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. 

img_4971

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. 

 

Advertisements

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.