Teaching What We Need, Because We Have To

“Well, I think anyone driven toward a lot of self-reflection is a little crazy,” he said as we left the theater and started to the bar.

I agreed. Then I reflected.

“I mean, I’m driven toward a lot of self-reflection,” I said. I paused, then laughed. “And it does make me feel crazy sometimes.”

“Totally,” he agreed, though I wasn’t exactly sure which part he was agreeing with.

It was a first date, and we had been talking about yoga and yoga teachers. He had observed that many of the teachers he knew had gotten into the profession because of some momentous experience: a specific trauma or significant event in their own lives. Sometimes, he noted, their intense searching for inner peace came across as neurotic. This was a thing I had also noticed, but the fact that he had brought it up made me wonder: Do I appear traumatized? Are my neuroses so palpable that when I say, “I’m a yoga teacher,” people think, “Hmm… I wonder what happened with her…”

And they would be right to wonder, for the answer, of course, is a few things:

When I was 12, I was diagnosed with mild scoliosis; by 14, the diagnosis was upgraded to moderate to severe. For the next two years, back treatments were a central pillar of my life. If I wasn’t wearing a back brace, I was at the chiropractor or doing odd physical exercises. Over these two years, I threw regular tantrums, and spent innumerable hours looking at my body in the mirror, trying to stand in a way that made my shoulders even and my waist symmetrical. Despite the efforts I put into caring for my spine, it did not seem to care for me. And just after my 17th birthday, I yielded to surgery – the thing I had been trying so desperately to avoid – and immobilized my spine for good.  

When I was 16, my father was diagnosed with nausea and vertigo. Two weeks later, this Kraai family Christmas 2001diagnosis was upgraded to an aggressive brain tumor. For the next two weeks, hospital visits were the central pillar of my mom’s and my life. My sister and brother-in-law flew home from California. My aunts and uncles drove and flew in from everywhere else. We sang to him. We rubbed his toes. We cried regularly. Despite the efforts we put into caring for my father, his brain did not care for him. Two weeks after his brain tumor diagnosis, he was dead.

Soon after I got to college, I decided that I was not attractive. By January of my freshman year, this decision had developed into body dysmorphia, and I began exercising twice a day. Under the guise of environmental concerns, I became a vegan, severely limiting my diet. For the next two years, I tried to make myself vomit after eating what I felt was too much. I did not tell my family. I wrote depressing poetry. I cried regularly. Despite all the hours I exercised, despite what I ate or didn’t eat, I could not accept my body for what it was. I did not care for it, and it was no wonder that it did not care for me. 

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Photo by Nam Chantepie

Then, at 23, I began practicing yoga regularly. Throughout each class, my teachers would remind me that yoga was not about the physicality of the pose; it was about how we breathed in the pose. It was not about overcoming our bodies; it was about harmonizing with them. It was not until then that I began to feel at peace with my body. At 25, I had an epiphany: I would become a yoga teacher. So thankful for what I had learned, I needed to share it, to help others find peace with their bodies and selves. And it was not until I started teaching yoga regularly that I began to feel at peace, not just with my body, but with my life. I began, slowly, to accept that I cannot control the world around me (or within me), that the best I can do is treat myself and those around me with love and care.  

Last week in a yoga training, my teacher, Jason Crandell, in his hilariously cynical way, asked our room full of yoga teachers the following: “Can we all agree that we are in this profession because we’re all a little crazy? That we, in a sense, have to teach?” We all yoga is self-acceptancelaughed, perhaps a little too hard, and I was comforted to know that I was not alone.

As I laughed, I thought back to my date. Perhaps he had not meant to be rude or coarse. Perhaps he was simply noticing that people who dedicate their lives to yoga and meditation do so, in part, because they have strong personal connections to the subject. Indeed, it is this intimate knowledge that makes us fierce and impassioned. We know what it’s like to feel pain, and we also know that sooner or later, everyone else will, too. It is not our job to rid others of pain, to help them avoid trauma or stress. It is our job to help them endure, to give them the tools so that they (and we) do not actually become imbalanced. If that makes me crazy, I don’t want to be sane. 

 

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We Will Make It Work

There were already 40 people crammed into the studio when I arrived. I had deliberated for too long as to whether I wanted to take a yoga class or lounge in bed, and now it was 10:33 – three minutes after class was supposed to have started. When I looked at the room, then at the teacher, she said simply and genuinely, “We’ll make it work.”

“It’s okay if I don’t fit,” I said, trying to sound like I really was okay with it. “I don’t want to be a nuisance.”

“We’ll make it work,” she said again, “Everyone needs yoga right now.”

It’s not uncommon for students to get a bit grumpy when a studio fills beyond capacity. And as much as I, as a teacher, encourage my students to just roll with it, to make room when it doesn’t look like there is any, I also understand their concerns: it kind of sucks to be doused in other people’s sweat, to have your mat so close to your neighbors’ that you Anywhere Zencan barely move without becoming entangled in another’s limbs. Now I was that student, arriving three minutes late to a room that looked like it had no space for me. I really, really wanted to practice, but I really, really didn’t want to piss anyone off.

Just as I was rolling my mat out in the hallway, right outside the studio doors, another student came up to me and said, “I don’t know if you can see it, but there’s a spot all the way on the other side of the studio if you want.” I did want. Very much. So I picked up my mat and trekked to the other side of the studio, expecting to see at least a few frowning faces, annoyed that I had the audacity to wedge myself into a crowd of people who had enough respect to arrive on time. Instead, everyone was smiling, as if they were delighted to have found room for one more person to practice with them. As soon as I laid down on my mat and closed my eyes, I started crying.

Since the polls opened on Election Day, I had taught nine yoga classes. Until that morning, I had taken zero. Nine times, I was tasked with leading people through a practice that was supposed to foster an open heart, an open mind, and peaceful acceptance of what is. Nine times, I had to step aside from my emotions, at least enough to speak coherently and with minimal swear words. All nine times, I got at least a little bit teary and heard my voice get a little bit shaky, but each time, I was able to recover quickly. They’re not here to see me get upset, I kept telling myself, They’re here to practice yoga and to take care of themselves. This class is not about me. But finally, at 10:33 that Saturday morning, I had walked into a yoga studio to practice yoga. This class was about me.  

If you are a teacher (or a parent, or a caregiver of any kind), you are probably familiar with allowing others’ feelings to take priority over your own. I would argue that, in order to be good at our jobs, we must sometimes do this. We cannot take good care of others if we are preoccupied with our own feelings and stressors. Similarly (and somewhat oppositely), we also cannot take good care of others if we do not take good care of ourselves. Acknowledging and respecting our feelings and stressors is of critical importance if we are to empathize with and understand our students. We all know this, but knowing and practicing are two different things.

And the frustrating thing about practicing is that it often makes things harder, at least temporarily. Even though I had felt strongly that I needed to practice that Saturday morning, I must admit that when class was over, I felt more confused, sad, and angry than I had before. For a few minutes, I regretted having gone, as I suddenly felt less equipped to teach my class. In the fifteen minutes between taking class and teaching, I had to gather myself back up, step aside from the emotions that had come raging back, and pretend that I had my shit together, which I most certainly did not.

When I first started teaching, nearly five years ago, I relied on the approval of my students to tell me how I was doing. If several students came up to me after class to thank me, I trusted that it had been a success; if everyone left silently, I panicked (inwardly) and replayed all the possible mistakes I had made: forgetting my lefts and rights, choosing the wrong playlist for the mood of the room, not explaining things clearly, not allowing strength-handsenough time for savasana, allowing too much time for savasana. Over the last five years, I have come to rely less on verbal feedback, and more on observation. If I can hear or see people breathing deeply, moving in harmony with their bodies, or truly relaxing in savasana, I trust that the class I’m offering is working. (Yes, I recognize that we cannot always tell how our students feel by looking at them, but I do believe that, in general, our students will convey how they feel through their bodies, faces, and breath; to ignore this feedback is to discredit our work as perceptive and sensitive teachers.) If, by contrast, I see people looking confused, fidgeting, frowning, or avoiding eye contact, I take this as a message and I try to adjust: I speak more slowly and simply, I turn the music down, I put everyone in a child’s pose or forward fold while I take some deep breaths to myself. If I make these adjustments and the room still appears on edge, I try to trust that it’s still okay. I remind myself that I am doing the best I can, that I am a competent, caring, and passionate teacher, and that I have many students who enjoy my classes very much; if some people don’t, that is okay. They’ll find another teacher who is better suited for them. Usually, this positive self-talk works; on Saturday, it did not.

I know that I am a competent, caring, and passionate teacher. But I also know that I am fucking exhausted. I don’t know anyone who is at her best when she is fucking exhausted. We do the best we can under given circumstances, but some days will be easier than others and some classes will be better than others – in fact, some days will suck, and so will some classes. Some yoga classes will help us feel great and powerful and strong; others will remind us how weak and inflexible we can be. Saturday was a day I felt weak. I expect that I will experience another day like this soon – it’s how these things go. But to the best of my winding-roadability, I will continue to remind myself and my students that it is our weaknesses that help make us stronger, just as it is the wobbles and falls that make us more resilient and more balanced.

I am not looking forward to the political policies of the next four years, but I am looking forward to seeing how we, the resilient people, respond to them. I am not looking forward to the next yoga class where I feel weak and inflexible, but I am looking forward to returning to class after that. I am not looking forward to the next time I hear myself mix up body parts, stumble over my words, cry in front of my student, or see what I believe to be disappointed faces, but I am looking forward to adjusting, regrouping, and trying again.

Progress is not linear. Neither is healing or growth. I have to believe this is for the best. If we could only see ourselves become stronger, more flexible, and more powerful, we might become complacent, arrogant, or impatient. How fortunate that we are instead cyclically and relentlessly confronted with our weaknesses, flaws, and shortcomings! They are here to remind us that, no matter how much we have accomplished, there is still so much more to work toward.

We will make it work.

Go placidly.

I do not want to be peaceful about this. I am not in the mood to say, “Love will win,” and I will not try to tell you that everything will be okay. I am unbelievably angry, and I am incredibly sad. I don’t need to tell you why; you know. 

But in a few hours, I will sit on a hard floor in front of a small room of America’s citizens. They will be there, expecting me to help them breathe deeply on a day that is deeply shocking and deeply frightening. So I have to get over it, at least somewhat. I don’t know what I’ll do, except what I always do: remind them to focus on their breath and on what they are feeling right now, on how their breath fills their bodies and on how their hearts beat; remind them to listen, and to do their best to learn. In reminding them, I will remind myself: It will actually be okay, somehow. Love will win, repeatedly and cyclically, even if those victories are small and often ignored. We are angry and we are sad, but we are also hopeful and happy; we are everything all at once.

These reminders, coupled with patience, seem to be all that I can give.

Whenever my dad would become overwhelmed or depressed about the state of the world, he would reread his favorite poem, Desiderata, by Max Ehrmann. Often, I would read it over his shoulder or on his lap, or he would read it to me. I knew most of it by heart by the time I went to college, and have long planned to get the first two words tattooed on my arm as a permanent reminder: Go placidly.

img_4233I won’t say that reading it will make everything okay (it won’t). And I probably won’t be speaking my truth quietly for the next few days or years (sorry, Max). But I will listen – both to those stories that are vastly different from my own, and to the silence between them. I will be myself. And you can bet the orange man’s fortune that I will keep interested in my own career, however fucking humble. I will not feign affection, and I will be genuine and generous with love. I will support myself, and I will lift my brothers and sisters up. I will strive to see beauty, and I will strive to be happy.

Thank you, Papa, for reading this to me so many times. Thank you, Max, for writing it.

Desiderata

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.

Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.

In Sickness and In Health

When my mom asked me what I wanted for my birthday this month, all I could think about was a throat that didn’t hurt anymore and gums that weren’t swollen.

I had been in bed for six days, alternating between watching Netflix, reading, and sleeping. It hurt to talk, to swallow, even to chew. Visually, my throat implied a Jackson Pollock painting (if he painted with pus), and practically, felt as if someone had sewn a small wad of steel wool on my left tonsil. My gums resembled those of a boxer’s, after receiving several punches to the cheeks and teeth, and felt just as tender (or so I imagine – I have, thankfully, never been punched in the face). What are you doing to me, Body, I kept asking, and why?!?!

Compared to the average American – and I dare say, compared to most healthy Americans – I take exceptional care of my body. My doctor once told me that I had “the healthiest habits [she had] seen in… ever!” I eat copious amounts of fresh, organic vegetables, drink Golden Retriever puppylots of water and a very moderate amount of alcohol, try to vary my proteins between legumes, nuts, eggs, dairy, and meats, and sleep a respectable 7-9 hours per night. I practice yoga asana at least three times per week, and pranayama daily. Between ultimate frisbee, biking, and running, I get at least 60 minutes of cardiovascular exercise anywhere from 3-6 days a week. And while there was a point in my life when I worried about food obsessively and exercised excessively, those days are (for the most part) gone; I am conscious and careful, but I no longer punish myself with a long run and negative self-talk after eating too much ice cream. After 31 years of work, I feel as though I am finally in harmony with my body: I feed it good things, I challenge it physically, and I appreciate what it can do on a regular basis.

Each time I get sick, however, it feels as if my body has betrayed me. For those days, weeks, or months, it seems not to matter what I do, or how I treat my body; I am at the mercy of whatever virus or bacteria has invaded. And despite my hippy, DIY-cure tendencies, I often find myself panicking, wondering if this is going to be it: She thought she had a cold/ the flu/ strep throat, but it was actually cancer, they would say at my funeral. If only she had gone to the doctor in time.

Morbid? Yes. Hypochondriacal? Probably. But that’s almost exactly what happened to my father.

In February 2002, five days after he started feeling dizzy and nauseated, my dad went to the doctor. The doctor diagnosed him with the flu and vertigo, gave him some anti-nausea medication, and sent him home. After he vomited several doses of the medication, he went back to the doctor to investigate further. The doctor then performed a CT scan. Nothing showed up. I don’t know if it was my mother’s prodding, my father’s curiosity, or the doctor’s lingering doubt, but someone decided that my father should get an MRI, just in case the CT scan didn’t pick something up. Sure enough, the MRI showed a large, unidentified mass in his cerebellum. Instead of being sent home, he was sent straight to Rochester General Hospital.

The same week my father was admitted to RGH, I came down with a wretched flu. While he was on the operating table, receiving a biopsy on his brain tumor, I was in bed with a 104 papas-birthday-with-pig-nosedegree fever. My fever meant that I could not visit him after surgery; my general malaise meant that I had little energy or awareness of anything beyond my own discomfort. I remember sitting in the kitchen the first day I started feeling better, having the sudden realization that my father was dying, and had been dying quickly for the last few weeks. I remember feeling completely and utterly overwhelmed by helplessness – my father’s body was fading, and I could do absolutely nothing about it, not even visit for another 24 hours.

When I finally did visit, I was given a mask to wear over my nose and mouth, in case I was still contagious. I remember thinking the mask was pointless. The echos of my flu were powerless compared to the aggressive bundle of cancer cells in his brain. Couldn’t I just sit with my father, talk with him, smile with him, without a mask covering my face? The tumor had already decided its course; we were already at its mercy. Why were we still pretending we had control?

Compared to the average American – and indeed, compared to most healthy Americans – my father took exceptional care of his body. He hardly went to the doctor (he was hardly sick), he ate copious amounts of fresh, organic vegetables, drank lots of water and a very moderate amount of alcohol. He varied his proteins between legumes, nuts, eggs, dairy, and meats, and slept a respectable 6-8 hours per night. Between his rowing machine, ski machine, stationary bike, and running, he got at least 60 minutes of cardiovascular exercise anywhere from 3-6 days a week. Despite occasional frustrations with his aging muscles and creaking joints, he appeared in harmony with his body. He fed it good things, challenged it physically, and seemed to appreciate what it could do. But to his brain tumor, none of that mattered.papa-and-abby-clif

Sometimes I wonder if my obsessive tendencies are a response to my father’s premature death: if I couldn’t control that, then at least I can control what I eat, how much I exercise, and which direction the mug handles point when I put the dishes away. The ridiculous part about trying to control my life, however, is that while I can control the choices I make, I cannot control how those choices affect me or my body. I don’t know or understand everything that goes on underneath the skin, inside the organs (or even above the surface, for that matter!), therefore I cannot foresee how each of my choices manifests – physically or emotionally. All I can do is feel whatever it is I’m feeling, and try to figure out the connections between my choices and those feelings.

It’s easy to think that things are unfair, especially when we are in pain. But I did everything I was supposed to! we may find ourselves crying. Why did this happen?! Life is so unfair!! Perhaps when we dwell on “fairness,” however, we are missing the point. And perhaps when we dwell on our own pain, we are blinding ourselves to the pain others experience. To label our own misery as “unfair” implies that there is either someone else who is more deserving of misery, or that our misery is somehow more miserable than everyone else’s. Neither of these is particularly empathetic, and neither is helpful to rebuilding our health.

At some point during my recent sickness, a friend gently reminded me that “sensation is the only way our bodies can communicate with us.” If we feel pain, she said, that usually means that our body is begging us to listen, and listen deeply. When she said this, I felt a sudden wave of guilt for not loving my body fully – similar to the guilt that arises after I realize I said something mean or offensive to a person I love. Just as it is easy to love those people who are kind to us, it is easy to love our bodies when they respond the way we want them to. But just as we must choose kindness even (and especially) when others are not kind to us, we must be kind to our bodies even (and especially) when they make this kindness difficult. With all their imperfections and flaws, our bodies are ours to love, honor, and cherish, both in sickness and in health.

 

Good Enough

When I started practicing yoga, I thought my teachers knew everything. I would follow their directives to the letter, stay in each pose as long as I was told (not a moment more, and certainly not less), and obediently accept most any philosophical offerings they would propose. I saw my favorite teachers as almost magical beings, able to read my mind and tell me exactly what I needed to hear, both physically and mentally. Inspired and eager to learn a bit of this magic, I decided to become a yoga teacher myself, and set off across the country for my 200-hour training.

I was shocked on the first day when our primary trainer walked in: not only was he wearing jeans and white cotton socks (a far danger expectationscry from the hip and groovy yoga clothes I was expecting), but he sported what I would have labeled an “average” build: not at all overweight, but certainly not the chiseled and tan outdoorsy type I had dreamed up before his arrival. As I got to know him better, the vision I had constructed continued to crumble: I learned he had gone through a 12-step program, had attempted suicide as a young adult, and that he could be sarcastic and snarky. He started our classes late, he said things I disagreed with, and answered several of our questions with, “I don’t know,” or “Who cares.” While I had gone to the training to learn from him, to gather up wisdom, and to absorb the confidence and tranquility that I was sure he would perpetually exude, here he was admitting to us that he wasn’t (gasp!) perfect?! I was confused, and, I daresay, mildly disappointed.

My first teaching job brought up similar feelings. I worked for a woman who was anything but calm; she was intense, demanding, and so focused on her own vision that she often seemed to ignore the needs of her employees. I began to wonder how someone so stressed out could even teach yoga – weren’t teachers supposed to be models of the subjects they taught? Weren’t they supposed to be as inspiring outside of the yoga studio as they were inside? (Whatever that meant.) I felt frustrated, disillusioned, and disappointed.

Since then, I have worked in many yoga studios, alongside many teachers, and (needless to say) with many students. While I generally fancy myself a welcoming and encouraging teacher, I admit there have been several times I have thought to myself, stop expecting people to be perfect“What is this person doing in this class?! Hey, Buddy: learn to exhale, then call me!” The same went for teachers. I remember sitting in several classes questioning, critiquing, and judging: “Doesn’t this teacher know that hip openers are supposed to come after back-bends? Did this teacher really just drop the F-bomb in the middle of class?? Wait, did she really just make a reference to pole dancing?!? And what is up with this song choice?!?!!” With so many distractions, I found it difficult to concentrate, let alone find peace. It took months for me to realize: they weren’t the distracting ones; I was the one distracting myself.

When I began practicing yoga – and then again when I began teaching it – I was in search of perfection. I wanted to accept myself as is, sure, but the only way I could accept myself as is, was if I knew I was closer to perfect today than I was yesterday. I saw growth as linear rather than cyclical, I judged others for not growing as quickly as I thought they should, and I believed in “good” and “bad.” But as my fifth-grade English teacher used to say: “good and bad are third grade words – be more specific.” (To any third graders reading this: I mean no offense! Keep up the good work!!) Rather than act on what I felt or believed, I found myself tying my actions to expectations, and feeling disappointed when I didn’t live up to them. Sometimes others would remind me of my apparent hypocrisy: “I thought yoga teachers weren’t supposed to eat cheeseburgers…”; other times, I would remind myself: “You haven’t been to a yoga class in a week and now you’re about to teach one?! If your students only knew…” It took years for me to realize that I am, in fact, allowed to make my own decisions, to make mistakes, and that I do not need to feel guilty just because someone tells me I should.

In his pseudo-memoir, author Donald Miller writes: “When you stop expecting people to be perfect, you can like them for who they are.” Sure enough, when I let go of my expectations for both my teacher-trainer, and my previous employer, I began to if you judge no time to loveappreciate them for who they were and what they offered – which was a lot. As for my expectations of myself, I should confess that I have not yet given up on perfection, though I am working on it (maybe writing a blog about it will help?). Our teachers are not perfect, they are not magic, and neither are we, no matter how hard we try. When we stop judging, we can start loving; when we stop seeking, we can start being. We may disappoint ourselves along the way, and others may tell us that we have disappointed them. But each day, we do the best with what we have, and that will have to be “good” enough.