The Urban Yoga Den

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Fearless December 21, 2015

With today’s overcast skies, the shortest day of the year is, indeed, ending early. It’s 4pm and nearly dark. Even tonight’s waxing moon will be obscured by clouds. Call it a dark night – and day – of the soul, if you wish. Winter Solstice hath arrived. (And peaks at 11:49pm EST.)
Call me crazy, but I like darkness. I believe that I see more clearly on overcast days, that I feel more viscerally with my eyes closed, that I hear more distinctly when inwardly focused. When emotional darkness appears, I feel curious. When “dark forces” appear, I’m not afraid. It wasn’t always like this. When darkness came, I wanted to run like hell. Or shine bright lights into it. Or drown it away somehow.
But not today.
I started sobbing way before the teacher at my noon yoga class referenced light/darkness/Solstice. Taking a seat on that mat, I realized I’d not been still for a while.
I’d not processed the wonderful changes happening in my life. A new job in a new area of the restaurant world. A week of house-/cat-sitting in a beautiful neighborhood across town. A new apartment move this coming Spring. Wonderful – and, immense changes. The job has offered a set of new challenges. The house-sitting was unsettling. The journey to secure the apartment, the eventual departure from my “family” of housemates (including our lovely kitty), the vulnerability of moving in with a brand new friend – all bittersweet.
I’d also not processed the amount of hostility I’ve witnessed in the world around me lately. And, I’d not processed the surprise of seeing my ex- (who betrayed me horribly in 2010, then went to prison for the related crime) on the street, an entire year early of his scheduled release date.
Phew. So. I came to a safe place today. In a yoga studio. With a deeply wise and compassionate teacher. Atop a sacred mat space. And I set the intention for clarity and truth.
In that stillness, a buried trigger arose. I realized that I felt completely unsafe in the world. In danger. Threatened. Oh my god, I cried. I couldn’t even chant the opening “OM”s without choking up. My face was soaked, my ears filled with tears, my nose ran uncontrollably. And I encountered the impulse to run like hell. To get out. But I stayed.
I stayed and I practiced. As I flowed through the very dynamic sequence, there were times when I couldn’t think of anything but where to place my body parts. Other times, I was filled with terror for my security. Still other times, I had space for self-inquiry. “Are dangerous people trying to hurt me? Do I need to make additional life changes in order to be safe?” I kept asking myself questions until – as intended – clarity and truth surfaced.
2015SolsticeCandlePic“No, I am not being threatened. This fear is entirely mine. I own this fear. I know it well, from my PTSD experiences. And I will practice with it, through it, around it. I will pour my yoga practice all over this fear! I will remind myself of the plethora of safe places and people and situations in my life. Right now. At home, at work. With friends, teachers, fellow yogis. In community, in solitude. Yes, I feel afraid. At the same time, I know I am safe.”
The crying stopped. Acceptance, compassion and resolve arose. I found myself approaching Warrior 2 – the most basic of poses – the same way I’d taught my 1st group of youth students back in 2009. The lower body, with its grounded and stable lunge shape, represents unshakable foundation and strength. The upper body, with its broad heart center and outstretched arms, represents a balance of vulnerability and risk. I used to tell kids to look out over their front fingers and envision the “enemy” (the bully, the dreaded exam, the violent home space). To encounter their enemies while so firmly grounded, that nobody nor nothing could threaten their wide-open hearts.
Today, as I stared down my enemies, the palm of my front hand organically turned upward, and I could feel my fingertips touching the warm and wanting hearts of those human beings.
I have nothing to be afraid of.
A friend recently called me “fearless” because I talk openly about pain. The funny thing is, I nearly decided to keep today’s yoga class experience to myself. I have a big New Year’s Eve workshop approaching; and I worried that people might not want to be led by a crying, scaredy-cat teacher. Then I reconsidered. I was reminded that stability and risk co-exist. I learned I can simultaneously – and calmly – feel afraid and be safe. If I had run, or hid, or drowned, or denied…if I had not faced and inquired about my fear, I wouldn’t have understood it the way I do now. Although not completely liberated from fear (I need to find the tools to be present and clear with certain everyday things), I own it; and, I distinguish it from situations, places and people. Today, I realized that the hearts of those formerly-perceived scary people are just like mine – and, they are at the fingertips of my fearless, outstretched arms.
May stillness come; and may truth and clarity continue to illuminate this wonderfully dark day.
OM Shanti.
 

Focus Wrap Up: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali March 8, 2011

“If I wasn’t making some people uncomfortable, I wouldn’t be doing anything important.” – Justine Siegel, 1st woman to throw batting practice for Major League Baseball and founder of “Baseball for All”

I didn’t plan to write this today.  I have cleaning to do, laundry to fold, breakfast to cook.  But I feel compelled.  Plus, I’m behind on my blogging and have to wrap up our February focus!  Here goes…

A yoga class is definitely NOT the place I go when I need to control things.

But it used to be.  When I was feeling icky, I went to class to feel held, comforted, fixed.  When I was feeling great, I went to class to celebrate, connect, thrive.  I needed to feel that I was in control of my feelings, my well-being, my state.  Therefore, I had expectations on the teacher, the students, the staff, the atmosphere.  I had expectations on yoga.  And guess what.  Surprise, surprise – my needs were not always met. I sometimes spent an entire class in resentment, disappointment and/or frustration.  I sometimes wanted to leave class.  For some reason, I never did (as far as I remember).

Something held me there.  And I kept coming back.

Over the years of attending many, many classes, I have come to realize that on a very tangible level, there are too many uncontrollable factors in a yoga class for me to predict any kind of outcome.  There is the teacher’s style, the teacher’s voice, the teacher’s class format, the teacher’s class theme, the teacher’s background, the teacher’s teachers.  There is the teacher’s music choices, lighting choices, air temperature choices.  And so on.  And then there are the students – sometimes hundreds of them if during a workshop – with their varying energies, moods, needs, backgrounds, strengths, challenges.

A yoga class is a room full of humanness.

Also over the years, on a spiritual level, I started to realize that a yoga class is exactly where I need to go IF I am feeling like controlling things – it is the best venue to practice surrender, willingness and acceptance.  It is a great place to practice self-inquiry, compassion, patience.  It offers the beautiful opportunity to respond to, learn from, and be shaped by whatever happens, whatever comes up, whatever is.

A yoga class is a place to grow.

And that, my friends, is why I so lovingly embrace The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – particularly the five aphorisms that we explored during our February class focus.  If I did not infuse my personal yoga practice with the philosophical, ideological and ethical ideas of the Sutras, I would still be stuck in resentment, still pissed off at whomever rattled me, still personally offended by whatever someone said or did – and I’m talking on AND off the mat.

A yoga class is my chance to develop spiritually.

I honor you, noble students, for so fearlessly taking on Patanjali’s wisdom; for writing to and confiding in me with comments and questions, frustrations and celebrations, concerns and realizations; and for sharing your teachings with me.  You are beautifully human.  We are beautifully human.

Over the past month, we looked at five Sutras as tools for experiencing yoga on and off the mat.  We began with Sutra 1.2, “Yogas Cittas Vritti Nrodhah” – yoga restrains disturbances of the mind.  I like to think of Sutra 1.2 as the 1st “promise” of many in this ancient text.  Here in book one, we learn that although yoga can open our hips and heal our asthma, its primary purpose is to cultivate a peaceful mind. During our classes we made decisions regarding Asana choices based on cultivating and sustaining this peace.  When faced with challenge, we weighed out the options and consequences of seizing that challenge or easing off.

Next we explored the practice of “Pratipaksha Bhavana,” described in Sutra 2.33 as the replacement of negative or obstructive thoughts with positive or opposite ideas.  Here we realized that we cannot replace reality with something opposite – we recognize that our practice (and life) might bring difficulty.  But by sustaining a positive mind through the challenge (i.e. dwelling on a pose’s benefits, concentrating on life-giving breath or focusing deeply on Sankalpa or intention), we can maintain our peace of mind and face troubles gracefully.

With this practical tool in hand, we backtracked to Sutra 1.33, which suggests that we cultivate certain attitudes toward certain types of people – or toward certain types of states within ourselves.  To summarize this complex aphorism (explored more deeply in the last most, “Focus: The Yoga Sutras – Love & Murder), we are encouraged to befriend happy people (or states), have compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous and be indifferent toward the non-virtuous.  A tough order at times; but all for the sake of that ever-serene mind.

After all this hard work of self-witnessing and shaping the mind toward peace, we wrapped up the month with two of Patanjali’s most comforting statements (in my opinion).  Sutra 2.46, “Sthira Sukham Asanam.” (Asana is a steady, comfortable position.) and the promise of all promises, Sutra 2.16, “Heyam Duhkham Anagatam.” (Future pain will be prevented.)  If I practice yoga as prescribed by the Yoga Sutras, I learn that I have permission to express each pose with a balance of effort AND ease, steadiness AND comfort.  And one of the most relieving results of practicing in this way is the prevention of future pain – physical and otherwise.

Beyond the mat, how did this all pan out?  Did the Sutras inform your every day life? From some of your feedback, I know you sought to use the tools, but admitted they escaped you at the most important times.  I heard that they helped you respond compassionately to angry drivers.  I heard that coming to class gave you the tools to navigate tough interpersonal situations (I’m cleaning up the language, here!).  I heard appreciation for the Sutras’ promises and affects in general.

I know for me, as soon as I select a theme to teach, I start hitting all sorts of wonderful “trials” in daily life to test out my tools and learn some new lessons!  It’s been an intense – and intensely lesson-filled – few weeks.  In terms of the quote above from my new Karma Yogini heroine (who probably does not know what Karma Yoga is), Justine Siegel, if I weren’t feeling some kind of discomfort, probably nothing important is happening in my life.  And thanks to the Yoga Sutras and other spiritual practices and resources, discomfort yields growth.

Which to me, is important.

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