“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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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.
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.
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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: