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.

Yoga

Working toward Natarajasana, dancer's pose

Working toward Natarajasana, dancer’s pose

I started practicing yoga in 1999 and it literally changed my life. Teaching began by chance in 2003 when the resident yoga teacher at the Ann Wigmore Institute in Puerto Rico, where I lived and worked back then, stayed on vacation for an extra couple of months. Some things you seek out; others find you.

I taught in Puerto Rico for five years, helped organize a retreat/teacher training with Twee Merrigan at the Secret Garden in Rincon, and then opened Natural High, a vegetarian restaurant with a partner. Since moving to Utah, I have taught classes at Shiva Centre and Yoga Path and at corporations.

One of my interests is social media, in part because we are all connected, so it’s a manifestation of yoga. At work (a technology company in Salt Lake City), I established our presence on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+ and Youtube, and nurtured and managed the community for more than three years. I also started the blog and now focus on managing that. I’ve had the privilege of helping out some yoga businesses with their social media. I’ve tweeted and blogged for Hugger Mugger Yoga Products since 2010. I helped Prana Yoga Trolley Square establish their Twitter presence and tweeted for them for their first 18 months, and also tweeted for Shiva Centre.

And now, in 2013, I have been asked to teach classes at work. Exciting and daunting. Teaching is the most humbling part of my practice. So many people know more than I do, and can do poses I may never do. But it would be selfish to not share what I’ve learned.

From the Archives—Articles I wrote for Yoga Journal, 2005-2009:

The Yoga Wellness Connection

Teaching Yoga in the Workplace

Facing Uncertain Economic Times

How to Set the Right Tone with Music

Learn as a Group

Pocket Full of Poses

Green Yoga Studios

Yoga Retail 101

Beyond the Studio: Retreats, Part I

Yoga Retreats, Part II

Yoga Retreats, Part III

Yoga in Schools

A Feminine Critique

I was quoted in this Yoga Journal article about the 10 best towns to practice yoga in! Where America Practices

 

1.2.2013 Grounding with Ganesh

IMG_1014I have this little Ganesh that my friend Vasudha gave me a few years ago. When I arrived at her home, she showed me around, and opened a cupboard in the kitchen. Inside were several deities. “Pick one,” she urged. And this little Ganesh just called to me. I attached a brown leather cord and wore him around my neck until the cord broke a few months ago. When I decided to start this Muladhara project, I found him and put him into my pocket.

At work today, I found this beautiful arrangement in the lobby made by Randy. A sweet place for a Ganesh photo.

I like this definition of deity: “A being with powers greater than those of ordinary humans, but who interacts with humans, positively or negatively, in ways that carry humans to new levels of consciousness beyond the grounded preoccupations of ordinary life.” ~ C. Scott Littleton, in Gods, Goddesses, and Mythology

Ganesh is the son of Shiva and Parvati. Killed by his father, he was brought back to life with the head of an elephant. He’s the remover of obstacles, and the lord of beginnings. It’s auspicious to begin a project by invoking Ganesh.

He’s also heavy, and earthy, and associated with the root chakra, muladhara.

What is yoga? A photo exhibit

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A friend asked me to contribute a photo to an exhibit Prana Yoga Trolley Square is doing online (on Facebook). I’m on vacation from work this week, and although I intended to go to class every day, I haven’t. That doesn’t mean I haven’t practiced. Standing in tadasana (alignment challenged, I’ll admit) in yellow rain boots, surveying my plant purchases, pausing between breaths? That’s yoga.

P.S., a note from Harper. “weres your rootbear?”

Originally written May 25, 2012

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.

“And now let’s talk about your heart and your bones…”

That’s what my doctor said to me over a decade ago when she delivered the diagnosis–premature ovarian failure. My ovaries had stopped working, so I needed to be concerned about my heart health and my bones. I felt like I had just crossed over from fresh Spring to dry brittle Winter without the decades of transition. A bone density test showed I already had enough bone mineral loss to officially have osteopenia. So I fought it the smart way (ha) — by totally ignoring it. Except by going a bit mad, living wildly, and balancing it all with good doses of yoga.

So when I got my bone density test results today, I really wasn’t surprised. Last year I broke a toe in a vinyasa class and even broke a rib coughing. Still, the word osteoporosis was like a knee to my gut. I actually said “Shit!” to my doctor. So maybe that’s why Visvamitrasana has been so scary. I have been carrying around this fear that I literally could break my bones.

My hip is just osteopenic, but my spine–my spine!–is more than two and a half deviations below normal, and just across the border into that scary territory where fractures are more common, bones compress and collapse, and you start to slump and lose height. I know this doesn’t have to happen to me. I practice yoga mindfully (especially after that toe fracture), and I know the yoga is helping. I can’t imagine my life without yoga. I started crying, and then told myself I was being a baby. No one is saying I can’t do yoga. Of course I will practice. I will practice mindfully, and I will meditate and visualize my spine healing. I’m taking diatomaceous earth and Ormus and drinking green juice and eliminating most alcohol and my body should be less acidic and it will rebuild.  My bones are holy (with swiss cheese-like holes). What my bones lack in density, I will fill with light.

I feel ridiculous lamenting my spine when I think back on last week and the amazing people I taught.  I subbed for an adaptive yoga class last Thursday at the Salt Lake City Library. I planned the class assuming everyone would start out in their wheelchairs. When I got there, all of the dozen or so people with spinal cord injuries were already out of their chairs and on their big cushy pads/mats.

I know so little about spinal cord injuries and paralysis and the issues these yogis face. I started to learn, though, fast. Almost everyone had someone to help them. Some brought their helpers, and I think some people were there volunteering. I heard one young man talking to his helper about someone putting a gun to his back. Depending on where the break or injury (or gunshot wound, in this case) happened, they had different degrees of mobility. I overheard snippets of conversations as I walked around and helped people deepen their poses.  “L1.” “T12.” Some of them almost died in accidents. The memory of that night shook me out of my slump about a *potential* fracture.

It turns out that sitting on the pad without the support of their chairs was pretty challenging. Next time, I’d have them start laying on their backs, and work up to balancing in sitting poses. I gave their helpers cues to assist them, sitting behind them against their spines, lifting their arms overhead for extension, lifting their legs and holding them for an inversion. They were all so amazing. Willing to try anything.

By the end of the class, I was choking back tears. Humbled by the adaptive yogis and their openness and their happiness.

A community is a group of interacting organisms

Last week a wave of depression nearly toppled me. Out of nowhere, I lost my grounding and felt dark and lost. That night I was scheduled to teach Hatha Basics, yet as the time approached, I wondered if I should teach, feeling that way. One simple tweet later, and within minutes I was overwhelmed with suggestions, pep talks, and support. These are the tweets, in the order they arrived.

@scotta_yoga @jodim being honest, vulnerable, & open to a shift
–>Just reading that, I felt my energy shift. Being open to a shift changed my energy and made a shift sound possible.
@inthejuice @jodim Literally take a few deep breaths and give yourself a pep talk. Tell yourself ‘who am I not to be brilliant?’
–>Breathing. The initiation of the practice. Breathing shifts your energy.
@inthejuice @jodim know that it’s ok not to talk so much in class (esp if the group is more experienced) make it more about the sound of their breath.
–>The class was a Basics class, so I didn’t know if I could do that. But I chose to teach Chandra Namaskar, and it’s so about linking breathing and movement. I have taught it silently before, after cueing through the first two or three repetitions. It’s so meditative, it can be a unifying group meditation in motion.
@SarahKohl @jodim Honestly? Accepting & admitting that I’m not feeling it. Suit up and show up and teach anyway. Teachers are human, too.#365yoga
–>I knew I had to suit up and show up. It was only my fourth time teaching this class. It wouldn’t be okay to miss it, I thought. Sometimes showing up is the greatest effort. But just showing up helped.
@dawnmnewton @jodim Recalling how marveously excited I felt when I 1st discovered what I am teaching. Then knowing that I will give others this feeling.
–>This tweet made me cry. Dawn is the one person in this group who isn’t a yoga teacher. She is a chef. Just thinking about what she said let me think about being a student again. I would so love to study culinary arts. Though I feel that kind of awe about yoga, thinking about where she was coming from helped me shift my perspective and imagine being a beginner again. And I thought about my first yoga classes and the awe I felt. I was really starting to get over my darkness.
@yidl No secret Surrender- Ishvara Pranidhana- Patanjali RT @jodim:Teachers.what’s your secret for teaching when you are feeling down #365yoga.
–>Totally. This tweet made me think about the magic that happens when you start to channel something profound. When teaching becomes a spiritual experience of sorts, when you are totally in it, and you don’t even know where the words are coming from. Would it be possible, I thought, to surrender and trust that it would be okay?
@riverfairyyoga @jodim My YT told me to teach the class I need. There is a great power in saying the words u need to hear, students tend to respond positive
–>I decided to take this approach. I thought about what I would wish to walk into as a student. That’s when I decided to teach chandra namaskar. It was the eve of a full moon, and apparently the most depressing day of the year, I found out later. Pranayama, and meditative moment sounded soothing to me, and I hoped it would be soothing to the students. @Chandih @yidl @jodim : The secret for me is balance. That is to rest, nurture and meditate more. It gives me the inspiration and insights. @jodim following you now. Salt Lk city Yogini. Wow. Not many of u, in morman country?? Aum-
–>This has always been my teaching philosophy. Teach from your overflow, not from your well. Even if you are nurturing yourself, teaching can deplete your energy. It can also recharge you. Hard to recharge before that class. I didn’t feel like I was depleted and had nothing to give, though. Just depressed.
@katsaks Kat Saks @jodim I second @SarahKohl . Also, I make a point not to give physical adjustments when I’m not feeling it. Then they feel it too!#365yoga
–>This one was hard. I had spent the weekend studying with Simon Park. Just the day before, he taught a workshop about hands on assisting for vinyasa teachers. I was all excited to practice what I’d just learned. My ego wanted to offer that. But I knew she was right. Yet, I believe, even if you don’t touch students, when you’re off, they can feel it.

I showed up. And the magic happened. Ten people showed up. We created a situation that will never be repeated. We all contributed something to it. The class came together for an hour, then dispersed. I think maybe I got more out of it than they did. But that’s okay!

This was the playlist:

Intention [feat Morley], Earthrise SoundSystem, The Yoga Sessions

Desh Nayad [feat Lital Gabai], Earthrise SoundSystem, The Yoga Sessions

Bolo Ram, Wah!, Putumayo Presents Yoga

Hanuman Baba (Dub Farm Remix), Krishna Das, Putumayo Presents Yoga

Mangalam [fet Steve Gorn], Go-Ray & Duke, The Yoga Sessions

Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Pt. 1, The Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots

Salala, Angelique Kidjo Feat. Peter Gabriel, Yoga Revolution

Bliss, Yogini, Putumayo Presents Yoga

Love Is My Religion (Album Version), Ziggy Marley, Yoga Revolution

On Sunday, roles reversed. I got to be the student to a teacher who was having a hard time. One of my beloved teachers admitted to us, as she began the class, that she was off. She had a confrontation that had left her feeling almost incapable of teaching, and she thought that she needed to get a sub. But in the class, she recharged. You could see it happening, and it was almost instantaneous. It was a beautiful gift to give her, because she has offered us all so much.

So it comes full circle.

And I felt so grateful to be teaching again, to experience the magic that happens when teaching yoga when you can hold space for others. And it most certainly works both ways. Walking in to a room full of quiet students meditating? Amazing. What a gift. Instant energy shift.