On Stoicism

For most of my life, I have identified as an extrovert. I preferred social time to me-time, planned frequent parties, and enjoyed making conversation with strangers. I shared my stories readily and eagerly, trusting Happy-Fingersthat most people I met were kind and caring and interested in what I had to say. I had many friends, and continued to put in the effort to make more (though perhaps “effort” is the wrong word, as it never felt like work). I was of the belief that if some friends were good, more friends were better; the bigger my community, the happier I would be.

It wasn’t until graduate school, when I was 28, that I was first described as “quiet.” My mother and I both laughed heartily at this description, as we both knew better: outgoing and gregarious, yes; quiet, almost never. We dismissed this description as comparative. At the time, one of my dearest friends was outgoing and gregarious to the extreme; next to her, we agreed, anyone would appear quiet.

Then, when I was 30, one of my yoga students referred to me as “stoic.” I can’t wait to tell my mom about this! I thought. My mother – whom I had called every few weeks throughout college to throw a tantrum about how much I hated deadlines, how I could not possibly finish this paper by tomorrow, how I could not stand how much work I had to do or how busy I was – would surely find this as hilarious as I had. If there was one thing I had, it was a lot of feelings; if there was one thing I liked to do with those feelings, it was share them. (That was still true, right?)

Since that first time a student described me as stoic, several others have done the same. Some have even been surprised to learn that I used to throw a lot of tantrums and that I still, on occasion, feel extremely, debilitatingly stressed. And when I recently described myself to one student as “a bit of a hummingbird” in reference to my excitability and difficulty being “chill,” he said, “Yeah, you say that, but I don’t see it.” Really?! I thought. How can you not see this energy boiling beneath the surface?! Why do you think I do so much yoga?!? But stoicism is not a feeling; it’s a way of presenting. And as a teacher, I have made a conscious choice not to present many of my feelings to my students. I do not want to stand in the way of their experiences, and so, to some extent, I do put on a stoic front. It seems to me the professional thing to do.

driving in the rain along Nose Hill Drive, traffic stopped at a red light.

When I allow myself to feel my emotions, however, they are of utmost intensity (who’s aren’t?!). Sometimes, I pull my car to the side of the road so that I can indulge in deep, wracking sobs, or so I can shout and scream with the fury of a thousand suns. Other times, I’ll sit alone in my room, journaling feverishly, underlining, all-capsing, and taking occasional weeping breaks before returning to scribbling. 

According to society, these are generally considered “healthy” ways of dealing with emotions: I am expressing them in “appropriate” contexts, rather than directing my anger or sadness (i.e., my “negative” emotions) toward other human beings or in a public space. But in another sense, these expressions feel incomplete. As I have gotten further in the habit of being “professional” with my feelings, of appearing stoic, I have gotten less in the habit of expressing my feelings to others. Shouting and weeping in solitude offers some comfort, but if that is all one ever does, one is liable to feel isolated and lonely in addition to whatever upsetting emotions she felt in the first place.

According to Van de Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score, “having a good support network constitutes the single most powerful protection against becoming traumatized” by difficult experiences (212). I would propose that simply “having” is not enough; that one must actively engage with said network. I would also highlight the word “good,” and remind the reader (as I now remind myself, often) that living healthily and happily requires being discerning, defining for ourselves what is good for us, who is good for us, and how we can be good to ourselves. 

The interesting irony here is that, as I have become more introverted, I have started to put more effort into connecting with the people I truly resonate with – i.e., good people. I have even come to admit that I actually need others to survive, and to function well. Sometimes, this effort does feel like work, and sometimes it is frighteningly vulnerable. Connecting with others on a superficial level has always been easy for me; allowing others to feel safe to express their vulnerabilities has also come easily; but it has not been as easy for me to be the vulnerable one.

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The more I contemplate my newfound introversion, the more I wonder if it is less introversion and more discernment. Probably it’s both. I no longer wish to share my stories with just anyone; I want to know and trust the person first, and I want the relationship to be mutual. I do not want to share all my ups and downs with my yoga students; to me, the context of a studio class is not appropriate for that. And I have begun to accept that if someone wants to share their vulnerabilities with me but I do not feel comfortable sharing my vulnerabilities with them, it is okay for me to not to share; I need to feel safe too.

There is nothing wrong with presenting as stoic. Indeed, to know how to remain unflustered and non-reactive is essential for survival (thank you, yoga, for helping to cultivate these skills!). But when the context is appropriate for vulnerability, we do not need to remain stoic. We can cry, we can shout, we can express – this, too, is essential for survival! And perhaps most empowering to remember: we can determine who we fold into our “good support network,” so that we are not left to express alone.

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An Open Letter to Wanda’s Mother

Dear Wanda’s Mother:

Your daughter was nine weeks old when I met her. Her name was Caramel then, but I quickly decided that was too saccharine (I know, you didn’t choose it), and changed it to Wanda: a name I felt more appropriate for the confident, sociable, and strong young lady that I intended to raise. I hope you approve.

Everything about Wanda was adorable: her floppy ears, her tiny snout, her wiggly body, her wobbly legs that were a bit too long for the dachshund in her, and her calm, grounded presence that belied her chihuahua roots. I had read about chiweenies – that they were prone to barking and nipping, and that they were not good with kids. “[T]hey can be easily irritated by noise and activity,” one website noted, and “[t]hey are… known to not get along with other animals.” Your little girl, however, seemed different: she was quietly inquisitive, delicately sniffing around my living room while the woman from the foster agency and her 10-year-old son watched. She had arrived with another chiweenie friend, Herbie, whom I was also interviewing. Wanda seemed just as happy to play with Herbie as she was to lick the 10-year-old boy’s face. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that I quickly fell in love with her. I’m sure you were in love with her too.

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The first night she slept at our house, she didn’t utter a peep for seven straight hours, and only began to stir when her thimble-sized bladder needed to be emptied. In the month that she’s lived with me, she has met many dogs and people, responding with either a demure interest or slight trepidation, quickly followed by playfulness – never with barking. She isn’t fazed when I grind my coffee beans or when other dogs bark, and she can sleep like a champion through whatever loud beats are pumping at my gym. The dog trainer I work with comments frequently on her mild manners, her curiosity, and her quickness to learn. I try not to mistake any of Wanda’s behaviors as my own personal successes, though it is tempting. (As a side-note, I finally understand some parents’ tendencies to brag about their children: They are great, and I raised them, therefore I am also great!) Wanda is her own woman, as I’m sure you know, and though her brain and heart be but little, they are fierce.

I have heard many people say that dogs are reflections of their owners, and to some degree, I believe this is true. Your species is incredibly perceptive of our human energy and stress levels, and if we are not careful, we can certainly imbue them (you) with some of our own neuroses. But sometimes, even the most caring, careful owners can raise yippy, nippy pups, just as sometimes, even the kindest, most patient parents can raise children who rebel, and rebel hard. No matter how much safety and love we offer, there are many things of which we are not in control; this is especially true of the babies we adopt.

 

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In Bessel van der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps the Score (perhaps you’ve read it?), he references a study that examines rats’ relationships with their mothers, and how these relationships affect development. The conclusion was unsurprising, and the implications clear: “The rat pups that are intensively licked by their mothers are braver and produce lower levels of stress hormones under stress than rats whose mothers are less attentive. They also recover more quickly – an equanimity that lasts throughout their lives” (154). A similar conclusion was reached in another study with rhesus monkeys, and again, in a study with humans: “Monkeys with [deficient serotonin transmitters] that were raised by an adequate mother behaved normally and had no deficit in their serotonin metabolism… humans with [the same deficit] had higher rates of depression than those [without the deficit] but… this was true only if they also had a childhood history of abuse or neglect” (156). In short, attention and affection from a loving parent yield greater equanimity and resilience, regardless of genetic makeup (and regardless of species). I don’t know when Wanda was taken away from you, her first mother, but I can only assume that by the time she was, she had already received adequate licks and copious snuggles. Thank you for that.

When I was in graduate school for adolescence education, we spoke frequently about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and generally agreed that, in order for our students to learn, they first had to feel rested, nourished, safe, and supported. This was easier for those students who received this support from their parents or guardians; it was more difficult, though not impossible, for those who relied on their teachers or school counselors. Since I am not Wanda’s biological mother, I don’t have the advantage of having known her her whole life; I won’t be licking her coat like you did, or picking her up by the scruff of her neck, or even sleeping next to her every night. But I will pet and cuddle her as much as she allows,introduce her to as many loving humans and dogs as I can, and remind her in plain English that I love and appreciate her and how much she is learning. I guess that’s the cool thing about your species: you’re part dog, part human; you can understand both languages if we let you, and if we communicate clearly.

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I will leave you with one final anecdote: Last week, as I was telling my counselor about the stresses of dog-parenthood (I’m sure you know that it’s not always easy!), she showed me a picture of a bumper sticker: “Proud parent of a great kid who is sometimes an asshole and that’s OK!” I laughed and immediately felt soothed. I am doing my best, she reminded me. I am researching and learning about dog development, putting in time and effort and love. Wanda’s successes deserve to be celebrated as her successes, and when she fails, she needs to know that I still love her, so that she can continue to feel safe with me. Safety is essential; love must be unconditional. For Wanda, for you, and for me.

Thank you, Mama Wanda, for providing our little gal with so many licks, and so much affection in her formative weeks. I will do my best to continue helping her feel safe, supported, and well-loved in all the human ways I know how. 

Love from one mama to another,
Abby

Why I Hate my Garmin Watch

I was riding the bus in San Francisco when a woman made the mistake of asking me about yoga. “I like your yoga pants,” she said. “Do you do yoga?”

“I do indeed,” I answered.

“Man, I should start doing yoga,” she said. “I hear it’s a really good way to lose weight,” she said. “Is it a good way of losing weight?”brown bus seat

I laughed. “I mean, it can be? But probably not for the reasons you’d think.”

“Oh really? Why’s that?”

“Well,” I began, “it makes you listen to your body and more aware of when you’re actually hungry. And in my experience, it makes you want to treat your body better and feed it healthy things.”

“But you sweat a lot, right? I hear that sweating a lot makes you lose weight.”

“It certainly can, but that’s water-weight,” I started again.

“All I know is my girlfriend started doing yoga, started doing those hot yoga classes, and she lost 30 pounds.” She got up. “Well this is my stop,” she announced. “Thanks – I gotta stop eating these Oreos,” gesturing to her shopping bag, “and try yoga!” And with that, she was gone.

A month later, I got a new watch. It was to replace my old GPS watch that I had lost, and this time, it was extra fancy. Not only does this watch track distance and pace, it tracked heart rate, steps, stairs, calories, and (apparently) one’s level of stress. It also receives texts and Instagram notifications – you know, in case you’re phone isn’t within an arm’s length. Perhaps its most obnoxious feature is that, whenever I sit still for more than 15 minutes, it vibrates and flashes a message: “Move!” This is especially absurd when I’m seated in meditation.

When I ordered the watch, I knew we would have a complicated relationship. I did not want to become obsessed with its metrics, or reliant on it to tell me things I already knew, lest I stop actually listening to my body. I do not care how many calories I burn in a day, nor do I care how many steps I take or staircases I climb. I’m intrigued by heart rate, but mainly when I’m running (to see how high it goes) or doing yoga (to see how low it goes). But I figured, once I measured my heart rate once or twice during such activities, I’d stop caring; having a general idea would be good enough. And even though I knew all this – that I didn’t care or even want to care about virtually everything it measured – I started to feel myself getting sucked in. 

I wore the watch while running, biking, kettlebelling, and during a few yoga classes (as well as when I was not doing any of those things), just to see what my heart rate was and to see how many calories I burned. It confirmed what I already running on bridgeknew: deep breathing = lowered heart rate = fewer calories burned. Hard work and heavy breathing = higher heart rate = more calories burned. Unlike physical activities meant to encourage a body to work hard and burn calories, yoga is about using one’s body more efficiently. When we use our bodies efficiently, we expend less energy and therefore burn fewer calories – fewer than if we did the same task with greater effort. By this logic, yoga is one of the worst ways to lose weight – that is, as long as we think that burning calories is the secret to weight loss.

But why, oh why are we so obsessed with weight loss anyway?! Are humans innately happier when they are skinny than when they are fat? Do fewer pounds mean fewer health problems? Does slenderness yield higher self-esteem or self-compassion? As a person who has always been, by all accounts “thin,” I can safely say: absolutely fucking not. 

Here’s the problem: When we see a slender person, we assume they must be doing something right: they must eat healthfully, exercise, and generally treat their body well. When we see a heavier person, we assume the opposite: they must be doing something  wrong; they’ve “struggled with their weight” and lost. These assumptions are predicated on the belief that fat = unhealthy and skinny = healthy; this belief is simply not true.

Health is not merely physical – this is so painfully obvious that I feel ridiculous even typing it. Health includes the things we do with our physical bodies and what we feed them, of course, but it also includes our emotional well-being, and how we relate to ourselves and others. And yet somehow we forget these things when we see people as physical beings. Perhaps that’s the curse of a visually-oriented culture: we see first, listen later.

The problem with “smart watches,” like the one I recently bought, is that they distill us down to our vital signs. Instead of learning to pay attention to how and what we feel, we learn to pay attention to the metrics: our number of steps, our measurable pulse, our calm mindcalories expended. Instead of making decisions based on our observations of ourselves, we begin to make them based on what we are told from a removed, robotic source, and are rewarded with messages like “Goal met!” when we run faster or take more steps. There is no similar reward for sitting still, observing, and feeling.

To anyone who is wondering: Will yoga help me lose weight? I offer the annoying answer: Stop it. Get rid of that question altogether and ask yourself: What am I actually trying to do? If your answer is “to feel more at home in my body,” then my answer is “YES!” If your answer is “to feel healthier and overall more well,” then my answer is “a thousand times YES!!” If your answer is “to look better in a bikini,” my answer is “Who the fuck cares!! Just try it already!!

And to anyone who wears one of those watches (yes, I’m talking to myself): Remember that you are not your vitals. Your watch is a robot; it does not have sensory awareness or spiritual enlightenment or wisdom or anything else that a human has the capacity to have (except maybe a really good memory). Trust that your ability to listen is greater than your watch’s.

Speaking Up

Over the past few months, I have had difficulty speaking up. In conversation, my voice is often crackly and hoarse, and when I try to project, my vocal cords feel strained. I cannot sing with the range I used to, and by the end of most days, saying more than a few sentences in a row is physically painful and exhausting. In recent weeks, this has worsened, and I have taken measures to preserve my voice how I can: I have skipped out on social engagements and stayed away from loud environments; I have limited my intake of caffeine and alcohol, and instead drunk comical amounts of warm water and tea; I have slept more; I have taken days off from work. I have even contemplated writing an email to all my friends asking them to please not take it personally if, for the next several months, I skip their parties or don’t join them at bars; it’s not them, it’s me.

One of my acupuncturist friends once asked me if I am prone to holding in my feelings, specifically, anger. I laughed. “I am one of the most emotive people I know,” I said. “And I don’t think I get angry very often.”

She clarified: “Do you speak up for what you need?”

I laughed again. “I don’t know?”

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For most of my life, I have fancied myself a rather bold personality. I can enliven a conversation if it grows stale, ask thoughtful questions, and offer thoughtful answers in return. I am not shy when meeting new people, and I can entertain like it’s my job (in fact, it has been my job). If I am excited about something, I show it; if I love someone, I say it. I would venture to say that “afraid to speak up” or “quiet” are not phrases most people would use to describe me.

But then there was that time that I spent three and a half years in a relationship I knew wasn’t right for me. There was that time I spent half a year in a relationship I knew wasn’t right for me. That time I spent three months in a relationship I knew wasn’t right for me… (I think you see the pattern.) And then there were all those times I agreed to things I knew I didn’t have time for (subbing classes, designing costumes, subbing classes, coaching cross country, subbing classes, playing fall league) but my friends or co-workers really needed someone, and I technically didn’t have anything else scheduled. 

Speaking up is easy when I’m confident that what I’m saying will be well-received. But when I sense that my speaking up is going to inspire disappointment, sadness, or confusion in others, speaking up is painful. There have been so many times I have not spoken up for what I want in interest of making others more comfortable. When I do this, I get angry (really angry) at myself. And because I know I brought it upon myself, I try to re-frame it to make myself more comfortable: “Abby, it’s fine,” I say. “You have dealt with stress before and you have lots of coping mechanisms. This is nothing compared to what other people endure. Your life is fine, even great!” To some degree, this is true, but in another very real sense, it is false logic: what other people can or can’t endure has nothing to do with my current experience; and what others need or have needed has nothing to do with what I need in this moment.

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Part of the problem is that when I agree to do all these things, I do so because I think it’s the kind or generous thing to do. If “selfless service” or karma yoga is something to strive for (which I believe it is), how can offering to help be bad? If everyone contains within them a spark of divinity or Atman (which I believe they do), how can staying in a relationship with anyone be destructive? What it boils down to, I think, is motivation. When my motivation is pure, in other words, when I truly want to help, I am not exhausted or depleted by the work; I am energized. And when I truly want to be in a relationship, I am not exhausted or depleted by it; I am thrilled. It is no secret that to want to help, to want to be in relationship, we must first have energy and love to share; we cannot, in good conscience, enter into either feeling depleted, resentful, or incomplete. And to feel energetic, generous, and content, we must first be attuned to and care for our Self.

Tomorrow, I have a doctor’s appointment where I will find out if I have vocal polyps. I have already entertained every scenario I can think of: maybe they’ll tell me I need to rest my voice completely. Maybe, for the next month (or two, or six), I won’t be able to teach yoga, do improv, play frisbee (or at least shout excitedly while doing so – which is essentially the same as not playing). Maybe I will have to get surgery, then rest my voice for an unknown amount of time. Maybe I’ll find out I don’t have polyps at all, in which case, my vocal issues will remain an annoying and painful mystery. Maybe I’ll need to create my own boundaries and rest regimen, rather than rely on those that my doctor has drawn for me.

Whatever they tell me will not change the fact that speaking up is hard. And although a diagnosis may give me a medical reason to work less (at least temporarily), it will be up to me to actually do so. It will (still) be up to me to express when I need to rest, when I don’t feel safe or happy, when I need support. To speak up for these needs is not selfish; it is Self-care. I have told myself this for years, but this time, I think I actually believe it.

Yoga for Scoliosis: Sat, Oct 21

It took me a long time to want to teach yoga for scoliosis. As a teenager and young adult, I did not like the idea of attending a class that reminded me I was different or abnormal. As a teacher, I did not (and do not) want my students to think people with scoliosis should not attend a “regular” yoga class. And while I’ve taken and taught a variety of yoga styles, from power vinyasa to restorative to yin, vinyasa is where I feel most at home. The thought of leaving vinyasa, or of shifting my focus to gentle or therapeutic, has historically been less appealing than going back to middle school and putting on my back brace. I do not want to be that teacher with rods in her spine; I want to be an excellent teacher.

My first experience with yoga was an Iyengar series with Francois Raoult at Open Sky Yoga. I was 15, knew almost nothing about yoga, and my goal was simple: to straighten my spine. I cannot remember if Francois also had this goal, or if he even thought this was yoga for scoliosisrealistic, but I do know that since then, several teachers have shared with me their belief that yoga can cure scoliosis, if done consistently and correctly. One teacher even expressed his regrets that I had gotten surgery before coming to see him, as he was certain he could have helped me avoid it. But whatever my goals were, whatever Francois’ belief was, and however skilled a teacher (and he was extremely skilled), yoga did not cure my scoliosis. My spine continued to curve and twist at a frightening rate, and I ultimately came to a place of acceptance: I could not do this alone. I would surrender to medical interventions.

After surgery, I took an eight-year hiatus from yoga. When I returned to it in my early 20s, my goals were not so clearly defined. My spine was already fused, so there was no sense trying to “correct” anything. Instead, I was focused on feeling more at home in my body, more at ease with the state of my life. I wanted, once again, to come to a place of acceptance.

For years, I gravitated toward teachers who would (gently) kick my ass, who would remind me that if I could breathe deeply while holding a 4-minute plank, then maybe I could breathe more deeply when I encountered my next challenging situation in life. Yoga helped me to feel strong, capable, and thoroughly alive. This feeling is what I wanted everyone to experience, and the reason I started teaching.  

I have never wanted to use scoliosis or rods as an excuse for not being capable. I do not want people to feel sorry for me, or to tell me I’m “brave.” I do want them to know that I understand what it’s like to be extremely frustrated with my body. There are times in child's poseclass when a teacher cues backbend after backbend, twist after twist, and all I want to do is curl up in a child’s pose and cry. There are times when I’m teaching, wanting to incorporate an interesting spinal movement or position, unable to demonstrate what I’m cuing, unable to tell if my cues are helpful. And then there are times when I just want to stretch my back or ride in a sedan without hitting my fucking head on the ceiling or sit on a couch comfortably, and become so sad at the thought that my spine will never bend again. But were it not for scoliosis, I would not have the understanding and appreciation that I do. And were it not for these frustrations, I would not have the patience that I do. It is these qualities, not the rods, that make me the teacher I am.

Yoga for scoliosis is not about being deficient or less able. It is not about avoiding challenging postures or styles of yoga. It is about gaining a greater understanding of our bodies, so that we may approach challenge with gentleness and grace. It is about learning to feel strong, capable, and thoroughly alive.

Join me for Yoga for Scoliosis this Saturday, Oct 21, from 1:30-4:00pm at Yoga Pearl to explore what scoliosis means for your yoga practice and for you. All levels of students and teachers welcome.

 

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. 

 

Your Vinyasa

According to Bernie Clark, yin yoga teacher, anatomy enthusiast, and author of Your Body, Your Yoga, yoga is a self-selecting practice. In other words, yoga attracts and keeps those students who can perform the poses that are commonly taught. In more depressing words, yoga repels and alienates those who cannot perform these poses.

I am a vinyasa yoga teacher. I began as a power vinyasa teacher. I am fully aware of the stigmas that often surround power vinyasa and vinyasa classes. I have read articles on the dangers of chaturanga, heard both students and friends tell me that they “just can’t do img_9458vinyasa classes anymore – they’re too hard on the body!”; I have even wondered, in my darkest hours, if I should trade vinyasa for hatha, yin, and restorative, exclusively, in interest of preventing my students from possibly injuring themselves. But there’s just one problem: I love vinyasa. It is my favorite kind of yoga to practice, and as a result, the kind of yoga I am most passionate about teaching. Each time I wonder if I should move toward something slower-paced, something less movement-oriented, something more yin and less yang, I hear my inner voice say, “But vinyasa feels so great! You love vinyasa, and so do plenty of other people!!”

Do some people get injured in vinyasa classes? Sure. Have I injured myself in vinyasa classes? Certainly. Is it yoga’s fault? Certainly not. When I have injured myself, it has been img_9465for one of two reasons: 1. I took a pose too far; I overstretched or overstrained and pulled or yanked something in an ungodly fashion. 2. I knew I was not comfortable, knew that my body could not or should not do a certain thing, but I did not know how to modify; I tried it anyway, and immediately regretted it. Vinyasa is indeed a tricky beast, as there is generally an expectation that class will keep on moving. Occasionally, I will pause class in order to demonstrate a certain thing, but generally, I try to keep the poses and transitions fluid. That is, after all, one of the great beauties of vinyasa: your body moves so your brain doesn’t have to.

But what about those poses that are more difficult? What about those poses that we do so often that we stop thinking about them altogether? And what if, one day, we have aching wrists, if our arms get tired, our shoulders are unstable, or our hamstrings are tight?? In these cases, that great beauty of vinyasa – its movement – can become its greatest img_9482challenge, its greatest danger. In these cases we must, in fact, slow down in order to approach this movement safely. Sometimes, we must even stop.

On Saturday, January 28, we will take this time. From 2-4 PM, Dr. Kara Giaier and I will take you through the anatomy and alignment of the four most commonly taught poses and transitions in vinyasa yoga classes: plank, chaturanga, updog, downdog. In addition to helping you fine-tune your own alignment, we will highlight these poses’ essential elements, discuss common injuries and how to avoid them, and offer several modifications and variations for each. Then, from 4:30-6:30 PM, we will offer you the opportunity to integrate what you’ve learned through a two-hour vinyasa practice. We will play with variety in pacing, transitions, and sequences img_9487(don’t worry – you won’t just be doing planks, chaturangas, updogs and downdogs for two hours!!).

If you already love vinyasa classes, this workshop is for you. If you want to gain confidence
before trying a vinyasa class, this workshop is for you. If you love movement and want to learn more about it, this workshop is for you. Yoga may be a self-selecting practice, but it is our hope that through equipping our students with more knowledge of yoga and their own bodies, the yoga studio will become a more diverse and inclusive selection of people.

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.

 

On Leaving Teaching to Pursue Teaching

This past June, one of my 10th grade English students gave her final presentation on the similarities between Siddhartha’s journey in Siddhartha, and Mark’s journey in Lost in Place. Her thesis proposed that “dissatisfaction is essential to enlightenment,” and explored the idea that, as long as we are alive, we will never be completely satisfied – but that does not mean we should stop searching.

As I listened, I could not help but nod vigorously and murmur “Mmhm!” as she spoke, feeling like she was speaking directly to and about me. For all the fortune I had – two jobs I was passionate about, a loving family, good health, a bounty of friends – I felt dissatisfied. everything-is-changeableAs a result of this dissatisfaction, I had decided, only days earlier, that I would not be returning to teaching the following year. Hearing my student speak was simultaneously validating and heartbreaking. Her presentation was so thoughtful, and the class, so respectful and impressed by her work. It was hard not to feel proud that I had helped them develop into the students they were that day, and equally hard not to feel sad that I would soon be leaving them. Was I really going to quit this job in search of more happiness as a yoga teacher? But perhaps, I told myself, it was all just a necessary step in my searching. Perhaps I should listen to my student’s advice and not feel ashamed of my discontent.

Last September, I began an experimental journey: I was hired to teach freshman and sophomore English in a suburb of Portland, OR. It was there that I would spend the next 10 months pouring my heart and soul into creating stimulating curricula, and loving the crap out of my 120 students. Developing reading lists, designing unit plans, finessing my class website, communicating with students and their families, giving pump-up speeches to students who were floundering or distraught, and reminding teenagers to value each other and themselves – what a wonderful, fun, and noble way to spend one’s time! And for the first three weeks, it was magical. 

After three weeks, however, I realized that working nearly 70 hours a week and not sleeping was unsustainable. Even more demoralizing was my realization that, even by working 70 hours a week and not sleeping, I would never feel completely organized or prepared. I would have moments of hope, but no sooner would I celebrate those moments than I would receive an email from a parent, reminding me that her daughter needed me to fill out those recommendation forms ASAP, or from a fellow English teacher, reminding me that our data was due tomorrow!! – data that I had not yet collected. When I was with my students, I felt at home, like I was really rocking it. But each day, after the bell rang and the kids scurried away, I was left alone to wrestle with my to-do lists. The worst part was that I loved virtually everything I was doing, individually; I simply did not have time to do all of it by the time it needed to be done. The job was fabulous, but the lifestyle that accompanied it was preposterous.

Richard Freeman published a video called Yoga Ruins Your Life. The premise is that once you start practicing yoga, you become so entranced by its offerings that you then become crossroads-treesintolerant of all things not-yoga: uncomfortable shoes, poorly designed chairs, pants that don’t stretch. I myself have blamed yoga for my disdain for alarm clocks, my aversion to deadlines, and my indigence toward modern society. I have cried to my mother about how stressed out our culture is, how out of balance our lives are, and how unfair it is that those who defy traditional career paths are seen as naive or weak – and then I blame yoga for making me feel these things, sort-of-jokingly, and sort-of-not.

Of course, the great irony is that yoga, when practiced effectively, is supposed to help us become more tolerant, more resilient, and more content with the way things are. To become grumpy that life is not as tranquil as a yoga studio is to miss the point entirely. But to become complacent, to make no changes to our lives outside of the yoga studio is to miss another point. We can make changes, to both our situations and our attitudes, if we feel dissatisfied; we can also learn to live happily within the framework of the way things are. Deciding when and what to change is perhaps the most difficult part.

When I decided not to teach English this school year, I was aware that I was, to some degree, avoiding stress rather than learning to deal with it more effectively. I was also aware that something needed to change. Could that something have been my attitude? Sure. But changing my situation seemed easier this time. (Maybe it always is?)

There is a part of me that feels guilty and sad for running away from something beautiful simply because it was “too stressful.” But there is a bigger part of me that is delighted about running toward something equally beautiful, something that happens to be not-as-stressful. I am teaching more yoga than I have ever taught before, and rather than feel exhausted by it, I feel perpetually thrilled. Six days a week, I get to encourage human beings to become more in touch with their bodies, to observe and appreciate who they are and what they have, and to embrace the world with a more loving and patient heart. Surely this is just as important as teaching teenagers to read, write, and think critically and creatively?

In talking with my sister last week about our career paths and struggles, she reminded me that, “it’s not about making the biggest impact; it’s about where you’re at your best.” Even though I was passionate and caring and competent enough as anthe-purpose-of-practice English teacher to make a positive impact, I did not feel I was at my best. I was grouchy when I got home, and I neglected my personal relationships and my health. It is possible that I will teach high school English again next year, or ten years from now, and that I will gain the resilience needed to be at my best in that environment. But this year, I will strive to be at my best in a different place. Thank you, sister Corrie, for this reminder, and for granting me this permission. And thank you, yoga: contrary to what I may have told you earlier, you did not ruin my life; you help me to be at my best, and to love myself and the world even when I’m not.