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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Love Yourself, Then Laugh About It

When I first told my yoga students that I did improv comedy, they were surprised – sort of. “Wait, what?!” said one, then immediately followed it up with, “Actually, never mind. I can see it.” The next week, that same student came up to me before class and said, “Abby! I’m coming to your show tonight!” And while I am usually glad when my friends come to see my shows, my first thought this time was: Oh dear. She’s going to see a whole different side of me – what if I do something offensive on stage?! What if her image of me as a peaceful and loving yoga teacher crumbles and she never returns to my class again?? But of course what I said was: “Oh yay!!” Then I spent the rest of the afternoon wondering why I felt self-conscious about my two worlds merging.

improv kissing TimAs an improvisational comedian, I have had to develop my philosophy of comedy. My philosophy thus far has been simple: make fun of everything, including and especially myself. At the same time I have been cultivating my philosophy of comedy, however, I have also been honing a seemingly opposite philosophy of mindfulness (what some might call a “spiritual philosophy”): love everything, including and especially myself.

For years, I have seen the similarities between improv and yoga, but struggled to explain it. They are both about listening, and about being present. Both are about releasing expectations, accepting offers, and seeing possibilities, rather than obstacles. In Tina Fey’s chapter, Rules of Improvisation That Will Change Your Life and Reduce Bellyfat, she observes: “As an improviser, I always find it jarring when I meet someone in real life whose first answer is no. ‘No, we can’t do that.’ ‘No, that’s not in the budget.’ ‘No, I will not hold your hand for a dollar.’” She asks the reader, “What kind of way is that to live?” To Fey, accepting offers and saying yes is not just a way to perform: it is a way to be. I have a similar reaction as a yoga teacher. I am baffled when I meet people who belittle their skills, habits, and beliefs, or think they are fixed. I get very upset when people say things like: “I’ll never be able to touch my toes,” “I could never run a marathon,” or “I can’t do yoga – I have a bad back.” I want to shake them (lovingly) and shout (kindly), “Just freaking try it!!!!”

There is another important commonality between improv and yoga: both are terrifying. And while the terror is more obvious with improv (there’s a whole audience watching you if you fail), it doesn’t take long to reach that terrifying place in yoga. Over the Improv NYE 12last seven years, I’ve quit two full-time jobs, gone through three major breakups, moved across the country, and tried to make a living teaching yoga, performing improv, and writing. All of these things are and were terrifying, and for all of these things, I blame yoga. And improv. Through yoga, I have grown to understand, appreciate, and love my whole self: physical, mental, and emotional. Through improv, I have learned to listen, laugh, and fail gracefully (as well as publicly). And while I believe I have always known myself, deep down, yoga and improv have encouraged me to exhume my deepest, darkest, and, incidentally, brightest self.

Yoga shakes us up (lovingly), and shouts (kindly): “This is you! Here you are!” While this shaking and shouting may initially throw us off course and create more chaos than we lived with before, it ultimately allows us to reassess the course we’re on, clearing out space to make sense of the mess that was previously stacked Yes-andin a neat pile, behind several doors and walls. Improv does a similar thing: it requires us to observe what is happening right now, and to respond in a way that makes sense. Scenes move forward when characters listen to each other, build upon each other, and give what they have to offer. The best scenes are those where we commit to our characters, where we are not afraid of the dark. It is frightening, invigorating, uncomfortable, and hilarious all at once. If this sounds like a metaphor for life, it is. When we see ourselves clearly, we can love ourselves fully. When we love ourselves fully, we can see others clearly and contribute positively. The darkness that once scared us becomes yet another thing to explore. And thank goodness for our scene partners! They are here to reminds us that whatever we do and whoever we are, we are worth saying yes to.