Teaching What We Need, Because We Have To

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

I agreed. Then I reflected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo by Nam Chantepie

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

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

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

 

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Guided Self-Practice Begins: FALL 2016

Just over one year ago, I took a yoga class that significantly changed how I taught yoga. It was Saturday, the fourth morning of a five-day training with Jason Crandell, and I was as exhausted as I was energized (almost). The first three days had been a delightfully peaceful and sarcastic explosion of practicing, questioning, and discussing; Jason was as hilarious and thoughtful as I had hoped he would be, and I was thrilled to bring many of his ideas, assists, and methods home to The People’s Yoga, where I did the majority of my teaching.

I had entered the training hungry for a refreshed passion for teaching, as I was beginning to feel stale. For three years, I had taught primarily vinyasa classes, used more or less the same cues, and offered more or less the same assists. Sometimes I would grow so weary of what I felt were the same sequences that I would shift the order of things or incorporate new poses – not because those shifts or incorporations made the most sense, necessarily, but because they were different from the usual. And sometimes I would focus so much energy on trying to make a class “different from the usual” that I would confuse myself, forgetting what I had cued my students to do on the first side, or where I wanted them to go next. I knew that probably wasn’t a good sign, but I kept doing it because I didn’t want to bore my students. So at a certain point in my training with Jason, I expressed this as a concern:

“I feel sometimes like I’m becoming boring. I feel like I teach the same sequences all the time, and then if I try to deviate, things get weird or confusing. How do I keep things fresh without making things too complicated?”

Jason’s response was simple: “Don’t worry about having vastly different sequences. Just make the class focused. People like when things are predictable.”

And then Saturday morning came. It was still early, and several people were still milling around the studio, unrolling their mats. Jason welcomed us briefly, then told us to begin by finding “any position that feels comfortable.” For me, a morning-monster, this keep it simplemeant being as close to asleep as I could get: flat on my back with my eyes closed. After a few minutes, he asked us to “start moving in the direction of cat-cow”; I obeyed, and was already starting to feel a bit more awake. A few moments later he asked that we, “at [our] own pace, start working toward sun salutations.” A few minutes into this, he encouraged us to “keep doing what [we were] doing, and incorporate some shoulder openers.” He then informed us that we had been practicing for ten minutes. There was a light collective chuckle from us teachers, as we all thought the same thing: Only ten minutes?! How do I already feel so different?

This continued for a full hour: Jason would toss out a category of poses (standing, external hip openers, balancing, heart openers, etc.) and give us an update on time (“You’ve been at this for 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 45 minutes, 60 minutes…”). We would continue moving at our own pace, breathing at our own pace, and occasionally peeking at our neighbors, copying any poses that looked alluring. And although our sequences differed, there were two things we had in common:

  1. Everyone moved slowly.
  2. No one did anything fancy.

When we debriefed after this “guided self-practice,” Jason confirmed that, wherever he went, whomever he taught, the results were the same. The phrase, “your own pace” invariably translated to “slow.” And usually, the phrase, “whatever feels good” manifested as a simple, straightforward movement or shape. Sure, a handstand or scorpion might feel good every now and then, and a few extra chaturangas might help make us feel strong, but the majority of our practices are, when left to our own devices, simple and slow.

sun salutation imgLike most revelations, this seemed at the time groundbreaking, then painfully obvious. Yoga is not meant to be confusing or stressful, so why make it so? This does not mean we should not add variety to our practice (or life!), but perhaps it should remind us that there is much joy to be found in the simple, straightforward act of moving and breathing, trusting that, if we truly listen to our bodies, we will know what to do.

This fall, I will begin teaching a brand new class at The People’s Yoga SE: Guided Self-Practice (or, as I like to call it, “Yoursore” – the yoga nerds get it!) Inspired by Jason Crandell, I will lead class by offering simple sequences (sun salutations A and B) and categories (standing poses, backbends, hip openers) to incorporate, as well as personalized cues and adjustments. Each class will also have a theme or focus to integrate (arm balances, hamstring awareness, shoulder mobility, spinal alignment, etc.), should you wish to give your practice more structure.

While I generally dislike the word “advanced” when applied to yoga, I will categorize this class as advanced – but I will add a caveat: “Advanced” yoga practitioners are not necessarily those who can silently kick up into a handstand, easily touch their palms to the ground in a forward fold, or gracefully tie their legs into a knot; “advanced” is not about the kind of poses a person can embody, but instead about the honesty with which one listens to oneself. Will it be helpful to know the names of many common yoga poses if you are to take this class? Yes. Do you need to be able to physically do all these poses? No. I, for one, cannot (nor will I ever be able to) press up into a wheel. I cannot tuck (nor do I have any interest in tucking) my leg behind my head. And in pigeon, my hips are nowhere near the ground. We all have different bodies with different limiting factors. This class is a forum for students to explore and celebrate their unique capabilities. It is a place for curious and dedicated yoga practitioners to build stronger connections between their bodies and minds, and, yes, their hearts too. I thank Jason for providing me with this wonderful experience, and I cannot wait to share it with others.*

*Please note: This class was originally scheduled to start on Wednesday, June 15, but has been postponed; it is now scheduled to begin this fall! In the meantime, please do come to my Wednesday 4:00pm Vinyasa class starting on June 15! 🙂

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.

31 Days

Yesterday was a big day. Not only was it the first day of my marathon-(pre)training program, but it was also the first day of my 31-day yoga challenge. For good measure, I offered myself another challenge: write every day for the month of December. I’m proud to say that, two days in, I’m right on track with all of the above.

This is big news for me because, while I’m generally a rather disciplined person, I’ve never much cared for the “___-day 31-Fingerschallenge,” for the same reasons I’ve never cared for cleanses, diets, or strict race training plans: our diet ebbs and flows with our phases, as does our weight, as does our workout schedule, as do most of our habits. To challenge myself to a number of consecutive days of anything gives me sweaty palms and a jumpy heart (and not in the fun way). What if I am super-busy one day and I don’t do yoga like I promised myself I would? What if I’m especially sore and decide not to run on a day I’m scheduled to? What if I forget to write something one day? What if I just really want a piece of chocolate or a bowl of ice cream (not so much a hypothetical as an everyday occurrence)? In simpler terms: what if I fail?

Classic perfectionist talk.

But this month, instead of pooh-poohing the yoga challenge that my friend proposed, instead of casually running and calling it Yoga Matstraining, instead of rationalizing my way out of writing every day, I said, Let’s do this. (Yes, the royal “us”: my ego and me.) Will every yoga practice be enlightening and amazing? Probably not. Will every run make me feel strong and fast? Today’s certainly didn’t. Will everything I write be enriching and wise? Judging by some of my past journal entries, I’ll go ahead and say: hell no. Is that fine? Yes. In fact, it’s fantastic. To be able to do something for the joy of doing it, rather than the sake of achieving a goal is something I need to practice.

In most yoga classes I teach, I invite my students to set an intention at the beginning of class. I then remind them (and in turn, remind myself) that an intention is different from a goal: an intention is something to focus on and feel, rather than something to achieve. With an intention, there is no failure. So instead of waking up each day in December and thinking, “I have to write, I have to run, I have to do yoga,” I shall think: “I get to do (at least!) three things that I love today – how glorious!” The intention, after all, is not to shame myself into doing things that are “good for me.” The intention is joy in doing.

So Cheers! to holding oneself accountable without guilt trips. Cheers! to living one day at a time. And Cheers! to delighting in the practice of doing, rather than the perfection of skills or achievement of goals. Don’t wish me luck; just wish me joy.

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.

Pink and Blue

Apparently, when I was three years old, I informed my parents that “Pink is a girl’s color. Blue is for boys.” My parents, recovering hippies that they were, shared a perplexed glance as if to ask each other, Are you responsible for teaching her that genderist smut?! When neither owned up to it, they decided it must have been the evils of society – no matter how careful they were to shroud me from such ideas, societal roles and expectations were just too insidious.

Throughout my childhood, I was reminded of this story several times. To my parents – especially my father – the story seemed a sort of prototype, a representation of all the assumptions and preconceptions that we, as a society, pass down without knowing it. As I grew older, I would encounter many such gender half and halfpreconceptions, several of which would test my confidence: when I was in middle school, I learned that boys don’t like goofy girls; in high school, I learned that girls and boys could be friends without sexual tension (then, in college, I learned they couldn’t); in college, I learned that men don’t like confident women (then, in recent years, I learned they do); and somewhere along the line, I learned that women wear makeup and men don’t. While I have always fancied myself an observant and reflective person, it was not until last June that I truly pondered the absurdity of this last societal myth. If someone had said to me, “Hey! Isn’t it weird that half the population is expected to paint its face, while the other half is expected not to?” I might have acknowledged that yes, that was weird. But no one said it, and I accepted it as a truth.

In most of the animal kingdom, it is the male sex that primps and fluffs, and the female that chooses and chases her mate. In human society, we have somehow reversed this: women are the “fairer sex,” and under no circumstances are we supposed to chase our potential male mates. eHarmony even published an article alerting women to the dangers of, “E-mailing [the man she is interested in], texting him, Facebooking him, sending him a cute card, dropping by his house, in any way attempting to initiate some kind of contact.” Not only have we convinced women to cover up their physical blemishes, we have also trained them to cover up their feelings. What happened to letting the world see us as we are? Are we so afraid of judgment that we need to keep at least one layer between us and everyone else?

What would happen if we accepted each other as readily as we accepted societal norms? be-who-you-areHow would we behave if we did what we knew to be good, instead of what we were told was right? I have wracked my brain to come up with a non-cheesey way to say it, but I can’t, so I’ll just say it, cheese and all: Bare your face, and while you’re at it, bare your soul; speak your truth, and recognize that truth is relative and malleable; don’t worry if you don’t fit society’s idea of you, or even your own idea of you – a person is more than an idea. Perhaps Dr. Seuss said it best: “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”

You’ve Heard it Before, I’ll Say it Again: Just Love Yourself Already

While I am usually impressed, even moved, by the writings that Elephant Journal publishes, I must say that Altucher’s (2010) essay, How I lost 30 Pounds through yoga and never saw them again, with embarrassing before picture, gave me pause. Well intentioned and genuine as the author seems, I find the underlying messages of the article inherently flawed: that we should be “embarrassed” by our bodies “before” we make healthy life changes; that lighter is healthier; that yoga is the magic bullet.

I am always skeptical of headlines or articles that proclaim weight-loss as a focal point. The way I see it, weight-loss is either a product of healthy life choices, unhealthy life choices, pregnancy, or a medical problem; since we rarely know which (unless we know the person well), I find it prudent never to bring it up, nor to dwell on it. Despite being an observant person who is fascinated with people’s bodies, I rarely notice when my friends, family, or students lose or gain weight. Perhaps I have trained myself not to notice, because I don’t think it matters–what matters most is the person’s quality of life.

ImageSome of the steps Altucher mentions are benign enough; others are inspiring: “love yourself;” “start cooking;” keep yourself in balance; have patience. Some others are downright dangerous: try a “colonic” to “cleanse” your system (our bodies do this just fine when we eat and excrete, thank you);  “when you are hungry, drink water first” (I prefer to listen to my body, and actually eat when I am actually hungry). And call me crazy, but I don’t see how someone who truly loves herself can simultaneously feel embarrassed by a picture of herself with 30 more pounds. Shouldn’t true self-love triumph over shame?

I do not mean to tear the article or its author apart. If she is happier at 118 pounds than she was at 148, then I am glad for her. I do, however, want those who read the article (and others like it) to ask themselves some very honest questions: Why do we see losing weight as good and gaining weight as bad? Why are we moved to exercise, or to be sedentary? What inspires us to eat healthy food, and what spurs us to binge? When we can answer ourselves honestly, without judging our answers as good or bad, right or wrong, strong or weak, we empower ourselves to harmonize our actions with our feelings.

Living a healthy, balanced, and happy life is a constant experiment. It is not something we can achieve, but rather, something we must continually invent and reinvent. Throughout my life, I have experimented with strict vegetarianism, veganism, not-so-strict vegetarianism, the Paleo diet, running, not-running, yoga, cycling, CrossFit, and fasting. I even experimented with bulimia for a brief time in college—not because I thought it was healthy (I knew it wasn’t), but because I mistook lightness for a sign of health (it’s not). Throughout each of these experiments, I gathered information, tested my hypotheses, made new conjectures, and began the process again. I have learned never to tell others that their choices are wrong, that they should exercise, that they should eat certain foods, that they would be happier if they would just _____. The truth is, none of us knows what makes others happy; we only (sort of) know what works for us. That being said, I will agree with Altucher that loving oneself is a key element to real and lasting happiness. Rather than think of it as “the first step,” however, I prefer to think of it as the most prominent theme.

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Reflecting on Reflections

Another week gone; another fifty people asking me, “Hey! How’s the no makeup thing going?” My favorite is when people say, “I saw your post about Natural Beauty Month—what a great idea… I mean, I can’t do it, but it’s a cool idea…” When I ask them politely, “Why can’t you do it?” they inevitably respond with the same things: I’m too old—you’ll understand when you’re 40/50/60; I literally have no eyelashes unless I put on mascara—you’d understand if you had blond hair; I can’t go without foundation—you have good skin so you wouldn’t understand.

I hear all these reasons, and I get it. I am 27—not even into my 30s, let alone my 40s, 50s, or 60s; I do have (relatively) dark eyelashes; I don’t understand what it’s like to have “bad” skin; I even have what society tells me is a highly coveted body: tall, tan and slender. It is these things combined that prompted one of my friends to tell me, “You know, there are probably some people who resent you for creating Natural Beauty Month—like, ‘sure, Abby can not wear makeup—she’s already got a good body and a pretty face.’ Other people are not so lucky.” Again, I hear this, and I get it. (And don’t worry, I have already felt guilty about the genes I have been given.) But my friend’s observation ignores two key things: 1. I work very hard to maintain the body that I have; it is not purely “luck,” and 2. looking “pretty” is not the point of Natural Beauty Month.

Cameron Russell, a 25-year-old American model, gave a TED talk recently where she dispelled the idea that being naturally good-looking leads to healthy self-esteem. She admitted to reaping the benefits of being physically beautiful, of which there are many: absolution from speeding tickets, special treatment from strangers, and of course, making a very comfortable living without exerting much effort, to name a few. As a model, she said, being acutely aware of her physical image is part of her job—and as most of us can attest, this sort of awareness often leads to insecurity. Do pretty people get special treatment? Yes. Does this mean we should all try to be prettier so that we can receive special treatment, too? No.

How others judge our appearance has nothing to do with us; how we judge others’ does. When I look at another woman and ask myself if she’s prettier than I am, I am the one making myself insecure, not she. And since attractiveness is largely a matter of opinion anyway, to judge one as “hot or not” is not only self-serving, but also absurd. We have control over what we do with our bodies: how much we exercise, what we eat, how much we sleep, how deeply we breathe. But there are certain things we cannot control: how tall we are, the structure of our bones, the color of our skin. In these last two (official) weeks of Natural Beauty Month, I encourage you to appreciate your physical body, to love and care for it, no matter what state it is in. Examine yourself honestly, and talk to yourself gently. Cultivate your health and happiness, for they are rooted much deeper than physical image.

do what you can

21 More Days: Confessions on Natural Beauty Month

Thirty-six hours into my naked-faced challenge, I had a panic attack. Call me overly-sensitive and self-conscious (I am), but when the reality finally set in that I would not be able to change my appearance for a whole month—even if I looked tired or haggard—I nearly started crying. I had known I felt more confident with eyeliner and mascara, but I hadn’t realized just how vulnerable I felt without it. Each time I looked in the mirror, I found myself staring for longer than normal, trying to find something nice to say to my “naked” reflection. Don’t get me wrong: I love myself, and I generally have very high self-esteem. But what I have realized during the past week is that a large part of that self-esteem comes from not worrying about how I look—and when I have makeup on, I don’t worry. So how do I get to a place where I don’t worry when I don’t wear it?

I read an article recently that discussed the detrimental effects of complimenting young women on their appearance. “Teaching girls that their appearance is the first thing you notice tells them that looks are more important than anything,” the author, Lisa Bloom, says. Bloom argues that bringing the focus away from physical appearance, and toward intellect and personality would mitigate the self-esteem issues that so many girls and women suffer from. (I would argue that the same goes for boys.) As I stood staring at myself in the mirror last Tuesday, I thought back to this article. I wondered if perhaps my focus was in the wrong place, searching for the “beautiful” features of my face or body. What if, instead of looking to the mirror to tell me how beautiful I was, I did something that contributed to my overall health and beauty?

I am not self-conscious when I practice yoga, when I run or meditate, when I cook an elaborate dinner, when I draw, paint, read, spend time with my family and friends, or rehearse with my improv group. All these things make me feel happy and secure—so why not shift my energy to those things? I am not suggesting that this will cure me completely of self-consciousness or worry; my point is that, whenever I look around me, or look within myself, I realize that my life is pretty fantastic.

I’ve got three weeks to go in Natural Beauty Month—that’s 21 more days of no makeup. But rather than focus on the negative (“no makeup”), I shall try to think of it in positive terms: 21 more days to appreciate what I have and what I can do; 21 more days to focus on the things that matter; 21 more days to reinforce a new habit: Gratitude.

This June: Natural Beauty Month

I’ve just had an idea. It’s called Natural Beauty Month: if you’re an everyday makeup user, this one’s for you.

This weekend, I played in an ultimate frisbee tournament where everyone camped out in the rain and dirt. There was no point wearing shoes because the mud would eat them. There was no point wearing makeup or fixing your hair, because the rain and mud puddles would wash it all away — and I use the term “wash” loosely. We were filthy; we were soggy; and by golly, did we have fun.

But an interesting thing happened. A friend of mine, Susan*, didn’t recognize our friend Carla. Susan had met Carla several times, but since Carla wasn’t wearing makeup, Susan couldn’t be sure it was her. Another of my friends later commented that he did not recognize Carla without her makeup either. Yikes, I thought. I didn’t even think Carla wore a lot of makeup…

It got me thinking. Has this ever happened to me? Have any of my friends seen me without makeup and wondered who they were looking at? I’ve certainly been asked if I was tired on days that I was in fact quite energetic; the only difference was that I was not wearing my usual eyeliner and mascara. Most mornings I look at myself in the mirror and try to decide if I look alright as-is. Most mornings, the answer is, “Ehhh… I’ll just put some eyeliner and mascara on for now…” I don’t wear a lot of it, but I wear it a lot. I am used to seeing myself wearing it, so when I don’t, I look weird — but weird is relative. If I were used to seeing myself au naturel, I would adjust my idea of how I looked. I wouldn’t view my naked face as my face without makeup; I would view it as my face.

So here is what I propose: the month of June shall be Natural Beauty Month, where people everywhere dare to leave the house with a naked face. I know, it’s already June so you don’t have much time to prepare, but here’s the good news: there is no preparation necessary. Naked is sexy, right? So is your naked face. Wear it. Own it. And if you think you look tired, get some more sleep. If your skin is oily, eat more carrots and fewer fries. When you look in the mirror, see yourself for who you are, not who you aren’t. Actors and actresses wear makeup all the time: don’t compare yourself to them. In fact, don’t compare yourself to anyone. Be who you freaking are because who you freaking are is freaking awesome (or if it’s not, coverup won’t help)!! Go on, girl, admit it: you were born with it; you don’t need Maybelline.

ImageJoin us in solidarity through the Natural Beauty Month event on Facebook.

*All names are pseudonyms.