The Urban Yoga Den

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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.

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Healing Kids’ Scars With Yoga July 12, 2011

I grew up in the suburbs of Washington, DC – Potomac, MD to be exact.

Potomac was once known as “The Beverly Hills of the East Coast.”  The town was quite wealthy and had its own brand of celebrities – diplomats, politicians, famous doctors.  Yet there were some plain-old middle class neighborhoods, as well.  That’s where we lived.

I am the youngest of four daughters and was unplanned.  In fact, after the birth of her 3rd girl, my mom had a tubal ligation (aka “had her tubes tied”)…and then I was conceived.  So there’s about 0.02% chance for me to be writing this today.  Yet here I am.

My family members struggled with addiction and endured all that comes with it – violence, chaos, depression, alienation, economic insecurity.  As a young child, I once overheard my parents fighting about family finances.  They said that if I were never born, they wouldn’t have money problems.

This scar has motivated pretty much all of my life patterns (known in yoga as Samskara) – particularly the unhealthy ones.

Believing that I was an unwanted problem, I grew up with a pretty fierce habit of self-destruction.  I’ll spare you the squirmy details of how I used to harm myself and act out.  Due to the amount of pain throughout my entire family, however, there was little attention to or solution for mine.

Once a spiritually inspired, congenial and loving child, I turned into a self-reliant, isolated and troubled teen.  Without the necessary interventions for healing and true growth, I continued my toxic development into adulthood.  No relationship tools, no career path, no future plans.  To be rigorously honest – I spent most of my life either wanting to or trying to die in one way or another.

In my late 20’s, I started to long for inner peace, social connection and maturity.  After finally hitting a spiritual, psychological and physical bottom in 2002, I embraced the right combination of help and have been growing up ever since.

In 2008, I received my yoga teaching certification after 15 years of practice.  My 1st job was designing a yoga program for at-risk youth in a DC public charter school for grades K-7.  The kids were literally climbing the walls.  I once had to yank some down from scaling the hallways by way of door frames.  You might imagine how they initially responded to the yoga program – and to me.  They saw me as a privileged outsider and offered no respect.  To shrink the great divide, I frankly told them about my childhood and consequent adult challenges.  Jaws dropped.  I told them, “If only I’d had the opportunity to escape the chaos inside my classroom, my home and my head to breath, stretch and meditate for one class period, I might have grown up differently.”  Although not all attitudes shifted, a few students opened their minds and hearts and practiced with commitment.  And I enjoyed the incredible honor of witnessing human transformation.

I relate to a great number of inner city kids – we share that core wound of being told in one way or another that we are an unwanted problem.  This brokenness manifests in a variety of destructive behaviors and outcomes.  It fills the streets, supermarkets, buses and trains as urban children endure public shaming and beatings.

In the suburbs, this brokenness and abuse exists behind closed doors.

Like many “do-gooders” I used to focus on working with inner-city populations.  These days I gravitate toward suburban upstarts like me.  Each July and August I teach yoga and percussion to grades 1-6 for a prestigious music school’s summer camp, just four miles from the house where I grew up.  There is a mix of well-adjusted children, kids going through typical growing pains, and others who resemble my own childhood patterns of fear, depression, anxiety, shame, isolation, distraction and destruction.  It is at once heartbreaking and motivating.

I am devoted to the transformational power of ensemble percussion and yoga.  I discovered these amazing practices in adulthood and feel grateful to pass-on their benefits to these summer camp kids.  While learning folkloric Caribbean poly-rhythms, campers open up to team work and trust.  I see the loners gradually shine with talent, the divas turn into helpful guides and the trouble makers take leadership roles.  In yoga class, spazzy and often hyperactive energy transmutes into meditative calm.  Kids who already love and practice yoga (there are more each year) champion the practice; and the troubled ones get a welcome respite from their internal unrest.  In both percussion and yoga class, all are empowered by collaboration and rejuvenation.

I rarely turn yoga into a game for my youth classes (except for the really little guys).  We start class with calming three-part breathing; we set an intention/Sankalpa (typically I ask them to think of something beautiful and breathe it into their hearts); we flow through Sun Salutations/Surya Namaskar; and we practice additional poses depending on the energy of the students.  I have led Pratyahara meditations to balance out the senses and decrease distraction; I have read stories of Hindu deities to much delight; and I have introduced breathing exercises/Pranayama (three-part Deergha Swasam calms them immediately; over-the-tongue Sitali cools hot tempers; belly-pumping Kapalabhati wakes them up when lethargic).

Basically, whatever I teach in my adult classes, I also teach in my kids classes.  Below are a few stories of transformation.  I credit yoga for these stories; I’m simply sharing what centuries of teachers have passed on to each other.

Story #1.  Erik, 11-years-old.

During my time at the DC public charter school, I had an 11-year-old student named Erik.  He was one of those kids I had to peel down from high climbs.  When we started group yoga sessions in January he couldn’t follow directions, stay on his mat or concentrate for a second.  He was constantly looking around, hyper-vigilant and completely distracted.  With good reason – his home life was chaotic and violent.  So I recognized his acting out from my own youth.  After three months of weekly yoga, Erik became more eager to participate in yoga, and was able to concentrate most of the time.  On Friday, March 20th, we decided he would assistant-teach our first class upon returning from Spring Break.  Tragically, Erik and his family were murdered by his mother’s boyfriend the next day.

Erik’s destiny was way beyond my control.  It is bittersweet to recall his transformation through yoga’s gifts; I still access this inspiration and hope when teaching yoga to other youth.

Story #2.  Alyson, 10-years-old.

Another student from that Charter School is still a “private client” today.  Back in Spring 2009, “Alyson” awakened after I’d told the kids my life story.  She bee-lined directly to me and said, “You know how you said that yoga helps you heal emotional pain?  Can I do more yoga with you?”  How honest and revealing!  Alyson excelled in all of her school activities and seemed pretty mature; yet, she frequently set herself apart from classmates.  I soon learned that Alyson’s parents were in serious trouble and she was being raised by her grandparents, who encouraged her to do well.  I was happy that she had support; at the same time, I wondered how it felt to lose one’s parents and end up with another family member.  Since the end of that school year, Alyson’s grandmother has brought her to my home about four times a year for a seasonal yoga “tune-up,” during which we catch up on her latest challenges, and practice a yoga set designed to address those stresses.

Over time, I have witnessed Alyson develop into a graceful young woman and tool-using yogini!

Story #3.  Billy.  11-years-old.

Just last Friday, “Billy” freaked out during Games Day at summer camp.  Billy is a super-smart, overly-eager, talkative camper.  More than others, he needs to be heard, he needs to be recognized as doing well – and he tends to dominate and monopolize the class because of these needs.  Last week, in the Bean Bag Toss, he just could not hit the target.  With each miss, his exclamations became more and more dramatic, and included remarks of great self-disgust.  On his third try (and miss) he yelled “F***!” and stomped off to hide behind some bushes.  “Whoa,” I intervened.  “Let’s take a walk.”  During our stroll, I listened.  Billy was angry because he’d forgotten his water bottle; and he was feeling like he couldn’t do anything right.

He was over-heated, over-sensitive and losing it.  I totally related!

While we headed inside for water, I took yoga’s Pratipaksha Bhavana approach and encouraged him to replace his negativity about Games Day with positive thoughts about his many musical accomplishments.  In fact, I reminded Billy, I’d just paid him a huge complement in front of the entire class that very morning.  He embraced this immediately, saying, “You’re right; this is just one thing,” referring to the bean bags.  Then, on the way back outside, we practiced Sitali Pranayama (inhaling through the mouth and over the tongue; exhaling through the nose) to cool his temper.  It worked.  Billy happily joined the campers and jumped right into the next game.

I wouldn’t dare guess whether these children are/were hurting the same way I did at their age.  However, I vividly recall killing my emotional pain with alcohol at age 11.  So, I can’t help but wonder – what if I’d been exposed to yoga in childhood, instead of finally discovering it (and other healing resources) in adult life?

In the inner city and the outer suburbs, I teach yoga so any child who feels like an unwanted problem might find refuge in and strength through these ancient practices for stilling the mind.  “Yogas Citta Vritti Nrodhah,” I tell them.  Yoga restrains disturbances of the mind.  I pray that these generously healing practices might liberate all hurting children from the pain of family or community chaos before their Samskara mirror mine.

Wishing all beings 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.