“Have you been busy saving the world?” asks the Facebook Page of The Urban Sangha Project. “We’ve been looking for you!”
The Urban Sangha Project is looking for those New Yorkers who need TLC the most: the caregivers; and they are offering them a free evening of mindful yoga, meditation and compassionate dialogue.
The monthly event, open to all, was founded and is hosted by Leslie Booker, a senior teacher and Director of Teacher Trainings for the Lineage Project, who has taught asana and meditation to incarcerated youth.
Booker explained that the Urban Sangha Project originally came out of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the night I attended. “We started directly after the eviction of the park,” she says. “Offering weekly workshops for six months (for the activists) after the eviction, because their work was so deeply needed. We then transferred our focus to social workers, teachers, doctors and nurses, people involved in direct service who are in danger of burnout. So thank you all for taking the time to take care of yourselves.”
We perched on our mats in a circle and introduced ourselves and Booker invited us to reveal what we were doing to change the world. There were social workers, a nurse, teachers, a public defender, people teaching yoga to at-risk youth, and a mom and dad (who brought their young daughter with them)—people who spend every moment giving of themselves.
“I’m changing the world by just taking a second to breathe,” added one person. Now we were all going to get a chance to do just that.
"Caring for myself is not self-indulgent, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare’,” said Booker, quoting Audre Lorde. “Movement towards action comes from the fluttering of the heart; your activism can look like love. It comes back to Dr. King, and I love his quote: ‘Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.’
We all sat quietly taking in the profound truth of these words.
“All of us in this room are trying to rectify injustice by leading with our hearts,” said Booker.
We then began gentle yoga with a hand on the belly, breathing deeply, as Booker’s soothing voice guided us to drop our chins to the chest, rolling our necks deliciously from shoulder to shoulder. We placed a hand on our heads and gently pulled a shoulder away from the ear, and extended the arm straight out, which felt amazing.
“From the throat out through the arms is where we express ourselves,” explained Booker as we folded forward and up, doing a gentle rolling vinyasa with knees on the mat. “And I love that it’s directly above our hearts. In this pose ears are open, my throat is open, my heart is lifted.”
We moved through cat and cow, getting warm by bringing action to the hips. “Really press your hands in the earth so your thoracic spine goes way up to the ceiling.” The slow, mindful postures had a truly healing effect as we got into our bodies and listened to what they needed.
We proceeded through down dog, and lunge twists. “Props are your friends!” said Booker, urging us to further care for our selves through the use of blocks. She spotted someone who realized that she going left when the rest of us were going right. “Don’t worry!” grinned Booker. “There’s no wrong side in yoga!”
After a few more stretches, we had a chance to get to know each other even better as we broke into groups for a partners’ dancer’s pose. We placed a hand on each other’s opposite shoulder as we each glided the back foot in the air. Booker and I were partners, and we giggled playfully as we tried to stay balanced. Even through my laughter, I recognized the value of the exercise as a reminder that it’s ok to lean on a friend when you need help.
We wound down with supported restorative poses, a long savasana and a seated meditation. We thought of all those who are suffering and need help, and offered loving kindness, dismissing the illusion of separation.
“See if you can sit with the feeling of compassion,” said Booker. “Understand the interdependence of our connection. How do we heal injustice through love?”
After tea (from a small pot that miraculously served us all!) we broke into partner groups once more for a sharing exercise–mindful listening and mindful speaking. Booker relayed an incredible quote from her friend Teo: “If you can move out of your discomfort, I can move away from my pain, and we can meet somewhere in the middle.”
This resonated deeply in the moments that followed. We each got four minutes to pour our hearts out, while our partner simply sat and stayed present, just listening. The person with the longest pinky got to speak first.
My new partner (longer pinky) told of a personal struggle, as I listened carefully. When it was my turn, I didn’t hold back, launching into a stream-of consciousness monologue about everything on my mind. Saying it all out loud with no fear of reaction or judgment was like letting it back out into the universe. And then with a bow of gratitude, we ended the evening, everyone happy, relaxed, and looking forward to the next time Booker would guide us back to the act of self-preservation and love.
As I put away my props, I noticed that the 50-pound boulder of angst and doubt I usually carry around was MIA. I knew I was going to sleep well that night.
Urban Sangha takes place the first Tuesday of each month at Charlotte’s Place at 109 Greenwich Street in Lower Manhattan, from 6:30 to 8 pm. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.