For many a cold morning this past academic year, I found myself waking up in the amrit vela (the “sweet time”) to practice 4am sadhana. In the same sense that yoga simply means union, yet is used to denote the technique of yoking one’s consciousness to the universal consciousness, sadhana means discipline, and is used to describe the technique of sitting down every morning to practice.
We spent dozens of mornings this way: chanting, doing yoga, meditating, and praying for 2.5 hours as the sun rose. Many mornings were followed by a full day of training (the course structure was one weekend a month for ten months of 7:30-6pm days, a few more weekends sprinkled throughout, and a lot of independent study). Discipline was a major focus of the course this year, and yet discipline was merely the container for so much more. In this cocoon, I was free to challenge myself and work through major blocks. I touched my highest self. I felt more blissful while chanting–sometimes for 2.5 hours straight–than I have nearly ever felt. I felt the deep space that is always holding us. I learned to connect consciously and with my whole humming heart to our little community.
“Is yoga a religion? It is and it is not. In religion you have to believe something and in yoga you have to experience what you want to believe.” So said Yogi Bhajan, who brought kundalini yoga to America in the ‘60s. As someone who struggled to balance academia with spirituality, it was a real blessing to receive the tools to carry me through every seeming obstacle. Shimer is a blessing; it allows me to understand the world in fascinating ways. But I always yearned for a way of continuing to live happily and healthily in the world through this uncertainty, and I now have the praxis to direct myself everywhere I want to go. You have to be strong to come face-to-face with truth. You have to have a strong nervous system, a clear mind, and an open heart. I use this lifestyle every day, to be mindful during class, to accomplish what I want, to be compassionate with those I love, and to feel my full creativity.
We had our teacher training graduation a couple of weeks ago, in the courtyard of Sat Nam Yoga, where we spent so many weekends. It was surrounded by the light of our partners, friends, families, and all of our trainers. I learned so much from all of the beautiful people in my training group–all of whom were older than me and so centered, many working successfully in fields like psychology, art therapy, and education. I was deeply inspired by all of them.
Riding off the euphoria of our graduation, I began a six-week program at the Benton House, a non-profit community center in Bridgeport, a neighborhood adjacent to Shimer. Benton House is, like Shimer, a very special place. It too has a long history of struggle and reinvention (over 100 years; it was a settlement house in the early 20th century), spurred on by a revolutionary spirit. It is run almost entirely by its volunteer resident staff composed of ten or so 20-somethings. I began volunteering for them last year, working mostly with their finances committee, headed by Alex Colston, a ‘13 Shimer alum. It was thrilling to be a part of a community constantly veering toward collapse. I also worked with establishing our Shimer-Benton House partnership, something I hope to see made concrete in the next few years; many Shimer students live and volunteer there.
There are many in Bridgeport without the funds to pay $15 for a yoga class, only a couple of other yoga classes taught, and no kundalini yoga. I wanted everyone marginalized by Western yoga to feel welcome, so I decided to teach three classes a week: one for everyone, one for women only, and one chair-yoga class (great for seniors or those in wheelchairs). One of the reasons I love kundalini yoga is that it is undiluted by capitalism, like so much yoga in the West; it has all the spiritual values at the heart of yogic philosophy intact. Yoga hasn’t always been accessible to everyone, but Kundalini is clear that anyone can and should practice, for the sake of their mental and physical health. One trainer even taught a veteran with all of her limbs amputated–she did a lot of breath work and visualization, and still got the benefits.
Yogi Bhajan was clear that in the yogic tradition, donations are vital as a way to pay respect to the teachings and invest in their own growth–he used to sprinkle money outside before class so people could pay–so I’m using some creative donation ideas: a flower, a piece of fruit, a quote you like, or simply a note after class describing one thing you were grateful for. I raised $500 through Indiegogo to buy mats, blankets, meditation cushions, and a canopy we could practice under in the sweet summer air.
I love teaching outside, with birds’ music and warm air around us. We have class three times a week, with yogi tea and community chill-time afterward. Last week during the women’s group, one woman brought her little baby to class, and she sat with us so patiently! It was such a beautiful instance of sacred sister/motherhood.
Our teacher’s oath is, “I am not a man, I am not a woman, I am not a person, I am not myself. I am a teacher.” What this means is that your ego has to get out of the way in order for you to be good teacher. We try to be a forklift–to get out of the way and simply create the space for students to have their experience. Yogi B also said: “If you want to learn something, read about it. If you want to understand something, write about it. If you want to master something, teach it.” I know learning to teach yoga will help me teach in the future, whether the discipline is yoga or not.
We’d love to have you join us if you’re near Chicago!