The Urban Yoga Den

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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.

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Be A Yogi August 15, 2011

Graduation bliss - me, Sam & Linda at the Ashram.

When I graduated from my Yoga Teacher Training at the Integral Yoga Academy, I heard a lot of advice.

  • Make a list of all the potential places you could teach – not just studios, but other spaces.
  • Market your classes in this way or that way.
  • Remember that not all yoga instructors can make a living teaching.
  • And so on.

But the most important tidbit, to me, came from one of the teaching assistants.

“Be a yogi.”

I had just spent four weeks living at the Satchidananda Ashram; rising before dawn; practicing daily Asana, Pranayama and meditation; studying yoga philosophy; eating a pure vegetarian diet; and wrestling with my humanness amongst the sacredness of yoga.  Despite discomfort and challenge at times, I was grateful for every minute of it.

To be a yogi is ALL that I yearned for.

When I returned home, I didn’t even intend to teach right away.  I offered free classes in my little studio apartment (“The Urban Yoga Den”) to stay in practice.  And then an opportunity to start a yoga program at DC’s SAIL Public Charter School arose.  Once that assignment wrapped up with the end of the school year, I was ready to look for work teaching adults.  Just down the street from me, a new yoga studio called Past Tense was opening.  And in July 2010, I started teaching three weekly classes there.

On August 24th, I will end my stint at Past Tense to take an end-of-summer break from teaching (except for my three classes at Trinity University’s Fitness Center).  I am grateful to Past Tense for inviting me to pass on yoga to the Mt. Pleasant community over the last two years!  As you might have gathered from my last post, I have been sensing a need for change, pondering my integrity and prioritizing my well-being.  Leaving Past Tense will create a simplicity and spaciousness in my schedule, life and mind.  As my friend wished, “I pray that whatever occupies that space brings peace and joy.”  Me, too.

“The Urban Yoga Den” blog is all about living yoga off the mat and in my every day world.  So for now, rather than teaching a bunch of classes, I will be practicing more – on and off the mat.

One hope is to practice Karma Yoga by bringing morning Pranayama practice to the police officers that serve overnight in my neighborhood.  In October, I will travel to Philly for a Kirtan with Jai Uttal to awaken the Bhakti Yoga spirit; then I’ll bounce over to Easton Yoga for a two-day workshop with Max Strom.  In December, I will visit Sanctuary Yoga in Nashville for Seane Corn’s three-day “Detox Flow” workshop.  And in between, I will be here in DC, practicing with my beloved local teachers, until I find the next right fit for a teaching location.

But my biggest wish is to simply be able to walk down the street with an inner peace and joy that shapes my attitudes and actions.  That might mean embracing one or all of the many beautiful suggestions from my caring friends.   For example, practicing “Samtosha” (contentment with exactly what is – i.e. acceptance of and compassion for my own humanness), sending myself Metta (sending myself loving-kindness and well-wishing), and basically, not being so hard on myself.  It also might mean re-committing to the routines that without fail nourish my inner peace and joy.  It also might mean falling off the yoga wagon and getting on again – and off and on again.

Because I realize to be a yogi is to – simply and honestly – be me.

I hope to see and hear from you as I take the steps to re-embrace my core motivation to Be A Yogi.

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

 

A Note About Student Feedback May 24, 2010

Filed under: Spirituality,Yoga — Holly Meyers @ 10:17 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

Dear Students,

As a yoga instructor, I have been honored to receive comments from students who experienced something positive during our practice together.  Interestingly – the feedback increased over recent weeks, while I was deciding whether to apply myself 100% to my dream of teaching yoga and promoting yoga/arts activities.  Hearing from students reinforced my final decision to take the plunge.

So thank you for your kind and useful feedback!

I love sharing yoga and deeply appreciate hearing about students’ transformations.  It is life-affirming for me; and I feel grateful for their well-being.  Still, I can’t take the credit.  All credit is due to the student who shows up and gives themselves to the spirit of yoga.

If you feel a change, it’s because YOU are open to change!

YOU are the one who is willing to come to class despite grumpiness; YOU are courageous enough to try a new healing art; YOU are curious about unusual yoga music; YOU make the decision to use a yoga tool during your day.

As a “yoga teacher,” I’m just passing on what others before me shared in their classes.  Seriously – every pose, every suggestion, every idea that I share with you has been spoken or cued millions of times by thousands of teachers.  My job is to teach the basics while students tap into their own inner wisdom.

I remember my first yoga experiences.  My teachers humbly and generously offered their instructions.  I always felt that, although a person was at the front of the room giving directions, there was something beyond human conspiring to trigger something very intense.  My first regular practice was Kundalini yoga and it reached the most broken parts of my body, mind and soul.  My hips screamed, my thoughts raced, my heart healed.  I cried a lot.  Change came quickly, and I wasn’t always ready for it.  But I kept coming back.

As do you.

So take some time to thank yourself for walking down the street, placing your mat, OM-ing in and working out.  Indeed, it is YOUR presence, YOUR efforts, YOUR devotion that opens the body, mind and/or soul to some little spark of spirit that enters your being and creates a transformational moment.

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

 

Why I Spend So Much Time on Alignment February 12, 2010

…only true Silence is eternal speech, the one word om (inner sound), the Heart-to-Heart talk.  Silence is the true advice.  – Swami Satyeswarananda Giri

As many of you know, I try to guide an internal and meditative practice when teaching yoga classes.  Paradoxically, I can talk your yogic ear off with detailed alignment instructions.  I talk about safety, mobility and longevity a lot.  And I use the words “engage,” “fine-tune,” “become aware” and “alignment principles” a lot.  Take our January/February Bi-Monthly Focus for example – who needs four separate directions for opening the HEART?

Well, I do.

I tend to shut down in my heart center. My shoulders round forward, my ribs cave inward, my lungs shrink upward and my poor little heart hides behind it all.  And not just in the winter.  Due to multiple neck and shoulder injuries from car accidents, falls and other traumas over the decades, this area of my body can be a little vulnerable.  Yet without fail, practicing yoga’s alignment principles helps my heart find its way back to a balanced center.

This is one reason I spend so much time instructing alignment in our yoga classes!

In addition, for me, there is a connection between physically caving in and emotionally shutting down.  It’s as if the physical distortion causes a psychological darkness – or vice versa.  (Check out the February issue of Natural Health’s article on Anusara Yoga’s approach to the heart and well-being).  So tending to an open heart center is key for this gal.

My favorite teacher for heart-area alignment is Megan Davis, who passed on her knowledge of engaging the intercostal muscles to control the movement of my rib cage and shoulder blades.  She recommended moving the intercostals backward, around the sides of the ribs, then down to “relax the shoulders” by releasing the shoulder blades toward each other and down the back.  That was a true “Ah-ha” moment.  For years, I’d been “relaxing my shoulders” by forcing my shoulder joints down and back.  Utilizing Megan’s tips, I erased a long-term neck ache and was finally able to expand my heart wide!

My second “Ah-ha” moment for the heart center was with Dr. Steven Weiss – chiropractor, yoga teacher and founder of Align by Design experiential Anatomy and Physiology workshop.  The tip he shared was to broaden the collar-bone by curling open the upper arms.  Lining up my middle finger with seam of my pants, he moved my biceps out and back and my triceps under and in.  What an amazing lift and expansion in my chest!

Thanks to these fine-tuned adjustments, my Pranayama practice is stronger (and my asthma symptoms weaker), my neck is free (and therefore free of pain), my shoulder joints move easefully (helping to rehab a rotator cuff injury) and my heart center is open (lifting my spirit, as well).

Aside from heart-center issues, I was also plagued by hip and knee injuries. I used to lock my knees when standing still or twist them when walking on uneven surfaces (snow, rocks, etc).  The inside and back of my knee would swell and ache horribly.  Frequently after yoga class, I would experience that same swelling and ache.

Finally, I took a private session with Andrea Franchini – a dancer as well as a yoga teacher – who completely transformed my knee and hip health.  In poses like Tadaasana and Tree, she noticed that I tended to hyper-extend my knee, causing a “blow out” in the tissue behind the cap.  In poses like Goddess or Warrior, she noticed that I would twist from my ankle and knee to open the hip, rather than – duh – opening the hip!  Thus my positive habits of engaging the quadriceps to safely straighten the leg and utilizing the hip’s ball-socket joint correctly were born.  Knock on wood – I have not blown out my knee since that session with Andrea.

Not only did proper use of the hip-joint facilitate knee mobility, it also eased a long-term and recurring pain in my right hip. (I know what you’re thinking – how did this girl become so injured?  That’s another story and an even longer blog for another time, believe me.  Suffice it to say, many of my injuries and their causes are far behind me.  Thank goodness.)

One of my favorite Asana instructions is “Zip up the belly.” Dancer and yoga teacher Leah Kalinosky describes a “zipping up” from the pubic bone to the belly button.  Add to that Dr. Weiss’s instruction to also zip down and in from the sternum to the belly button.  Distinct from sucking in the belly, this subtle lifting and tucking beneath the ribs liberates my hips to float freely over my legs.  So many teachers, so little time.  I could write a book about the many “Ah-ha” moments I’ve experienced in yoga classes thanks to generations of wisdom passed down.

Getting back to the notion of silence, and meditative yoga practices…

Yoga’s eight limbs are designed to progressively prepare the self for Samadhi, or enlightenment.  The limbs are in order for a reason – without becoming aware of ethical conduct through the Yama and Niyama in limbs one and two, without removing physical distraction through Asana in the 3rd limb, and so on, we cannot reach the level of concentration and meditation necessary to reach the bliss of the 8th limb, Samadhi.  And so, by engaging proper alignment during Asana, I silence the body.  Once the physical noise is quieted, I can move on to deepening practices of Pranayama, Pratyahara, and so on.

During his Align by Design workshop, Dr. Weiss pointed out two concepts from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali that promote proper alignment during Asana practice. He opened the workshop by writing “Heyam Dukham Anagatam” on the board.  “The pains yet to come can be and are to be prevented.”  Through proper alignment, we prevent injury and enhance well-being.  He also pointed out that, since the Yama and Niyama intentionally precede Asana, and non-violence is part of that ethical code, it would be unethical for a yogi to stress themselves into a pose.  Proper alignment erases such strain and honors Ahimsa.

A last word about my role, as instructor, in adjusting and fine-tuning Asana.

When I teach, I am not trying to prove that I know more than a student.  I believe each person contains the wisdom of Asana in his/her body.  Therefore my role is to remind students of what they already know (thanks to Seane Corn for reminding me of that during a recent workshop!).  Verbal cues and physical adjustments are not corrections – rather, they are guidance for students to tap into what’s within their bodies.  Honestly, my compulsion to “fine-tune” Asana comes from a yearning to share with others what has healed my body during my 16 years of yoga practice.  Not to mention my deep longing to end suffering and prevent the pains yet to come!  Please!

To make up for my alignment gab, I promise to end every class with a luxurious period of silence during Yoga Nidra!

May you find the wisdom of alignment, live free of suffering and cultivate the silence within.  OMmmmmmmmm.

The tips, tools and “Ah-ha” moments from so many wise and resourceful teachers are what inspired me to take my teacher training.  I have Dr. Weiss (www.alignbydesignyoga.com) and Alexander Technique expert Sumi Komo (www.alexandermovingarts) to thank for cohesively connecting Megan’s, Andrea’s and Leah’s specific adjustments.  For my version of alignment instructions in Tadaasana, please visit the Tips-n-Tools page and scroll to “Alignment Principles in Tadaasana.”