touching the earth | a reflection on zenju’s “Way-Seeking Mind of Martin Luther King Jr.”

As a Zen practitioner in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, my study of his teachings and personal history provided a surprising lesson about the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This gleaming insight into their relationship renewed my appreciation and broadened my understanding of King’s legacy as it elucidated the global impact of his compassionate mission. Several years ago, inspired by the “inter-being” between these two leaders as well as my own dharma as a Black American woman on this path of practice, I led my root sangha in the Touching the Earth prostrations to honor King and Thay as spiritual teachers.

Since then, my Monday evening Yin+Yang Yoga class has fallen on this national holiday. Each asana that brings our hearts closer to the earth (like these two favorites: Child’s Pose + Anahatasana) becomes a prostration, in which we fully embody the mindfulness practice of remembrance and reconciliation. We remember our origins and connections: to ancestors, by blood and spirit; to this Earth that sustains us and upon which our complex and interwoven histories have been built. We may began to penetrate the deep suffering emanating from our painful histories, which continue to manifest in new forms and to impact our experiences and abilities to relate to one another because of race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, disability and a whole slew of “differences” that seem to separate us. Breath by compassion-filled breath, we may began to reconcile these histories as we acknowledge, cradle, and heal our own suffering. We give it back to this wondrous Earth to absorb and transform it, as from the mud blooms a lotus. In every class, I invite the practitioners to cultivate compassionate understanding of their bodies, minds and hearts through the alignment of breath and posture. Generating such mindfulness and loving awareness for ourselves teaches us how to skillfully extend compassion and loving-kindness to others.When we abide in mindfulness, our senses become clear and fully attuned to the spectrum of beauty and suffering in the world.  We acknowledge our own contribution to that stream–how our actions increase beauty or increase suffering. We make amends when we cause suffering and begin anew, watering seeds of compassion. Each heart-driven act–embodied on the mat, the cushion, among our beloveds and within our communities–commemorates the King’s legacy. On this path, as teacher and practitioner, I know I am a continuation of Dr. King.


[Originally posted 31 January 2013; Updated 20 January 2014]


Zenju Earthlyn Manuel |The Way-Seeking Mind of Martin Luther Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr. | King’s Nobel Peace Prize Nomination Letter for Thich Nhat Hanh
Rev. Dr. Andrew C. Kennedy | Martin Luther King Jr. + Thich Nhat Hanh

[Broken links updated 16 January 2017]


on kindred practices: prayer, silence + spacious awareness

“In Buddhism, simply resting in a relaxed, open, spacious state of mind without purpose and without a goal is considered the highest form of spiritual practice…

This spacious awareness is considered both an advanced practice and a practice even the merest beginner can do.

This seems pamudra (640x480)radoxical, but when a beginner does it, it has the quality and substance of a beginner’s awareness, and when an advanced meditator does it, it has a deeper quality of advanced awareness.

That is why I like to call it a prayer of silence. Prayer is not really something you get “good” at, like other skills — although people who pray regularly have cultivated a prayerful attitude toward life.

A prayer is in essence a surrender and
a supplication to that which is beyond ourselves.

In this sense the Buddhist practice of spacious awareness has a universality that makes it kindred with other religions.”

Lewis Richmond
Aging as a Spiritual Practice

[originally posted on 15 Dec 2013 on my former site dharma yoga arts]

learning together: teaching as a collaboration

I begin every class by asking practitioners what their bodies need that day. I invite them to make requests: 1) for particular poses that they’ve either found helpful or challenging and wish to explore; and 2) for parts of the body that need attention, making special note of any new injuries or sensitivities.

There are times when this invitation is met with blank, self-conscious stares and silence. (Typically when it’s a brand-new group or when I’m subbing for another teacher.)  When this happens, I pose it another way: Where are you holding tension? What needs to be stretched? What needs to be strengthened?

Finally, a quiet murmur from a hesitant voice dares to reveal in a room (most often) full of strangers a perceived weakness: a knee or shoulder, lower back, neck or hamstrings that chronically and persistently ails. Now come the echoes of agreement! Oh, the relief at knowing we’re not the only one suffering.

I’ve been teaching for 7 years, and it puzzles me that, in a yoga class of all places, people (read: adults of all ages, beginning and experienced students alike) appear reluctant to respond to this invitation to fully participate in creating their experience on the mat.


Is it the awkwardness of public speaking?
Is it just wanting to turn off the efforts of the thinking mind after a long day to simply enjoy being led?
Are students deferring to the skill of the teacher because they have no preference?
Or, do they really not know/understand how to listen to what is happening in their body?
Do they not feel empowered to ask?

Naturally, beginning students feel like they don’t know enough to ask. But then I think: Well, what would you say to a massage therapist or medical professional who asked you to describe the sensations in your body and where you’re feeling them?

What about experienced practitioners who are reticent? Are they keeping quiet because they think the teacher should have a plan or because they don’t wish to appear as if they are challenging the teacher? Have they never been asked to consider these questions before?

In far too many instances, I suspect that it is the latter reason. Some teachers are either not approachable or are not creating an atmosphere where questions and curiosities are openly welcomed. It may not be intentional; however, the lack of awareness and connection between such teachers and their students becomes apparent when those students reveal, through the questions and observations they pose to me, disparities in teaching (philosophy, skill, etc.) and communication styles.

In a recent conversation, a practitioner expressed concern about her physical discomfort when doing a particular sequence of movements in class taught by another teacher. After guiding her once more through modifications I had just taught the group, I asked whether she’d ever talked with the other teacher about this. She paused thoughtfully and realized that she hadn’t–in part, because she was deferring to that instructor’s style and because of the well-noted rigor of the class itself.

My question gave her new perspective. Instead of outright dropping the class, she agreed to first speak with the instructor. I encouraged her to then base her decision on how that instructor received her questions and, when tested, whether that answer ultimately served to eliminate her discomfort and enhance her practice. I added that such feedback helps us learn how to teach our students!

Situations like that are common. So it has long been my practice to encourage students to respectfully approach any and every teacher to inform them of their injuries or sensitivities, to ask questions, and to make requests. It is how we teachers learn to listen, observe, instruct clearly, and respond skillfully to students–whether by modifying poses or by offering an all-together different pose option to accommodate the diversity in body type, range of motion, skill level (to name a few) in our rooms. It is how we teachers continue to develop our skills.

So it is important for me to invite practitioners to co-create the practice with me. When that connection and openness has been established, requests will pour in before I can even ask…sometimes the moment they walk in the door! I do this with the intention to empower students to make the practice their own: to help them discover how to listen and respond skillfully to their bodies on and off the mat.

We feel different in body, heart, and mind everyday. So–even if we move through the same poses time and again–our yoga practice is different! Honoring what we are experiencing in the present moment not only keeps us safe in our practice, but also deepens our intimate understanding of ourselves, strengthens our intuitive powers, and nourishes in our hearts the sense of compassion, resilience and trust we have for ourselves.

At the end, I thank everyone for helping to create the practice. Yes, I am an experienced teacher who offers them tools to stretch, stabilize and strengthen the body as well as to relax, understand, sort, settle and honor the heart and mind. But it is very rare that I come in with a pre-planned sequence. (Why? Inevitably, a new student will show up without any previous experience or a regular student will have a new ache or injury. Whoosh! Out goes the plan.) Instead I arrive with the intention to teach spontaneously from a mix of intuition, knowledge, and observation. What I teach then is inspired by the present-moment needs of the practitioners because they are the experts of their own bodies and, as such, the co-creators of their yoga experience.

{originally published 22 aug 2013 now-defunct dharma yoga arts blog}

on mindful consumption: magic of deep listening + skillful speech

essential food

nothing can survive without food.

everything we consume acts to either heal us or to poison us.

we tend to think of nourishment only as what we take in through our mouths, but what we consume with our eyes, our ears, our noses, our tongues, and our bodies is also food. the conversations going on around us, and those we participate in, are also food.

are we consuming and creating the kind of food that is healthy for us and helps us grow?

when we say something that nourishes us and uplifts the people around us, we are feeding love and compassion.

when we speak and act in a way that causes tension and anger, we are nourishing violence and suffering.

…nourishing and healing communication is the food of our relationships.

~ Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh
The Art of Communicating

heart, sweetened with intention

toward which direction is your heart stretching?
know that this organic force, opening and guiding your heart, is the seed of intention

what are you breathing life into?
know fully that the breath is the fuel growing into aspirations.

heart-sweetened-with-intention connect with and align your thoughts, words and deeds with the seeds of intention blossoming in your heart.

nourish and energize your hopes and visions with the compassionate wisdom of breath.

each inhale grants space for each blossom to stretch out and unfold.

each exhale invites those roots to merge with every fiber of your being.

with such loving awareness, tend to your heart.

bathe it in the sweet, steady flow of breath.

as the petals of intention bloom, they will stretch open your hands, heart and mind.

every breath, thought, word and deed becomes a flower,
saturated with the fragrance of clear intention.

your aspirations — a beautiful thousand-petaled lotus.