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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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.

When The Speaker Shuts Up

I haven’t written since I ran the Boston marathon.
And I haven’t written since my cousin got married.
I haven’t written since I took a five-day yoga training
or since I decided to make my teaching simpler.
I haven’t written since I got into a new improv troupe.
I haven’t written since I decided to teach English.
I haven’t written since my friend killed himself. He would have been 30 last week.
I haven’t written since my sister and brother-in-law put their house on the market and started applying for jobs in a new city (my city!).
I haven’t written since I got into a relationship I thought would last a long time.
I haven’t written since I ended that relationship.
I haven’t written since I fell off my bike.
I haven’t written since I heard a podcast on explaining death to children
or since I decided to teach yoga for trauma
or since I cried about my dad for the first time in too long.
I haven’t written since I started teaching yoga to a 12-year-old with scoliosis.
I haven’t written since I read about a new scoliosis surgery that doesn’t use rods or fusion
or since I cried about my back for the first time in too long.

I haven’t written in four months
despite there being so much to say.

I want to say I can’t wait for my next marathon.
I want to say congratulations, Will, for marrying one awesome lady.
I want to say I think marriage is weird.
I want to say thank you, Jason, for reminding me how simple yoga is, and for making me so pumped to keep teaching.
I want to say thank you, improv, for reminding me to laugh. And listen.
I want to say I’ll pay more attention.
I want to say Happy Birthday, Chris. I miss you.
I want to say I’m sorry.
I want to say I miss you, Papa.
I miss you a lot.
And I want to say I think of you, Papa, and of you, Mama, whenever I see my 12-year-old student, and we talk about crooked backs and braces and surgery.
I want to say, fuck you, rods and screws and bones that don’t allow my back to bend.
And I want to say thank you, rods and screws and bones for holding me together
even when I’m angry.
I want to say I love you.

I want to say that I’ve learned something – a lot of things – since I last wrote.
I want to say that I have something to show for it.
But instead of a thing to show
instead of a moral
or a lesson
or a thing to say
I’m left just feeling
with very little to say
and very little to do.

What I really want
is to listen.
What I really want
is to watch.
And what I really want
is to be.

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A Tribute to The Rods

Sometimes I forget that I had back surgery. Most of the time I’m just used to how my body moves (or doesn’t), but every now and then, someone reminds me with an innocent comment: “Abby, you have amazing posture!” or, “I feel like I have to stand up straighter whenever you’re around,” or sometimes, “You’re a yoga teacher? No wonder you have such perfect posture!” I feel almost guilty when I tell them, “Thank you for noticing, but it’s not the yoga – it’s the rods.”

Eleven years ago this month, my body was permanently altered. I went under anesthesia at Beth Israel North, and when I woke up, I had eleven fewer moveable joints, two new stainless steel rods and 22 ragdoll pinkscrews. My scoliosis had progressed aggressively over the previous five years, and surgery was an attempt to fix it for good. Most days, I am incredibly thankful for this permanent solution; sometimes, however, I feel a pang of regret: what if surgery wasn’t the best option? What if a new, less invasive surgery comes to fruition – will I pity myself for my impatience and antiquated rods? To add to this mental conflict, I have also had several yoga teachers express regret on my behalf when I tell them of my rods: “I wish you had come to see me before you decided on surgery!” one said; “Yoga is a natural way to correct scoliosis,” said another. Every time someone says something like this, I want to respond: Are you f*cking kidding me?! Do you think I didn’t try other solutions? Do you think it was an easy decision, gluing nearly half my vertebrae together and reinforcing them with stainless steel? But every time, in an effort to remain cordial, I smile and say, “Yeah, it was a difficult decision, but it’s too late to change my mind now.”

I am still learning how to reconcile my own view of myself with how others view me – or, more accurately, my perception of how others view me. Usually, I am happy with myself and my decisions, and usually, I focus on how I feel, rather than how I might appear.  But more often than I would like to admit, I look to others to validate my choices, to tell me what a good job I did, or to reinforce an inkling I have – positive, or negative. Sometimes I am so focused on how I come across that I find it hard to accept a compliment (a compliment, that, just moments earlier, I was hoping to receive). Rather than simply say, “thank you,” I find some excuse to diminish my skills, abilities, or even my posture: “Oh, I’m not really that good”; “It’s not the yoga – it’s the rods.”

The truth is, my rods aren’t solely responsible for my excellent posture, nor are my natural talents responsible for any of the good work that I do. It is all a balance of nature and nurture, innate and cultivated, acceptance and seeking. Whenever I am alone – whether I am cooking, doing yoga, scoli x-ray backscoli x-ray sidereading, singing, dancing, or sitting – I am deeply in touch with what I want and need; I accept my body fully for what it can do, and what it can’t, and I appreciate my challenges as much as my talents. With no one around to critique or congratulate me, my successes and failures are my own. Once I step into the world, however, I inevitably begin comparing myself to others: am I smarter, faster, less attractive, more adept, less patient, or just plain different? How much of me is fixed, immobile, permanent, and how much of me can still grow and evolve? When I let others’ assessments of me speak louder than my own, self-doubt creeps in. But when I stop seeking outside opinions, slow down, and listen, not only do I feel more capable of making my own decisions, I feel content with the decisions I have already made.

So, rods and screws in my spine, listen up: I know you’re in there, and I appreciate you. You are part of my body, no longer a collection of foreign objects, but an integral part of my skeleton. Some people may tell you (or me) that you don’t belong, but we cannot doubt our connection. We’re in this together. Happy Anniversary.

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(Photo credit to Steve Kraft)