purpose is to serve.

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EmbraceInterior(12Aug14)

Embrace Yoga, in Adams Morgan, DC. I’m fortunate and grateful to call this beautiful space my yoga HOME – for practicing, teaching, and today, blogging!

In 2008 and 2009, just after receiving my Yoga Teacher Certification, I was hired to design and teach a yoga program at a DC public charter school. Back then, I had no intentions of teaching children. Although my personal practice had always been quite mindful, I wanted to be a Yoga Trainer, pass on physical alignment benefits and work with injured yogis and athletes. But it was a good first job, and, paid quite well. So I started teaching 30 kids per session – at-risk inner-city youth, who were literally climbing the walls, with little interest or ability in slowing down long enough to practice a series of yoga poses, no matter how many physical benefits I touted. One day, out of pure frustration, my approach shifted from the physical to the psychological – and I paused the class to tell them my story. To share that I’d grown up in an environment of addition, chaos and violence. That I was a distracted student and troubled teen. That, potentially, a simple yoga practice might have changed my direction from self-destructive to healthy and productive. And that I may have side-stepped years and years of struggles and pain. They heard me. And although some were still incapable of being present for the practice, they did try harder. One student, Erik, made notable progress. Seriously – this was a kid who could not sit still for 10 seconds, who was constantly being kicked out of his academic classes, who was every teacher’s challenge. The Friday before Spring Break, I asked him to co-teach a class when we returned to school. Tragically, Erik was murdered by his mother’s boyfriend the next day. Upon returning to school, all teachers were asked to reinforce the city’s crisis response team. I ended up sitting in the hallway with six children crying into my lap, asking difficult questions and listening to honest answers. And then I visited each class, leading mindful breathing exercises and listening to honest feelings. I even led a session for the crisis response team and teachers.

Right there, the seed of offering yoga as a sustaining tool for service workers was planted. And as I encountered more and more opportunities to share practices for emotional healing, resilience and empowerment, my own practice became rich and resourceful.

Hanuman pic from Wikipedia

Hanuman, a model of devotion and service.

And thank goodness. Because in 2010 and 2011, I would endure a wide range of major life difficulties. First, I experienced a relationship betrayal. I continued to teach, carefully keeping my emotions separate from class, and drawing upon my personal practice to stay centered and sane. Second, later that year while I was on my way to teach, I learned of the horrible car accident and near death of a dear, dear family member. I could think of no other response but to show up for class. Sitting on the train, walking down the block and pausing before entering the studio, I used my spiritual tools. I sent Metta (prayers for well-being) to my family, I breathed deeply and evenly, I grounded into my feet. And then I walked into the room, put on the music, sat down…and started to cry in front of a crowd of students. We held eye contact and each others’ hearts for a brief moment. I took a cleansing breath, got centered, and invited the group to close their eyes and bring into their hearts anyone in their families who may be suffering. We practiced with more earnestness than any class I’d taught before. The closing OM was one of the most healing moments of my life – and after class, student feedback was positive. Third, I was mugged in front of my apartment on a summer night. Early the next morning, without mentioning the incident, I taught meditation and yoga classes themed on compassion. Just as our Yoga Sutras suggest, I recommended decreasing resentment by cultivating compassion for those that are hurting – including those who direct their pain outward and therefore hurt others. Yes, I was helped by those teachings that morning – and, I would end up devoting months to additional PTSD work to address the anger and fear that would gradually begin to surface and powerfully rule my every breath. Fourth, I ended up extremely depressed. There’d been just too much emotional trauma over the course of those years. In the late summer, I started playing percussion and singing in a Kirtan group and pointing my practice toward Bhakti (devotional) Yoga, which resulted in a growing sense of safety and trust. I also took a break from teaching and focused on addiction recovery activity – attending daily morning meetings, sharing with rigorous honesty, re-connecting with community and offering to be of service however possible. When I returned to teach that autumn, I incorporated Bhakti and Karma (serviceful action) Yoga into my classes.

Some might say that I was teaching for my own benefit. Because clearly, I did benefit. To bring the truth of my life into the safety and care of beloved communities; to gain trust where there was paranoia; to discover new depths of love from connecting with a higher power  – what amazing gifts to myself. At the same time, I believe I offer others my example of acceptance and humanness, and, an infinitely wide-open invitation to bring their authentic selves into my classes…to be messy and bold and honest in the company of caring friends and mindful strangers…to feel the safety and embrace of sacred space..and to take their own precious time to heal and grow.

On a winter Friday, 2012, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting occurred. I was scheduled to teach an evening “Happy Hour” yoga class. After hearing the news, I walked slowly around the city, looking into the eyes and faces of passers-by, wishing wellness for all beings, praying, crying. I knew that my responsibility was to be present with my own response, my own grief, my own needs. To take ample time for that processing. And then, to show up for students. That evening and the next day, my classes were packed – as were classes all over the city and country, I imagine. How noble, when yogis bring their troubles into communal space! I brought my truth to those classes – I shared yoga’s solutions for navigating resentment, anger, grief, pain. I encouraged open minds and hearts. I cried a little. I caught my breath and silently prayed for those crying in front of me. And although my job was to hold space, together, we held space for each other.

None of this is new. For 15 years before becoming a yoga instructor, I brought my struggles, grief, confusion and emotion to yoga classes, and my amazing teachers passed down their tools and solutions. Community connected and supported each other’s healing. Yoga started to chip away at the patterns of pain. Now, as a teacher, all I do is pass that on.

How may I serve you?

How may I serve you?

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Yoga does not magically make everything better. But it does offer practical strategies for more gracefully and constructively navigating difficulties. I am driven and honored to share those practices. Today, I teach children, adults, athletes, nonprofit workers, ailing people, healing people, healthy people, studio yogis and kids on the streets. Although I accept many volunteer yoga gigs for cause-related organizations and under-resourced individuals, for the most part, I get paid to teach yoga. Still, I call it Seva – service. I show up for no other reason but to facilitate the students’ practice. I don’t wear fancy pants, I don’t teach exercise, I don’t care to demonstrate hard poses. Simply, I share the foundational yoga tools that have helped me cultivate wellness in a challenging world. And yes, I receive financial compensation for some of it. Because in order to live sustainably, and therefore be available to teach, I need to earn money.

Teaching yoga is an honor and a gift. More importantly, however – practicing yoga is a responsibility. Without that essential sustenance, I have nothing to offer. Without the unmatched benefits of a daily practice that consistently teaches me how to heal, grow and serve (and I will tell you, honestly: on depressed days that practice might only be a little Pranayama and prayer – or a great, big, cleansing cry), I cannot contribute to the healing of the world around me. Each day, I yearn to effectively ask, “How may I serve you?” Each day, if I am useful, I am alive.

Thanks for reading. OM Shanti.

 

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Past blogs about experience with and recovery from addiction, depression and trauma:

Jumping Off Of Bridges (From The UYD Archives)

Running Into Nature

Growing Pangs

Shiva And The Darkness

The Yoga Of Being Mugged

Yoga In Action

Wine And Kirtan

Surrender, Recovery And Death

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peaceful Warrior April 2, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

So what is my truth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unless new perspectives are gained and peace becomes the priority.

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

There were hoodies of all sizes at the rally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hands were joined and raised in prayer and solidarity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.