The Urban Yoga Den

…where it's all yoga.

How May I Serve You? August 12, 2014

“For as long as space endures and the world exists, may my own existence bring about the end of suffering in the world.”
– Shantideva (8th Century Indian Buddhist Scholar)

*  *  *

I’ve written countless blogs, posts, comments and remarks about suicide, addiction, depression and trauma. I’ve described how the power-trio of recovery programs, yoga and therapy is responsible for my hard-won desire to live – which exists despite my ongoing battle with the desire to die.

So although the suicide of Robin Williams is on my mind and affecting my heart, I don’t want to write another piece about how I stay alive despite the odds. I don’t want to write about my belief that some people – whether ailing from addiction or depression or cancer or poverty or drive-by-shootings – are not meant to make it through…and that I could be one of them. I don’t want to write what I’ve written before. (Although, if you’re interested in those stories – which I poured my heart into – they are listed at the bottom of this blog.) Instead, right now, I want to write about the difference between practicing yoga solely for my own well-being, and, practicing yoga for the sake of supporting the well-being of others. Because at a certain point in my 20+ year practice, I became strong enough to shift my focus from me to you. And I believe that shift is the main reason I’m not dead.

Today, the only reason I continually work so hard to heal myself (it’s a life-long commitment!) is to be of service to others. Yes, those efforts do yield a much welcome reward of feeling better and loving life. Still, my primary purpose is to serve.

*  *  *

EmbraceInterior(12Aug14)

Embrace Yoga, in Adams Morgan, DC. I’m fortunate and grateful to call this beautiful space my yoga HOME – for practicing, teaching, and today, blogging!

In 2008 and 2009, just after receiving my Yoga Teacher Certification, I was hired to design and teach a yoga program at a DC public charter school. Back then, I had no intentions of teaching children. Although my personal practice had always been quite mindful, I wanted to be a Yoga Trainer, pass on physical alignment benefits and work with injured yogis and athletes. But it was a good first job, and, paid quite well. So I started teaching 30 kids per session – at-risk inner-city youth, who were literally climbing the walls, with little interest or ability in slowing down long enough to practice a series of yoga poses, no matter how many physical benefits I touted. One day, out of pure frustration, my approach shifted from the physical to the psychological – and I paused the class to tell them my story. To share that I’d grown up in an environment of addition, chaos and violence. That I was a distracted student and troubled teen. That, potentially, a simple yoga practice might have changed my direction from self-destructive to healthy and productive. And that I may have side-stepped years and years of struggles and pain. They heard me. And although some were still incapable of being present for the practice, they did try harder. One student, Erik, made notable progress. Seriously – this was a kid who could not sit still for 10 seconds, who was constantly being kicked out of his academic classes, who was every teacher’s challenge. The Friday before Spring Break, I asked him to co-teach a class when we returned to school. Tragically, Erik was murdered by his mother’s boyfriend the next day. Upon returning to school, all teachers were asked to reinforce the city’s crisis response team. I ended up sitting in the hallway with six children crying into my lap, asking difficult questions and listening to honest answers. And then I visited each class, leading mindful breathing exercises and listening to honest feelings. I even led a session for the crisis response team and teachers.

Right there, the seed of offering yoga as a sustaining tool for service workers was planted. And as I encountered more and more opportunities to share practices for emotional healing, resilience and empowerment, my own practice became rich and resourceful.

Hanuman pic from Wikipedia

Hanuman, a model of devotion and service.

And thank goodness. Because in 2010 and 2011, I would endure a wide range of major life difficulties. First, I experienced a relationship betrayal. I continued to teach, carefully keeping my emotions separate from class, and drawing upon my personal practice to stay centered and sane. Second, later that year while I was on my way to teach, I learned of the horrible car accident and near death of a dear, dear family member. I could think of no other response but to show up for class. Sitting on the train, walking down the block and pausing before entering the studio, I used my spiritual tools. I sent Metta (prayers for well-being) to my family, I breathed deeply and evenly, I grounded into my feet. And then I walked into the room, put on the music, sat down…and started to cry in front of a crowd of students. We held eye contact and each others’ hearts for a brief moment. I took a cleansing breath, got centered, and invited the group to close their eyes and bring into their hearts anyone in their families who may be suffering. We practiced with more earnestness than any class I’d taught before. The closing OM was one of the most healing moments of my life – and after class, student feedback was positive. Third, I was mugged in front of my apartment on a summer night. Early the next morning, without mentioning the incident, I taught meditation and yoga classes themed on compassion. Just as our Yoga Sutras suggest, I recommended decreasing resentment by cultivating compassion for those that are hurting – including those who direct their pain outward and therefore hurt others. Yes, I was helped by those teachings that morning – and, I would end up devoting months to additional PTSD work to address the anger and fear that would gradually begin to surface and powerfully rule my every breath. Fourth, I ended up extremely depressed. There’d been just too much emotional trauma over the course of those years. In the late summer, I started playing percussion and singing in a Kirtan group and pointing my practice toward Bhakti (devotional) Yoga, which resulted in a growing sense of safety and trust. I also took a break from teaching and focused on addiction recovery activity – attending daily morning meetings, sharing with rigorous honesty, re-connecting with community and offering to be of service however possible. When I returned to teach that autumn, I incorporated Bhakti and Karma (serviceful action) Yoga into my classes.

Some might say that I was teaching for my own benefit. Because clearly, I did benefit. To bring the truth of my life into the safety and care of beloved communities; to gain trust where there was paranoia; to discover new depths of love from connecting with a higher power  – what amazing gifts to myself. At the same time, I believe I offer others my example of acceptance and humanness, and, an infinitely wide-open invitation to bring their authentic selves into my classes…to be messy and bold and honest in the company of caring friends and mindful strangers…to feel the safety and embrace of sacred space..and to take their own precious time to heal and grow.

On a winter Friday, 2012, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting occurred. I was scheduled to teach an evening “Happy Hour” yoga class. After hearing the news, I walked slowly around the city, looking into the eyes and faces of passers-by, wishing wellness for all beings, praying, crying. I knew that my responsibility was to be present with my own response, my own grief, my own needs. To take ample time for that processing. And then, to show up for students. That evening and the next day, my classes were packed – as were classes all over the city and country, I imagine. How noble, when yogis bring their troubles into communal space! I brought my truth to those classes – I shared yoga’s solutions for navigating resentment, anger, grief, pain. I encouraged open minds and hearts. I cried a little. I caught my breath and silently prayed for those crying in front of me. And although my job was to hold space, together, we held space for each other.

None of this is new. For 15 years before becoming a yoga instructor, I brought my struggles, grief, confusion and emotion to yoga classes, and my amazing teachers passed down their tools and solutions. Community connected and supported each other’s healing. Yoga started to chip away at the patterns of pain. Now, as a teacher, all I do is pass that on.

How may I serve you?

How may I serve you?

*  *  *

Yoga does not magically make everything better. But it does offer practical strategies for more gracefully and constructively navigating difficulties. I am driven and honored to share those practices. Today, I teach children, adults, athletes, nonprofit workers, ailing people, healing people, healthy people, studio yogis and kids on the streets. Although I accept many volunteer yoga gigs for cause-related organizations and under-resourced individuals, for the most part, I get paid to teach yoga. Still, I call it Seva – service. I show up for no other reason but to facilitate the students’ practice. I don’t wear fancy pants, I don’t teach exercise, I don’t care to demonstrate hard poses. Simply, I share the foundational yoga tools that have helped me cultivate wellness in a challenging world. And yes, I receive financial compensation for some of it. Because in order to live sustainably, and therefore be available to teach, I need to earn money.

Teaching yoga is an honor and a gift. More importantly, however – practicing yoga is a responsibility. Without that essential sustenance, I have nothing to offer. Without the unmatched benefits of a daily practice that consistently teaches me how to heal, grow and serve (and I will tell you, honestly: on depressed days that practice might only be a little Pranayama and prayer – or a great, big, cleansing cry), I cannot contribute to the healing of the world around me. Each day, I yearn to effectively ask, “How may I serve you?” Each day, if I am useful, I am alive.

Thanks for reading. OM Shanti.

 

*  *  *

Past blogs about experience with and recovery from addiction, depression and trauma:

Jumping Off Of Bridges (From The UYD Archives)

Running Into Nature

Growing Pangs

Shiva And The Darkness

The Yoga Of Being Mugged

Yoga In Action

Wine And Kirtan

Surrender, Recovery And Death

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements
 

Spiritual Activism November 3, 2010

“I don’t want to talk anything political, and will stick just to music and other art forms. There are instant super stars and they also fade away very quickly. What is it that gives the staying power? It is when you can communicate…to your listeners and touch their soul.” – Ravi Shankar

This past Saturday, you could hear a pin drop in my 200+ resident apartment building.  My entire neighborhood was as hushed as during a blizzard.  The “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” was in full throttle down the hill.  I was home, doing this and that.  My Facebook status read, “I am not at the rally.”  Two people “liked” it.

Today – on Election Day, three days after the Comedy Central rally and during a thick period of “activist” invitations via Facebook and e-mail – I am preparing my “Yoga Update” e-newsletter, wrapping up our September/October “Yoga In Action” class focus.

I’ll be frank – the term “yoga activism” is not my personal fave for describing how I might take my practice off the mat and into the world.  Born in DC in 1965 and having grown up here, the word “activism” reminds me of raised fists, raised voices and raised conflict.  I understand that folks want their values, their yearning for change and their messages to be seen and heard on a wide scale; yet I tried that “raising” in my college days and it just didn’t feel right.

Thanks goodness for yoga.  Through its “Karma Yoga,” “Seva” and “selfless service” teachings I have discovered my most comfortable and therefore effective venue for what I (and countless others) call “spiritual activism.”  What distinguishes it from “yoga activism?”

In recent years, many yoga organizations and practitioners have stretched Karma Yoga (or Seva) to a level of “activism,” offering trainings, organizing groups and sponsoring events that raise awareness about causes, purpose and service.  Over this time, I have observed four distinct ways that “yoga activism” manifests.

  1. Some yogis believe in their responsibility to participate in traditional activism (protests, rallies, petitions, campaigns, etc.) to carry messages;
  2. Some share their yoga with at-risk populations, having experienced their own transformation from the practice, and wanting to pass along those tools for change;
  3. Others see the yoga practice itself as a form of values-based activism – in other words, living a spiritual life is the activism.
  4. And others devote themselves to all of the above.

To me, anyone with sincere intentions to carry a message, inspire change and share values through their own attitudes and actions is a spiritual activist.  For me, #3 above is the most natural way for me to express my yoga in action.  In that spirit, I also do a fair amount of #2-like work.

Yoga’s ancient book of Sutras generously offers a design for living where my personal choices can be productive, useful and helpful.  The only thing I have to “raise” is my consciousness.  In this subtle venue, I can indeed be “seen” and “heard” – perhaps not by massive crowds, politicians and media, but definitely seen and heard.

Recently, the barrage of well-intended e-mails and Facebook campaigns, the swarm of do-good organization canvassers on every DC street corner and the excitement-driven pressure to “sign-on” started to feel as assaulting as uninvited telemarketer calls to me.  So I invite you to please let me know if I ever seem pushy or invasive about the things that inspire me.

I earnestly applaud yoga activists for expanding yoga’s purpose and reach.  Most of the time, I feel accepting of their way, my way, all ways.  I may not always hit the mark, but my intentions to live spiritually are strong and in-check.  Some may think I have my head in the sand; I think I have my head atop my neck, hovering above my heart center.

OM Shanti,

Shanti,

Shanti.

Peace,

Peace,

Peace.

 

Focus Wrap Up: Yoga In Action October 28, 2010

To wind up our September/October class focus of “Yoga In Action,” we are expressing appreciation for noble acts of service through Pranayama and Asana.

Whether your service occurs within your family, your workplace, your community or otherwise, please take some time to breath deeply into your beautiful, generous heart center and celebrate your efforts.  Lift your heart to the sky in Chair Pose, Crescent Lunge, Cobra and Bow in gratitude for the service of others.

Whether you held the door open for your neighbor, were patient with an anxious child, rescued a pet, volunteered to teach a yoga class or fortified an at-risk population through your grant writing – I encourage you to now inhale self-appreciation, and on your exhale (ahhhhh) simply rest.

Back in September, we began our exploration of Yoga In Action by practicing self-care.  We acknowledged that self-care often includes asking to be cared for.  We drew upon the infinite resources of the earth beneath and air around us to enhance our yoga practice – and our daily well-being.  We opened our minds to the concepts of forgiveness (of self), acceptance (of self) and surrender (to other).

In October, we identified the tangibles from yoga practice that fortify our service off the mat in the form of Karma Yoga. We took the balanced calm of Pranayama, the supportive foundation of standing poses, the motivating wisdom of the Yama and Niyama and more to our challenges, our opportunities and our efforts to be there for others in Seva (selfless service).

Now it’s time to celebrate, appreciate and recognize your deep intentions over the past two months!  To close our classes, we offer gratitude to those who have been of service to us, as well.  And as we close our Bi-Monthly Yoga In Action focus, I offer gratitude to those who intend take their yoga off the mat and into the world however possible – even by simply sharing your glowing smile at the end of your yoga class!

Be gentle with yourselves, take good care, identify your resources and offer all of this to others.

I leave you with a Hebrew prayer for those who serve humanity, below.  May you continue to serve sustainably.  OM Shanti.

May the one whose spirit is with us in every righteous deed, be with all who work for the good of humanity and bear the burdens of others, and who give bread to the hungry, who clothe the naked, and take the friendless into their homes.  May the work of their hands endure, and may the seed they sow bring abundant harvest. – Mah Tovu prayers for Shabbat morning

 

Focus: Yoga In Action – Forgiveness October 14, 2010

I started writing this post during our 1st month of the Yoga In Action class theme.  During September, we explored self care as an avenue toward selfless service.

The anniversary of 9/11 was looming when I started this post.  On the 10th, I’d flown back to DC from Nashville, where I spent Rosh Hashanah with my dad.  Each year, observing the Jewish High Holy Days launches an earnest exploration of forgiveness and reconciliation.  So the visit to TN was good but intense.  Coming home from the airport, I drove past an outdoor Ramadan break-fast.  All women, seated at a super-long banquet table, eating and smiling and festive.  Beautiful.  10 days later, on Yom Kippur, I would be observing a similar ritual.

The next morning, 9/11, I drove past the Pentagon on the way to teach a class in Virginia.  I was unexpectedly shaken.  Although a friend died as a result of the New York attacks, I’m never sure how the anniversary will affect me from year to year.  This year I cried in front of my class while talking about Sutra 1.33 (the Four Locks & Keys) and how this practice can lead toward forgiveness.

The Sutras teach that the goal of yoga is to clear disturbances from the mind.  Sutra 1.33 suggests practicing compassion to the unhappy, friendliness toward the happy, delight toward the virtuous and compassionate detachment from the non-virtuous. Not just essential for our own peace of mind, these practices help us see all beings as fallible and worthy of love.

I’ve written and shared about the four locks and four keys before.  Almost always, I center my thoughts on how we can use these tools toward others who disturb us.  For the sake of our Yoga In Action focus – particularly in prioritizing self care – can we offer ourselves that compassion, friendliness, delight and compassionate detachment? Can we forgive ourselves when unhappiness grips the day, and/or when we have acted less than virtuous?  Can we delight in our virtues and befriend our happiness?  Can we see ourselves as worthy of love?

Let’s try.

During this year’s High Holy Day process, I meditated and reflected on both forgiveness and self-forgiveness.  The wisdom of aphorism 1.33 from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is helping me have compassion toward myself and detach from my honest human condition and mistakes – so that I may focus on the positive, and when necessary, make authentic, non-guilt-filled amends and work toward reconciliation.  This is Yoga In Action.

This timely juxtaposition of the Jewish New Year, Ramadan and 9/11 gave me the opportunity to consider yoga’s ideological wisdom as part of my High Holy Day reflections.  By including forgiveness and self-forgiveness in my New Year intentions, I am committed to self care and therefore able to offer my peace of mind outward, in service to others.

OM Shanti.

 

Focus: Why Yoga? – Giving Back August 24, 2010

“When we are in pain, we become self-centered and myopic.  When we heal, we become more empathetic, self-less, and sympathetic to the pain and welfare of others.  It is our gift to others to heal ourselves.”  – Max Strom, writer and yoga instructor

The Bi-Monthly Focus in our yoga classes has been “WHY YOGA?” We spent July and August pondering why we come to the mat.  Since July was my birthday month, I reflected about how yoga has carried me through so many life challenges and celebrations since starting my practice in 1993.  And these days, how it allows me to give back to the world that has supported me along the way.

So tell me…why do you practice yoga?

Max’s quote (above) definitely describes my story – nearly two decades ago, pain brought me to yoga; and today, healing allows me to be of service to others.

At the same time, I don’t believe that pain is the only path that can lead a yogi toward a deeply generous practice.  In fact, I hope and pray that healthy and happy people flock to yoga for their own personal reasons.  And I believe that these fortunate people can be of great service when they bring their yoga off their mats and into their worlds.

Because no matter what brought us to yoga in the first place, or, what brings us to return over and over – if we are indeed practicing yoga’s Eight Limbs, and healing ourselves for the sake of reaching Samadhi (what I would describe as a oneness with all), we will inevitably be of service to those around us, in small and great ways.

For example, practicing any of the Yama or Niyama can make us so conscientious that we become more aware of the human condition.  Practicing Pranayama can make our immune system so strong that we are able to show up for work through the flu season.  Practicing Dharana can make us so calm that we end up practicing Ahimsa in the gnarliest of traffic!

What propels me to practice the Eight Limbs of yoga?  Personally, if I’m only practicing some of those limbs, my motives will be self-centered.  That’s just me.  Some people can just practice Asana and find it in their hearts to think of others.  Me?  If I’m just practicing Asana, I’m only thinking about what’s in it for me – my strong arms, my perfect alignment, my awesome balance.

The other day in Caroline Weaver’s Strong Hold Level 2 class, I felt like a million bucks.  Typically, I feel very physically challenged.  The difference?  Caroline asked us to set an intention for our practice.  I silently repeated my usual pre-class prayer, “I dedicate this class to you, my teacher, and to all of my teachers.”  Then Caroline up-ed the ante – she asked us to deepen our intention until something was at stake, basically.  Immediately I heard myself say,  “This is not for me, this is for You, this is for all.” I swear, this was the first thing that popped into my mind; and I repeated it through the entire set.  Despite the fact that Level 2 poses typically kick my butt, I had an easeful practice, full of light, smiles and even giggles at times.  I was propelled by the thought of helping others.

Above all, my motive must be gratitude. Gratitude for all that yoga has given me.  For this I feel a responsibility to share those gifts with others.

Call it Seva, call it Karma Yoga, call Yoga/Spiritual/Conscious Activism, or simply call it Giving Back.

So, for this final week of “WHY YOGA?” – our July/August Bi-Monthly Focus – we are exploring the evolution from self-centered motivations toward other-centric reasons.  How can we be of service by keeping ourselves well through and using the tools of yoga?  This will segue into our September/October Focus of “Yoga In Action” – a campaign that I’m leading for Off The Mat Into The World (www.offthematintotheworld.org) here in DC.  More later…

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.