I’ve been thinking about my class yesterday at Rikers. After class a woman who had been watching asked me what yoga was all about. I told her that yoga is a way for me to unite my body and breathing so I can be in the moment. I told her that in many ways it saved my life, which is why I wanted to serve by teaching yoga to isolated communities.
‘Really? It saved your life?’ Her tone wasn’t suspicious but curious.
In that moment it really hit me. Yoga had saved and changed my life. Four years ago I was spiritually at rock bottom.
I had been shoving down feelings of loss over someone who had died.
I was avoiding feelings of confusion over my career.
I was scared to admit that as a full fledged adult I did’t have a fracking clue who I was outside of said career. I was disconnected from myself.
But yoga helped me connect. Now I get to teacher yoga teachers about teaching yoga inside prisons. I’m teaching yoga teachers about teaching therapeutics, mindfulness and trauma. Yoga led me to opening a massage therapy business. Yoga has given me the ability to speak to groups of people about getting and staying healthy through mindfulness and meditation.
Last week my friend Kathleen and I were catching up about yoga and life (which is thankfully these days the same thing). She said something like once you decide what you want to you just have to reach out and grab it.
I’m not saying that all I did was roll out my yoga mat and magically things rearranged. However, by being mindful and in the moment I had a better sense of who I was therefore making better decisions about following a path that honored me.
I’m grateful that I felt so miserable four years ago. Had I felt even a little bit better I would have taken another job and worked hard everyday without purpose. I know now that everything we do is on our own path to enlightenment if we are seeking a better way.
The end of last year was well, quite glorious. I had two weeks to do nothing but massage clients, teach yoga and take classes. Going to school full-time was the smartest thing I’ve done but still a commitment and shit ton of work. And while I am grateful for all of the good stuff happening, I was feeling a little overwhelmed and tired.
I wanted to spend my time off doing all the yoga. My friend Kathleen and I strolled to Jivamukti to take a class with Julie Kirkpatrick on Christmas Day. Class was like wrestling a cuddly grizzly bear. When you move pose after pose after pose after pose you have choices- try to hang on for dear life or surrender to the moment. In savasana I felt myself let go.
Listen, I know that as yoga teachers we talk about letting go (and sometimes we even mean it), but in that moment if the lights went out, and I mean forever- I would have been okay. That may seem like a heavy statement but it’s true. Savasana prepares us for the biggest unhooking of all.
In a Sunday class with Cassandra Rigney at Jivamukti she talked about watching Time of Death, a miniseries that follows terminally ill patients during their last weeks. Seems grim, I know. But Cassandra said it was a powerful testament to how in the end we forget all the bad shit that people have done and only see the good. Why not live like that now? Why not indeed I wondered as I walked home. Fresh off a Serial and Marking of Murderer binge Cassandra’s mention of ToD seemed like a good move. I was wrong.
I wasn’t just a good move. It was yoga. I was riveted watching these stories of life and death. Some of the families graciously let us watch their loved ones transition on camera. Some didn’t and that’s a beautiful and noble choice as well. It got me thinking.
This is yoga. This is life.
Yoga doesn’t only prepare me for living life in the now, it’s also practice for the ultimate letting go. What stuck me most was my reaction. You can’t help but reflect when you watch people die. But instead of thinking about what I would change I found myself thinking about what I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t change a lot.
I wouldn’t change the way I love the time I spend with my family. Or seeing my brother’s face at Thanksgiving. Or cracking up with my parents and sister at Christmas dinner. I wouldn’t change the way I laugh at Dakota’s spring in her step when she smells the air during her morning walk. I wouldn’t change what I’m doing with my life. I want to do more of what I’m already doing now.
Forget about what you would change. What are you doing right? What’s working?
So when I think about 2016 I’m not challenging myself to rock the shit out of the new year. I’m going to fucking be more present than ever in the now.
Last night I spent the evening at Radical Wellness, my neighborhood wellness store that is drenched with warmth. The Essential Oils Club meets monthly and yesterday was the Pride Edition since Jersey City celebrates Pride tomorrow. Rashena is a wealth of knowledge and paired oils with the chakras. She talked a lot about grounding and self-love. I was honored to lead off the discussion with a guided meditation that centered around self-love, acceptance and intuition. Whether you are coming out to the world as LGBT or coming out as yourself, there’s a need to step into that with a sense of strength rather than fear. Transitions are scary. Not everyone will agree with you. Some will abandon you.
That’s the big pill to swallow. But you have to trust that your people are out there and it starts with a tribe of one.
So go ahead. Astound yourself. And let’s high-five on the other side.
“Like all explorers, we are drawn to discover what’s out there without knowing yet if we have the courage to face it.” ― Pema Chödrön
After teaching in one of the sentenced women’s dorms I made my way to the dorm that held three teens who aren’t living with the rest of the teen population for various reasons. They were still in school so I waited until they got back. Things are always changing. ‘Tasha’ had been moved to another house (I think she’s back with the teen girls) and ‘Shakira’(not her real name) who was with the teen girls the week before was back in the ‘isolated’ (my word, not Rikers) section. Shakira lit up when she saw me. The CO in the bubble had let them know that I stopped by but I don’t think they realized that I’d be coming back. Shakira grabbed the only other girl in the dorm and told her to try yoga that it would be fun. ‘Andrea’ eyed me dubiously. I hoped that she would warm up as we began to practice but she didn’t and left class a few minutes in. Shakira unruffled asked if we could practice handstand. Andrea wandered back to see why we were on our hands and stayed for a few more minutes and then left again. Shakira asked about practicing crow and hurdler AND headstand. Who am I to get in the way such enthusiasm? As we were winding down practice I asked Shakira what was her favorite thing to do in yoga. She replied, ‘Meditation.’
‘A five-minute meditation?’ I suggested?
‘Can we do longer?’ she wanted to know.
I was all cool on the outside. ‘Um, sure we can sit and do a 15 minute guided med-,’
‘I don’t really need guided if that’s okay. I can focus on my breathing.’
‘Yeah okay- let’s do a 15 minute sit. ‘ But inside I’m like:
My head had been pounding all morning so a seated meditation without support did not seem like a great idea. I let Shakira know I’d be moving my bolster to the wall for back support. She said, ‘We can do that? That’s cool because sometimes my back hurts sitting up.’
So we sat. I don’t drop into a deep meditation but it was hard not to chill out because the dorm is silent. I did think about Shakira’s desire and willingness to be still for 15 minutes. Not an easy task for an adult in this distracted world, even more challenging as a teenager. If you add the element of detention and stress of Rikers Island, it’s almost an impossible task. And yet, when I glance over at her just to see that she’s okay, her face is smooth and her breathing natural. This is no BS she’s in meditation.
Pema Chödrön talks about folks who really take meditation seriously because they have to. She says (and I’m paraphrasing here) those that haven’t had lots of serious trauma or addiction enjoy meditation and can treat it more like a trend. However, if you are a card carrying member of the shit hitting the fan club you get real serious real quick about meditation. Life can be pretty grisly where there aren’t any options left for a decent life. If meditation shows up an an answer, most take it. Because once you can look at your naked truth and not run, you can do just about anything. (Can I get an amen for Pema?) Sorry, I digress.
I thought my class with the teens would be about jumping around and laughing. And sometimes it is. But other times it’s about being quiet. This is what trauma informed teaching is about – listening and honoring the students. It’s not about my personality, my goals for a class or my wants and desires for students. It’s about my big ole mouth being shut , my hands and heart open, saying what can I give to you. How can I serve where you are in this moment.
I will not ignore people who are locked away. I will continue to speak up and out about the need to END mass incarceration. I will continue to plead for the need for more volunteers to visit people in prison as we work to end the system. I will continue to encourage people to volunteer and give assistance to those who are out of jail and need support, love and encouragement. I will not ignore those I can’t see. I will not be silent. This is my mantra and my meditation.
This morning I tried to stay in the present moment for as long as I could. It was unbelievable how quickly I started to float to the past and future. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as paying attention on purpose to the present moment without judgement. Turns out I was being mindful even as I acknowledged that my mind wander, because I was aware of the wandering. Unfortunately, I’ve still got to work on the judgement. It’s all too easy to beat myself up for not doing something ‘right’.
Today I will ease up on judging myself and others. We are all just doing the best we can.
I have a confession. It’s more than two weeks into January and I haven’t fallen off my year of meditation bandwagon. That’s not the confession. The fact that I’m shocked is the confession. I mean, I don’t have it any more figured out than anyone else. But last year I did notice that when I was in the moment, things we peaceful because I was not trying to be somewhere else.
Only good can come from this. Prior to living a yoga life I often used to say to myself, no good can come from this. What a difference living in the present makes. This morning I got up extra early to do my asana practice and meditation before taking sneaking in a class at my studio. Busy Friday.
As I delve deeper into trauma-senstive yoga and yoga therapy this kind of self-care seemed like a necessary part of my own journey. Naturally, these are tools that I will pass onto my students.
Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction or MBSR is a mindfulness-based program designed initially to assist people with pain and a range of conditions and life issues that were difficult to treat in a hospital setting developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, which uses a combination of mindfulness meditation, body awareness/scanning and yoga to help people be more present. Recently, it’s been the subject of clinical trials and lot of research.
If greater well-being isn’t enough of an incentive, scientists have discovered the benefits of mindfulness techniques help improve physical health in a number of ways. Mindfulness can:
This morning, before my meditation practice I listened.
I listened to the silence outside. I listened to the hum of the heater. I listened to the quiet of the morning. And then I floated inward so I could hear myself. There are mornings that I have to do this. On some mornings I can’t just look inside right away. It requires a gentle invitation.
Sometimes it feels like the more I work at something the more it crumbles in my hands. Yoga has taught me that grasping doesn’t work, but breathing does. Now I can watch something crumble and see that the pieces on the ground may be showing me something else.