The Urban Yoga Den

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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“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?

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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!

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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.

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Gratitude, Pt. 1: Contentment, or, Samtosha November 8, 2011

I’ve gained 10 pounds over the past 3 months.

There are some very tangible reasons why.  My summer camp gig – during which, over a period of six weeks, I teach 90 Asana classes and 120 percussion lessons, and, run up and down the school’s stairs 100s of times – ended the first week in August.  The last week in August I gave up teaching three of my regular weekly classes – and although I don’t practice all the Asana during class, I do join in for the warm-up Sun Salutations and many of the poses.  And in September, I quit my part-time Florist job – for which I lifted dozens of buckets of water, chopped box after box of flower bunches, and climbed various steps with said buckets and flowers in-tow.  So my level of vigorous activity decreased immensely for most of September and all of October.

“Why,” you might ask, “didn’t you simply switch out your activities…attend more yoga classes…jog…take up fencing?”

Because there are less tangible but more important reasons why I gained 10 pounds.  I was busy getting comfortable with my Self.  Yup.  I was so busy climbing my way out of a major depression, re-gaining my emotional footing, digging deep to rebuild my inner strength and flying high with new truths, that I forgot to exercise my body.  And you know what?  I am OK with this.

In yoga, this might be called “Samtosha,” or, contentment.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali offer a design for living called the Eight Limbs.  According to this ancient text, the primary purpose of yoga is to still the mind’s disturbances.  So the eight-step process calms the mind and leads to discriminative discernment, wisdom, and/or, enlightenment.  The process includes the Asana (poses), Pranayama (breathing exercises) and other popular practices from contemporary yoga classes.  But the initial two limbs, seldom taught in our studios and gyms, present ethical or ideological considerations called Yama (Abstinence) and Niyama (Observance).

In his commentary on the Sutras, Swami Satchidananda says, “[The Yama and Niyama] are the foundation stones without which we can never build anything lasting.”  To me this means that virtue comes before Asana, before Pranayama – before any of the widely familiar practices that I might know as “Yoga.”  It’s an inside job.  Or as my friend likes to tell her students, “Yoga is not a workout – it’s a work in.”

Samtosha/contentment is one of the Niyama.  If I am content, “It is what it is” becomes my mantra.  If I am content, I accept everything just as it is.  If I am content, I have no expectations.  If I am content, dissatisfaction, disappointment and discomfort fade to the background.  If I am content, I am certainly moving toward that inner peace promised in the eight limb.

Further, Swami Satchidananda claims, “By contentment, supreme joy is gained.”  And Swami Vivekananda’s promises, “From contentment comes superlative happiness.”  So why beat myself up over 10 extra pounds?  It is what it is.  I’d rather feel supreme joy and superlative happiness than extreme self loathing.  My jeans feel too tight, my muffin-top runneth over, and, yoga classes are kicking my butt.  It’s humbling.  But it’s right where I want to be.  Because it’s the only place I can be.  Accepting the here and now.  Here.  And.  Now.

Y’know what else helps me accept where I am at this moment?  Remembering that I’ve gained much more than 10 pounds over the past three months.  I am grateful for every moment of that journey – from the darkness of despair to the celebration when light returned.  I’ve discovered and embraced new ideals that define me.  I’ve strengthened my purpose and priorities.  I’ve found deep faith and liberating surrender.  I’ve encircled myself with teachers of all guises.  I’ve rebuilt trust.  I’ve come to understand that the darkness itself can hold shining gems of enlightenment.

So basically…I gave up my 125-pound body for a weightless peace of mind.

Yoga teacher Max Strom recently wrote, “When gratitude fills the dark heart with love and humility, the heart becomes illuminated.”  He continues, reminding us to practice focusing on something that will inevitably bring a feeling of gratitude, “…to transform your state from a living hell, to a state of living contentment.”

Hell yeah.

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

 

Be A Yogi August 15, 2011

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

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

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

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

“Be a yogi.”

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

To be a yogi is ALL that I yearned for.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Focus: Yoga In Action – Acceptance September 4, 2010

This brought me to the good healthy realization that there were plenty of situations left in the world over which I had no personal power… – Bill Wilson, “As Bill Sees It”

I’ve just returned from an intentionally slow walk down the hill, to the creek, and back.  I paused to lean against a bridge railing and watch the creek ripple then swirl then ripple again.  Bugs traveled along the railing’s highway, detouring to the underside when encountering my resting arms.  Leaves dropped and danced their way to the water.  I was silent.

Clearly I have no personal power over nature’s course, I observed.  I felt relieved.  Because I am just a small part of that process.  I must accept that there is much beyond my control.

This morning, I really needed that slow and silent walk.  Yesterday (Wednesday) there was a hostage situation at my former employer, Discovery Communications, in nearby Silver Spring, MD.  I happened to be in Silver Spring at that time, giving a talk to a 12-step recovery group.  The talk’s theme?  Acceptance.  Of all things.

I didn’t know exactly why I was stuck in unmoving traffic after the talk. Judging by the variety and number of law enforcement vehicles and officers along the roads, I guessed it was something quite threatening.  And because Discovery is the only fairly controversial and very high-profile organization in downtown Silver Spring, I guessed it was there.

Where did my mind go?  To the fact that I needed to be back downtown in 30 minutes for a business meeting with someone whose phone number I did not have.  Yup.  Completely self-centered!  I was worried.  At the same time, I was pretty darn patient in traffic, understanding that the magnitude of the situation would not warrant any fast movements or clever detours.  I also considered the number of people inconvenienced and changing directions at that very moment.  I listened to the radio awaiting the news, sat up straight and breathed.

I accepted the situation and therefore was able to feel peaceful in the moment, rather than disturbed by worry and lack of control over the situation.

Referring back to our opening quote from Bill Wilson, and the idea of acceptance, which in yoga is known as Samtosha

Acceptance means letting go of expectations, plans, wishes and such for the sake of cultivating a peaceful mind – which we learn from Patanjali’s Sutras, is the goal of yoga.  I inch toward acceptance using two tools. I write a gratitude list nightly; this helps me focus on the gifts in my life and let go more easily of the disappointments.  In addition, I try to look at the BIG picture – if my little plans do not work out as I wish, perhaps it’s because conditions had to be right for someone else’s day to work out.

Wednesday, the day worked out differently than many imagined. In the Discovery situation, three people experienced how it feels to be held hostage.  A company of about 1900 utilized their oft-practiced emergency drill procedures for a true emergency.  Hundreds of drivers and travelers were delayed.  And Discovery’s intruder was killed by police.

That night, we dedicated our Yoga In Action self-care practice to all of these people.  We reflected on whether we can accept that there is much beyond our control. We explored whether we can accept that people who inflict pain are often in pain themselves.  We brought in as much self-care as possible in an attempt to reduce pain – in ourselves and others.

Maybe this is a stretch, connecting hostage situations and yoga.  But to me, any opportunity to share compassion and practice care is a chance to practice Yoga In Action.

OM Shanti.