The Urban Yoga Den

…where it's all yoga.

ATONEMENT October 3, 2014

UnionPrayerBook(Oct2014)“We cast into the depths of the sea
Our sins, and failures, and regrets.
Reflections of our imperfect selves
Flow away.
What can we bear,
With what can we part?
We upturn the darkness,
Bring what is buried to light.
What hurts still lodge,
What wounds have yet to heal?
We empty our hands,
Release the remnants of shame,
Let go fear and despair
That have dug their home in us.
Open hands,
Opening heart –
The year flows in,
The year flows out.”
~ Marcia Falk

+ + + + +

This poem was part of the Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) services I attended with my father in Nashville nine days ago. And today marks the final 24 hours of the High Holy Days. Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – begins at sunset.

The intensity of this poem truly captures the depth of inner work that Jews approach each year at this time. The new year comes first, then a ritual of casting away obstacles, then a period of forgiveness – offered and requested – and finally, Yom Kippur. Tonight’s and tomorrows prayers, reflections and fasting bring us to neutral, gift us with a blank slate. We step forward with healthy, peaceful, loving intentions after having done our best at releasing past transgressions – committed by and against us.

Phew! Like I said: intense. In 12-Step Recovery, there is a similar process. And in many spiritual traditions, there are processes of examining our behaviors, discovering their roots/motivations, making amends, and, forgiving ourselves and others.

SOMETIMES, THE GREATEST AMENDS AND THE DEEPEST FORGIVENESS ARE OWED TO OUR SELVES…

For me, this was one of those years. Yes, I made mistakes in my actions toward others; and I did my best to process, understand, take action about them. There is a bit more work to be done there; and it will be done promptly.

However, reflections this week have led me to a certain “blueness.” Not depression, not remorse. But grief. Grief of years lost to unhealthy, toxic, harmful and self-destructive behavior. This fall – right now – marks the 25th anniversary of my darkest descent into alcoholism’s painful grip…25 years ago, I was in the midst of the worst time of my life. It’s heartbreaking to recall how much I harm I did to myself, how little honor I had for life, how badly I wanted to die.

No details. Not here. Not yet…

So today, I am reflecting back and also standing right here, in this present moment. After September’s Yoga Class Focus of GROWTH…well, I’d say that I have grown a lot this past month! And as I prepare for Yom Kippur’s 24-hour rally, I am setting the following Sankalpa (an intention of deep resolve and purpose, stated as if it is already happening):

I DEEPLY LOVE AND FORGIVE MYSELF.

Because today, 25 years after not even knowing the meaning of these words, I truly do love and forgive myself.

I wish this for you, too.

THANK YOU for being a part of this beautiful life. You help me know that I am loved, accepted, understood, supported and cared for.

LOVE TO ALL. ShalOM Shanti.
(Book was a gift from my dad – one of my family’s original prayer books for the High Holy Days.)

 

Sankalpa: The Space Between December 13, 2012

Filed under: Inspiration,New Year,Spirituality — Holly Meyers @ 10:38 pm
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The New Year approaches. Perhaps you are considering your resolutions for 2013. Consider this:

Your past. Your experience. Your mistakes. Your embarrassments. Your outright failings. Your fulfilling moments. Your accomplishments. Your successes. Your triumphs.

Your foundation for setting New Year’s Resolutions.

Photo: Holly Meyers

Photo: Holly Meyers

Personally, I cannot look ahead to future goals without deeply (deeply) reflecting on my past. Behind me lie the clues for sensing what might come next. And if I seriously consider these hints, my next steps will be in harmony with whatever makes sense for my ongoing direction. On the other hand, if I do not consider where I’ve come from, then despite having all the best motivations, my path forward will certainly include more bumps, stalls and difficulties than necessary.

In the past, all too often I would set a goal (whether New Year related or not) based on unfounded hopes for the future…correction…based on conjured demands on my future. For example, the future must yield this or that. It must because the present is disappointing, unacceptable, even unbearable. In my past, current conditions would inspire a desire for change – but without recognition that change requires reflection, intention and then resolution.

There is a space between assessing the past and setting goals for the future. In that space dwells Sankalpa – Sanskrit for “deep resolve” or more generally, “intention.”

* * *

At the beginning of every yoga class that I teach, I invite yogis to form a personal intention for the practice – but only after taking time to observe the current, authentic flow of thoughts (without editing or censoring), the present physical state (without judgment), the natural breathing (without shaping it at all) and the senses (without controlling the tug or pull). Next, returning to the mind, we zero-in on one thought that’s been tapping us on the shoulder more than ever – again, without censoring or editing. And based on that thought – regardless of its quality – we shape an affirmation, a dedication or a positive reflection to bring purpose to our time on the mat. We form a Sankalpa.

With that Sankalpa in mind, we check in with how the body feels when the thoughts are positive; we shape the breath into three-parts to deepen the flow of intention on the inhale, and to dissolve and release distractions on the exhale; we notice that, as we embody and breathe with intention, the senses soften and concentration can deepen. In a way, we cycle through the eight limbs as a centering ritual.

During our Asana practice, I encourage yogis to regularly reconnect their body, breath and intention.

By the end of class, all of our initial observations – the mind, the body, the breath, the senses – have become the past, they are behind us. Distracting thoughts, worries or anticipations about the future have softened. What remains is the present intention in our hearts and minds, and our resolve to take that Sankalpa off our mats and into the rest of our day.

* * *

For December, anticipating the approaching flip of the calendar and the related trend of goal-setting, I introduced “Intention and Purpose” as our class focus. And my home studio (Quiet Mind Yoga in DC) chose Warrior II as the Asana of the month. So we’re fusing Sankalpa and Asana for some deliberate work toward New Year’s resolutions, and gearing up for our New Year’s Eve Sankalpa Vinyasa workshop at the studio.

Inevitably, my teaching of these themes and poses is powerfully shaping my personal reflections and practice. (I am so lucky to be devoted to yoga, and to teach it! I can’t imagine trying to navigate life without such intent and purpose.) Here’s what’s been arising for me this month…

When I look back on 2012, I recall these landmarks (in the order they popped into my mind):
– Committing to my “Ahimsa Now: 100 Days of Intention” blog and actions
– Rockin’ out at loads of awesome concerts
– Rockin’ out (and praying my heart out) at the Jai Uttal, Hanumen and DC Supersonic Kirtans; playing percussion and chanting with wonderful Bhakti yogis
– Coordinating and facilitating the 1-year reunion for DC-area Off the Mat, Into the World intensive participants; wrapping up my volunteer Community Builder service for OTM
– Planting roots as a teacher at Quiet Mind Yoga; part-time managing QMY for a temporary spring/summer gig

Photo: Holly Meyers

Photo: Holly Meyers

– Teaching yoga and percussion for another fantastic six weeks of the Levine School of Music’s summer camp
– Being mildly assaulted by a kid in my neighborhood; engaging in a makeshift restorative justice process with him right there and then; enjoying complete reconciliation with him months later
– Leaving a long-term teaching gig on principle; realizing I could have navigated the situation more confidently and potentially stayed
– Celebrating my team – The Washington Nationals – as they clinched the MLB National League East division title and wrestled their way through a noble post season (my god, I still get butterflies in my stomach and tears in my eyes recalling witnessing it all)
– Reuniting with some important friends; losing some relationships with people I care about due to my fear-based triggers and consequent reactions; healing some relationships despite my triggers and reactions; enjoying stronger relationships with those that embrace and practice the process of healing and growing from past patterns; receiving patience and love from those that support my process of healing and growth
– Witnessing, praying for and showing up to support close friends going through very difficult challenges
– Saying a final good bye to a man who betrayed me over and over and over; wising up; honoring my heart and soul
– Enjoying and witnessing ongoing healing and growth within my family of origin
– Attending yoga workshops and trainings focusing on at-risk populations’ issues, including Tommy Rosen’s Recovery 2.0 and James Fox’s Prison Yoga Project; starting a regular practice with Faith Hunter; tuning up the Chakras with Seane Corn and Amy Barnes
– Reaching 10 years of recovery from addiction; continuing to connect with and be of service in my recovery community
– Celebrating my 47th birthday with loving friends and community
– Reaching out far-and-wide with a job search effort; receiving support from many; facing the reality of my un-employability within today’s job market; navigating the doubt, fear and stress of being without full-time employment; using yoga and related practices to remain peaceful despite stress; borrowing money and navigating related shame and despair
– Feeling a very definitive shift from being negatively enmeshed with the pain of my past, to being positively strengthened by that past, and witnessing it inform my present purpose
– Staying open and honest, maintaining my “Nothing To Hide” mantra

* * *

Looking ahead, when I envision my ongoing future, I see these larger goals:
– “Ahimsa Now” as a nonprofit project, program or organization
– The Urban Yoga Den as a physical space for restorative work

Photo: Maria Teresa Henderson

Photo: Maria Teresa Henderson

– Credentials via university degrees or other certifications to support the creation of Ahimsa Now and The Urban Yoga Den
– Contributing to Restorative Justice efforts as a yoga teacher, counselor, social worker and/or lawyer
– The Urban Yoga Den blog evolving into a wider-reaching resource and a full-length memoir
– Contributing to family well-being and supporting the healthy aging of my father
– Remaining an active member of my recovery community, in service to others
– A loving, trusting, devoted, evolving circle of friends
– Playing percussion professionally more often
– A financially sustained life through which I can give more to others, and cultivate more rejuvenation for myself
– Yoga anchoring my every breath, thought, action ‘til the day I die

I’m sure I’m forgetting something! But hey, these are long-term ideas, so they aren’t going anywhere…

To set intentions for next year, I want to look clearly at what has happened this year, and recognize obvious direction, natural patterns, ongoing strengths and challenges. Also, I want to see if that experience is at all related to my vision for the future; and if so, how and where and why. And I must connect the dots between past experience and future dreams. And only then can I set intentions for next steps.

* * *

Behind me lies my past, before me awaits my future…in my heart center dwells my Sankalpa for moving forward – with informed wisdom, deep resolve and realistic intention.

So, when I think about Sankalpa for 2013, I feel these intentions arise in my heart:
– I will continue doing the practices and work to heal (from past brokenness), grow (into new strength) and serve (passing on what helps me heal and grow).
– I will continue to plant seeds for opportunities to share yoga with at-risk beings.
– I will ask peers and teachers for advice re: continuing education to strengthen credentials and knowledge for starting a non-profit organization. I will research their suggestions and options for continuing education. I will contact schools or programs regarding scholarships and other preparatory steps.

Photo: Holly Meyers

Photo: Holly Meyers

– I will practice percussion regularly.
– I will continue to attend concerts and baseball games for rejuvenating, exhilarating, blissful breaks. I will spend healthy time in nature.
– I will continue to pause and witness my own fears when feeling negatively triggered by those I care about. I will continue to slow down reactions and decrease the need to make amends. I will make amends promptly when necessary. I will prioritize developing trust and love.
– I will nurture friendships. I will visit family at least three times. I will make appointments to research services to support my aging father.
– I will continue to seek financially sustaining work that supports my day-to-day living, and, my step-by-step pursuance of continuing education and the founding of a nonprofit.
– I will chant my face off and pray my heart out at Kirtans. I will work with teachers to enhance my Asana practice and pass it on to my students.

This is it. This is what arises in my heart for the coming year. I am keeping it simple, building on the roots that were planted during 2012, which was a very positive year for me. Gratefully. I am feeling myself returning to my essence, my strength, my joy.

When I practice this process of assessing the past, envisioning the future, and setting realistic intentions for each present step forward, I can be true to and consistently fulfill my big-picture purpose. But how do I discover my purpose? Stay tuned for the next December blog, “On Purpose” – inspired by my recent teacher training with the Prison Yoga Project.

Wishing you a reflective December. Hope to see you on the mat, in the ‘hood or among the electronic air waves soon. OM Shanti.

 

Guest Blog for Quiet Mind Yoga – 2012 Intention: There is No “On” or “Off” the Mat February 2, 2012

Guest Blog for Quiet Mind Yoga (Reprinted by permission)

2012 Intention: There is No “On” or “Off” the Mat

Life’s ironies are entertaining, no?

At the beginning of each class, I invite students to set an intention for their practice. “This ‘Sankalpa’ is a positive reflection, affirmation or dedication that brings purpose to your time on the mat,” I say. At the end of each class, I encourage students to live their Sankalpa in everyday life. “Make a gentle intention to carry this purpose off your mat and into the rest of your day.”

As a DC-area Community Builder for nonprofit Off the Mat, Into the World, I use “yoga off the mat” terminology frequently. To be frank, however, I am not comfortable with the idea of dividing my yoga practice into two separate entities – “On” or “Off” the mat.

To me, yoga is life, and life is yoga.

It wasn’t always this way. In the early 90s, my messy life was emotionally painful. Yoga was something I did to feel better. I didn’t think about how the practice might affect me after class – much less how it might affect the world around me. My 1st style was Kundalini (funny thing – there are no mats in Kundalini yoga!). Although I may not have realized it then, our closing song planted a seed about yoga’s potential beyond the room where I was practicing: “May the long-time sun shine upon you, all love surround you, and the pure light within you guide your way on.”

Around 1999, I started practicing Hatha yoga and the teacher’s closing dedication said, “May our bodies and minds be healthy, may our thoughts be filled with love. May our practice be free of obstacles, and may we carry its benefits into the world.” This same teacher talked about yoga’s Eight Limbs, which I understood as a process of growth from intention, through action, and to manifestation. That seed planted in the early 90s? It started to sprout conscientiousness about my responsibility to somehow share the gifts that I had so generously received from this healing practice.

In November 2008, I completed my Yoga Teacher Training at an Ashram, where for four weeks we were immersed in yoga – everything we did with our bodies, hearts and minds came from ancient origins. The trainers’ primary advice as we ran off into the wild blue yonder of teaching yoga? “Be a yogi.” And the seed grew into a tree whose cycle of life would organically nurture its own needs and nourish the earth from which it came.

At my very 1st teacher meeting at my very 1st yoga studio job, we were asked to introduce ourselves, describe our yoga style, and then say what we do “off the mat.” In other words – what do we do in our non-yoga life? I was stumped. Because it’s all yoga – whether I’m practicing flexibility in a studio or with co-workers…whether I’m practicing balance in a pose or in planning my commitments…whether I’m practicing compassion for my own pain or for unhappy people around my neighborhood…or whether I’m practicing presence in my breathing or with a loved one.

So my 2012 yoga intention is to nourish the roots that stem from my early days of practice, and re-commit to living yoga day-in and day-out. No mat required.

 

Back to Basics: Real Yoga Doesn’t Hurt January 26, 2012

Filed under: Exercise,Health,Yoga — Holly Meyers @ 9:19 pm
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OK, I confess.  I’ve created a sensational title for a simple blog about our January class focus, “Back to Basics.”

“How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” was the sensational headline for a recent New York Times article (link below) that tells a simple story.  That headline – and the article’s content – generated more media reactions, responses and official statements than any article on any topic I’ve seen in a long while.  Perhaps more than “Occupy.”

How exciting!

Lively debate!  Impassioned professions!  True confessions!  All due to a newspaper’s intelligent twisting of heads for their benefit.  All due to a newspaper headline writer’s clever choice of wording.  All due to that newspaper’s strategy to promote its science writer’s upcoming book release!

If you can get past the hype, or accept that the article is only discussing one aspect of yoga (Asana, or, poses), or focus on the words How and Can, or perhaps, erase the headline from your mind altogether – you might find a simple story conveying one yoga teacher’s honest and humble experience.  That’s the story I found.  Therefore, I should have quit while I was ahead.

But no.  In preparing to write this blog, my goal was to read 20 or so online articles (all found by Google-ing “Yoga Wreck Body”) and numerous Facebook comments related to the original New York Times piece.  The pieces span a wide range of discussion: what constitutes “real” yoga; whether yoga should be practiced as exercise; how the NYT article is scientifically incorrect; how the teacher featured in the article is morally wrong; what we can do to practice yoga safely.  And so on.  Truly moved by people’s passionate and intelligent remarks, I wanted to immerse myself in public opinion, and then form my own.

Instead, the more I read, the less interested I became in others’ opinions.

On the contrary, I found myself delightfully reflective and clear about my original, personal, untainted opinion of yoga.  I remembered: the media gains attention by twisting facts, embellishing mediocrity and inspiring controversy; any form of physical activity can lead to serious injury; and the definition of “real” yoga will be relative to each person who experiences it.

So I stopped reading.

Now…getting Back to Basics…

*  *  *

“Tadaasana, Pranayama, Sankalpa.”

There is a reason I repeat these three words each time we regroup at the top of the mat between Sun Salutations.  For me, these three elements – The Pose, The Breath and The Intention – are the basics of yoga.  Although mentioned as three unique parts of yoga’s eight-limbed system, in my practice they are inseparable.  When I align myself in Mountain Pose (Tadaasana), I firmly embody my intention (Sankalpa).  When I breathe deliberately (Pranayama), I exhale obstacles, and inhale my intention with resolve.

When I fuse these three elements together, I fortify my purpose for that session of practice – and that sense of purpose begins to trickle into my life.

*  *  *

The Pose (Asana)

When teaching the basics, I like to start with the body.  In my own practice, focusing on healthy alignment and mechanics have established a practice that will last – I pray – a lifetime.  In addition, I find that the body is the primary reason most students come to yoga classes these days.  Either their doctor recommended this ancient remedy for modern health conditions; or, they’ve decided they want something different from the usual workout.

January yoga classes are traditionally packed.  New Year’s Resolutions and special offers bring row upon row of newbies and long-lost practitioners to studios, gyms and workplace wellness programs.  And so I offer a month-long Back to Basics approach that builds throughout the weeks.  Tadaasana is the perfect starting point, because the alignment cues in Mountain are foundational for many yoga poses.  That same week we flow through and finely tune a basic Sun Salutation; then we break down the mechanics of backward bends.

By the end of week one, beginner students are melting into the comfort of a safe and traditional Asana practice; and more experienced students are rolling their eyes and exhaling loud sighs of frustration!  Thanks to past experience, I smile inwardly, speak encouragingly and trudge forward resolutely!

The 2nd week we focus on bends, folds and twists; the 3rd is inversions and counter-poses.  At this point, the blissful exclamations begin: “Oh my god, I’ve never felt so safe in that pose!” and “I never realized how much pressure I was putting on my neck/lower back/knees!” and “I didn’t think I’d ever be able to do that.”  I include this not to pat myself on the back as a yoga teacher, but to spotlight the effectiveness of patiently committing to healthy alignment and mechanics – and, to give major credit to the teachers who taught me that patience and planted the seeds of a life-long practice.

We finish the month with yogi’s choice, where students request detailed instruction of the poses that frustrate, frighten or baffle them.  This is the fun part!  Just yesterday, I strapped myself up to demo Chaturanga mechanics and the class cracked up as I slithered like a clumsy lizard into the pose.  There’s nothing like the release of a good laugh at the end of four weeks of Asana intensity!

*  *  *

The Breath (Pranayama)

The 2nd aphorism in the most widely used yoga teacher training text – the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – says, “Yogas Chitta Vritti Nirodhah: Yoga restrains disturbances of the mind.”

By practicing Asana, warming up the structure, activating the nervous system and stimulating digestion, we essentially get the body out of the way.  When the body is at ease, the mind can be at peace.  Pranayama practice enhances that peace.

With few exceptions, I complement Asana with the traditional technique of three-part nostril breathing, or Deergha Swaasam.  The benefits of this Pranayama style seem infinite.  It gives the wandering mind something to focus on.  It lays a strong foundation for inner peace.  It increases our oxygenation and consequently strengthens the immune system.  It prevents energetic burn out and dehydration.  It massages our organs and stimulates digestion.  And on and on.

Although I’d been training to breathe through the nose since my 1st Kundalini yoga class in 1993, my 2008 “Yoga for Athletes” training and introduction to John Douillard’s brilliant book, “Body, Mind, and Sport” truly sealed the deal on nostril breathing for me.  This workshop and book reminded me how a peaceful baby breathes through the nose, its belly softly rising and falling with the filling and emptying of the lower lobes of the lungs.  Only when a baby reaches crisis – a congested sinus, a shocking sound, the need for food – does it open its mouth, take chest-height gasps of air, and cry for help.  When the crisis is over, the baby intuitively returns to soft nostril belly breathing.

As adults, however, we somehow depart from that natural state of peace!  As if in constant danger, we habitually take short breaths, in the upper chest, through the mouth.  Our exercise choices reinforce this crisis breathing.  No wonder we fall prey to stress, anxiety, distraction and energy depletion!  In addition to the benefits I’ve already mentioned, Douillard poignantly points out, “This shallow breathing soon becomes a way of life,” and results in serious health considerations, such as excess fat storage, digestive diseases, compromised lymphatic drainage and neck and shoulder tightness.

Ick.

In class we pause between Sun Salutations or other Asana practice.  I invite students to “allow the body to rest, but keep the breath deliberate.”  Returning to Deergha Swaasam regulates the heart rate, breath rate and overall energy.  Plus, if the heart is racing, what do you think the mind is doing?  Racing.

The ancients did not invent yoga as a cardio workout – in their society, they found a great need to calm the mind, and enjoyed the resulting benefits.  Even the Mahabharata – another ancient text that informs yoga practice – highlights a story of finding inner peace for the sake of effective battle.

What is the battlefield in your life?  Deliberate breathing practices can help maintain peace, calm and clarity during disturbances – whether they take the form of a pressing deadline, a workplace conflict, a family crisis, a traffic hassle or an internal struggle.

*  *  *

The Intention (Sankalpa)

Speaking of internal struggle…  I don’t want to tell my entire “What brought me to yoga” story right now; it would distract from the Back to Basics monthly focus.  I will briefly share:  Before I started practicing yoga in 1993, my life included much harm – being harmed and committing harm, in both subtle and more palpable ways.  Over nearly 20 years, this ancient practice has given me tools for healing, transformation and growth.  Yoga is not a physical practice for me.  Its Eight Limbs present a design for living.  They guide me to set ethical intentions, then practice physical and mental exercises that will liberate my body and mind, therefore allowing me to be more effective in and of service to the world.

At the beginning of each class, I invite students to notice what’s on their mind – without editing or judgment.  To honestly notice what’s there, whether pleasant or unpleasant.  We start where we are.  I then suggest focusing on one thought that’s strongly calling for their attention – something that’s been tapping them on the shoulder all day, or perhaps much longer.  This thought, when shaped into a positive reflection, affirmation or dedication, becomes their intention for class.

A Sankalpa is an intention, resolution and/or commitment that brings purpose to our time on the mat – and can affect our day, our world, our lives.

It is also a practical tool for facing challenges – both physical and mental – during the Asana practice itself.  When feeling challenged, I ask myself, “How can I align my reaction with my Sankalpa?  Which gives me more peace of mind and fortifies my efforts – facing or stepping back from the challenge?”  Because sometimes I need to dive into something daunting; other times I need to accept that it’s not the right time to push my limits.

Having a Sankalpa during yoga class not only forms a habit of self-inquiry and motivation, it also guarantees that my practice is harm-free.  It might feel uncomfortable to face or reduce challenge.  Yet, discomfort is different from harm.  While discomfort can yield constructive learning, harm can result in destructive pain.  By having an intention for practice, we become aware of and harness the positive effects of these nuances.

*  *  *

So, indeed, real yoga doesn’t hurt.  There’s just so much more to it than being afraid of potential physical pain, seeking rehabilitation of physical conditions, or plainly, addressing any physical need.

My friend once said, if the goal of yoga was purely physical, the Yoga Sutras would be a very short text: “Touch your toes.”  Hehehe.

Let’s get real…as my favorite teachers like to point out, there must be a reason we’ve chosen yoga.  If we just wanted to “feel the burn,” we have a million other exercise plans to choose from.  I’ll take the plunge and say: we choose yoga because we want more than a workout – we want to change.  We know it is a transformational practice.  Again, even the ancients knew this – there were enough troubles in society that someone invented a practice to cultivate an “easeful body, peaceful mind and useful life.”*

To this end, I like to stick with the basics: keen awareness of body, breath and mind.  Setting our intention, aligning a pose and deepening the breath – and bringing all three elements together to fortify our purpose – we not only exercise the body, but we empower our lives.

May all beings discover their own “real” yoga.  OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.  Peace, Peace, Peace.

*  *  *

The original article that caused an avalanche of opinions:

New York Times, William Broad, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body”

* Quote from Integral Yoga Founder, Swami Satchidananda

Photos: Top – Larkin P. Goff (by permission); Others – Holly Meyers (the author)

 

The Happy Heart Project: 100 Days! December 8, 2011

“Whoever is happy will make others happy too.  He who has courage and faith will never perish in misery.”  – Anne Frank

My whole body is vibrating.

Just now, I lit my 100th stick of “Happy Heart” incense and repeated the words I’ve said each morning since August 28th – “My intention today is to grow toward joy.”  Today the intention felt larger, more expansive than a practiced Sankalpa or resolution.  Today, that statement felt like a responsibility.
Instead of re-hashing my entire journey from August forward, I invite you to check out my “The Happy Heart Project: 100 Days Toward Joy” and other blogs I wrote along the way.  It’s been quite a trip, and at times a stumble.  Over time, The Project became more than a simple morning ritual.  It motivated more effort than I’ve ever made in my decades of spiritual practice.

I don’t do any of this for myself.  By “any of this” I mean the 100-day rituals, the blogging, the yoga, the recovery work, the healing practices.  Well, OK, yes.  First I do it for myself – so I can transform, strengthen.  But only so I can share experiences with, pass-on resources to, show up for and be of service to others.

*  *  *

“It is plain that a life which includes deep resentment leads only to futility and unhappiness.  For when harboring such feelings we shut ourselves off from the sunlight of the Spirit.”  – Anonymous

Resentment is ongoing anger or bitterness due to insult or injury.  The etymological root of the word simplifies the meaning even more: a repeated feeling.  Any feeling.  So a resentment could be full of anger or fear, pride or longing.  The fact is, if we are re-feeling something related to a past experience, clearly, we are unable to live in the present.  Our past pains or even successes haunt us.  We are shut off.

I consider myself a happy person.  Someone who leans toward the light.  Generally, I am able to accept life’s ups and downs while maintaining a hopeful and positive attitude.

This summer, after a mugging in June I had a series of PTSD responses that magnified negative stories, limited beliefs and destructive patterns cultivated from what seemed like a lifetime of unresolved trauma.  I was harboring major resentments – against past aggressors, against myself, against the world.  By August, I’d become hopeless.  It was a dark, dark time.

*  *  *

“It is through practicing and living through a series of agreeable and disagreeable situations that we attain full awakening.”  – Suzuki Roshi, author and Zen Master

Over the past 100 days, one of my foundational beliefs was constantly validated: Moving toward joy does not mean escaping pain, avoiding discomfort nor skirting around darkness.  It means greeting that pain, discomfort and darkness with an informed reality instead of habitual despair.  It means digging deep to reach that informed reality, to trudge toward the answers, to sit in the messiness, to look straight at the fears and patterns.  It means surrendering to help and change instead of resigning to the same old despair, depression and rage.

In life there is ease, there is tranquility and there is light…and at times, there is not.  In that very acceptance, I can cultivate happiness.  I can experience joy.  And with strong, committed and consistent effort, the habitual despair can be completely undone.

As Roshi says, it takes “practicing” and “living.”

Burning a stick of incense each morning was a tiny and symbolic gesture.  Although the repeated intention that accompanied that act truly set the wheel in motion, reinforcing a Sankalpa involves much more than words.

Over the past 100 days, there were layers and layers of practices and life.  There was the changing of seasons; there was an Ayurvedic diet for Pitta Pacification; there were increased actions in my recovery program and the huge exhale when reaching nine years clean and sober; there was daily 5:30am Sadhana of prayer, Pranayama and meditation; there were willing visits to medical professionals who specialize in PTSD and related conditions; there was the swallowing of unusual vitamins and supplements; there were specific songs that I listened to and sang until sobbing from liberation; there was soulful abandon during concerts by spiritual songwriters and chanters; there were awkward moments with trusted friends, reunions with old pals and exciting connections with new soul mates; there was immersion in the Occupy movement’s writings and videos in order to challenge my own fears of conflict and solidly reinforce my purpose of peace; there were the Jewish High Holy Days, with their sorrow, atonement, forgiveness and love; there were transformational workshops, retreats and classes with Seane Corn, Max Strom, Amy Barnes, Corrine Champigny and many others; there was the glowing Hindu holiday of Diwali, with its stories of the triumph of light over darkness.

What a trip.  And it was 100% worth it.  Because now, not only have I ceased fighting everything and everyone, I have also come to profoundly accept, appreciate and stop apologizing for my humanness.

“May we live like the lotus, at home in the muddy water.”  – Rachel Meyer, yoga teacher

*  *  *

“May all the sky be pervaded by great bliss.

“If suffering, I bear the suffering of all beings.

“May the ocean of samsara’s suffering dry up.”

My soundtrack for this 100th moment is the traditional Buddhist Offering Chant, quoted above, and sung tenderly by Lama Gyurme in the video below.  As I write, the Happy Heart sends its wafts of rose, rosewood, geranium, cubeb, oakmoss, lavender and patchouli smoke throughout my space.

To me – no matter how much I live and practice through all conditions – it would seem miraculous to reach a bliss like Nirvana or Samadhi or Enlightenment, where I would completely transcend my own suffering, cease carrying and contributing to the suffering of all, and ultimately, experience the end of Samsara – the earthly cycle of birth, decay, death.

What I can grasp, however, is Buddhist nun Pema Chodron’s simple take on attaining a “higher” state: “Enlightenment is a very grand word for fundamental happiness.  Your life becomes a path of awakening or a path of becoming enlightened.”

*  *  *

“What is important is not to have a goal but to see if our daily existence has a meaning in itself.”  – J. Krishnamurti, philosopher and author

Note that my daily statement was, “My intention today is to grow toward joy,”  not, “I want to be happy forever.”  The Project reinforced that life is truly One Day At A Time.  Gradual.  Forgiving and honest.  If today I don’t feel joy, I can try again tomorrow.

There is no goal, only intention, reinforced frequently, through a process of openness, willingness, action and growth.

*  *  *

“The spiritual life is not a theory.  We have to live it.”  – Anonymous

Simply said.  The Happy Heart Project does not end here, at the 100-day mark.

Great gratitude to the numerous teachers who appeared along the way, in so many shapes and forms.  Yoga students, yoga teachers, friends, family, strangers, co-workers, ankle-biters, outright attackers.  Road trips, songs, trees, Asana, injuries, deities.

All mirrors, all messengers.

*  *  *

May all beings find the courage and faith to grow through misery and toward joy.  Thank you for sharing the journey.  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 woke up, burned a stick of Happy Heart incense and set an intention to grow toward joy.  Nearly each day I posted a “Happy Heart Project” status (and sometimes an accompanying song for that day’s mood) on Urban Yoga Den on Facebook, then saw what happened during the day.  Even though the 100 DAYS are over, it’s not too late to 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!

 

The Happy Heart Project: The Halfway Mark October 20, 2011

“Hey, I’m trying to hard to see the light, to see the light – to see it burn thru.”  – Abigail Washburn

When it comes to maintaining and manifesting an intention over 100 days – and that intention is to overcome a nagging internal darkness and move deliberately toward joy – it is imperative to know which tools, resources, practices and people support that intention.

So here I am, halfway into a project I started on a whim (for background, please see final note, bottom of page), and I am clearly learning what works – and what doesn’t work.

Back in August, when I started this daily ritual, joy felt elusive.  The origin of that challenge was a string of unfortunate, traumatic and painful experiences beginning in June 2010.  So the “Project” actually represented much more than a flippant whim.  It became a “Sankalpa” (deep intention, commitment, resolution) that would hopefully free my mind – and life – from the grip of PTSD, depression, anger and resentment.

And a shift is happening.  Of course, there are days when fear, negativity and doubt emerge.  Normal stuff.  At the same time, I have to be careful to not let those days stretch into a mindset.  So I reinforce my Sankalpa.

*  *  *

Move.  Toward.  Joy.

MOVE does not happen in the mind.  MOVE denotes a deliberate effort.  MOVE is an action word.

In yoga, when I think of action, I consider how I can take my practice off the mat and into everyday life.  To me, “practice” is a synonym for “action.”  Ashtanga Yoga founder Sri K. Pattabhi Jois used to say, “Practice yoga, and all is coming.”  A simple metaphor – when we take action, things happen.  Aphorism I.14 of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali states, “Practice becomes firmly grounded when efforts are made over a long period of time, constantly, and with great love (or devotion, earnestness, zeal).”

So again I mention the importance of tried-and-true tools, resources, practices and people to support my 100-day Sankalpa ritual.  They have encouraged my efforts, motivated my practice and strengthened my devotion.  Other influences, however, have been downright derailing at times.

What works and/or doesn’t work as I aim to maintain and manifest my intention to move toward joy:

WORKS: Being honest.  With myself and others.   This, by far, has been rule #1 for me.  THE best elixir for battling the stinking thinking.  Not convincing myself that everything is OK when it is not.  Not writing a bunch of “happy” lies in this blog.  Sharing my process with my circles, communities, co-humans.  Being honest about everything – feelings, ideas, plans.  Saying when I feel scared.  Saying when I feel confident.  “Sticking a pin in it” when my balloon of negativity, doubt and fear gets too inflated.  Getting it out.  Sometimes constructively, sometimes like a vent.

WORKS: Being listened to – being heard.  This means choosing the listeners carefully.  To truly be heard, I want to talk to those who have the patience, compassion and love to listen to everything I need to share.  People who care to know my insides.  People who care for my well-being, who have my best interest in mind.  People who do not immediately launch into fixing the problem.  I know this about myself: I need to let it all out – my stories, my theories, my feelings, my problems, my solutions.  Once I’m empty, I become spacious, calm and able to listen to feedback.

WORKS: Listening to, considering and/or heeding well-informed suggestions from people who know me well, who’ve stuck by my side through thick and thin, with whom I connect regularly, who are mental health professionals and/or who are trusted teachers whose experience I trust.  Listening to others’ stories.  Being as open-minded and willing as possible – yet still discerning, keeping my peace, purpose and sustainability in mind.  This is explored further in #1-4 below.

WORKS: Listening to and truly hearing loved ones’ and trusted beings’ encouragement and positive opinions.

WORKS: Staying close to those loved ones and trusted beings.

DOESN’T WORK: Trying to do this alone.

DOESN’T WORK:  Tolerating bossy, know-it-all recommendations (thinly disguised as concerned advice) from people who don’t know me very well (or who mistakenly think they do know me very well because maybe they used to know me a long time ago, or maybe they’ve read my writing or have heard me speak, or for whatever reason, they believe that we are alike), who have shown that they don’t care to know me authentically, whom I have not seen in a very long time, who intrusively beeline over to me because they’ve “heard what I’m going through,” who give medical advice without medical credentials and/or whom I absolutely do not trust.  And do you know what else doesn’t work?  Allowing these people to get under my skin; allowing myself to feel judged by these people; allowing myself to cop a resentment.  Indeed, at times, my vulnerable mind lets this happen!  What works then?  Taking a pause, replacing the false thoughts with a positive belief, and then understanding that these people are coming from a place of fear and/or a need to control.  I can have compassion for them, nod politely…and move on.  Or, avoid them altogether.  Or, be direct and say, “Thank you for your concern; I have a great team of supporters whose advice I am following.  So at this time, I want to stay on track and not add other suggestions. ”  Smile.  Walk away.  Bam.

Phew, that was a sassy little rant!  Sometimes I create my own frustration by being so open and honest about my process.  But, I’d rather have the opportunity to discern between appropriate/useful advice and inappropriate/fear-based advice than not get any advice at all!

*  *  *

In addition to clarity about support and action, I’ve also started to feel very clear about the process of cultivating positive change.  Thankfully, I’ve learned so much of this from the infinite influences I’ve said “yes” to over the years.  Here are the steps I’ve taken this time around:

1 – Let go of what doesn’t serve.  I’ve heard it a-thousand times, and it really is the best starting place for me.  This past summer, after what seemed like a year-long endurance test of trials and tribulations, I started letting go of anything that doesn’t represent deep peace, true purpose and long-term sustainability for me.  Jobs, relationships, belongings.  I took risks.  In the case of jobs and relationships, if I couldn’t leave immediately, I began to cultivate an exit strategy.  One by one, I started saying good-bye.  I will be honest – financially, it is beyond stressful.  But I really needed to let go and be liberated.

2 – Take time in the spaciousness created by letting go.  I learned to not fill the space YET.  To grieve the losses.  To feel uncomfortable.  To admit and accept my mistakes.  To witness my doubts, dreams, stories – positive and negative, real and imagined.

3 – Reflect on what brings deep peace, explore what constitutes true purpose and envision what looks sustainable in the long-term.  I have exposed myself to influences I might not normally consider.  I’ve read-up on the Occupy Wall Street efforts; I’ve started taking a high-power Jivamukti class; I’ve listened to Pema Chodron CDs (I love Pema, but am not typically a fan of audio learning).  And I have indulged in activities I absolutely love – that nourish me and bring instant joy.  I have seen live concerts, bought new CDs (please see the bottom of this blog to check out the video for the above-quoted Abigail Washburn song), listened to comedy, practiced yoga outdoors, watched baseball games, enjoyed inspiring films, participated in the Jewish High Holy Days.  I have let ideas and passions brew.

4 – Define peace, purpose and sustainability.  During the peak of Occupy Wall Street and the Jewish High Holy Days, I was struck with the strongest sense of self I’ve experienced in a long time.  It seems like a combination of the results of numbers 1-3 above, the pressure of calls to action in the media, and, the intensity of moral inventory, atonement and forgiveness sparked an energy of self-definition for me.  From Facebook, other media and other sources, I gleaned quotes that called to my soul, compiled them in a journal, and started aiming to live them, day in and day out.  They include: “Occupy within: a movement in awakening;” “While you are proclaiming peace with your lips, be careful to have it even more deeply in your heart;” “The unexamined life is not worth living;” and, “Do I feel happy?  No.  But I feel progress.”

5 – Take action – fill the space.  A few days ago, a yoga teacher friend exclaimed, “How’s your new life?”  She’s referring to the many changes I’ve made since the summer, when I started this process.  I reflected silently for a moment.  “It’s very empty…” and just then, a light bulb clicked on in my mind.  “It’s time to fill it,” I answered, with resolve.

This is coming up for me now that I clearly understand what works and what doesn’t to practice my Sankalpa with consistency and zeal.  With that support, I can tackle some next steps, which include: seek a  job that fulfills my true needs and allows me to continue teaching yoga; seek new yoga teaching opportunities; continue deepening my PTSD sessions and exploration; conduct a fearless self-inventory that not only identifies how I was harmed over the past year, but that also identifies what my part, mistake and/or contribution may have been to those troubles; practice forgiveness of myself and others; commit to other practices that direct me toward joy.  Thank goodness, there are many!

Let’s see what happens over the next 50 days…taking it one day at a time, of course.

Wishing all beings peace, joy, love – and a light that burns thru.  OM Shanti.

(Here is the lovely song containing the opening quote of this blog.  Enjoy!)

*  *  *

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!

 

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!