Tuesday, January 13, 2015

“How Karma Yoga Helped Mend My Broken Heart"

Yoga has been in my life for 15 years. I have taken breaks, it has broken me, I have plateaued in my asana practice and that practice has laid me flat on my face sobbing. I QUIT for a year in there somewhere, no yoga, no meditating because it hurt too god damn bad to see all the darkness inside and feel all of the darkness surrounding me. It is like I have spidey-senses that can feel everyone's pain vibrating throughout time, including my own. It is like I can feel everyone’s LOVE beating in each breath of the Universe, including my own. Yoga has helped me with more issues than I can laundry-list in ten pages. And now that I am teaching (and massaging) full-time, I wanted to find a way to give back, and share this practice for the love of yoga, not for cash.

Karma Yoga is a yoga of selfless (altruistic) service. For some, it is Seva, service to God. For me, I have gotten myself to a place in my practice and my teaching that I am ready to share what little I know with those who will listen, and I have some time to share. So, I began volunteer teaching for a Phoenix-based organization that services all sorts of under-privileged populations with yoga classes.

I had it set in my mind that I wanted to work in Department of Corrections facilities teaching yoga to prison inmates, which is indeed something the volunteer organization did. Turned out, it takes a couple of weeks to get your background checked, fingers printed and whatnot so the director of the organization asked if I was available immediately for a Monday a.m. class at a drug and alcohol treatment facility, for the Men’s group and I said sure and started that week. I thought I could start there and transfer to DOC when my paperwork went through.

I am the adult-child of an alcoholic father. Not a recovered alcoholic, and not the angry or violent kind of alcoholic, but the kind of alcoholic you can no longer bear to know because it hurts too bad to watch them destroy their life and the lives around them. This seems like another story but, believe me, it comes into play like I would have never imagined. 

I have never been a true “advocate” of anything in particular, you know, getting all gun-ho about one cause that affects my life personally or actively organizing for one particular group, except maybe animals. I love to volunteer in general, for animal shelters, children’s hospitals, women’s shelters, HIV/AIDS awareness and homeless facilities. I have donated cash to independent radio and media and humane societies. I have a challenging time deciding who to help first and where to volunteer my time. I feel so lucky in my life that I want to give back to the entire Universe and oh, how I love to share smiles. I didn’t understand how volunteering close to my own deepest issue, the fact that my father has never and likely will never recover from his alcoholism…well, I didn’t know that teaching men in recovery was going to simultaneously mend and break my heart.

My first day, I was a little nervous with a new group knowing they likely had little to no ideas about yoga and probably had no choice in whether or not they participated in class. But, I have a way with people, my friends call it the “karmic bubble,” if you get close, you get sucked in and generally, people like me and teaching yoga helps. I am naturally out-going and out spoken, and it doesn’t hurt that going into a recovery facility to teach a men’s group I wear long braids and I am covered in tattoos. I have a way of being a “leveler,” actively bringing everyone to the same place with an approach or a few words…this is how I teach. I remember what it felt like on day one, I remember that yoga is hard work and new and scary to these guys.

And, it went great. The Mondays passed by and teaching this class became a fun and welcomed change of pace to my routine. I would drive a half hour to teach for an hour, to drive a half hour back, every Monday a.m. for nine months. I got to see new men come into the group, new to the facility and recovery and I learned to observe how their physical bodies and emotional selves adjusted to yoga, or not. I would see and glow with pride when individuals announced their last class with me because they are graduating the program and get to go on to the next phase, or even home. I offered my assistance in anyway, once they settled on the outside. Over the months, I brought in books, answered thoughtful questions and shared countless cds. Everybody, without exception, loved the Savasana song I liked to play. I was even told by the nurses that my class was the “hardest” and that they all liked it the best.

Something I call the “front row phenomenon” developed, not quite like in a yoga studio…different. The front row becomes the coveted spots for the men who are into this, who are really enjoying the physical practice of yoga. I am not really a stationary teacher, so it’s not like they want to be up front to be seen or anything but, there is less distraction in the front row, you can practice without a door opening on you or a nurse next to you taking a phone call. And, as some of the front row men transitioned out of the program, I could almost predict who is going to try to grab that spot next week.

I underestimated the power of seeing the light turn on in these new student’s eyes. I have felt it myself, over and over, each time I start a new practice on my mat. But this was somehow different, and it took me until now, nine months later to realize what it was that touched me so strongly that after the first week that I decided not to pursue DOC classes and believed that I was unexpectedly, as the Universe has a way of operating, I was exactly where I was supposed to be. The key, indeed, was in helping men in recovery and what that has meant to the adult-child of an alcoholic father, not a recovering alcoholic, but an alcoholic I have not spoken to in many years, an alcoholic that has not even bothered to call and see why his oldest daughter, who always stuck by his good-hearted nature, just decided to give up on him, finally. To assist in the healthful transformation of these men’s lives, to see them become more thoughtful towards each other and take care of themselves, to see “recovery,” is a dream I have had ever since I was a small girl waiting up at night for my father to come home, a gift I thought no one but he could offer.

Something changed in my heart. No, I am not reconsidering a relationship with my father; it’s not quite time for that. However, I am reconsidering the damage that the relationship has done, and does every day, considering letting it go. Something is moving forward in me and in the pain that my father’s existence as an alcoholic has done to my heart. Nine months into teaching Monday a.m. yoga to the men’s recovery group, it became my favorite class of the whole week.

And then, I received a brief but thoughtful/concerned message from my director, the Recreational Therapy Counselor at the drug and alcohol treatment facility decided it’s a good idea to rotate in new yoga instructors to the program, “…to ensure we are not getting to comfortable with the site- as well as the participants getting to comfortable with us.” (We do not need to get into how inappropriate this actually is.) And, as of this message I am no longer teaching the Monday a.m. men’s yoga class. I am not even allowed to go back the following week to say goodbye or offer some closure.

Wait? What? My heart is broken and in my throat.

Initially, this feels like punishment. What did I do wrong? Did I offend someone at the facility? I do not believe so. Did I misunderstand the meaning of the yoga program in the recovery process? I assure you, I did not. I expressed my heartbreak to my director, knowing full well that it was not her decision and knowing there would be no appeal to the situation. I believe someone who knows little about yoga is making the decisions for the facility and I am happy if they at least, keep the volunteer program going… with or without me. I am not able to just take another time slot or teach for the women’s group, as my schedule only allowed for this particular Monday a.m. volunteer opportunity and it seemed I was exactly where I was supposed to be. There is a class available at the DOC with the women prisoners but somehow, I am not ready for that anymore…

I spent about a week “getting over it” and if I have faith in anything, it’s that EVERYTHING is as it should be and an opportunity or reason will arise from this loss too. May it be the catalyst to finally sit down and start writing again, the unscheduled Monday a.m. for me to return to a yoga class of my own or go for a hike in the mountains.  Whatever it is, it will take some time to replace the joy I received from teaching yoga to the Monday a.m. men’s group, and from assisting in their recovery process over the last nine months in a way my alcoholic father never allowed. I will continue to look inside and see how the healing this volunteer opportunity allowed can continue to grow and maybe, soon enough, I’ll be ready to volunteer my heart again.

(Written in the past. Shared today because it still rings so very true.)

About Jackie:

Discovering the path of yoga and meditation has helped Jackie enhance her authentic self by building physical strength and quieting the monkey mind. She was brought to yoga and meditation through injury and illness, was seeking a physical healing and found a mental meditation and calm. Jackie has been practicing yoga and meditation for 15 years, instructing for 5 years.  Jackie believes we are all cut from the same cloth, however, the paths we choose affect each individual physically and mentally in different ways.  Therefore, she strives to individualize the practice of yoga for her students, helping them to find their own inner light.

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