The Urban Yoga Den

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Peaceful Warrior April 2, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

So what is my truth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unless new perspectives are gained and peace becomes the priority.

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

There were hoodies of all sizes at the rally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hands were joined and raised in prayer and solidarity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.


It’s all yoga October 7, 2009

I often hear people exclaim with frustration (and a bit of self-damnation), “I’m not doing enough yoga!”  Perhaps they’re not attending as many yoga classes as usual, so they feel disturbance in the body and/or mind.

But, what does “doing enough yoga” mean?

Because yoga is much more than asana practice, I believe we are doing more than we realize.  Chances are, if we’re aware enough to notice a difference – if we care that our shoulders are slumping, our work days are unfocused or our relationships are strained – we are, indeed, doing enough.

In my opinion, it’s all yoga.  If we live with sincere intention, a willingness to grow and an awareness of our small part in the big picture, we are “doing yoga.”

According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (the ancient scriptures of Raja Yoga, or, the science of the mind), the goal of yoga is to free the mind of distraction.  Our asana practice is a small part of this – there are seven additional limbs described in the Sutras, and practicing these limbs is a process of developing that distraction-free mind.  A process!  What a relief.  A peaceful mind does not happen overnight.

The eight limbs include: Yama (abstinence), Niyama (observance), Asana (posture), Pranayama (breath control), Pratyahara (sense withdrawal), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (oneness, liberation).  We cycle through these limbs in patient and gradual development – it’s progress, not perfection.  We take one step forward, two steps back at times.  By starting with the ethical, transitioning through the physical then deepening through the mental, we are eventually liberated.

In this case, if we are “doing enough yoga,” we are healthy, we feel serene and life is effortless.  Kind of like an athlete in “The Zone.”

Whereas the Sutras’ Eight Limbs explore the mind, Integral Yoga’s six branches address the entire life of an individual.  Founded by Sri Swami Satchidananda, the Integral Yoga (IY) approach includes: Hatha (physical development), Raja (which, as within the Eight Limbs, includes ethics and philosophy), Bhakti (devotion to, service to and love of a higher power), Karma (acts of selfless service), Jnana (self-analysis and psychology) and Japa (mantra repetition).  IY is an ideological synthesis for the development of the whole person.

Again, lots of opportunities to “do yoga” – with the IY approach, we access the Eight Limbs’ health, serenity and bliss…and live responsibly in the world.

Sutra 2.28 says, “By practice of the limbs, impurities dwindle away and there dawns the light of wisdom, leading to discriminative discernment.”  This is a promise, and reminds me of the third line of the old classic Serenity Prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  Yoga’s process leads to discriminative discernment.  What a gift!

So, the next time you are about to chastise yourself for “not doing enough yoga,” take a discerning pause to remember the process of yoga’s Eight Limbs and the synthesis of Integral Yoga’s six branches.  Then ask yourself, “Was I of service to someone today (Karma Yoga)?  Did I avoid harmful actions (Limb #1, Yama)?  Did I pray to some higher power (Bhakti Yoga)?  Did I practice deep breathing (Limb #4, Pranayama)?  Were my actions ethical (Raja Yoga)?  Did I ponder my purpose in life (Jnana Yoga)?”  And so on.

My guess is, you are doing more yoga than you think.

The physical, psychological and spiritual benefits of practicing the Eight Limbs and/or Integral Yoga are immense.  So give yourself credit for living with good intention, being aware of the world around you and taking time to connect with the universe.  It’s all yoga.

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