Santacon and Jivamukti—Lessons in Sangha

We were late to getting to class, again. On a Saturday morning in December, instead of hopping off the subway at Union Square for the quick walk to YogaWorks for Chrissy Carter’s class, my boyfriend and I stayed on the subway a little longer and headed to Jivamukti.

Just after 10:30 a.m., we saw our first of many Santas. There was definitely a side of me rooting for Santacon pub crawling over yoga. People dress up as Santas (and elves and reindeer), and progress through neighborhoods, drinking yes, but also donating canned food and raising money to feed the hungry. We decided we could always meet up with the Santas later.

Image When in New York City, I’m like a kid in a candy store trying to decide which class to take, wanting them all. I was disappointed that we missed Chrissy’s class, because she’s such an awesome teacher—plus that YogaWorks location used to be called Be Yoga, and it’s where I did my first teacher training. But Jivamukti is a spiritual haven in New York City, and I knew they had classes starting all the time.

Class had already begun, but the sweet woman at the front desk urged us to go ahead and enter. We didn’t know anything about the class—who the teacher was, or even what level it was. I don’t think we could have planned it better if we had known what was going to happen.

Full class? No problem. We crouched in the back against the wall as the teacher talked about sangha. Don’t worry, we’ll find space for you, he said. He led us through chant number 16 in the Jivamukti book:

sat-sangatve nissangatvam nissangatve nirmohatvamnirmohatve nishchala-tattvam nishchala-tattve jivanmuktih

bhaja govindam bhaja govindam bhaja govindam mudha-mate

The book translates it: “Good and virtuous company gives rise to non-attachment. From non-attachment comes freedom from delusion. With freedom from delusion, one feels the changeless reality. Experiencing that changeless reality, one attains liberation in this life. I-AM is the ocean of awareness. Realizing this, one feels, “I am not the body and mind, although I have a body and mind.” Realize Govinda, realize Govinda, realize Govinda in your heart, O wise one! (Interpretation by Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati)

The teacher played harmonium and led us through the chant. In a crowded room, it can be challenging to let go of annoyance at the lack of space.  Or, quite possibly, I thought later, of annoyance at latecomers disrupting the class.

But this was a class about sangha—community, when people associate, or come together. Matthew Thomas Lombardo, the teacher (who goes by the name Satyavira) talked about what happens when people with good intentions come together. When we are yearning for light, or enlightenment, and we practice together, we may feel our energy shift. That’s the main reason I like to practice with a group, especially with a community of like-minded people in the heart of NYC.

But not all yogis are enlightened (some might even want to join the Santacon community!) Not all yogis are even positive. Satyavira’s monologue turned into a tongue in cheek performance art piece, as he made fun of yoga novels. Not all yogis have to like the same things; they don’t have to like every kirtan artist, or be vegan (though Jivamukti is a staunch proponent of veganism, and operates a wonderful vegan cafe in the studio). He encouraged people to be friendly and talk to each other. Just maybe others we meet in the studio might be looking for the same thing–a sense of community.

Three things about the class Satyavira led us through stood out. Early on, he invited us to take five minutes and do poses we needed to do to warm up. There was another five minutes dedicated to headstand, and again, he invited us to use the time the way we wanted. Several students went straight into headstand and stayed there for five minutes straight. Toward the end, he gave us five luxurious minutes for shoulder stand.

I can’t remember his playlist, except that the last song was extremely loud, heavy metal, and when it ended abruptly, the silence was jarring. No more snarky commentary from Satyavira. We lay in a silent savasana, left with our own thoughts, the sounds of very loud instruction from the class next door, which was led at an extremely fast pace; the traffic sounds from outside, and the delicious pungent smells from the vegan cafe.

This Jivamukti class was stirring, moving, challenging, and full of bhakti. I loved it.

Finding Home on the Road: Yoga Deva

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Toward the end of a road trip to spend Thanksgiving with my boyfriend’s family in Gilbert, Arizona, we snuck away to a yoga class. We had searched online for a place to practice, but by the time we finally left that Saturday morning, we realized we would have been late to the studio we had planned to attend. Everything seems extra spread out in Gilbert and the surrounding towns—mile after mile of strip malls surrounded by gigantic parking lots.

Thank Shiva for MindBody, the iPhone app that lists nearby classes by time. Yoga Deva was literally the closest studio we could find that started at 9 a.m.  And  “warm flow” — the class description — sounded perfect.

Yoga Deva is beautiful, indigo blue with metallic and wood finishes. Shosh, the teacher and owner of the studio, checked us in. We asked about the temperature, because my boyfriend was worried it was going to be hot yoga.

It turns out that Shosh was trained in Bikram yoga and taught it for years, but her approach is much more gentle. Hot yoga depletes people and the stress of the routine actually causes them to carry fat around their bellies, she told us. Shosh has evolved her style, and her classes are much more creative. Not the same 26 poses in the same order, always.

Shosh started by chanting to Patanjali, and led us in call and response chanting of the first yoga sutra: Atha yoga anusasanam. Tuning in, breathing together, I let go of the stress of the 12 hour drive to Gilbert, the worry about the return trip, the judgment over the glutenous holiday food I had indulged in (despite recently being diagnosed with gluten intolerance), and the preoccupation with all that still hadn’t been finished at work and home. For 90 minutes, I was at home, far away from home.

What I love about yoga is how it balances and heals. No matter where I am, whether it’s in a group class or on my own, whether it’s a luxurious long class or a few stolen minutes at home (or lately, at work), yoga hits my reset button.

I’ve often thought about what it would be like to study with the same teacher for years and years. I’m grateful that I get to be a yoga nomad, studying with teachers of many lineages. There’s great discipline in the single teacher, single sequence approach.  I get that, and sometimes I wish I could have it.

But then I wouldn’t get the unexpected dance-like variations on half moon Shosh led us through, her playlist heavy on Donna De Lory interspersed with pop music, and I might never practice toe standing and balancing like we did that morning, watching ourselves in the full length mirrors as we teetered, fell, and got back up.

As we were leaving, we talked to Shosh about her path, which has led to Nithyananda, a young Indian guru who says he is the reincarnation of Lord Shiva. We left dreaming about yoga retreats, India, Ayurveda, and people who believe they know who they were in a past life.

Yoga Nightclub with MC Yogi

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As soon as I found out I was heading to San Francisco for a work event earlier this month, I looked into taking another class from Rusty Wells at Urban Yoga. “If Rusty Wells started a cult, chances are I’d join it,” someone named Khanjera tweeted recently. If I lived in San Francisco, I’d probably be a regular at Urban Yoga for Rusty’s deep, sweaty, lovey and chanting-infused classes. Rusty wasn’t on the schedule that day, but MC Yogi was subbing for him! Sweet!

Urban Yoga is only six and a half blocks from the hotel I stayed at, but it was a very long, nerve-racking, and smelly walk down Mission St., past a man pissing in a corner and a myriad of stark, ravaged-looking homeless men and women­—another reminder of the economic divide I don’t usually see at home in Salt Lake City.

There was a line up the steep stairs to the donation-based studio. Someone in front of me rented a towel as he checked in. Later, I wish I had done the same. It was very hot inside. And incredibly loud. You know what it’s like walking into a class and it’s like a temple, quiet and meditative? That’s not at all what it was like. It was like a nightclub, and not just because there were three disco balls hanging from the ceiling. The background noise was so elevated that people had to practically shout to socialize. I remembered from my last visit that Rusty encourages people to say hello to the people around them.

But beyond the din of 100 or so voices, I was struck by the music. I wouldn’t know who MC Yogi is if not for his music, so I suppose this should not have been unexpected. His music mixes sacred stories and chants with backbeats and scratches. Even his mostly instrumental OMstrumentals CD totally rocks. There he was at the controls in the very back of the room, wearing cords, a long sleeved shirt, and big black framed glasses. He didn’t look like he was about to teach a yoga class. He looked like a skateboarder about to terrorize a retirement community. He was already setting a tone with his playlist. I have often wondered what would MC Yogi play? And what would MC Yogi teach?

He turned the music up even more and called us to stand at the front of our mats. He led us in three loud Oms. Then he clapped once, so loudly I was utterly startled. “Are you ready?” he asked.  I wondered if I was! It was already so hot people were sweating. He led us through a flow class deeply inspired by Ashtanga. He talked a lot, using unusual metaphors, such as suggesting our backs were like solar panels as we crouched in a variation of utkatasana,  backs parallel to the ground. Our spine was like a vine where grapes grow, and our breath crushed the grapes (our thoughts) to produce wine. At one point on our backs, he asked us to imagine all of San Francisco is having a party on our stomachs.

But his teaching went deeper than the imagery. Our hamstrings weren’t just muscles—they held the DNA of our family’s past. As we were forward folding, we were undoing negative karma passed down through our families. He wove Buddhist teachings into the practice, starting with a verse from the Bhagavad Gita about what a difference it makes even if you experience even just a drop of devotion.

It was so hot that I was drenched and eventually couldn’t even do downward dog on my trusty travel mat. Yet this was a level 2-3 class, and people around me were actually still jumping back and forward, even transitioning from navasana to handstand. The woman next to me slipped and fell when we were jumping. The man next to her fell from headstand with a thud so loud that MC Yogi came over to check on him.

I didn’t know if I could finish, but luckily he ran out of time and we wound down quickly, with a two minute Savasana. As I left, I saw him at the front desk, glowing. I went up to him and tried to say something, but I was tongue-tied. Good to see you, he said. Finally, I stuttered a thank you. “Do you share your playlist? I managed to mutter. He said yes, “if I can remember it, but I don’t even know what I played.” He had that post-yoga teaching high. When I asked if any of the music was his, he said “Yes, probably.”

What did he play? I couldn’t remember either, though it started with some reggae, interspersed with some omstrumental-sounding stuff. At one point, it was loud as a nightclub again, and we were dancing and shaking out our bodies primally. Class wound down with a little floor stretching to some sexy sounding tropical music reminiscent of Hotel Costes.

One of my favorite parts of the class came during reclining pigeon. “Push your knee away, he encouraged, like it’s your boyfriend who has said something that pissed you off. You love him, but you just want to get away.”

“It’s good to have space, he said. “Now pull it back. It’s good to fight, because then you get to make up.” My hips have never felt more open.

The walk home seemed much shorter. I caught a glimpse of a reflection of myself in a store window, and I looked beaten and haggard as the homeless people around me—red faced, crazy hair, sweaty and smelly. It made me laugh, not just at my prior judgment, but also because I felt totally happy and maybe even at one.

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That’s sweat on the lens. Om.

San Francisco: Rainbow Shakti Church and Coffee and Drunken Bees

Coffee Love

How to decide which yoga class to take, or studio to visit, or even which hand-poured coffee to drink when visiting San Francisco? One Sunday morning in June I made the difficult choice (ha) of drinking both Blue Bottle and Ritual Roasters coffee in Hayes Valley before heading to Shakti Church with KK Ledford at Yoga Tree just around the corner.

KK has a devoted following she calls the Kosmic Kula, or KosKul for short. My friend Dave Atlas, an Anusara devotee, is one of them. Dave told me to meet him at the Ritual Roasters around the corner from Yoga Tree a half hour before class. I’d been to KK’s class a year before, so I knew I wanted to go back, just like I wanted to get another amazing coffee beforehand. Problem was, I went to the wrong amazing coffee kiosk. The last time I was in San Francisco, I’d stopped at Blue Bottle Coffee one street over from the studio, so I thought he must have been mistaken when he said to meet at Ritual Roasters, because Ritual in the Mission (or so I thought), not Hayes Valley. I haven’t lived in San Francisco in ten years, yet I went down the same old paths thinking things were the same or that I’d get the same results–something I find I keep doing in life: making assumptions that prove wrong, or following the same pattern expecting the same outcome, rather than approaching things with a beginner’s mind.

Comparing the rivalry between Blue Bottle and Ritual to that between Coke and Pepsi doesn’t really do the rivalry justice (their coffee is in an entirely different league!), but the two are competitive, and their fans are just as rabid. Ritual and Blue Bottle both take forever to pour the perfectly hot water through freshly ground beans using a glass funnel. Drinking the high octane drip over at Blue Bottle, waiting for Dave, I texted him and found that he really was at Ritual, in a new-ish pop-up kiosk (basically a coffee hut made out of a shipping container) just around the corner from Blue Bottle. Luckily the next stop was on the way to yoga, and how could I say no to a cappuccino? The coffee and the cappucino were both delicious, and I was absolutely buzzing when I arrived at Yoga Tree for Shakti Church.

KK walked in wearing a rainbow tunic, rainbow knee highs, neon eyeshadow and toenail polish, and feathers in her hair (which is wild long wavy blonde with blue tips). Yes, it was Gay Pride weekend, but this is also pure KK–rainbows and light. KK is like a cartoon character come to life. “I KICK ASS AND SPRINKLE GLITTER” is how she describes herself on Facebook.

She infuses her classes with astrology. When you are in a KK class, it’s impossible not to know what’s going on with the planets, and why, for example, you might be struggling, or in a dark phase, or just about to break through into the light.

KosKul regulars crowd into the front row of the crowded studio. It’s not an unspoken rule; she lets you know that. She’s fierce and bossy–and inspiring. And her cues are phenomenal. She doesn’t spout the expected Anusara cues. She goes deeper. Way deeper. She knows her anatomy. My hip flexors and hamstrings and quads were engaged and in new-found harmony after all the heart-opening lunges. And somehow the almost-all Lady Gaga soundtrack just fit.

Beyond all the colors, the feathers, the rainbows, and glitter, one phrase stayed with me from her talk and cues — “drunken bees.” I wrote to her later and asked her what the quote was from (the journalist in me wanted precision). She didn’t remember. She lives with a beekeeper, “so I have bees and honey on my brain always,” she wrote to me in response. It wasn’t until today that she gave me the exact quote from the Spandakarika, translated by Daniel Odier. “A speck of pollen is the cosmic beehive where the worshipper, like a bee, drunk on the beauty of the world, tastes the endless ambrosia that flows from all things,” she said. “I go back to Spandakarika every few months. I looked into the commentary of stanzas 28-29 and found this.” Drunken bees–the perfect analogy for this heavily-laden buzzing from pose to pose.

After the class, I bought some Shining Shakti tie-dyed radical pants in radiant blues and greens, like gaia. KK’s were pink and orange. Yes, I was under her spell. When I wear those pants, though, I feel my mojo rising and I’m ready to kick ass and sprinkle glitter.

Later that afternoon, I had planned to drive up to Point Reyes to MC Yogi’s studio for a “playdate” with Janet Stone, another SF teacher I love (and hello, the promise of practicing with MC Yogi!), but another three hours of practice after Shakti Church would have been excessive, and though I do like excess at times (Blue Bottle AND Ritual before yoga?), KK’s class left me utterly blissed out and satisfied. And I was free to explore the city and see friends rather than succumb to my wanderlust and end up trying to fit too much in.

You can (and should) follow KK and her Wild Moon Wisdom page on Facebook. I adore her and can’t wait to reconnect when I’m back in San Francisco in January.

Moab: Easter Sunday and the Christening of Prana Yoga Trolley Square with Shiva

Shiva's altar creates sacred space wherever she travels

Thanks to Hugger Mugger Yoga Products for publishing some of my blog entries (as the Traveling Yogi). That Shiva Rea Trance Dance experience I wrote about was just half of the retreat I was able to make it to. The next day was Easter Sunday, and Shiva’s playlist was infused with Christian gospel. Surprising and intriguing! She even admitted the music was corny, but asked us to listen to the lyrics. I don’t think of myself as Christian, and have had my difficulties with fundamentalist religion in my past, but she asked us to be open, and who could not be, when a radiant being like Shiva asks it of you?  She played music from the Agape Children’s Choir, and even George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord. I will never forget the heart-opening backbend-heavy sequence we moved through to that song. She called the sequence “Prayer Wheel.” The best way I can think of to describe it is a variation of surya namaskar with a deep, heart-opening lunge. Stepping back into the lunge, we raised our arms forward, upward, and circled them back, lifting our hearts. We must have done 108 backbends. When My Sweet Lord moved from the “Hallelujah” portion to the guru chant “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Guru Bramha, Guru Vishnu, Guru Deva Maheshwara, Guru Sakshat, Parambramha, Tasma shri, Guruve Nama,” it was a revelation. How had I never noticed the Hindu chants in that song? Since then, that song has been on almost all my yoga playlists and and George Harrison became my personal deity (followed by Wayne Coyne, after seeing him perform live at Salt Air last month). When I feel down, I play My Sweet Lord and practice the prayer wheel sequence.

At one point during the practice, someone asked if she could sing along to the music. “Don’t ever wait for an invitation to sing!” Shiva answered. So there we were, practicing, and singing at the top of our lungs. It reminded me of the Bhakti Yoga Shala experience where we chanted, or sang mantras while moving through the asanas.

After the morning workshop, Shiva left Moab for Salt Lake City and offered a workshop at Prana Yoga Trolley Square. It was the christening practice for the new studio, and the space was totally packed. And wouldn’t you know it, Shiva taught us the prayer wheel sequence. She talked about keeping our hearts open. You’ve had difficulties, right? She said, looking right into my eyes. But the way she said it, I found myself laughing at the them. My difficulties didn’t seem threatening then. It was as if I was laughing at my foibles, which was a much better place to be than judging and berating myself. The lovely Jennifer Ellen Mueller, one of the owners of Prana Yoga, assisted me into even deeper backbending during the prayer wheel. It felt like she was literally holding up my heart so that everything else could melt around it.

Moab: Shaking it all out

Sometimes you just need to get away.

Saturday my friend Danielle and I drove to Moab for the last two days of Shiva Rea’s desert retreat. We talked the whole way down, effortlessly, as we meandered down the highways of Utah, stopping to take pictures along the way–of deer antler heaven, decrepit houses and barns, yoga altars, and gorgeous majestic red rock formations–all the way unwinding.

We didn’t know that Saturday night’s class was trance dance. When we found out, we weren’t thrilled. But sometimes isn’t that the way we respond to something unexpected, holding on to expectations of something we know or understand? Even better when what unfolds transforms you.

We started meditating and chanting to the sunset. The clouds parted just as the sun was setting, so Shiva had us turn to face west, and we watched the sun descend through the arched windows (The Moab arts and recreation center used to be a church, so it was a beautiful setting).

Staring at the sun made it challenging to see the text we were chanting. The page glowed. But after several repetitions, it started to make sense:

Om Agniye Swaha

agniye idam na mama

Prajapataye swaha

prajapataye idam na mama

It was a metaphorical fire-keeping, staying connected to our core truth and tending to our inner light.

And then we danced. So hard that I got this lovely blood blister on my big toe.

“In our bodies, our heart is the seat of our inner sun-fire circulating the sun’s energy through nutrients on our bloodstream as well as a vibrational information from the pulse of the heart to every cell in our bodies,” she writes. The Agni Hotra mantra got us ready for the trance dance, which shakes and moves everything. We started with slow yoga like movements, then rolled around on the floor, moving spontaneously to music. We gradually got the heart rate up, dancing to our inner rhythm, eventually jumping, slapping the floor, laughing, and totally boogying. Shaking out the crud, liberating ourselves from sadness and fear and shame. Not caring how hippie we might look, or what anyone else thinks. We danced until the dance danced us.

Once, at a global mala project event in LA, Gurmukh led us in a 20 minute simple kriya–we shook every part of our bodies. We jumped, shook out our hands, wrists, arms, feet, legs, bellies, chest, and heads… It literally felt like we were retuning our bodies to a higher frequency by shaking out all the shit and negativity. Trance dance reminds me of that kriya. The result was shaking free of depression and negativity. What a gorgeous way to fire up the weekend.

Santa Monica: Bhakti in the Asana

Sunday Kirtan Flow class at Bhakti Yoga Shala, Santa Monica–March 6, 2011

Just a block from the Third Street Promenade in downtown Santa Monica, in a super high rent district (with a Barneys New York Co-op–enough said), sits a small studio called Bhakti Yoga Shala. Small, and more Santa Cruz than Santa Monica, this tiny studio has so much heart.

I arrived early for the Sunday 10 a.m. Kirtan Flow class to meet my friend Lo (Y is For Yogini). While waiting for Lo, I watched Govindas and Radha arrive with their cherubic son. Govindas entered the shala, while Radha breast fed their son outside.

I had experienced Kirtan Flow once a year ago, and to this day, it’s my most profound yoga class experience. This second class was even more beautiful than the first.

We started in savasana. Radha strummed the guitar, singing Om Shanti, Shanti Om. Govindas led the class in breathing and connecting, and encouraged us to join her singing. A cute percussionist wearing a t-shirt that says “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone” enhanced the vibe through drumming.

Combining breath and movement turns asana into a moving meditation; the addition of voice raises things to another level completely. Adding voice to breath and movement is totally revolutionary.

The class began so slowly. We raised our arms, folded forward, and rose again. Over and over, we chanted lokah samasta sukhino bhavantu. May all beings everywhere be happy and free.

Chanting Sri Ram, Jai Ram, Jai Jai Ram, we invoked the devotion of Hanuman. Chanting Om Namah Shivaya together, we destroyed the illusion that we are separate. Govindas led us in a sequence in which we stood in rows, holding each other by the waist, folding over into virabhadrasana three. If one falls, we all fall. Yet we didn’t fall.

In kirtan, we chant the names of Hindu gods and goddesses, invoking their energy. Ganesh is the remover of obstacles; Shiva is the destroyer of illusion. Kali is the goddess energy of creation. We stood and clapped, chanting Jai Ma, Jai Ma, as energy built. I couldn’t help but smile. Despite the slow gentle start, we ended with the windows completely steamed over, ectsatic and connected. We ended again in savasana, chanting lokah samasta sukhino bhavantu again.

After class, Lo and I met Sarah, who sold me my harmonium. She said we needed to meet Govindas and Radha. While introducing us, she mentioned that I had bought her harmonium. Govindas agreed to teach me via Skype. I dream of some day playing my harmonium in class and guiding people toward this kind of devotion.

When I got back to Salt Lake City, I emailed Govindas, asking him about the genesis of Kirtan Flow, since I haven’t heard of or experienced anything like I had that day. “It was a totally organic manifestation that came through both Radha and myself’s love for two things,  kirtan and vinyasa yoga, and how we could integrate them together at the same time,” he wrote. What I experienced that day was the product of six or so years of exploration and just “playing around” with the fusion, he explained. “What I love about it is that it really seems to bring the bhakti into the asana.”

“It is such a joyful and celebratory way of doing a yoga practice. As voices are weaving and bodies are moving  it becomes a devotional art form and ritual that everyone in the class is collectively creating together.”

I hope this catches on and that more people can experience the joy of mixing chanting and asana to create and experience pure bhakti.