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.


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. 


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. 


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. 

An Empty Corner

When I decided to become a yoga teacher, I thought I’d finally be disciplined enough to go to the studio every day. I didn’t think I’d be toting my mat everywhere in the hopes that I’d find an empty corner where I could do at least a few Sun Salutations and maybe a Pigeon.

Since becoming certified to teach, I have practiced yoga on a subway, in a park, in an airport (or three), at my office, at home, in the green room of a theatre, on the stage of a theatre, in the backstage area at a fashion show, and, when I’m really lucky, in the yoga studio. Thankfully, I am at a stage in my life where I don’t notice onlookers. Yes, I avoid some of the more “suggestive” poses in public (too much vigorous Cat/Cowing can send the wrong message), and I am mindful not to kick any passersby as I swing through to Warrior I, but for the most part, I am in my own world (something, incidentally, my kindergarten teacher told my parents long ago). I don’t tune the noise out, exactly — indeed, sometimes that is impossible — but I wouldn’t say I listen to it either. In a way, the noise is comforting. It reminds me that there is a world around me, full of people and animals and plants and wind and cars and sirens and stress — you don’t get all that in a yoga studio. Of course, the yoga studio is wonderfully comforting too: a room full of people who value health and want to take care of their bodies; a teacher to guide you through a journey you might not take on your own; music to help your mind stay focused and present. But why do we go to the yoga studio in the first place? Usually because something in our every day lives reminds us that we need some help. So we enter the studio, breathe deeply for 75 minutes, feel amazing, then we get home to find the dishes still in the sink, the fridge still empty, and the stubborn piles of paperwork that made us drop everything and declare, “I’m going to yoga NOW!”

Practicing in public reminds us that there is no escape, only respite. Whether we like it or not, we are a part of this crazy, busy, crowded, noisy, violent, and imperfect world; isn’t that why we search so hard for peace, and become so euphoric when we find it? Perhaps what we should remember is that this peace, this euphoria, isn’t unique to the yoga studio. It doesn’t exist only in small quantities for monks or yogis in ashrams to hoard. It can be found in the middle of chaos, in the middle of war, in the piles of unsorted laundry, in that empty corner between the catering table and the trash can. Whether we have 75 minutes or five, breathing deeply does the body good.