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.

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Marriage, as Analyzed by a Single Woman

A few weeks ago, Ada Calhoun published an article in the NY Times with the provocative title, The Wedding Toast I’ll Never Give. Based on the title, I thought the article would condemn marriage as an institution, and encourage people who are in love to just enjoy being in love, free from any binding certificate or law (how Zen!). Having almost given such a controversial speech just a few weeks earlier at my best friend’s wedding, I was comforted to think that someone else would feel the same way. Then I read the article.

“…Part of what marriage means,” Calhoun says, is “sometimes hating this other person but staying together because you promised you would.” Yes! I thought, and what sort of reason is that?! This author gets it! Then came the next sentence: “And then, days or weeks later, waking up and loving him again, loving him still.”

Really?! This is the edgy sentiment that you wouldn’t dare say at a wedding?? Marriage is hard and you won’t always be pleased with each other, but overall, you’ll be glad you did it? What happens if you wake up, days or weeks later, and the love doesn’t come back? What if you wake up and realize that, for the past 5 years (or even one year!), your marriage has brought you more pain than joy? Should you hold out another few weeks, months, years, and trust that these feelings will pass because you heard marriage has its ups and downs?

My dad was married and divorced before he married my mom. I would not have a sister, had it not been for his first marriage; Imarriage-thoughts would not exist, had it not been for his divorce. My parents would not have had the relationship they did, were it not for my father’s first marriage, divorce, and the things he learned because of them. They entered their marriage aware that it could end, despite the lawful contract. I believe this awareness made their relationship stronger.

Through all our relationships – friendships and romances – we learn what we like and what we don’t, what is helpful and what is not, what works and what doesn’t; and when things don’t work, we are generally encouraged to move on. In all my yoga classes, I encourage my students to listen to their instincts, and to respect that their needs – physical, emotional, spiritual – might be very different today than they were yesterday. I remind them that “instinct” should not be confused with “habit.” But when a marriage doesn’t seem to be working, society (including our family and friends) reminds us that we made a promise – to each other, to the government, to our god or gods – that even when the going got tough, we wouldn’t walk away; we would make it work.

Is this not the opposite of self-growth? Should we not allow ourselves continually to evolve, free from the expectations of others? Should we not allow our actions, circumstances, and environments to reflect our evolving needs?

Say you have a job that you suddenly realize you hate. Sure, it gives you benefits, a hearty salary, a clean office, and, perhaps most notably, stability. But the job itself it mind-numbing. You took the job decades ago, thinking you’d love it forever – and for years, you did. But this year, on this day, you sit down at your desk, open your thousandth word document, respond to your millionth email, return your billionth phone call, and all at once it hits you: you could be doing something else. What you once saw as creative and energizing now makes you want to throw your computer (or, perhaps on bad days, yourself) in front of an love isnt complicated people areoncoming Mack truck. Maybe it’s time for a change, you tell yourself. So you write your resignation letter, even though you promised your boss you’d stay with the company until you retired. When you tell your friends about it, everyone applauds you. “Good for you!” one says. “You’ll find a new job in no time, what with your experience!” another says. “I’ve been wanting to leave my job for years,” says a third, “but just haven’t worked up the courage – you inspire me!”

But if this happens with a marriage? No one is there to congratulate you. Instead of applause, you receive pity. And instead of looking at your past experience and thinking about how marketable you are, you look in the mirror and think, “I’m too old for this game.”

Most of us recognize that a job is not forever, that it corresponds to a certain phase of life, dependent on experience, maturity, needs and wants. But when it comes to relationships, we’re encouraged to stick with one person – the same person – through all our adult stages. Once we’re old enough to “know what we want,” we should find it, then stay with it. The fallacy in this, of course, is that it implies “what we want” never changes – or, if it does, that the partner we’ve chosen should be so in sync with us that he or she will evolve in the same ways at the same pace. Adults do not stop maturing. We continue to go through phases, to grow, to change, to seek. If it so happens that we remain in love with the same person through these phases, lovely. But more likely, we won’t.

In her 1914 essay Marriage and Love, Emma Goldman writes: “Love needs no protection; it is its own protection.” In his poem, Desiderata, Max Ehrmann (1927) urges the listener to “Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.” And according to Rohit Mehta’s (1999) The Call of the Upanishads, “[Love] exists as long as the experience of Love lasts… It is a union without any inducement” (p. 203). None of these writers implies that love cannot fade. Neither do they imply that when love fades, it is lost. Indeed, love will return, somewhere, with someone else.

In my 29 years, I’ve fallen in love three times – which is, incidentally, the same number of times I’ve fallen out of love. I didn’t fall out of love because I suddenly discovered something about my partner that I didn’t know before; I fell out of love because I discovered something about myself. My needs and wants changed, and I no longer wanted to be with my partner, romantically. grass-heartKnowing that relationships are not forever, that they are fragile, that they can end if one or both parties want them to, to me, makes them more precious.

Love, like energy, cannot be created nor destroyed; like energy, it will change form. We cannot choose to be in love with our partners, but we can choose to care for them, to offer them love. We can also choose to leave them, to seek out new relationships, and to offer our love elsewhere. Either way, we are allowed to change our minds, to change where and how we open our hearts. We do not have to think in terms of “forever,” because nothing is forever, and that is okay.

I do not mean to condemn marriage (I’ll leave that to Emma Goldman). I do not mean to sound cynical about love (I hear you, Max Ehermann!). I mean only to say that to be in love is not a choice. To get married is. And to anyone who chooses to get married: remember that you don’t have to be, that your partner doesn’t have to be either. Stay married as long as it brings you (a lot) more joy than pain, and no longer than that. Respect that your partner can do the same. Falling out of love with someone does not mean you have failed, or that your love is gone – it means only that this love has faded, and will resurface somewhere else.

This is the wedding toast I did not give.