In the early morning walk to the hot tubs, I recalled how many times I’ve tread this exact path for over 25 years, and how many others have done so, too. I also remember the moments when my awareness opened up to recognize life beyond my own skin, life beyond my own joys or sufferings. It was, in fact, walking amongst these trees, alongside this river, in the mystical mornings before preparing breakfast for 120 overnight guests at Breitenbush Hot Springs.
The awakening to life beyond my own skin (and beyond my own thoughts about myself) was a large part of what lead me to teaching yoga. While living at Breitenbush, my yoga practice became more vital, deeper, more profound. I sensed myself to be a part of something larger than myself. At first this feeling seemed big enough when I considered the community of Breitenbush Hot Springs, 75 of us working together to steward the land and the retreats. Yet, yoga doesn’t seem to contain things to our personal reach. As I continued on my mat and on my cushion, this sense of that which is larger than me grew beyond Breitenbush to the family of humanity. Soon, it grew beyond that too. It included all the teachers, students, and seekers who’d come before me; as far reaching as India. And all those who would come after me. Millions of countless hopeful hearts, learning to navigate their joys and sufferings.
The Horizon of the 3 Oms
As this felt sense continued to expand, the singing practices of yoga infused my life more often, more spontaneously, and more joyfully. A chant would find its way into my mind, body and heart while preparing breakfast. While riding my bike, while doing my practice and while hiking in the woods.
I still remember the feeling of shifting personal horizons the first time I chanted 3 Oms to begin a yoga class. (Though this is normalized today, it truly was ground-breaking to me!) In my self-perception, I wasn’t a person who had a “voice”, nor a contribution to make. I was still pre-occupied with people liking and accepting me. I both wanted to chant these 3 Oms and I felt scared to do it. (I do, in fact, recall I was shaking.) Yet, something in me pushed on.
We brought our hands together in Anjali Mudra. I asked the students to take a deep breath in. And, knowing I had to begin it, I sang Om as well as I could from deep in my belly, up through my heart, and out through my throat. My voice was both heard by and leading others. At the end of the first Om it felt like a long wait for the second one. (Though it was happening in regular time, my brain was experiencing a shift out of being a person without a voice to being one who could use her voice. Time slowed down in my inner world, though it kept its pace in the outer world just the same.)
At the end of 3 Oms, I remember feeling timid about opening my eyes to see the students seeing me. Yet, I also remember the fading of self-pre-occupation, and the emergence of that in me which longed to serve more than to stay hidden. This was New Year’s Day of 1994, a moment in time, and an experience of connecting to that which is timeless.
Ten years later, I would be chanting in the security lobby of an Oregon prison. In the years between the 3 Oms and the Gayatri mantra in a prison lobby, I would also be grown by the practice of and the teaching of yoga. Not only was there a continual sense of life expanding beyond my earlier perceptions, life also became more intimate. The more yoga opened me from the inside out, the more deeply I was able to also let life in. Teaching yoga became both an internal experience of greater intimacy with myself and an external experience of porousness and appreciation of and with others. In time, the sense of self and other dissolved to a quiet, heart-full wonderment at the human condition in all its manifestations, through all of us.
I am grateful to all of my students for what they have required from and elicited from me in the role of teacher. Thank you for being willing, for offering your studentship, and for evolving along the way with me. (And, for singing!!)
Chanting with the Officers
Beyond the weekly classes I began teaching in prisons in 1998, twice a year I was also able to teach one-day retreats at the women’s prison in Wilsonville, Oregon. For one of these, I brought my harmonium into the check in station of the Medium Security facility, but was denied permission to bring it into the classroom. For the Minimum Security facility, I tried it again; this time successfully, and with some hilarity.
The harmonium, when folded up in its own case, fits in the overhead compartment of an airplane. As it wouldn’t pass through the metal detector (too many metal parts), I unpacked it for the officers to inspect. I unfolded the piano keys, snapped the bellows in place and pulled out a few air pegs (to let the air pass through the instrument for making the piano keyboard vibrate, like a small organ).
During the inspection process, the officers and I bantered a few times about the merits of yoga and the atrocious stiffness they experienced in their hamstrings – none could reach the floor from standing. Since they seemed jovial and relaxed, I asked them if they wanted a demonstration of the harmonium in play. “Sure,” they replied.
So I whipped off a few chords and a simple melody, filling the security check in station with a warm and vibrational sound (the entire area has only linoleum, metal and cement, so the acoustics are terrific!).
The officers politely smiled.
“Would you like to hear what we’ll sing to start class?” I asked playfully.
“Yeah, go ahead,” they replied, much to my surprise (over the 10 years that I’ve been teaching in prisons, the interest of the officers has spanned from mild to superficial to dismissive, but generally friendly).
We bantered a few times more about this before I worked up the gumption to sing the invocation to them. I sang:
Om Bur Bhuva Svaha
Tat Savetur Varenyam
Bargo Devasya Dimahi
Di Yo Yo Nah Prachodayat
For about two minutes the lobby was filled with the sound of the harmonium and the richness of singing this mantra (aided by the high level acoustics of the prison “décor”).
The officers stared at me in silence.
“Do you want to know it means?” I asked, without forethought.
From the part of my brain that can be entirely uncensored and goofy I said, “It means: Chisel Your Way Out of Here, Girls!”
Not only did I break out in my usual gregarious laughter, the officers found this hilarious and shocking and they laughed uproariously.
At the start of the retreat, I told the women this story. They laughed even harder than the officers, partly enjoying the sense of camaraderie that this event revealed.
I’m continually delighted by the spontaneous sense of camaraderie that I experience when doing yoga with others, though I’d say I cherish it the most in the prisons where three very different life stories (the officers, the inmates, the yoga volunteers) flow into one: a desire to support and create change.
When I told the story of chanting with the officers to my Monday morning class at the studio, one of the students said “Wow, that’s a perfect translation!” And I realized she’s right. We are all trying to “chisel our way out” of some kind of prison; mostly self-made. The more accurate (though contemporary) translation of this mantra gives us the guidelines for doing that:
We honor the wisdom that has created the cosmos, including us.
May it dissolve our ignorance and sense of separateness.
May this wisdom be what comes through in our thoughts and actions.
May this beauty sustain us.
With gratitude for all of our teachers, past, present, and future.
May we and all beings be free from our self-pre-occupations.
May we each find our voice and our dharma, our expressions of contribution.
May we each discover the intimacy and expansiveness of life and the human condition within us.
May we deeply respect the groundwork and foundations laid for us by our ancestor yogis and those who overcame limitations on the way to freedom.