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

 

1.3.2013 Correct from the root

Image   I won a book in a Twitter giveaway! Thanks to It’s All Yoga Baby and Rodmell Press, I have a copy of Sparks of Divinity, a book of B.K.S. Iyengar’s teachings from 1959 to 1975. Since this is a muladhara project, I turned straight to the index, just after reading the forward. No muladhara, but root was indexed. “Correct from the root,” he said. In other words, don’t start trying to open the third eye first. Start from the base. In poses, start with the feet.

In the Tree of Yoga, one of my favorite books, he says, “When you grow a plant you first dig the earth, remove the stones and weeds, and make the ground soft. Then you put the seed into the ground and surround it with the soft earth very carefully; so when the seed opens, it will not be damanged by the weight of the earth. Finally you water the seed a little and wait for it to germinate and grow. After one or two days, the seed opens into a seedling and a stem grows from it. Then the stem splits into two branches and produces leaves. It steadily grows into a trunk and produces branches in various directions with many leaves.”

Also in the Tree of Yoga, he says the yamas, or abstentions, are the roots of the tree.

So much to learn.

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.

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.