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?”

kid speaking up

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.

giving hands

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.

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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. 

Coming next week: Yoga for Athletes

A few weeks ago, I received a Facebook message from a friend inquiring about my Yoga for Athletes workshop. He said he had seen the flier, was interested in attending, but he had a few concerns. Not only was he worried that he wasn’t accomplished enough to be considered an “athlete,” but he felt anxious that he would feel out of place. “Unlike you and others in the class,” he said, “feeling better about me and working better with my body was something that came much later in life.”

First of all, let me be clear: you do not need to have earned any medals or set any records to be an athlete; if you know what Abby Warrior 3 Circlesore muscles feel like, if you’re familiar with pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone, if you play or participate in a sport – no matter how un-competitively – you’re an athlete in my book. Secondly, “working with my body” and “feeling better about me” have not (and do not) always come easily to me.

It is true that I had an early start to athletics, and that I am, by most definitions a “good athlete.” When I was four, my parents enrolled me in dance classes in an attempt to burn off some (read: a lot) of my energy. When I was eight, they enrolled me in gymnastics in an attempt to preserve our furniture (which I had usurped as my own personal trampolines and balance beams). In middle school, I started running, hurdling and high jumping, and in high school, I ran cross-country and swam. Most of these things came naturally to me, and I defined myself largely by my athletic prowess. Then, at fourteen I was diagnosed with severe scoliosis, and sports were replaced by doctors’ appointments, back braces, and, eventually, surgery. My competitive energy had no athletic outlet, and so it turned against my body.

Before scoliosis, I had great control over my body. It did what I told it to do, and for the most part, it looked how I wanted it to look. With scoliosis, I suddenly felt out of control. I stretched, I strengthened, I tried to unbend, and still, my curves worsened. Back braces helped somewhat, but they were awful (imagine stuffing your torso scoli x-ray sideinto a section of PVC pipe each morning – then
staying there until you sleep). My parents and I read everything, tried everything, trusted everything, then cursed everything when none of it worked. So at age seventeen, I got surgery: eleven vertebrae were fused, and two stainless steel rods were placed alongside my spine, secured with 22 screws. Months passed, my bones healed, and soon enough I got back into sports. I took up Ultimate Frisbee, started running half and full marathons, and of course, started practicing and teaching yoga.

Most people who meet me now wouldn’t guess I have anything “wrong” with my body. Most people assume what my student assumed: that feeling good about myself and working well with my body came early and with relative ease. And when I tell most people about the rods, their first question is always, “Do you set off metal detectors??” (The answer is no, sorry.) Then they get more serious and ask, “So, can you feel the rods??” And while I always answer no, the answer is actually yes. But perhaps not in the way you think.

scoli x-ray backNo, I cannot touch the rods, and neither can you. No, you cannot look at my back and see outlines of metal debris. But yes, I can feel that my back doesn’t bend, and yes, I can feel what that means for my body.

When I take yoga classes with teachers I don’t know, I usually inform them of the rods. I also usually fold my shirt up – in case they forget, the scar is there to remind them: I might do my own thing, and this is why. I don’t do twists, I don’t do sidebends, and I don’t do backbends. It is not because I “have fear” as one teacher posited; it is because it is about as productive as you trying to twist or bend your forearm. And honestly, I am so used to the rods that they rarely frustrate me (just like you probably aren’t often frustrated by your forearm). I still have a “complete” yoga practice, my body still does what I want it to do, and for the most part, looks how I want it to look. I treat my body well, and it treats me as well as it can in return.

I am still a competitive person. I prefer winning to losing, and I prefer yoga poses that I can enter and hold gracefully to poses that I flail into and fall out of. But losing does not make me angry like it used to, and most of the time, flailing and falling just make me laugh.

When I talk about Yoga for Athletes with my friends and students, they are often surprised ragdoll pinkto learn that it’s not just a bunch of pushups disguised as chaturangas, or squat-thrusts disguised as vinyasas – it’s true that we athletic folk are often attracted to physically challenging classes, but perhaps that is not what we need. The same people are equally surprised to learn that Yoga for Athletes is not simply a collection of long-held stretches – indeed, too much stretching will leave the muscles slack and under-responsive. Sure, yoga taught me how to stretch my back and body in ways I thought I couldn’t, and that is useful. It also taught me that I can do a lot more things with my body than I thought I could, and that is wonderful. But above all, yoga taught me to pay attention, to find balance, to stop fighting against my body, and to start fighting with it. To me, this is what Yoga for Athletes is about.