The Urban Yoga Den

…where it's all yoga.

Yoga Class Focus: The Freedom to Heal August 29, 2014

Make space. Clear the way. Widen the paths. And in this liberation…heal.

The theme of my July classes was FREEDOM; and we kicked off our month of focused practices with a special “Declaration of Independence” workshop.  I teach this July 4th workshop annually; and each year, I’ve approached the session with a hint of motivational speaker style. “You can liberate yourself of obstacles and declare new truths!” Together, in the spirit of our forefathers, we celebrated Sankalpa – resolute intention for change.

MatFeetJournalCandleIncense(Summer2014)This year was different. This July 4th, the fires of freedom were not blazing with glory. I toned down. I got real. I simplified. And I asked: “What is your dissatisfaction with life? Could you still find inner peace if nothing changes?” Because life is a mix of action and change, and, surrender and acceptance. Yoga does not promise us that everything will be exactly as we wish it to be. That if we set a Sankalpa, have strong resolve and work to manifest our deepest intentions, everything will go our way. Nope. On the contrary, “Yogas Chitta Vritti Nirodhah” – the 2nd aphorism in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – teaches us that, even when things don’t go our way, we can still enjoy a calm mind.

So, mirroring the motivations of our country’s founders, we spent the morning of Independence Day professing our dissatisfactions. And then, we got on our mats to explore how we can cultivate flexibility, patience, curiosity, willingness, acceptance, surrender in our bodies. After our Asana practice, we invited those same concepts into our minds and journaled: “What if the change I seek can’t happen right now? What if it can never happen? What if the outcome of the change is not what I expected?” Wrapping up the morning with Yoga Nidra and a guided journey, we invited this spaciousness into our lives.

Over the month, we continued with similar themes, discovering physical liberation in twists and binds. With the Yoga Sutras as our guide, and “Sthira Sukham Asanam” as our mantra, remained devoted to balancing effort with ease in order to unlock life’s pressures. We affirmed that, even in a bind, we can feel free.

Freedom! Freedom to move with ease. Freedom to let go of expectations. Freedom to accept things – and ourselves – exactly as they are.

In August, with spaciousness as our best friend, we moved on to our new class focus: HEALING.

Our precious ancient Sutras promise: “Heyam Dukham Asanam.” As Swami Vivekananda translated: “The misery which has not yet come is to be avoided.” Not “can be” avoided. Not “might be” avoided. IS. TO. BE. AVOIDED. I don’t know about you, but every time I read this aphorism, I breathe more freely. Because I remember our ancient yogis’ simple formula – if I practice yoga as described in our foundational texts, I will sidestep future physical AND emotional pain.

So at this point in development – after setting foundations (June’s focus) and cultivating freedom (July’s focus), there is room to heal. With devotion toward practicing with a balance of effort and ease, action and surrender, and, change and acceptance, I have the spaciousness to heal past pain and patterns, and step into the future with wholeness.

This is not just a monthly theme for practice. This is not just a Sankalpa set for class. This is not just my body on the mat. This is not just my journal in a workshop. This is life.

Note to self…

Thank you for reading; and, thank you for practicing with me – even if/when you are miles away. OM Shanti.

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Jumping Off Of Bridges (From The UYD Archives) June 19, 2014

19 JUNE, 2014

A couple of months ago, I heard about a California yoga teacher trainee who committed suicide. Everyone in her yoga circle was completely shocked. They said there were no signs…

Last week, I received a gutsy, honest message on my Urban Yoga Den Facebook page about my “Jumping Off Of Bridges” post from March 2013.

“Even though we are strangers you saved my life,” she wrote.

Her Facebook note went on to courageously reveal:

“I’ve done yoga on and off since I was 14. Within the past 5 years I began to take it more seriously than ever. But, like all good things do when someone is depressed , it got pushed to the way side. … Deep down I knew I couldn’t kill myself… So what does any iphone user do? I Googled ‘why you shouldn’t kill yourself.’ And your blog post about the Philadelphia bridge popped up. I read it. And reread it. And bawled my frigging eyes out because the story was so heart breaking and because low and behold someone got it.”

Wow.

This, folks, is why I write how/what/when I do. The practice keeps me alive, and apparently, some others, as well. I recommend trying it…let us know how you really feel. Stick a pin in it. Don’t be alone. Write it out. Because I no longer say, “I don’t want to live.” I might say, “I don’t want to live like this,” but I know that “this” can change with effort…and/or angels. Because before I could even write usefully about this stuff, I had to first reach out for my angels, my life-savers.

However…I will say this from experience with dear ones who took their own lives: sometimes there are signs, sometimes there are not. Sometimes they reach out, sometimes they cannot.

I argue to say that: we are not saved by each other, but by our own seeking. Thank goodness for the times that we are compelled to reach out – for inspiration, for hope…for each other. For our angels who “get it.” In this, we save ourselves.

Love to you, my dear reader. I’m glad we’re both here to tell our tales.

Here, in retro, is mine…

*  *  *

JUMPING OFF OF BRIDGES
(MARCH 2013)

Five years ago this month, I was scheduled to jump off the Ben Franklin Bridge.  I wrote it on my calendar for March 7, 2008: “Philly.”  I was planning to drive from DC to see the Irish band Hothouse Flowers, get drunk, and then jump.

That February, my fiancé had broken up with me – with no notice, with little explanation, and without ever speaking to me again.

I was devastated.  This was the one.  This was the relationship that erased all of my past failures and illustrated all of my current accomplishments.  This relationship proved that I was beyond a painful history with men, and moving forward with a healed soul.  This relationship gave me everything I dreamed of: a wonderful man, two amazing step sons, an awesome dog and cat, and a happy household.  I hadn’t recognized that, beneath this perfect picture, my partner was harboring his own past relationship resentments, a dark and debilitating depression…and a deep longing to escape.

My heart was smashed with his phone call.  The pain of the loss was unbearable.  So I decided to kill myself.

*  *  *

By March 2008, I’d survived multiple suicide attempts throughout my troubled life.  In fact, I’d spent most of the first 37 years of my life wishing or trying to die.

GtownFoggyMorningKeyBridgeFlipped(Nov11)It seemed meant to be.  I was unplanned – conceived after my mother had a tubal ligation!  I once heard my parents fighting about money problems – saying that if I hadn’t have been born, they would be better off.  I developed a deep feeling of being an unwanted problem.

(When I write truthfully about my family, I always have to add: I love and respect my parents, and I love and respect my family.  I understand that we all suffered – even way before I was born.  The ancestry of pain leaves a tough road to travel.  We do our best.)

As a kid, my first suicide attempt was trying to smother myself with a pillow when my beloved Aunt Jeannie died from Cirrhosis of the liver.  Much of my family suffered from alcoholism and its related violence and neglect.  Despite this, Aunt Jeannie consistently showered me with attention, affection and adoration.  She would swoop in for visits, in all of her New York City glamour and flair, bringing gifts and hugs and kisses.  She was a star to me.  When she died, I wanted to die.  I didn’t know that it’s impossible to smother ones self.  I passed out from crying and took a long nap.

From there forward, I thrived on recklessness.  When I was 17, deep depression felt like a mid-life crisis; and I believed I would be dead by 34.  As I got older, I essentially divorced from my family.  I raised myself, nurtured self-destructive tendencies and geared straight toward danger.  I experienced sexual molestation from community members, rape by a friend’s brother, beatings by strangers and boyfriends, and more.  Other dangers included driving maniacally.  I once landed in a life-risking crash – after which I felt very angry to still be alive.

My next deliberate suicide attempts were as an adult, when I hit an emotional, physical and spiritual bottom while living in New Orleans.  In those days, I was convinced that everyone around me was achieving their dreams, while I was at a dead end.  My “romantic” relationships were abusive and empty, my professional life was non-linear and grasping, my connection to god was willfully severed.  After quitting a retail job, I spent my mornings, days and nights drinking and hooking up with strangers and street musicians.  I used my parents’ gas station credit card to buy booze and food.   And my worried and enabling dad paid my rent (bless his un-knowing heart).  My reality was shameful and sad, and it sickened me.  I saw no other way through, than to get out.  Within one week, I tried to kill myself twice, using different mixtures of alcohol and substances.  I woke up dazed both times.  And again, I was very angry to be alive.

After that week, it appeared that I was not meant to die.  (Yet.)  So I ruefully resigned to keep living.  Over the next decade, despite desperate, in-vain attempts to figure out how to decrease life’s pain…despite becoming a vegetarian, seeing therapists, moving all over the country, observing religious ritual, and even trying yoga, I would drink myself to oblivion countless times.

In fact, all along my life timeline, the most pervasive and slow suicide effort was my succumbing to addiction.  I drank alcoholically from age 11.  For the next 25 years, I would deaden myself to emotions, to growth, to the world.

However, despite what looked like a road to ruin, my journey took a transformational turn after I turned 37, in 2002.

*  *  *

Also by March 2008, I had finally enjoyed a sweet, 5-year phase of contentment and joy.  I had been working a strong program of addiction recovery and was 5+ years sober.  I’d been seeing a very effective therapist for those years, and was healing from my traumatic childhood and destructive adulthood.  Plus, although I started while still drinking alcoholically, I’d been practicing yoga for 15 years, and was feeling it gradually shape my emotions, my growth and my world.

So, when the February breakup happened, I was blindsided and felt betrayed – not just by my fiancé, but by life itself.  After so much transformational work, this crap would still happen?  Well, yes.  It would.  And I could not accept that.  So the March 7th Philly trip was planned.

Yet clearly, I did not jump off the Ben Franklin Bridge.  What happened?  Yoga, recovery and therapy – my power trio – gratefully intervened.

The addiction recovery program taught me to be rigorously honest.  Right after the breakup, I showed up at meetings, blurted out my pain and cried myself into a puddle on the floor.  I spoke about not being able to eat.  Recovery friends came to my house with irresistible Thai lemongrass soup.  I spoke about feeling betrayed by god and feeling that I would die from the pain of loss.  Recovery friends listened intently and sensed that I was at risk.

Knowing that I was planning to go see Hothouse Flowers in Philly – and that my ex and I had taken our 1st road trip together to see that band in that city – a recovery friend invited me to go to a Brazilian Dance class at a yoga studio with her on March 7th.   OK, she didn’t just “invite” me – she pretty much forced me.  Up to that night, I had primarily been practicing yoga on my own at home for a few years.  Being back in a mindful, intentional space felt healing to me.  I bought a class pass and started showing up for (and crying my eyes out during) yoga classes regularly.  I couldn’t believe I’d abandoned practicing yoga with others, in community.  Even the minor embarrassment of crying in public was far outweighed by that public’s absolute embrace and understanding.

Having skipped my March 7th suicide plan in favor of Brazilian Dance at a yoga studio, my therapist was relieved.  Still, because my depression persisted, she wanted me to be evaluated for psychiatric medication.  I visited her recommended psychiatrist, and had an eye-opening experience.

I described my lifelong desire to die.  I described the conditions of my childhood and my history of self-destruction.  I described my self-reliance, separation and isolation.  I described the breakup, the devastation and my March 7th suicide plan.  I also described my rigorous efforts in yoga, recovery and therapy.  I described my friends, communities and connections.

At the end of our appointment, he said: “In my evaluation, I do not see a need for medication.  You seemTouristShot to be doing all the right things.  For you, reaching out for help and sharing with others is 100% more powerful than any medication.”  I was shocked.  “Even though I recently planned my suicide?” I asked.  He countered, “That was supposed to happen on March 7th, right?  Today is March 31st.”  I had to laugh.  The psychiatrist explained that, in my case, suicidal ideation is a coping mechanism.  When I imagine or even instigate my own death, I feel relief from my pain, and start going toward the solution.

I’ve been trudging toward the solution ever since.  Life since 2008 has become more challenging, to be honest.  I have been through additional relationship betrayals; I have lost jobs; I have been mugged; and I have experienced other hardships.  My friends and family have experienced very, very tough trials.  But even with these troubles, life is not like that destructive past.  I am not engulfed in atmospheres of addiction, crisis and danger.  In late 2008, I became a yoga teacher, and my life now revolves around this beautiful community.  In 2012, I celebrated 10 years of sobriety, and I currently continue to attend meetings.  I practice the 12 Steps of recovery and the 8 Limbs of yoga to my best ability.  I strive to show gratitude for my own healing and to share transformational practices by being of service however possible.  And I have continued periodic therapy with the non-medication prescribing doctor.

*  *  *

Yesterday, I was driving from Philly to New Jersey while spending the weekend reuniting with some yoga teacher training friends.  Suddenly, I gasped at the irony – without planning this, I was driving over the Ben Franklin Bridge, five years after planning to jump off of it.  The previous evening, I had been to a Kirtan concert, where much water was consumed.  K.D. Lang’s version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (made “famous” by suicide victim Jeff Buckley) was playing on my car stereo.  And I was feeling quite distant from devastation, depression and death.

How could I not cry tears of gratitude and joy?  I knew at once that I had to tell this story.  I know people who, right now, are suffering from the pain of great losses.  Who are considering death and actively trying to kill themselves in one way or another.  I love these people.  I LOVE YOU.

I share my story to say: pain sucks!  And pain ends.  This too shall pass.  My healing power trio is yoga, recovery and therapy.  You might need or prefer a different combo.  No matter what, I urge you to seek what works for you.  To start – say “yes” when people offer soup, dance classes, meetings and conversation.  Jump off of that bridge in a different way – allow yourself to fall into the arms of others.  Surrender.

I LOVE YOU.  OM Shanti.

 

When Things Go South August 9, 2013

“Grant me strength, as I go from here, to do your bidding.”  ~ prayer from recovery programsStormClouds

Today I want to be rigorously honest.  Today I want to speak as a person for whom the stars have never miraculously aligned in my favor, simply because I visualized an ideal, or “manifested” an outcome, or even, drastically changed my life for the positive.

Today I want to say, bluntly – my life has been one high wall after another.  Despite the best of intentions (i.e. leaving my beloved hometown of DC, and moving to Nashville in order to make a living amends to my father by being of service to him as he ages); despite the moral support and positive thoughts of friends; despite my daily routines of prayer and meditation and surrendering over and over…most of the time, things have not worked out in SuperMoon3SlowGrassa way that creates a sustainable or easeful journey for me.

So today, I want to frankly say – I have no hope.  Zero.

My efforts toward this definite move to Nashville are not yielding tangible results.  I don’t know why I keep praying and meditating; more and more I don’t believe there is a being who hears or answers prayers; I am terrified of not securing the foundational things I need to make this move happen; I am even more terrified of not securing the foundational things I need to create a sustainable life in Nashville.

But.

I keep going through the motions.

Every day, I wake up and do my Sadhana.  I say the prayers.  I do the yoga practices.  I surrender to my spiritual routine.  And I don’t do this to get some kind of payback that will add up to a miraculously easeful future.  I do them for the sake of the present moment.  And then the next.  And the next.

I am here to serve.  Whether it’s to serve my current yoga students by remaining peaceful during stressful times, or, to cheerfully serve our pizza customers at my restaurant job – I am here to be a part of the cycle of one being showing up for another.  Breath by breath.  Moment to moment.  One day at a time.

SunriseFinalDayTo maintain an ounce of positive forward momentum during this very demanding period of great transition, related emotions, inevitable doubt and endless To-Do Lists – I continue to force myself to ask for help, even though I feel like I’m asking too much; I stay focused on the ways that others do show up for me; I concentrate on the present moment as much as possible; I put my blind faith in a mysterious universe whose directions, plans and designs are beyond my comprehension; and frankly – I pretend.  For myself, not others – I pretend to have hope.

Most importantly, even during the most doubtful times, I act as if I believe in a higher being who has my back, as I attempt to hurdle yet another high wall.

“Grant me strength, as I go from here, to do your bidding.”  OM Namah Shivaya.

May you find the strength to hurdle your walls.  OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

 

Jumping Off Of Bridges March 25, 2013

Five years ago this month, I was scheduled to jump off the Ben Franklin Bridge.  I wrote it on my calendar for March 7, 2008: “Philly.”  I was planning to drive from DC to see the Irish band Hothouse Flowers, get drunk, and then jump.

That February, my fiancé had broken up with me – with no notice, with little explanation, and without ever speaking to me again.

I was devastated.  This was the one.  This was the relationship that erased all of my past failures and illustrated all of my current accomplishments.  This relationship proved that I was beyond a painful history with men, and moving forward with a healed soul.  This relationship gave me everything I dreamed of: a wonderful man, two amazing step sons, an awesome dog and cat, and a happy household.  I hadn’t recognized that, beneath this perfect picture, my partner was harboring his own past relationship resentments, a dark and debilitating depression…and a deep longing to escape.

My heart was smashed with his phone call.  The pain of the loss was unbearable.  So I decided to kill myself.

*  *  *

By March 2008, I’d survived multiple suicide attempts throughout my troubled life.  In fact, I’d spent most of the first 37 years of my life wishing or trying to die.

GtownFoggyMorningKeyBridgeFlipped(Nov11)It seemed meant to be.  I was unplanned – conceived after my mother had a tubal ligation!  I once heard my parents fighting about money problems – saying that if I hadn’t have been born, they would be better off.  I developed a deep feeling of being an unwanted problem.

(When I write truthfully about my family, I always have to add: I love and respect my parents, and I love and respect my family.  I understand that we all suffered – even way before I was born.  The ancestry of pain leaves a tough road to travel.  We do our best.)

As a kid, my first suicide attempt was trying to smother myself with a pillow when my beloved Aunt Jeannie died from Cirrhosis of the liver.  Much of my family suffered from alcoholism and its related violence and neglect.  Despite this, Aunt Jeannie consistently showered me with attention, affection and adoration.  She would swoop in for visits, in all of her New York City glamour and flair, bringing gifts and hugs and kisses.  She was a star to me.  When she died, I wanted to die.  I didn’t know that it’s impossible to smother ones self.  I passed out from crying and took a long nap.

From there forward, I thrived on recklessness.  When I was 17, deep depression felt like a mid-life crisis; and I believed I would be dead by 34.  As I got older, I essentially divorced from my family.  I raised myself, nurtured self-destructive tendencies and geared straight toward danger.  I experienced sexual molestation from community members, rape by a friend’s brother, beatings by strangers and boyfriends, and more.  Other dangers included driving maniacally.  I once landed in a life-risking crash – after which I felt very angry to still be alive.

My next deliberate suicide attempts were as an adult, when I hit an emotional, physical and spiritual bottom while living in New Orleans.  In those days, I was convinced that everyone around me was achieving their dreams, while I was at a dead end.  My “romantic” relationships were abusive and empty, my professional life was non-linear and grasping, my connection to god was willfully severed.  After quitting a retail job, I spent my mornings, days and nights drinking and hooking up with strangers and street musicians.  I used my parents’ gas station credit card to buy booze and food.   And my worried and enabling dad paid my rent (bless his un-knowing heart).  My reality was shameful and sad, and it sickened me.  I saw no other way through, than to get out.  Within one week, I tried to kill myself twice, using different mixtures of alcohol and substances.  I woke up dazed both times.  And again, I was very angry to be alive.

After that week, it appeared that I was not meant to die.  (Yet.)  So I ruefully resigned to keep living.  Over the next decade, despite desperate, in-vain attempts to figure out how to decrease life’s pain…despite becoming a vegetarian, seeing therapists, moving all over the country, observing religious ritual, and even trying yoga, I would drink myself to oblivion countless times.

In fact, all along my life timeline, the most pervasive and slow suicide effort was my succumbing to addiction.  I drank alcoholically from age 11.  For the next 25 years, I would deaden myself to emotions, to growth, to the world.

However, despite what looked like a road to ruin, my journey took a transformational turn after I turned 37, in 2002.

*  *  *

Also by March 2008, I had finally enjoyed a sweet, 5-year phase of contentment and joy.  I had been working a strong program of addiction recovery and was 5+ years sober.  I’d been seeing a very effective therapist for those years, and was healing from my traumatic childhood and destructive adulthood.  Plus, although I started while still drinking alcoholically, I’d been practicing yoga for 15 years, and was feeling it gradually shape my emotions, my growth and my world.

So, when the February breakup happened, I was blindsided and felt betrayed – not just by my fiancé, but by life itself.  After so much transformational work, this crap would still happen?  Well, yes.  It would.  And I could not accept that.  So the March 7th Philly trip was planned.

Yet clearly, I did not jump off the Ben Franklin Bridge.  What happened?  Yoga, recovery and therapy – my power trio – gratefully intervened.

The addiction recovery program taught me to be rigorously honest.  Right after the breakup, I showed up at meetings, blurted out my pain and cried myself into a puddle on the floor.  I spoke about not being able to eat.  Recovery friends came to my house with irresistible Thai lemongrass soup.  I spoke about feeling betrayed by god and feeling that I would die from the pain of loss.  Recovery friends listened intently and sensed that I was at risk.

Knowing that I was planning to go see Hothouse Flowers in Philly – and that my ex and I had taken our 1st road trip together to see that band in that city – a recovery friend invited me to go to a Brazilian Dance class at a yoga studio with her on March 7th.   OK, she didn’t just “invite” me – she pretty much forced me.  Up to that night, I had primarily been practicing yoga on my own at home for a few years.  Being back in a mindful, intentional space felt healing to me.  I bought a class pass and started showing up for (and crying my eyes out during) yoga classes regularly.  I couldn’t believe I’d abandoned practicing yoga with others, in community.  Even the minor embarrassment of crying in public was far outweighed by that public’s absolute embrace and understanding.

Having skipped my March 7th suicide plan in favor of Brazilian Dance at a yoga studio, my therapist was relieved.  Still, because my depression persisted, she wanted me to be evaluated for psychiatric medication.  I visited her recommended psychiatrist, and had an eye-opening experience.

I described my lifelong desire to die.  I described the conditions of my childhood and my history of self-destruction.  I described my self-reliance, separation and isolation.  I described the breakup, the devastation and my March 7th suicide plan.  I also described my rigorous efforts in yoga, recovery and therapy.  I described my friends, communities and connections.

At the end of our appointment, he said: “In my evaluation, I do not see a need for medication.  You seemTouristShot to be doing all the right things.  For you, reaching out for help and sharing with others is 100% more powerful than any medication.”  I was shocked.  “Even though I recently planned my suicide?” I asked.  He countered, “That was supposed to happen on March 7th, right?  Today is March 31st.”  I had to laugh.  The psychiatrist explained that, in my case, suicidal ideation is a coping mechanism.  When I imagine or even instigate my own death, I feel relief from my pain, and start going toward the solution.

I’ve been trudging toward the solution ever since.  Life since 2008 has become more challenging, to be honest.  I have been through additional relationship betrayals; I have lost jobs; I have been mugged; and I have experienced other hardships.  My friends and family have experienced very, very tough trials.  But even with these troubles, life is not like that destructive past.  I am not engulfed in atmospheres of addiction, crisis and danger.  In late 2008, I became a yoga teacher, and my life now revolves around this beautiful community.  In 2012, I celebrated 10 years of sobriety, and I currently continue to attend meetings.  I practice the 12 Steps of recovery and the 8 Limbs of yoga to my best ability.  I strive to show gratitude for my own healing and to share transformational practices by being of service however possible.  And I have continued periodic therapy with the non-medication prescribing doctor.

*  *  *

Yesterday, I was driving from Philly to New Jersey while spending the weekend reuniting with some yoga teacher training friends.  Suddenly, I gasped at the irony – without planning this, I was driving over the Ben Franklin Bridge, five years after planning to jump off of it.  The previous evening, I had been to a Kirtan concert, where much water was consumed.  K.D. Lang’s version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (made “famous” by suicide victim Jeff Buckley) was playing on my car stereo.  And I was feeling quite distant from devastation, depression and death.

How could I not cry tears of gratitude and joy?  I knew at once that I had to tell this story.  I know people who, right now, are suffering from the pain of great losses.  Who are considering death and actively trying to kill themselves in one way or another.  I love these people.  I LOVE YOU.

I share my story to say: pain sucks!  And pain ends.  This too shall pass.  My healing power trio is yoga, recovery and therapy.  You might need or prefer a different combo.  No matter what, I urge you to seek what works for you.  To start – say “yes” when people offer soup, dance classes, meetings and conversation.  Jump off of that bridge in a different way – allow yourself to fall into the arms of others.  Surrender.

I LOVE YOU.  OM Shanti.

 

20 Years of Yoga. 10 Years of Recovery. 1 Day at a Time. October 16, 2012

Over the past 20 years, yoga has changed me.

This journey of cultivating a constructive way of living has guided me through many styles and teachers, many stops and starts, and many hard-learned lessons. When I first started practicing in 1993, the transformation felt quick and intense. My insides were uprooted and exposed. I started to see myself clearly. My self-centered, self-reliant nature had landed me in the vice-grip of substance addiction. Long-term change was necessary, or I would die.

Thankfully, yoga gradually dissolved those destructive patterns; and after my 1st 10 years of practice I became flexible, willing and teachable. Still addicted, however, I reached an all-time low in 2002 – and I surrendered. I finally reached out for help.

I am deeply grateful to share that next Monday, October 22nd, I will observe 10 years of sobriety – and 10 years of complementing yoga’s foundational design for living with a recovery program that addresses the cunning, baffling and powerful disease of addiction.

Our October class focus is Change – how has yoga changed you? See you soon! OM Shanti.

 

My Mother is My Guru November 2, 2011

Mom’s been on my mind a lot lately.

And y’know, it makes sense.  I’ve been singing a lot (my mother taught me to sing).  It’s Autumn (October 2nd would have been her 81st birthday).  Thanksgiving is approaching (my family celebrated our last holiday season with Mom 10 years ago).  And I recently celebrated my 9th year clean and sober (my mom died as a result of long-term alcoholism).

I miss her.  I miss her right now.

Nearly a decade after her death, she still taps me on the shoulder at times.  She taps me when I’m playing percussion with bands, chanting devotional prayers at Kirtans, singing Gospel standards at open mics and lighting the Chanukah candles.  She taps me when my yoga instructor asks me to think of my most important life teacher.  She tapped me this morning while I was meditating.  She taps me when I’m pruning plants or arranging flowers.  She taps me when I’m decorating my home.  She taps me when I’m cooking a soup.

There are times when I reach out to tap her, too.  To hear her opinion.  To ask for her embrace.  To thank her for my life.  To apologize for any harm I did to her.  To grieve the pain of her life.  To send her the love she deserves.

I didn’t always love my mom the way I came to love her later in my life…later in her life…and then after she died.

*  *  *

I’m about to tell you some very personal and difficult stories.  Some are smiling and shiny; some are gritty and rough.  All are bittersweet.  I’ve selected these stories because they specifically prove that, indeed, my mother is the greatest Guru ever.  For me.

When I was young I hated my mother for being an alcoholic.  As an adult, I would learn more about the disease of alcoholism and honor the tragedy of her life.  But while growing up, I simply resented how drunk she got.   I was constantly afraid that my friends and the community would see her drunk; and because they frequently saw her, I was frequently embarrassed.  One time I spilled out the drink that she intended to take in the car on our way to Shabbat services – and she slapped me.  It was a gin martini.  To this day, I cannot stomach the smell of gin.

There were times when she came through as a great mother.  She was a hard worker, had full-time jobs, and did not drink during the day.  She truly wanted to show up, and when she could, she did.   But what I understand now is that her efforts to parent were overshadowed by the neglect.  In the end, alcohol always won her attention and became her priority.  Spill it out, and you became a threat.  So I learned to keep a distance.

*  *  *

During my college years, I grew to appreciate my mother.  My attitude shifted after I took my family to see a friend’s concert.  The next day at lunch, my friend said, “It was great to meet your mom.  For the longest time, I thought she’d died before we met.  You always talked about your dad – you never mentioned your mom.”  Whoa.  I had no idea I’d erased her so completely.  And then my friend said, “Y’know, you get a lot from her.”  I was so pissed off!  I argued, “No way, I have nothing in common with her!”  So he stated the obvious, judging by what I had told him in the rare instances of speaking about my mom, and his impression the night before.  She grew up singing; music is her passion; she gravitates toward soul music; she loves talking with other musicians; and, she was so comfortable backstage – it was the most natural place she could be.

That day, I surrendered my resentment and admitted that my mother had been an ally and soul-mate all along.  Clearly, I got a lot from her!  The passion for music, for soulful cultures, for gardening, for cooking, for interior design, for spirituality.  My mother taught me to sing, primarily through chanting the Sh’ma, a Jewish prayer, in harmony.

My mother did so much to inspire and encourage creativity.  Every morning, she’d have her coffee and cigarette while listening to WMAL-AM, when it was a jazz station.  Over breakfast I was exposed to the music that my mom had sung in talent shows and concerts – great vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Doris Day, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and more.  Although a blue eyed farm girl from the capitol of country music, my mom gravitated toward jazz and gospel.  In fact, I have her 1948 song book of Negro Spirituals.  This immersion in soulful music influenced me to write my own songs and perform them at my parents’ frequent parties.  Mom enrolled me in voice lessons.  On beach trips, she’d blast the radio and we’d all sing along.  She invited my high school New Wave band to hold a house concert.  When I was a little older, my drummer boyfriend invited me to tour California with his band – Dad said a firm “no” but Mom fought for me.  (I went to Cali.)  And so on.

At the same time, many opportunities were missed.  For example, there was a lot of self-taught musicianship and talent that was never deepened with consistent instruction or plans for ongoing development.  I do regret this and often feel that music education might have been my best choice for college.  Looking back, I don’t blame my mom for any of this, because I am certain she would have guided me in that direction if she could have.  I blame the disease of alcoholism.

*  *  *

As my mom became progressively ill, my love for her grew immensely.  Alcoholism and related troubles continued to take its toll in more serious ways.  In her 60s, Mom had cancer three times.  On the outside, she remained the strong-willed woman who could get through anything.  She continued planting gardens, harvesting herbs, cooking from scratch, building an art studio in her bedroom, doing crafts, listening to music, smoking cigarettes, drinking gin.

But there were points where I witnessed her heartbreaking vulnerability.  With each cancer, my mother never completely healed – more and more complications arose.  She became scared.  I once heard her crying in bed the night before one of her many surgeries.  When she was diagnosed with emphysema, she quit smoking and remarked with self-disgust, “I could have done that a long time ago.”  She would willingly try my yoga and diet suggestions, but was so sick that she’d end up feeling worse.  Toward the end, I remember laying next to her tired body on yet another day that she woke up with a “bug” that left her vomiting and weakened.  I will never forget the terror in her eyes when I urged her to go to the hospital.  Perhaps she knew she was dying and wanted to stay at home as long as possible.

That was Thanksgiving, 10 years ago.  I think the family dinner included Mom, Dad, two of my sisters, three of their kids and me.  That night, in my mom’s art studio, I drew an abstract of the scene.  My mother and father were angels at the heads of the table – Mom’s garden spade and a green vine enveloped us on one side; Dad’s cigar and its smoke on the other.  To me, both the vine and the smoke represented protection.  I sensed it was Mom’s last Thanksgiving.  I was right.

*  *  *

After my mom died, I developed a deep, knowing compassion for her.  Interestingly enough, I got sober six months after her death.  I’d started drinking at age 11, to calm the childhood chaos and hush the deep resentments.  Twenty five years later, as I came to understand the cunning, baffling and powerful disease that nearly killed me, I also came to understand the disease that succeeded in killing my mom.  Listening to other recovering alcoholics’ speak, I heard my mom’s story.  I saw how the disease had destroyed her life and consequently affected mine.  And I loved her even more.

My greatest awakening about my mom’s life came about four years ago.  By complete surprise, I found out that she had a child before meeting my father.  Stories said that she’d been hanging out with musicians in her native Nashville, might have been drinking, might have been raped…and ended up pregnant.  Her parents sent her away, to a “home for women” in DC.  The home arranged the birth and subsequent adoption.  They say that Mom was so angry, she never forgave her parents.  And so I found yet another thing that my mother and I had in common – we both drank to kill life’s pain and drown our resentments.

The biggest difference is: I got lucky and got sober; she did not.  I take that very, very seriously.

*  *  *

So yes, my mother is my Guru.  Throughout all the phases of my relationship with her – dead and alive – she has been my most influential teacher.  She teaches me with the light, and she teaches me from the darkness.  She teaches me through what she did, and what she would/could/did not do.  Her influence drives my passions and my purpose.

I love everything about her.  The singing lessons, the slaps, the strong will, the vulnerability.  She is the ultimate model of the perfectly imperfect human that I strive to be.

It’s taken me a day to write this.  I started when I finished meditating this morning.  I stopped and started and stopped and started again.  I cried my heart out.  There’s so much more than what you’ve read above, so many more experiences and stories, so much more grief and love.

*  *  *

Back in 2009, I went on tour with a folk-pop band and I took along a photo of my mom.  I’ve heard that the picture was taken in DC, at the women’s home, some time after she had the baby. She is beautiful and glamorous; she is too thin and her eyes look cold; she stands tall and her hands fumble with each other self-consciously. So I wanted to take this version of her on this exciting musical journey. Every night before I went to sleep, I lit a candle and thanked my mom.  I now play percussion and sing sacred chants in an all-female Kirtan group.  I’ve noticed that Kirtan leaders and spiritual teachers typically create an altar with a picture of their Guru.  Coming full circle, I can think of no one more perfect to place on my altar than the woman who sang Hebrew prayers with me, every night at bedtime.

Good night, Mom.  OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

 

Clearing the Obstacles August 6, 2011

I am sorry to hear your pain.  You are a wonderful human being and deserve tranquility, peace, and love.  I would suggest that you stay focused on what is good for YOU, rest will follow.  –  letter from a friend

This quote sounds like something I would say to a student or friend.  Instead, it is an e-mail that a friend just sent to me.  I know he meant to write, “…stay focused on what is good for YOU, THE rest will follow.”  Yet the fact is, if I stay focused on what is good for me, indeed, rest will follow.  And I really, really need some rest.  The kind of rest that allows the heart to remember its yearnings, yearnings to cultivate clarity, clarity to turn into action, and action to yield change.

This has been the hardest blog to write, ever.  I keep starting and stopping; switching directions; adding this and that.  Stopping.  Sobbing.  And starting again.

It’s difficult to be 100% honest, and that’s what I need to do.  It’s difficult to not shade my current negative state with the positive solutions of yoga.  Is it yogic to admit that I am in pain, and that my usual solutions seem out of reach?

*  *  *

I feel it’s time for big change and I’m starting with small things.  But I wish I could crack myself open and re-program.  – letter to a friend

Last week, on my 46th birthday, I started parting my hair on the opposite side.

Ganesha, new hair part, pneumonia and me on my 46th birthday.

Immediately, I felt like a new person.  I saw myself differently.  My eyes looked happier.  My head felt lighter.  My mind was clearer.

The weekend before, I’d hit an emotional bottom where I spent an entire day acting very un-yoga-like.  OK, I’ll say it – although I haven’t had a drink or drug in nearly 9 years, I was acting as toxic as a drunken addict.  It was not pretty, people.  Some who went through that day with me were very forgiving.  Some were not.  Some recognized that stress from recent physical illness and emotional difficulties fueled my offensiveness.  Some didn’t care, because they were hurt.  And still others (thank goodness for the others) offered amazing advice and insight – including the belief that I’m hitting a bottom because big change is coming.

So last week, after a series of Facebook posts about fighting demons, letting go and changing…I parted my hair on the other side.

*  *  *

In the past month alone, notable events forced me to reevaluate my behaviors, activities and needs, and to reignite my practices, beliefs and vision.  – August “Yoga Update” (see “newsletter” tab)

To complement my fresh hair style, I’ve also been wearing my Ganesha charm more frequently.

Not only have I felt a need for newness, but also for a strong shove of old things out of the way.  When I first started practicing Vinyasa yoga, my teacher constantly spoke of “letting go of what doesn’t serve in order to make room for what does.”  I don’t frequently pray to specific deities, but being reminded of Ganesha’s power to clear obstacles (and provide protection) has been motivating.

These days, I know I need to release many things that compromise my deepest well-being in order to create space for what cultivates sustainable, lasting inner peace.  For instance, on mornings between the full and new moons, I used to pray, “Let me let go of anything that gets in the way of your will for me.”  Regretfully, that practice has faded off…but it’s time to bring it back.

*  *  *

Hindsight is 20/20.  – popular phrase

As you might know, I was mugged in June.  Feedback on my blog, “The Yoga of Being Mugged” has been positive.  People have used words like “resilient” and “compassionate” regarding my response to the situation.  I agree, and am thankful to be someone who uses yoga and other tools to recover from and address life’s difficulties.

Now here comes the 100% honesty – because I don’t want you to think that I am responding with perfect strength and forgiveness to an assault.  I want you to know that it hurt.  I want you to know that I now walk around scared and suspicious and over-reactive.  I want you to know that my past traumas have been triggered since the mugging.  And I want you to know that I sometimes act like a jerk because of this state.

If you’ve read my other blogs, you know a bit about my painful childhood and rough road toward adulthood.  These last 18 years of yoga practice, complemented by 8+ years of addiction recovery, have sparked a journey of mending and growth.  Still, I am just hitting the tip of the iceberg in undoing 25 years of destructive patterns and related consequences.

When I look back on my life’s traumas, I see the lesson behind each one.  So why am I so stuck in the pain of the past?  Because, due to my childhood isolation and later impulse to kill emotions with substances, I did not properly process and/or grieve these traumas at the time that they took place.  Making sense of them is one thing; authentically expressing and healthily processing the emotions is a whole other ball game.

Thankfully, these days I am feeling weary from past traumas robbing me of day-to-day happiness.  I am feeling a low tolerance for anything that does not match my craving for inner peace.  I am fed up with these obstacles keeping me from my intentions to be of service in this world.

So I am willing to do whatever it takes to change.

At the same time that I am willing to let go of limitations, I am somehow holding on.  I have taken the reigns, and have been gripping them tightly.  Terrified of feeling more pain, I have taken complete control of my life.  Regretfully.  Because when I am in complete control, there’s little room for you, for anyone, for a higher power, for healthy risk, for trust, for faith.

*  *  *

I’ve been learning to drive, my whole life. – Arcade Fire, “In The Backseat”

It’s time to let someone else take the wheel.  Let go.  Change.

In the Mahabharata – an ancient Hindu text – there is a story about true surrender.

A king wants to ruin a man’s reputation, and so decides to shame the man’s wife, Draupadi, by stripping off her sari in public.  A sari is a traditional Indian dress, made from several yards of material wrapped around the body.  In the story, the king begins to unwrap the sari, and in turn, Draupadi clings tightly in fear.  She continues to use all her strength while crying to god for help.

After much struggle, Draupadi realizes that, as long as she clings in fear, there will not be space for god to help her.  Bravely, she lets go of the sari, holds her hands up and exclaims, “If you want me to face this disgrace I will accept it.  I totally trust you; my life is in your hands.”  Miraculously, Draupadi’s sari becomes infinitely long, and the king becomes exhausted.  Draupadi was saved.

The first time I read this story around three years ago, I was struck by Draupadi’s willingness to accept god’s will, even if it means disgrace.  In the margin of the book I wrote, “WOW.  I wish for this surrender.”

At this very moment, I feel that exact yearning.  Since June, I have been so racked by fear that I wake up each morning with my fists clenched so tightly that my thumbs come out of their joints.

Shifting from self reliance to accepting help takes deep work.  A PTSD therapist has been helping me work through my past so I can heal from it.  Most days, I feel quite vulnerable, like a wounded animal, backed into my protective corner.  You know what “they” say about wounded animals – don’t go near them.

But circumstances have prohibited this isolation, and demanded togetherness.  Shortly after the mugging, I came down with pneumonia and had to ask for a lot of support.  All through my birthday week, my home was filled with friends bringing fresh produce, fun gifts and positive energy.  It chipped away at my rock-hard walls of “That’s OK, I can do it myself.”

I am continuing to reach out for the company, wisdom, experiences and advice of those prepared to step into the corner with me.  Yes, when they come near me, I might act overly protective.  I might swat them away.  I might misunderstand their concern for judgment.  I might mistake their discomfort for dislike.  I might offend them.  I might piss them off.  And they might or might not forgive me.

I will, however, forgive myself.

*  *  *

Here is the hardest part to write.  In my current state of imbalance, can I honorably teach the Eight Limbs, and how they outline a simple process for taking yoga’s principles off the mat and into everyday life?  How can I share “Yogas Chitta Vritti Nrodhah” and encourage yoga as a practice for calming the mind, when my mind is far from calm?  How can I authentically pass on yoga’s tools, when they don’t seem to be working for me in this time of extreme challenge?

Or does this messy phase of life illustrate yoga’s transformation?  Maybe this is my own version of “Draupadi’s Sari.”  Maybe my wish for absolute surrender is coming true.

One thing is for certain – this is my emotional bottom, and the only way out is up.

*  *  *

My god, Holly, you got mugged and now you have pneumonia?  The universe is trying to tell you something.  – a friend

My sassy answer to this remark?  “Uh-huh, the universe is telling me that I am a tough broad who can get through anything!”  Perhaps.  That would certainly match my self-reliant conditioning.  At the same time, I’m open to a totally different point of view.  By sending me a mugging, pneumonia and related challenges, the universe could be urging me to ‘fess up and say, “Come closer to me.”

See me, accept me, love me for exactly who I am – right now.  Vulnerable, fearful, distrustful and resentful.  Wounded.  Ready to focus on what’s good for me.  And more than ready for (the) rest.

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.