intention.

intention.

I firmly believe that the most powerful way to deepen your yoga practice is to confidently set an intention before the class begins.  In the Ashtanga tradition, we set this intention while standing in samastitihi (equal attention pose) which grounds us in the space before we begin moving.  Standing tall, pressing equally into the four corners of our feet, we listen for the sound of our breath to experience present moment awareness.  Your intention, or sankalpa, can be set while you are seated, while you are lying down, or while you are parking your car on the street before even entering the studio.  It is important to set an intention for each practice that is deeper than ‘I’d like to tone my inner thighs, please,’ or ‘Today I will master handstands.’

The Buddha is attributed with saying, “Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think.”  This is meant to remind us that our bodies are a physical manifestation of our thought energy.  Your practice is only as deep as your intention for it.  If your mind is busy planning your grocery shopping list (like mine often is on Thursday mornings before I head to Trader Joe’s that evening) then your practice will be superficial as well.  If all it took was a strong handstand to achieve enlightenment, then every college mascot would be living the high life.  My undergrad mascot happened to be played by a very close friend of mine, and I would absolutely attribute Zac as being (top 10) one of the funniest people I know, but perhaps his ability to walk down a flight of stairs on his hands (true story) didn’t ultimately lead him to a state of blissful Union.  In other words: our practice is intimately influenced by the quality of our thoughts. 

I ask students to choose one word that represents a quality they would like to cultivate in their lives.  Patience.  Kindness.  Healing.  Energy.  Strength.  This thought can be your intention.  After a few months of practicing with me, my friend Adelaide confided in me that her recent move back to the Midwest and recent job change in the competitive world of advertising had resulted in a sense of insecurity.  For several years she’d practiced yoga on and off, but now had re-committed to daily practice, and this had changed everything.  She sent me this e-mail:

“You have honestly made a difference in my life and helped me restore confidence and self-acceptance that I had let wane during recent tense life moments.

 I feel immensely better about myself and my surroundings since I’ve chosen to incorporate yoga and your teachings into the flow of how I live.”

 The movement of your practice is not what is special: what is special is your intention behind the movement.  Yoga designed to develop faith, grace, and reconciliation with your own body.  Yoga is designed to heal. 

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Set an intention at the beginning of every class.  Every practice.  Every time.  It may be helpful to repeat a personal script that firmly sets an intention.  You can write your own, or you can just use mine.  I think it works pretty well.  (I mean, I’m not enlightened yet, but I’m working on it!)

“With my breath, I set my intention for this practice.  I renew my commitment to practice with integrity and with passion.

With my breath, I set aside this time for me.  Everything that happened before this practice and everything that will happen after this practice can wait outside.  I dedicate this time to healing myself so that I can bring healing and hope to my community. 

May I breathe for myself and also for my neighbors.  May I be a vessel of Divine Love and Grace.  May this practice be a blessing of health, happiness, and wholeness.”

 

Happy practicing,  with love,

-lisa

n.b.d.

n.b.d.

Recently, over a soup and salad lunch at my favorite within-walking-distance café, a friend jokingly said to me, “So, what’s the deal with yoga?”

Me: “Oh, yeah. I teach yoga full time, now.  No big deal, really.  I love yoga and I love teaching, so my life is pretty much the best.”

Him: “So, no big deal, you just tell people how to stretch and relax…?”

Me: “Yeah, n.b.d.” <btw, n.b.d. is the only text-talk acronym that I condone in spoken conversation. It’s hilarious.>  “You just stretch, and learn to relax into yourself and eventually… improve everything in your entire life and begin to transform the way you perceive and react in the world to become more conscious and aware, more compassionate and whole, more happy and continuously healthy… n.b.d.”

Him: “Right. Everything in your entire life changes. And you can also put your legs behind your head. No big deal.”

Me: “Right.”

When someone relatively new to yoga conjures a mental image of a yoga class, he imagines a candlelit room filled with people in home-spun wool socks and tie-dyed bell bottoms sprawled on the floor in utterly impossible body configurations.  Or he imagines a mirror-lined multi-purpose gym room packed with sweaty guys in neon shorts and hott girls in spandex leotards spotting each other in handstands.  He may think that doing yoga will help him lose a few extra pounds or stretch out his shoulders from years of lifting and plyo exercises.  It probably will.  Come on in.  If you take enough yoga classes, you probably have a six-pack, a good butt, and flexible shoulders.  If you work hard enough, your body will let go of years of tension in the hips, recover from stress in the low back, and become reasonably flexible.  But you’ll be missing the point.

Yoga may appear to be merely (or impressively) stretching the muscles in the body; it is so much more than that. Yoga is actually a stretch of the mind, the breath, and the spirit.

 Why do I practice and teach yoga?  Because I’m captivated by the idea of healing my body in order to heal my mind, my heart, and my community.   Because I simply love the way my body feels after practicing yoga.  Because I crave the promised moment of stillness that is undeniably healing after a yoga practice.  Because I admire the communities within the walls of yoga studios, created by people of all sizes and ages who wish to create peace within their own hearts.

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photo cred EMA

Yoga invites the practitioner to undertake a beautiful journey to discover self-knowledge.  World-renowned yoga instructor Seane Corn reminded me that, as a yoga teacher, my job is not to teach anything at all.

My job is to create a space within a yoga class for my students to uncover what is already within their hearts: pure, divine light and love. 

So in some ways, yes, yoga is no big deal. Any person of any age and any shape can do it.  One of my favorite students, Shalimar, started her practice with me when she was six weeks old.  She wasn’t fit or toned; she didn’t even wear yoga clothes, just a diaper and onesie. Another one of my favorite students, Dale, is 72 and arthritic, so he definitely doesn’t put his legs behind his head or do handstands.  Any person, any time, any place: if you are breathing then you are reaching out with your Spirit, invoking healing and grace into our body.  If you are moving with awareness, which is what we practice in a yoga class by taking shapes with our body, then you are consciously transforming your experience with your life.

The deal with yoga is this: because you are alive, you are blessed.  Because you are breathing, you are blessed.  Because you are moving, you are blessed.  You are entitled to a life that is filled with compassion, with health, and with happiness simply because at your core you are nothing but pure, divine light and love.

Come take a class with me.  Go take a class with anyone.  No Big Deal: Just Breathe.  Heal.  Transform.

photo cred: SFA

~lisa

cultivating the hope of dharma

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photo cred EMA

“Before enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water.  After enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water.” – zen proverb.

This was my mantra this week as I shoveled. And shoveled. And swept. And shoveled more snow. And swept more grime. The snow was nearly burying every hint of optimism in my life. Every time the driveway cleared, it snowed again. Every time I cleaned the studio’s wood floors, they were covered in grime and dirt and road salt within one hour.  So, again and again, I took a <very exasperated> breath, layered up, shoved my hands into gloves (which I abhor), and kept shoveling.  Again and again, I took the broom and dustpan to the expanse of hardwood floors.  Because that’s the deal with dharma: we do the work that needs to be done.

Last year, at this time, I was flying to Africa. (To escape the daunting Midwest Winter?… Maybe… But if you remember correctly, it was still snowing in April of last year… so… #fail.)  I was leaving my new home, new job, new boyfriend for one month to travel back to Zambia, where I’d left behind a home, a job, and dear friends carefully carved from the sub-Saharan dust six months prior. While I was (painfully, resentfully) shoveling snow this week, I remembered a conversation from two years ago:  I was walking through ankle-high mud on a broken road with my boss, a man who began his international travelling to developing countries in the 1960s. His travels were long. Uncomfortable. Arduous.  Dangerous. But he was there working for his church, serving his purpose. He said (through stuffy nose and allergy-swollen eyes), “Lisa, sometimes we do the work not because we want to, but because we need to.  Because it’s the right thing to do.”  

In other words: dharma.  We do the work, and we let go of the results. 

Dharma is a valuable and often confusing concept within the yoga philosophy.  It pertains to shoveling. And flying to Africa. And driving downtown to volunteer at an urban homeless shelter. And visiting friends in the hospital. And doing your yoga. While I was shoveling, I remembered this journal entry from a few years ago entitled: cultivating the hope of dharma.

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photo cred EMA

Please Note: The following post is a journal entry from 2011.  It is one in a series of posts that chronicles a journey of personal transformation and yogic lessons I encountered while living and working in Zambia.  As an Early Childhood Educator, I worked with community school teachers in this sub-Saharan African country where lessons in hope are abundant and practicing faith is essential for spiritual survival.  

I wrote:

“I’m absorbed with anxious excitement. I fly out tomorrow. 24+ hours on four planes, approaching an opportunity to investigate my own dharma by travelling to Africa. The invitation to the Copperbelt Region of Zambia is to work side by side with primary school teachers as they navigate their dharma of providing education to children in their communities. I hope to witness the teachers deepen in commitment to their purpose, their power to do something meaningful, and their strength to live out their dharma. I think it will be ridiculously difficult. And heartbreaking. And hot.  And dirty. And lonely. And frustrating. Three schools, a dozen teachers, three hundred orphans, one of me.  But I also think it will be rewarding; I hope that by engaging in the act of empowering through literacy, educators and students can cultivate a harvest of hope for the future together.

Although it is a complex concept, dharma is generally used in yogic philosophy to denote a person’s specific function, calling, or sense of duty to this world. 

It is specific to a lifetime, a community, a person’s individual constitution of talents and skills.

Your dharma is a calling to show up in this world, to live your fullest, and to pursue your dreams.

I will never be a math genius. I will never be an IT person. I will never be a mechanic, or a musician, or a CEO. (I will probably never do my own taxes). I will never, ever, be a doctor. (Rumor has it that doctors use and/or see needles and/or blood.) These things aren’t for me. They aren’t my dharma: I’m a teacher, a healer, a leader. My role, my skills, my talents. But it doesn’t stop there, with just me. I also have a responsibility to my community.

As a yoga practitioner, intrinsic in the cultivation of my personal dharma is the call to facilitate and bolster the collective dharma of my community. The Bhagavad Gita challenges us:

“…do your worldly duty, but do it without any attachment to it or desire for its fruits. Keep your mind always on the Divine (The True Self). Make it as automatic as your breath or heartbeat… The True Self works for the welfare of the world, unattached, ever helping to point humanity toward dharma (right action, living a truth based life).” (3.19, 25)

Not easy to do. Especially when life gets tough. (And it will, even if you have really flexible hamstrings, let me tell you.) As each person navigates her unique life experience, experiences of loss and adversity lead to denial of worth and personal dharma. The internal monologue is this: “I’m worth less because there is nothing worthy to do in my life.”

This sentiment is overwhelmingly echoed in communities trapped in deep poverty.  The lack of options – the lack of resources, education, and time – to entertain dreams for the future is debilitating to the formation of a sense of dharma.

As a yogi, I hope to cultivate an entirely new ‘thought process,’ devoid of hopelessness and instead infused with hope. The narrative is this:

“Every action in this life is worthy; every life is priceless by design. Living my own Truth-based life inspires others to find their own heartbeat, their own purpose, their own worth.”

Personally, I experience a renewed sense of hope when I see individuals create a course of right action in their lives, which extends to communities rallying around living out a collective dharma.

When a community commits to live together in hope for a brighter tomorrow, creative solutions can and will be found to address the most distressing situations.  Dharma is rediscovered.

Feeling worthy becomes automatic as a heartbeat.

Like I said before (forgive me if I repeat myself, most of you stopped reading one-scroll ago, anyway), dharma is about putting on your gloves and picking up the shovel. It’s about getting up at 5:00 am to walk one kilometer to school, barefoot. It’s about sitting by a charcoal burner boiling water for your mother’s morning tea (that’s also called selfless love, but we will save that for another blog post). Most importantly, it’s about showing up in your life and doing the work that needs to be done. It’s about stretching your hamstrings, even when they are really really tight. And showing up for a Vinyasa class even when you are hung over. Today. And again tomorrow. And learning to find healing while doing it.

-lisa

Author’s Note: As mentioned, this  post contains a journal entry from 2011. Travel with me over the next few months as I re-visit these journal entries, many of which can be found also at elephantjournal.com  If you are interested in the work I was doing, please visit the website of HealthEd Connect. I invite you to accompany me on this journey and to follow the inspiring story of educators from two different countries and worldviews as we work together to grow hope and cultivate its harvest of transformation.

blessing for tomorrow

IMG_0691 Happy New Year.

a blessing for tomorrow

by John O’Donahue

“may you recognize in your life

the presence,

power, and light of your soul.

may you realize that you are never alone,

that your soul in its brightness and belonging connects you intimately with the rhythm of the universe.

may you have respect for your individuality and difference.

may you realize that the shape of your soul is unique,

that you have a special destiny here,

that behind the façade of your life

there is something beautiful and eternal happening.

may you learn to see yourself

with the same delight, pride, and expectation

with which God sees you in every moment.

 

may you invest in your own spiritual journey and

pursue a life of health, happiness, and wholeness in 2014.

Happy New Year!

~lisa

dwelling in the light

Quote

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“We are to think of ourselves as immortals, dwelling in the light, encompassed and sustained by spiritual powers.  The steady effort to hold this thought will awaken dormant and unrealized powers, which will unveil to us the nearness of the eternal.”                           – Charles Johnston 

This says it all: the life of a yogi is sustained and encompassed by Light.  The holiday season begs me to dedicate (even a few) minutes of silence in nearness to the Eternal. It hardly matters if you are religious, if you are non-religious, if you have never practiced yoga, or if you practice every day: the Eternal is always near. During the holidays, I am very aware of the mystic, magical quality of life.  Amid the twinkle lights and the holiday decorations, every moment becomes magical.  The Eternal is near to us in the effervescent joys, the promises of love, and the moments of witnessed compassion.

Yogi’s are born mystics and born seekers: always looking for a way to discover more light and joy in this world.  Mysticism is the belief that union with the Absolute may be attained through contemplation and self-surrender. It is the belief that the Eternal is near enough to touch.  It is the Light. May you dwell in the Light this Holiday Season.

behind your heart there is courage

This article was originally published on lisaashyoga.worpress.com “articles and insights page” October 2013.

“Behind your heart there is courage and behind your heart there is fear. 

You choose.”

Last week, seven teenage girls in state-issued baggy sweatpants unrolled borrowed mats haphazardly in a conference room-turned-yoga-studio and flopped themselves down on the floor, looking at me with skeptical anticipation.  Their looks said to me: “I might do what you tell me to, but I’m probably not going to enjoy it.”  One girl groaned dramatically at the effort it took to sit down on her mat, the whole room laughed nervously; that was my cue to begin.

We chatted for a few minutes about the history of yoga.  I expected questions about the physical benefits, the psychological gains, or the philosophical underpinnings of this great tradition.  They asked me: “You got any kids?” and “How old are you?”  I could tell I was really getting through to them.

 Tadasana.  Mountain Pose.  I asked them to stand tall on two feet, close down their eyes, and bring their hands down by their sides.  I explained that the stillness within the asana practice is often the most difficult part of the practice: being still takes courage.  Being still takes trust.  When I peeked up, one of my ‘students’ was standing in front of me, arms crossed, hip cocked to the side, lips pursed and eyes challenging my every statement. Her guarded heart told me she felt too vulnerable to close her eyes.  Being still takes trust.

These girls, aged thirteen to sixteen, are residents in a rehabilitation program for youth exiting the juvenile criminal justice system.  Sometimes a dozen girls live here, hoping to re-enter the public education system and rejoin their families when their probation period ends.  While these ladies are criminals in the eyes of the law, they are not deviant; they are young souls trapped in fear and surrounded by unhealthy influences in their home communities.  Many of the girls were arrested while following their boyfriend’s prerogative.

I led the girls through beginner level asanas, trying desperately to convince them with every breath to take this practice seriously.  They weren’t convinced.  In utkatasana (chair pose), I reminded them that sometimes life gets difficult: we practice difficult, strenuous asanas on the mat so that when life gets challenging off the mat, we react with courage and strength, not fear and desperation.  One girl nodded, clenched her teeth and bent her knees a little deeper.  One girl gave up and rolled her eyes.  Another girl sighed loudly in relief when we stood tall out of the pose; her reward was a courtesy laugh from the others.

I then led the class through a Warrior Series, digging deeply into their foundation of strength.  I asked them to practice being present on their mat, even if they’d rather be somewhere else.  All of them would rather have been somewhere else.  And I realized: these girls don’t have a choice.  In this program, they are told when sleep, what to eat, where to go, and how to dress.  At home, they are told they aren’t good enough, that they will never be anything better than their crime, that they won’t ‘make it’ in life, and that they will never be a member of a healthy community which sees them as an individual of worth.  Where can they base their foundation of strength?

So we sat down.

And I introduced Durga.  Immediately, all eyes were glued to the illustration of this untamed goddess riding a lion, fierce hair blowing wildly, wielding a weapon in each of her eight hands.  Durga is the Warrior Goddess of Protection and Inner Strength.  She is the contemporary icon of liberation and power; she is what these girls need.

durga ladyy

I told the myth of Durga and her epic entrance into the cosmic battle between two armies of men who wanted to control the heavens and the earth.  The armies were led by two demon brothers who had (stealthily) struck a deal with Brahman earning themselves invincibility.  The deal was that no man or god could defeat them in battle.  These demon brothers took over.  Everything.  The ‘good guys’ (called devas in this mythological system) didn’t have a chance for several thousand years.  Until a wise yogi visited the court of the devas and pointed out a loophole in the demons’ deal: no one said anything about a woman.

Enter: Durga.

Sally Kempton writes that Durga is, “Not just a battle goddess…She is also the power behind spiritual awakening, the inner force that unleashes spiritual power within.”  Durga is the accumulation of all that is admirable in the feminine force: strength, empowerment, compassion, capacity for caretaking, and unwarranted wisdom.  She kicks butts and takes names.

She challenges the demon brothers and their armies in battle and crushes their egotistic perceptions about goddesses.  She wins.

She wins because she recognizes that she has a duty to always stand up for what is right, not just what is easy.  She wins because she is a strong woman with strong convictions.  She wins because she chooses courage over fear.  Durga is exactly what these girls need.

durga eye

I challenged the girls to stand back up, but this time, to stand in power.  To stand tall with courage.  To stand up for what is right.  To stand up like they are worth something.

We took the Warrior Series on the second side, and this time, the girls were transformed.  Instead of sullen, self-conscious teenagers, I saw women cultivating the strength to choose between fear and courage.  We practiced Vrksasana (tree pose) and I reminded them that life is not about giving up, it’s about giving in to the force of God that loves and sustains us, even when everyone else leaves us out to dry.  Every girl fell out of her balance pose.  Every girl got back in. This practice was a success.  

I left the ladies with this thought:

“Behind your heart there is courage and behind your heart there is fear.  You choose.”

I leave you with this thought, and encourage you always to choose wisely.

Sally Kempton.  Awakening Shakti: The transformative power of the goddesses of yoga. Boulder, CO: Sounds True Publishing, 2013.

redefining gratitude

redefining gratitude

In the spring of 2012, I took a yoga class that completely changed my life. It was taught by a teacher I had never met before or even heard of. She hadn’t produced any practice DVDs, her studio didn’t boast spa-quality facilities, and her class pricing package was ridiculously cheap: all her lessons were free.

I took only one hour-long class with May, and in that time, she taught me to redefine true gratitude.  

Our class was held outside on a rainy day in a small village in the Copperbelt Region of Zambia. The dappled African sun kissed our damp faces as we sat together in May’s yard, sharing the small stone ledge of her home’s foundation as a bench.  As we shared together, a chicken wandered out of her back door, stopping to peck near my feet before continuing on to the scavenge in the garden a few yards away. Class was also punctuated by a sweater-and-nappie-clad toddler who snuck in to extend formal greetings with a tentative handshake and smile. May shared a home with her two sons, three daughters, and one grandchild. Her husband had passed away several years prior and she was on her own to look after her children. Under the dripping branches of the tree that sheltered her tin-roofed home, May began her class by sharing her story.

photo cred EMA

Three years prior, May was so destitute that she did not leave her home for days at a time. Her body was so weak and her spirit so ravished that all she could do was lie on the dirt floor of her home, praying her children would not starve. May had just been diagnosed HIV+. She felt as if nothing she did would bring meaning back into her body or into her life. Then, a nurse in her community came to her home for a visit.  This visit changed May’s life.  The home-health nurse, known in the community as a Kafwa, encouraged May to seek treatment.

The Kafwa nurse came back the next day.  And the next.  And the next.

She assured May that her life was not over—assured her that healing was possible. This persistent caring proved to May that her life was worth living and May’s adoration for life began to develop again.  With treatment and encouragement, May began a slow recovery; eventually her children were able to go back to school.  One of her boys began attending high school, something May was very proud of.  She continued staying healthy, began learning new skills in order to bring income to her home, and visited the treatment clinic as scheduled. As she told her story, joyful animation crept into May’s once exhausted voice.  The class ended with a prayer, a chant, a celebration of gratitude for love, for healing, and for life.

photo cred EMA

photo cred EMA

Leaving May’s home, I slipped and slid through rain-washed roads that demanded concentrated finesse to navigate.  I pictured her walking these roads, weak with illness, to the local clinic to seek medical attention.  I was in awe of her dedication.

May’s disciplined practice was to stand up, show up, and move.  From this practice, May rediscovered the joy in simply being alive, simply being able to breathe, simply being able to move.  And now, her gift was to teach others the joy to be found in living with gratitude for every single moment.  May’s class taught me the most profound lesson of the human experience without doing a single asana.

She taught me that to practice with presence is to be grateful you can practice at all.

photo cred EMA

photo cred EMA

Now, every class I teach, I end with the earnest suggestion to engage in gratitude.

I truly believe that the deepest lesson that physical asana practice teaches is to be grateful for our bodies and what they can do, be grateful for our chance to move and breathe, and be grateful for the many things in our lives that bring us joy.

Practice with me and extend deep gratitude for every moment in life.  It is, in fact, the only reasonable response to being alive.

holiday special ($5 a class!)

small lotusHoliday Special!

For the month of December…a holiday special on Sunday Night classes!

All Beginning Yoga and Meditation classes  at Liberty Community of Christ Church are only $5 per person (drop-in only, no session discounts).  

If the holiday season is a time when you begin to think, “I really don’t have time to do anything for myself”…. that’s all the more reason to come breathe with us.  Take the time to nourish yourself so that you can be a blessing to others, striving to live a life filled with compassion for yourself and for your community.

Classes are held at 5:30 pm on:

Sunday December 1

Sunday December 8

Sunday December 15

Classes will resume in January.

Liberty Community of Christ Church, 1220 W. Liberty Drive, Liberty MO, 64068

Please bring your own mat and your own yoga block to class.  Contact lisa at: ash.lisamarie at gmail for more information.