The Urban Yoga Den

…where it's all yoga.

The Happy Heart Project: Days 1-31 September 29, 2011

I’ve read that we replace 1% of our cells daily. Every 100 days we have a new body. What that new body consists of is the food we eat, air we breathe, water we drink, exercise we take and thoughts we think.  – A friend

Three-plus boxes of incense and 31 days ago, I launched “The Happy Heart Project: 100 Days Toward Joy” as a simple way to set an intention.

Under the new moon of Sunday, August 28th, I lit my first stick of “Happy Heart” (an incense by Maroma) and made a commitment to move toward joy for that day, and that day only.  Because that’s really all I have – one day at a time.

When I started this “project,” I understood there would be no guarantees.  The dark funk of the past year (or so) would either stay or go.  And indeed – over the past month, that funk has left, returned, become darker, been replaced by light, strengthened, weakened, disappeared, appeared again…you get the picture.

Still, it’s the intention that makes the difference.  It’s the intention that gives the journey purpose, that keeps me honest with myself, that drives me toward solutions, that sparks change.

*  *  *

“Sankalpa” is a Sanskrit word loosely meaning “intention.”  Other definitions include: commitment, resolution, resolve, will, purpose, determination, motivation.  I have heard from yoga experts that the act of reinforcing a Sankalpa has the power to replace and erase destructive habits, unwanted thoughts and false beliefs, aka negative “Samskara” (patterns created by the “scars” of life).  Setting this positive, committed intention is like a deep practice of “Pratipaksha Bhavana” – replacing negative thoughts with positive.

“Yogas Citta Vritti Nirodhah” – yoga restrains disturbances of the mind.  I cling (loosely, hehehe) to this promise that my sometimes dark, anguished and seeking (aka human) mind can be calmed by yoga.  And not just the movement of my body on a mat, but all of yoga’s calming practices, from Pranayama (the movement of vital energy through oxygenation, aka, breathing) to setting a Sankalpa.

*  *  *

So how did the 1st month of “Happy Heart” burning go?

Well let’s see…in no particular order:

During a three-day yoga retreat, I had a soul-bearing conversation with a beautiful old tree, a powerfully silent meditation at Satchidananda’s tomb, and a thankful turn-of-the-corner from darkness to light.  Since returning from retreat, I have awakened between 5:30 and 7am each day to practice Pranayama, meditation and prayer.  I reunited and hung out with wonderful friends; listened to Car Talk and laughed my butt off; took a nourishing Asana class with a teacher I’d never experienced; saw the Washington Nationals’ win their final home game; saw “Our Idiot Brother” (silly comedy) and “The Interrupters” (intense documentary).  After consulting with trusted doctors, I paused my PTSD therapy in order to soften the intense triggers arising after the June mugging.  I finally started sleeping through the night and balancing out during the day with the help of herbal and nutrient-based supplements.  While walking near my home, I saw the guy who mugged me, followed him (again), called the police (again), and lost him (again).  I received very caring attention from DC MPD detectives.  I met with a DC MPD inspector who likes my idea of teaching Pranayama and meditation to traumatized cops.  In response to these recent tough times, and, the approach of my 9th anniversary of addiction recovery, I increased my recovery activities and started receiving regular guidance from a recovery program mentor.  The early-recovery gal that I was mentoring moved on to work with a different mentor.  I showed up for others; picked up my friend’s kids from the school bus stop; listened to friends who are hurting.  I had a panic attack, triggered by a false belief that someone was going to abandon me.  The all-female Kirtan group I’m in – The Shaktis – guided a roof-raising night of chanting at a yoga center.  I continued teaching my three yoga classes per week, with a focus on “Everyday Enlightenment” – observing how we carry our Eight Limb influences off the mat and into daily life.  I showed up for my part-time retail job; I reached the end of my rope with ongoing poor treatment by a co-worker; I quit that job.  Today I interviewed for a new job.

I healed, I worried, I laughed, I grieved.  I walked with confidence, I asked for help.  I felt pissed off; I felt forgiving; I felt human.

In other words, I experienced life.

Somewhere around Day #20, there was one morning that I felt so frustrated that I did not want to light the incense.  I did it anyway.

Because that’s what a Sankalpa is – a commitment, no matter what.  A firm resolution to stick with the positive action despite all challenges.  Or, even better – a firm resolution to meet all challenges with positive action.  Whether that positive action is to grieve authentically or celebrate joyously.

*  *  *

At this moment, under the new-new moon, I am preparing to attend Rosh Hashanah services.  The Jewish New Year launches a period of intense prayer, forgiveness (offered and requested), and atonement.  After 10 days, on Yom Kippur, we seal these efforts with a one-day fast.  I didn’t plan it this way – but after these 31 days of ups, downs, turned corners, endings, clarity and renewed intention…the rituals of the High Holy Days are the perfect way to start my 2nd month of “The Happy Heart Project.”

More will be revealed.  OM Shanti Shanti Shanti.

*  *  *

THE HAPPY HEART PROJECT.  Under the new moon of Sunday, August 28, 2011 I launched “The Happy Heart Project: 100 Days Toward Joy” – an effort to document my daily journey away from an annoyingly encroaching emotional darkness and toward the hopeful light of happiness.  For 100 days from 8/28 through 12/5, I will wake up, burn a stick of Happy Heart incense and set an intention to grow toward joy.  Each day I’ll post a “Happy Heart Project” status (and accompanying song for that day’s mood) on Urban Yoga Den on Facebook, then see what happens during the day.  Periodically, I’ll post an UrbanYogaDen.wordpress.com blog that covers my journey.  I’m excited that one yoga teacher friend unexpectedly exclaimed, “I’m with you!” and is sharing the journey!  Join us – choose one simple heartfelt ritual for your morning, intend to practice it daily, “Like” Urban Yoga Den on Facebook, and let us know how you’re doing from time to time!

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Falling Off The Yoga Wagon July 22, 2011

Why does it take a sick day for me to realize I have totally abandoned my yoga practice?

For the past two days, I’ve been battling a sinus infection.  This morning, after sleeping 11 hours, I woke up, chanted mantras, said prayers, wrote in my journal, practiced breathing exercises and sat to meditate.  All of the fear, anger, distrust and resentment of recent weeks (due to a mugging and other trauma triggers) melted into pure, big-picture, heartfelt acceptance.  Everything made sense.  I felt peaceful and whole.

This collection of rituals is a simple 30-minute Sadhana (routine) that I like to practice every morning.  Today I realized that it’s been months since I’ve committed to these efforts on a daily basis.

In my experience, I can count on a daily reprieve from all kinds of “dis-ease” as long as I maintain my spiritual condition.  For someone like me – a trauma survivor who drowned pain and reality with alcohol for 25 years, and who has been undoing old patterns for the last eight years – that maintenance is essential to my ongoing growth away from my past and toward a healthy future.  Daily Sadhana guarantees that I will be liberated of self-centeredness, grounded in peacefulness and therefore available to serve others.

Yoga is the umbrella for all of my maintenance efforts.  During my yoga teacher training, we studied the six branches of Integral Yoga – Hatha (primarily poses, breathing, cleansing), Raja (philosophy, ethics, mindfulness), Jnana (reflection, self-inquiry, analysis), Karma (selfless service), Japa (mantra repetition) and Bhakti (devotion to and worship of a higher power).  In the Yoga Sutras, we hear, “Yogas Chitta Vritti Nirodhah” – yoga negates disturbances of the mind.  Therefore,  the goal of yoga is to cultivate a peaceful mind.  IY founder Swami Satchidananda believes, “There are many ways to reach the same goal. Whatever you call it, it is called Yoga.”

Indeed, it’s all yoga.

When I say that I have abandoned my yoga practice, I don’t just mean that I haven’t been going to class or practicing poses. I mean that I have not been greeting the day with chants, prayers, reflection, breath work, meditation.  I have not been ending the day by reading positive literature, making a gratitude list, praying for others.  In between rising and bedtime, I have not been serving as I could.  I have not been well enough to show up for others.  And I most certainly have not been surrendering to a higher power.

And so, right here, right now, I take the first step toward a solution and admit – I have fallen off the wagon.

“The origins of this phrase lie in the 1800s, with the temperance movement. During this era, many people felt that alcohol was an extremely harmful substance, and they abstained from alcohol while encouraging others to do the same. The term references the water wagons which were once drawn by horses to water down dirt roads so that they did not become dusty. Members of the temperance movement said that they would sooner drink from a water wagon than touch a drop of alcohol, so when someone failed to keep a temperance pledge, people would say that he or she had fallen from the wagon.”  – http://www.wisegeek.com/

For me, daily Sadhana is the “water wagon” that keeps me from falling back into all sorts of unhealthy habits.  And I intend to jump back on that wagon the moment I press “Publish” on this Post.  Because, with You as my witness, a publicly stated intention will be hard to break.

Wish me luck.  OM Shanti.

 

Focus: The Yoga Sutras – Love & Murder February 28, 2011

Each morning when I rise, I try to spend about 30 minutes praying, meditating and doing some Pranayama.  When I do, my soul feels infinitely more peaceful throughout whatever the day tosses my way.

For me, this is the point of yoga.

From what I’ve learned, this was also the point of yoga for the ancients who invented this deeply balancing art  – ancients like Patanjali and others, who thankfully passed yoga along for thousands of years so it could reach us. Yogas Citta Vritti Nrodhah is the 2nd aphorism in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.  “Yoga restrains disturbances of the mind.”  The only Sutra that comes before this is the statement, “Now we will explore yoga.”

So clearly, cultivating a calm mind is the most important goal of yoga practice.

In our February classes, we have been exploring a very basic introduction to the Yoga Sutras.  I am sharing five aphorisms from Patanjali’s wisdom that, for me, are practical tools and inspiring promises.  (Please see “February Focus: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” for an introduction to the five.)  On and off the mat, they inform my discernment process when making large and small decisions; they remind me how to live in peace with all others; they guide me toward self-acceptance, -love and -compassion; and they give me hope.

Last week we covered Sutra 1.33, which is a tough order.  In my opinion.

In Sutra 1.33, Patanjali introduces “The Four Locks & Four Keys.”  He suggests that (in order to fulfill yoga’s purpose of a calm mind) we cultivate the following attitudes toward the following types of people: friendliness toward the happy; compassion for the unhappy; delight in the virtuous; and disregard (or indifference, or equanimity or detachment) toward the non-virtuous.

As I prepared to teach my seven weekly classes on this theme, I decided to share the story of my 11-year-old yoga student who was murdered in March 2009 – and how I used the four locks/keys to navigate that deeply disturbing situation.  I meditated on this decision, realizing that such a dark story could potentially shake up the room.  I prayed, “May I be relieved of self-centeredness, that I may better play a small, useful role in your big picture.  I pray to be relieved of anything that stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows.  Grant me strength to do your bidding.”

I checked my motives, reminding myself that I do not teach for my own needs, but for the well-being of my students.  In the end, I decided to share my personal experience in order to demonstrate yoga’s solutions for every possible situation.

Even a situation as severe as murder.

*  *  *

In my early experience, the toughest part of Sutra 1.33’s “advice” was offering anything but anger, disgust and all kinds of judgment toward the non-virtuous.  Even today, as harmful things occur around me and happen to me, I can naturally (and humanly) sink into all kinds of harsh emotion.

Thankfully, in his commentary on The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Swami Satchidananda nudges me, “We come across wicked people sometimes.  We can’t deny that.  So what should be our attitude?  Indifference.  ‘Well, some people are like that.  Probably I was like that yesterday.  Am I not a better person now?  She will probably be alright tomorrow.'”  Simply put.  And with an underlying vibe of self-forgiveness.  Beautiful.

What of the people who are habitually “wicked” – who commit harm as a reaction to being harmed themselves; or due to fear; or to fulfill a sense of survival?  How do I keep a peaceful mind in the midst of serious threat?  I first recognize that in order to commit harm, a person is most likely deeply unhappy.  Therefore, as the 2nd lock/key suggests, I offer compassion to that person.  And I disregard the non-virtuous deed as the result of that very human state of unhappiness.

I was inspired toward this approach by the beautiful book, “Why We Fight: Practices for Lasting Peace” by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait.  “…if someone is ‘non-virtuous’ according to our definition, the judgmental part of our personality comes forward and we label those people as ‘bad.’  We try to maintain a distance, either my withdrawing ourselves or by pushing them away from us.  Any of these actions sets the stage for violence.”

And then he makes the strongest point.

“Cultivating indifference for people we believe to be non-virtuous damages our sensitivity to others and destroys our capacity for forgiveness, kindness, and selfless love.”  He reinforces, “But by cultivating indifference toward the deeds themselves, we remain free of animosity for those whose actions are non-virtuous.”

Hmmmm – a mind free of animosity sounds like an undisturbed mind.  Therefore, if I want to practice yoga as the Sutras suggest, I must disregard the deed, have compassion toward the doer…and perhaps even forgive her.  I had to practice this recently.  And believe me, it works.  And it’s worth it.  For peace of mind.

In his May 2010 Yoga Journal article, “Love in Full Bloom,” Frank Jude Boccio takes this Sutra one step further.  He invites us to offer ourselves these same attitudes – friendliness or lovingkindness, compassion, delight or joy, and equanimity.  He asks, “How would you like to be unconditionally loved, just as you are, without having to be or do anything special?  What would it be like to feel truly, completely, radically accepted, without feeling as though you had to hide or deny or apologize for any aspect of yourself?”

And I add – can you imagine how peaceful the world and our own mind states would be if we offered this unconditional acceptance to all beings?

So let’s start with ourselves.  Can we remember to offer ourselves lovingkindness, compassion, joy and equanimity?  Can we forgive ourselves for mistakes, accept our humanness, see ourselves as worthy?  Boccio points out, “…if we cannot love and accept ourselves just as we are, we will find if difficult to truly love anyone else in such a limitless, unconditional way.”

Remember, yoga’s ultimate goal is an undisturbed mind.  So how do we cultivate love when it feels impossible?  If I am firmly stuck in harsh judgment toward myself or another, the most effective elbow-to-ribs is the tool we learned in Sutra 2.33 – Pratipaksha Bhavana.  The replacement of negative thoughts with positive.

In his ever hopeful way, Swami Satchidananda says, “If the thought of hatred is in the mind, we can try to bring in the thought of love.  If we can’t do that, we can at least go to the people we love and, in their presence, forget the hatred.  So, although the hatred comes to the surface, we can keep if from coming out or staying long by changing the environment.”

May all of your yoga classes be an Environment Of Love.  May you feel surrounded by love.  May you feel secure, safe and supported during your practice.  May you find peace of mind.

*  *  *

Over the past week, I have witnessed students’ profound dedication to cultivating the virtues suggested in Sutra 1.33.  I have seen them apply The Four Locks & Keys during their Asana practice.  I have watched them wrestle with discomfort, re-commit to cultivating a peaceful mind, and choose positive over negative.  I have felt the love in the room; and I am certain it has found its way off the mat and into the world.

Since hearing the “murder story,” many students have confided in me about difficulties or hardship they are going or have been through.  I pray that, during our classes, they feel support for their healing.  I pray they get an ounce of relief, a break from troubles and tools to cultivate the peacefulness to face whatever life tosses their way.

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