I would like to tell you the story of a man named Ian Manuel. I “met” Ian through Seane Corn. And before any of you think that I truly know either one of them, I do not. I only know of Seane Corn through one of her family friends, and because of how strongly this woman loved Seane, I started following her as she rose to yoga superstar status. Now if you know anything about Seane Corn, you know that she does not just use her platform to promote herself. She has been involved for years in social justice, founding (with Hala Khouri and Suzanne Sterling) the Off the Mat and Into the World organization. So I saw a picture of Seane with Ian Manuel on her IG feed. Because they were in Montgomery, AL, working together on a training, I got curious about who Ian was, and what was his story. It is one that I feel connected to, not because it mirrors my life at all, but because to me it shows the philosophy of yoga in action. It is a story of the circumstances of our lives leading us one way, and the ways in which our world views get shaped by what we know, who we are surrounded with. It is also the story of finding our way beyond those conditioned layers to who we are at center. It is about recognizing our commonality. It is about finding the work that is ours to do and doing it because we know it is what we are here to do. And it is about being who we are and doing what we need to do without worry about what anyone else will think or what will happen as a result. In yoga philosophy, this is Tapas, Svadhyaya, Isvara-pranidhana.
There are a number of places where you can read about Ian, so I will only give you a short recap here.
At age 13, Ian was imprisoned and put into solitary confinement for 18 years for a crime he committed. Imagine being in a small, concrete box for 18 years, from the time you were a young teen. What would you do? Ian did at times cut himself, tried to commit suicide more than once. He also wrote to and eventually called the woman who he had shot, and apologized. They began to correspond, and this woman over time forgave Ian. She actually advocated for his sentence to be lessened, and helped Bryan Stevenson and the folks at the Equal Justice Initiative to gain his release, although this took a long time.
Ian wrote many poems, a way of bringing out all that was inside of him, things he had no one to tell in that prison. When I contacted Ian to see if he was okay with me writing about him, I asked if I could share some of his poetry. He graciously sent me this poem that he wrote while he was in solitary confinement:
Genie in a bottle
By Ian Manuel
I’m the Genie in a bottle
the world has forgot
They put me in this abyss
And, closed up the top.
I was a little boy
when they did what they did,
But time continued to tick,
And, I’m no longer a kid
My mother is dead,
So is my father
I’ve been abandoned by family
while trapped in this bottle.
But I hold on to hope
That someone will open the top
Answer my prayers, and help me out.
Sometimes people pick- up the bottle
put their eye to the hole.
But instead of compassion,
act indifferent and cold
I suffer sensory deprivation,
a loss sense of direction.
There’s no mirror in this bottle
For me to see my reflection.
They say being lonely and alone
Are two different definitions,
But it’s only me
in this bottle,
so I fit both descriptions.
What I need is a friend.
Someone to extend a hand.
it can be as simple
as picking up a pen
Someone who cares.
Accepts me for who I am.
My magnetic personality
And my baggage from the past.
Someone who helps heal the sorrow.
Will work on building our tomorrow.
Someone who refuses to leave me to die in this bottle!
Ian, without support, found himself, in that center place where our mind and heart meet. Even through the time of life when we are all lost and confused in some way, he found this voice through his poetry. I am in pain. I am suffering. And he reached out. And his victim went beyond being a victim and saw the soul. That there was way more to Ian than the bad circumstances that led him to shoot her in the jaw that night. And Bryan Stevenson saw that Ian, and other young children like him had been given punishment that was way beyond what should happen to a child. He saw the soul. Ian did the work to get to know himself beyond the stereotypes of a young black man, this woman and the folks at EJI did the work to change the system and get him released from his prison. Tapas, Svadhyaya, Isvara-pranidhana.
What I most appreciate about what Ian, Bryan Stevenson, and others who are activists for social justice are doing, is that they are identifying ways in which our broken justice systems need to be fixed, but they are also looking to bring us all into the healing that needs to occur as part of that. Healing is what is needed now more than ever. At this time, it feels as though across the world we are becoming more and more divided rather than united. I see and hear way too much “us versus them” type of language. When people in powerful positions use their platform to spread more hate and fear, “othering” anyone, whether it be immigrants, women, LBGTQ folks, environmentalists, people with different colored skin, whoever “they” are, there is an uprise of violence, hate, separation. We all end up in the prison of our bias’ and beliefs. I think its high time to be part of turning our world back towards seeing the human in us all, and showing up for each other. Lets work to bring an equal chance at justice, voice, opportunity, and connection for everybody. This is how we live our yoga.
Ian now works with Seane Corn and others to promote activism for social justice. To help us all learn about the prisons we are in, the boxes in which we lock ourselves when we can only see the world in terms of right and wrong. So on this Martin Luther King day, instead of taking the day off, perhaps we can find a way in which we can make a connection with someone, help heal some sorrow, work on building our tomorrow, as Ian said.
Join me, won’t you, in bringing your practice to life? Martin Luther King Jr. Told us about his dream back in 1963. Let’s see if we can actually make it more reality in 2020.
You can follow Ian Manuel on IG at: the_diamond_in_the_dirt
Here is a great video that recaps Ian’s story.
Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson’s book has been made into an amazing movie. Please go see it, or read the book. Ian’s story is told in the book.
This is the Ted Talk Bryan Stevenson did some years ago, and he was given one of the longest standing ovations of any Ted Talk. If you hadn’t heard about Bryan Stevenson before reading this, please watch this. It will help you understand a lot more about why racism still persists to the extent that it does in the United States.
“What an incredible experience!” This was the phrase spoken by all 15 people at the end of each day of our Peru retreat. It was a magical mystery tour and many of the mysteries were uncovered thanks to our amazing guides, pampa mesayoq (shaman), and healers. From the opening circle and sound healing to the final OM at the retreat center, from the Sacred Valley to the majestic Machu Picchu, we all felt empowered, blessed, and enlightened by the ancient civilizations and the mark they left on the world.
Days began with my yoga class tailored to the physical and spiritual path we were to embark on. A yummy farm to table breakfast was prepared for us with love by Francesca. We then took off to explore archaeological ruins, learn about Andean cosmology, and the Incan traditions.
During the week, we visited a total of seven different archaeological sites of Incan times, including a picture perfect visit to Machu Picchu. Of the three times I have been there, this, by far, was the best for viewing and capturing our visit there in photos. We were gifted with the sight of a condor circling Huayna Picchu — which only added to our guide’s explanation of the significance of the condor to the Andean people. Our guides: Jesus, Rauol, and Carmen were excellent — bringing their knowledge forth and answering the numerous questions we had. We also had the chance to visit the Paru Paru community who live up above the Sacred Valley. They welcomed us with open arms, showing us their simple yet beautiful lifestyle. We were humbled by their customs and genuine caring, and the sense of community they shared. After demonstrating the process of shearing, washing, spinning, dying, and ultimately weaving the wool into gorgeous and colorful works of art, we appreciated even more how the skills that have been passed on from parents to children for so many generations continued to bring them a life that was truly in harmony rather than destroying the nature around them.
At the end of the week, we all had time for spa treatments, and healing sessions with a Pampa Mesayoq, Don Isidro. Our last day, he led us in a ceremony to help bless the land and mountain spirits in return for all the blessings we had received during our week. This powerful ceremony still lives in my heart and has brought some insightful dreams in the nights since.
Going through significant changes in elevation, temperature, and weather, everyone found their personal journey, gracefully negotiating all challenges, and supporting each other along the way.
We quickly went from new acquaintances to caring friends. Jesus, our main guide, told us the first afternoon that the Andean philosophy was all about the heart. We embraced and acted on that from day one and are already talking about coming together again for a Tuscany Retreat in 2021!
I’m planning a workshop so I can reconnect with many of these folk and others next spring in NYC. There are so many of us seeking to share informative and healing experiences these days, and I hope to create a gathering in the city that will be just as powerful as the ones in Peru. If you weren’t able to be there on this retreat, I do hope that you can join me there.
Subscribe to my newsletter if you haven’t yet to find out where and when the next event will be. The calendar over the next year is filling with lots of good stuff–I hope to see you soon to experience the joy of community, the respect for mother earth, and a remembrance of how to live from the heart.
Love and light,
In the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, there are eight limbs of yoga described. Three of the last four are Pratyahara (withdrawing of the senses), Dharana (concentration), and Dhyana (meditation). In my early days of practicing yoga, I got the part about withdrawing the senses pretty well. It started to happen when I would do my sitting meditation, as well as occasionally when I was practicing the physical postures. Yet the difference between concentration and meditation eluded me for quite a while. I used to use my breath, a visual point of focus, a thought, or mantra to place my attention and then I called this meditation. However, what I was practicing was concentration. It was and is a worthwhile practice. Yet I then began to discover that what is meditation is actually beyond this one-pointed focus. I had read about it; knew this intellectually, yet it took a long time for me to distinguish the difference to being in a state of concentrating on just one thing rather than a meditative state. A meditative state, by contrast, is being able to have full awareness of everything, really being fully present for reality.
For all the years in which I was basically practicing concentration, the practice felt as though I was condensing myself, through my awareness to try to maintain my focus on that one thing. Whether it was staring at a candle flame, chanting mantras, or visualizing an object, it was the continual noticing that awareness had crept away from the one thing, and bringing it back over and over. It did help me to be able to focus for longer periods on things like writing blog posts! 🙂
I began to actually understood how meditation can be different. While they both look the same from the outside (me, sitting with my spine straight, eyes closed, stillness), the experience on the inside is way different. Meditation is expansion. As though this much-more-intense focus extends to every cell of my physical body, my mind, my heart, my energy, and all that is around me, and sometimes even stuff that is not around me, including other people, nature, sights, sounds, energy. It is a still, calm, awareness that is expansive, enveloping, embracing,…words just don’t do this justice. It is, in fact, when I have felt the absolute most alive I have ever felt. Aware AF, if it were to be condensed to a meme. It does not mean being ignorant of what has passed or what is to come. It is an embracing of all, without getting lost in any one part of it. While it has come about during my meditation practice, it has also happened to me when I have been deeply immersed in playing music, creating art, or absorbed in nature.
So while practice and meditative techniques are one way to get there, our life itself can be our practice. My underlying philosophy on my spiritual path is that life is to be lived, that we are here to enjoy, be present for the divine play of our lives. So the more time I can be in that state of presence, the more I truly enjoy it all, even the downs within the ups and downs. If there is sadness, what does it feel like to experience that in my body, my breath, my mind? How does it change the way I see and interact with the world around me? If there is joy, let me be present and explore in the same ways. If this sounds good to you, I suggest you find all the ways in which you can be here now. If you find that tough to do, reach out. I have some good ideas of how to begin to live your yoga.
I absolutely love when a student asks this question. It begs the question, What is Yoga? So that is where I start all my teacher trainings, for in order for us to know if what we are doing is yoga, we have to come to agreement on what that four letter word means.
What does yoga mean to you? Is it about physical postures and flexibility? Is it Sun Salutations? Is there a certain way in which you must breathe in order for movement to be yoga? Does it need certain clothing, location, temperature, people, chanting, Sanskrit, tradition, knowledge, certification, amount of time practiced, mat, props, bare feet, sweat?
I’d say no to everything listed in that previous paragraph. Yoga to me means more about how I do something and the results of my actions than anything else. Yoga to me is an attitude of attentiveness, reverence, and curiosity to each moment as it appears. My practice involves first getting centered, finding my intention, honoring my teachers and dedicating my practice to something greater than me. I will then do some sort of physical practice — moving my body is definitely a must for me, though these days I find that I do not do the same practice daily like I used to. I have more variability based on what different parts of me are feeling.
I include breathwork in my practice and meditation as the last part of my morning session. Then in the afternoon, I will do more breathwork and meditation. Yoga off my mat can include a practice of “mindful walking” as a way of staying present to the beauty of nature, or the environment and people around me.
On the weekend mornings, when I have more time to enjoy a cup of coffee or tea outside, I will sit on my porch and allow myself to get absorbed into the sounds and sights of birds and animals as they wake up. I love to stay connected with the natural patterns around me, so I am typically found doing this with the the plants and trees, stars, the sun, and especially the moon. I greet them, send them my love, and attempt to “feel” them — it doesn’t always happen, but sometimes there is a sense that we are one.
Those are the easy times. Then there are the times when my button gets pushed, or I’m not in that lovey mood, and I realize this is the real practice. I remember to take some nice slow, even breaths, and allow myself to actually be with what is going on. Be with the discomfort of an emotion perhaps, or be with the tightness in my stomach, slow down my inner narrative of everything that has NOT YET HAPPENED, so that I can be present for that other person and myself. It can help me (if I catch myself in time) to act consciously rather than react unconsciously. Breaking through these old patterns (samskara in Sanskrit) is great work! It brings me back to the place where I remember that the other person and I both came from that same star dust…we are both the sparks of the divine light. That’s usually my best yoga practice, those difficult moments. And that’s why I practice daily on my mat when its easier, because it helps me do a good practice when its not so easy. This is what I call living my yoga.
Love and light,