Tongue scraping (Jihwa Prakshalana) is a relatively easy Ayurvedic practice to integrate into one's morning routine. In the Ayurvedic tradition, the tongue is said to signal organ health, with different portions of the tongue corresponding to the lungs, stomach, pancreas, etc. You can see a great chart here (http://www.ayurveda.com/online_resource/tongue_analysis.html). The idea is that as the organs process toxins overnight, a mucous is excreted, and forms on the tongue. Tongue scraping, then, prevents these toxins from being reabsorbed.
Western medicine concurs that at the very least tongue scraping is beneficial for dental health, with several studies showing that scraping can help remove the build up of volatile sulfur compounds on the tongue. Tongue scraping improves good breath and overall dental health. (http://health.howstuffworks.com/wellness/oral-care/products/tongue-scrapers-really-help.htm).
One doesn't have to purchase an official tongue scraper (pictured above), a simple spoon (also pictured above) will also work.
Beyond the health benefits tongue scraping offers, if one meditates on the tongue first thing in the morning, this cleansing ritual can become an opportunity to reflect on the first two Yamas Ahimsa (nonharming) and Asteya (truthfulness). The tongue scraping ritual can be a way of resetting whatever speech we might have made that wasn't in keeping with our best nature. As we clean the tongue at the beginning of each day, we might reflect on how we want to use our words to communicate, with our students, our colleagues, our friends and family--a little bodily ritual with ethical significance.
How might we metaphorically keep the tongue clean as we go about our days?
Huffington post recently published a piece on how professors spend their time (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-wade/what-do-professors-do-all_b_5212149.html). Turns out, most work about 61 hours a week on average, with 10 of those hours occurring over the weekend. That's a lot of hours! Be that as it may, what's a bit distressing is how those hours are spent. Out of all the activities the researcher quantified, professors spend the largest portion of time in meetings, with emailing taking a close second.
This leads me to consider the importance of thinking about yeses and nos. Given that there are finite hours in a day and finite hours in a work week, saying "Yes" to spending time one way means saying "no" to spending that same time differently. I guess that's basic physics: two tasks cannot occupy the same space at the same time.
This week I am living with the fact that I said yes to something which is a low priority and yet high-stress and time-consuming. What that means, I've realized, is less yoga, less academic writing, and less time with my husband in the evening--whoops, there go my priorities!
To help remember that saying yes means saying no to something else, I'm considering making a mini priorities shrine (http://www.katherinefusco.com/1/post/2014/04/a-priorities-shrine-a-powerful-metaphor-post.html) in my campus office, which is the place where I tend to say yes too much. I'm hoping a visual reminder will help me say the nos that mean saying yes to my priorities.
The the first limb of yoga, the Yamas (ethics/restraints) contains the idea of Brahmacharya, which translates into non-excessiveness. Most conservatively translated, this refers to sexual chastity. But for those of us who are what the yogis call householders (the most of us), it can be anything that is used excessively as a crutch or anything habits that drain our energy in excessive ways. For many people, this can be drugs, alcohol, or food, but it can also be an addiction to accomplishment or feeling busy.
To take a slightly different angle on the topic, when we fill or lives with certain kinds of excess, we might ask ourselves what gap this excess is covering over. This is pretty old-school Freudian Cathexis--the idea that we attach (cathect) onto an object that we think will make us feel better, but which doesn't address the underlying need.
In the photo above, you'll see one of my objects of cathexis--fancy shoes. These are orange suede highheels which I bought in graduate school, which I've worn twice, and which also happen to be too small. I believe that I have worn them exactly once. I believe I purchased the shoes in 2005, which means they have lived in 5 different apartments with me. They have spent more time in Uhaul trucks than on my feet.
If these were shoes that I owned for sentimental reasons, that might be okay. But they're not. They are one of many pairs with a similar life story. In addition to being wasteful, this excessive shopping also drains me. The past me enjoyed buying the shoes, but present me has to deal with financial stress and paying off debt.
I am preparing to move again. And as I start to think about packing up the house, I am faced with all my excessive shopping. I asked myself, what is this doing for me? When do I shop? What feeling am I trying to achieve?
The answer is "time." When very stressed and overworked, I feel exhausted and deserving--"I should have a treat," I tell myself. But this "treat" is not the treat I need. Instead, the excessiveness of my shopping causes me to have to work more--grading AP exams in the summer, considering summer teaching, etc. Instead, I'd be better served by scheduling time to relax, even, and especially when very busy.
This is the upshot of considering Brahmacharya--it's not all about getting rid of habits that drain you; it's also about asking what would sustain you.
I am in a flow yoga training right now, so there's a lot of invocations of the phrase "go with the flow" that come up. Going with the flow runs counter to my controlling nature. I suspect it does for other academics, too. One doesn't end up in a PhD program, tenure-track job, etc., unless a fair amount of planning and stubborn muscling through has taken place.
Since I am a true novice at going with the flow, there's another saying that strikes me as a useful starting place until I loosen up a bit more. The Ashtanga Yoga practitioners have a very disciplined home practice (or they go to a Mysore-style studio) in which they practice a set sequence on their own nearly every day of the week. One day of the week, though, they "subject themselves to class." This is the language I've heard, "subject themselves."
On a very basic level, I think anyone who has both a home practice and who goes to class understands what this means. At home, I have a tendency to play to my strengths, to not hold poses, to skip savasana, to avoid postures that make me feel clumsy, uncomfortable, or bored. In class, though, you don't have this choice. Someone else is calling the shots and, by gum, you will do Eagle Pose.
Beyond this most basic level, I think being subjected to class and being a student in any realm is a useful reminder that we aren't always in control. Especially for those of us used to calling the shots from the front of the classroom, but for anyone muscling through their "five year plan," subjecting one's self to a class (tennis lessons, art, cooking classes, whatever) can be a sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes liberating reminder that we may be less fully in charge than we thought we were.
The question then is what happens when you're subjected to a class in which not everything unfolds according to your expectations, or in which things happen that you don't like? Hopefully, we can still find it in ourselves to enjoy the class, or to learn from the unexpected. This is why any kind of practice can be useful practice for what we're always subject to--life!
In yesterday's post I mentioned that faculty on the tenure track flip the importance of teaching and research in the way they spend their hours. They overwork their teaching, leaving only scraps of time for their most important work.
I have certainly felt the pressure to overwork teaching this semester; I am teaching two new survey courses for the first time, courses that take me pretty far afield from my areas of expertise. In other words, I am teaching (occupying a position of expertise) while simultaneously feeling like a novice in relation to the course material (Help! What to say about British Romanticism?! Where are my novels!?).
This has me think of a novice "mistake" that sometimes occurs for novice yogis. Many of the poses are meant to feel comfortable when alignment is correct, but they can be very uncomfortable when the yogi approaches them from a muscular "exercise" perspective. How many times have new yogis heard teachers say that downward dog is a resting pose and then silently sworn under their breath while sweating through the posture? Such poses begin to feel easier and more comfortable as the yogi learns to trust the integrity of proper alignment, the power of stacking the bones (Knee above ankle, shoulders above wrists, and so on. And once this alignment is learned, how one occupies the pose is a choice--the yogi might want to feel the fire of muscling through a pose one day ( a yang practice), or perhaps the yogi wants to relax into a posture ( a more yin practice). Both are options.
These are also options when it comes to teaching prep and discussion leading, and I suspect that many of us who are new teachers have a tendency to try to muscle through, rather than trusting that it will be safe to be a bit more relaxed. Instead, we read copious background material, write out lecture and discussion word-for-word (sometimes writing down the "right" answers to discussion questions!), we prepare beautiful slides, and then we rush through class, making sure every point is covered! Phew! That is a sweaty and exhausting practice.
And though that's an option, it's not required. And seeing this may require being a little humble about how necessary we are as teachers, or at least the way in which we are necessary. I had this thought yesterday as I prepared for and then taught a class on contemporary (not my time period) postcolonial (not my region) poetry (not my form). I had downloaded podcasts, printed out articles, polled friends, and read interviews to prepare my lesson on Derek Walcott. But when it came time to actually write down my class plan, I reread the poems "A Far Cry from Africa" and The Schooner Flight, I realized how very little Walcott needs me. The poems give so much to think about on their own. How arrogant to think that I needed to work so hard to mediate between the poems and my students.
This is both an argument for underpreparing and an argument for humility, two things that might not initially seem to go hand-in-hand. But if we think about muscling through as an excessive battle for control, we see that there can be humility in occupying our teaching practice with a bit more ease. Trusting the material, trusting the students, both of which are pretty terrific on their own, both of which, like the skeleton, do the work of holding us up.
This spring, I was lucky enough to get the double blast of meeting scholar Ann Cvetkovich and academic productivity guru Kerry Ann Rockquemore at University of Iowa's Affect and Inquiry Symposium. Among the many insights Ann shared was the practice of making little shrines for her different book chapters, gatherings of objects that reflected the content of each chapter. Kerry Ann shared something a little more horrific--a pie graph showing the number of hours new faculty spend on different tasks (teaching, research, service, etc.) and another pie graph showing the weight each of those areas carried in terms of tenure and promotion. Most new faculty have a BIG mismatch between the two graphs.
In my home office, I've created a little metaphor to help me think about these two insights. I tend to be a relatively secular yogi, but I've felt called to create a priorities shrine above my desk. I have gathered the following: a little note card with a picture of a typewriter that says "write on" beneath it (my scholarship); an image of two silly rabbits with orange noses gazing lovingly at each other (my marriage); and a list of yoga's 8 limbs. When I walk into my office, when I sit down at my desk, I am reminded about what I most care about.
Having this here makes it easier to say "no" to other things when I open my email. And when I sit down to work, it also helps me remember what should go first each day.
You'll notice that I only have three items on my shrine. One negative tendency certain among us may feel is that everything is a priority. But the truth of the matter is, when everything becomes a priority, that actually means that nothing really is. Now, I love teaching and find it meaningful--but is it my top priority? The answer is no. That doesn't mean that I don't care about it, but it doesn't go on the shrine. To get really weird with the metaphor--it's not the thing for which I am willing to sacrifice the other parts of my life.
You'll see that I have a little candle and a little crystal beneath my shrine. These are all just ways of drawing my attention to my priorities. As an added benefit, I found that having my little shrine inspires me to keep a cleaner desk!
I've sound that the visual metaphor of my priorities is a daily inspiration, rather than a daily nag. It makes daily work feel a little more creative and meaningful, rather than a grind of to dos--part of transfering "have tos" into "want tos" and making daily practice part of a life's meaningful work.
So, no, this is not a post about little plates of olives, cheeses and such.
Tapas is one of yoga's Niyamas. The Niyamas form the second of Yoga's Eight LImbs, and include five principles that come together to form the "observances" of a yogic life style.
Tapas is a pretty hardcore Niyama. It is understood as fire, catharsis, self-discipline, or austerity.
In her lovely book on the Yamas and Niyamas, Deborah Adele explains why one would want to endure or pursue Tapas, "Tapas eventually changes our nature, turning us into a cauldron that can withstand any of life's challenges" (134).
Using the fire metaphor associated with Tapas, I like to think of Tapas as akin to the process of tempering metal. By mindfully applying a little heat, we can strengthen our constitutions.
As I said, this is where the practice gets hard core. Though one needn't practice sleeping on a bed of nails to invoke tapas, even the simple enforcing of discipline on a day can bring discomfort and requires developing strength. For example, adhering to daily meditation, journaling, and neti pot use could become a disciplined ritual.
In a yoga pose, this can mean simply staying in the discomfort, as in chair pose, and, as one of my teachers (the wonderful Zachary Cannady) instructs, simply watching the fire move through the body. Feeling the legs and arms shake, you stay there, become stronger, becoming more able to live calmly through instability and insecurity.
The idea here is that by consciously and safely practicing Tapas, we steel ourselves (to stay with the tempering metaphor) for life's ups and downs, and become stronger in the process.
For example, I have a colleague who gives her graduate students a midterm, asking them to sit and write for four hours straight. They hate the experience, but they appreciate that this painful, firey time helps prepare them for the much more extreme experience of comprehensive exams.
In my own writing practice, I have gotten pretty comfortable with writing for 25-30 minute bursts. Now I am trying to gradually extend how long I sit and to observe what makes me get up. I am learning that I am most undisciplined when revising drafts, particularly when it comes to writing new sentences at that stage, and particularly when those new sentences are revisions. As I sat working on an article yesterday, I discovered myself looking at the clock in those moments. Through the practice of Tapas, I learn where I am weak, and try to stay in it, feeling the burn.
It's getting to be the end of the semester. It's spring. Easter was last weekend. Exams are around the corner. Semester goals we set for ourselves are beginning to feel like cruel Sisyphean ordeals. The birds on campus are protecting new goslings and ducklings. T.S. Eliot called April the cruelest month. And as far as human feelings on campus go, Old Thomas Stearns seems to have it about right. It's a time of bad human feelings. But, it's also a time of new life for the birds, plants, and animal life around us. Perhaps that's why you find yourself resenting the geese that defecate all over the sidewalks, they are in the time of new life, while we feel another year dying off, and we may not be so sorry to see it go.
In writing this blog, I've been thinking about metaphors that do "work," whether or not we believe in them. Most yoga poses have metaphors for their names--the ubiquitous down dog, etc. These metaphorical names help us move our bodies into strange postures, they help us train our mind-body connection, honing our proprioceptive capacities.
Powerful metaphors can work off the mat as well. And egg that is so much a part of springtime can be one of these. PIndasana (embryo pose) and Garba Pindasana (embryo in the womb pose) (http://www.ashtangayoga.info/practice/the-finishing-sequence/item/pindasana/) are postures in which the yogi balls up, embodying the sealed off safety of the womb. For the ducks and geese on campus (I teach on an especially foul-filled campus), the egg encloses the chick, protecting it from the world's harshness until it's developed enough to sustain the battering that exists outside of the shell.
While junior faculty (or anyone else who may feel vulnerable) are not baby chicks, the egg can be a powerful metaphor for getting through particularly difficult meetings and encounters. There are moments in life when we must encounter people with what some call "toxic" energy (whether these are students, colleagues, or people we live with). Bad energy can be running especially high this time of year.
The metaphor of the egg shell, which is strong and protecting, offers a strategy for such encounters. Before entering such meetings (committee meetings, office hours, faculty meetings, etc.), we can close our eyes and picture enclosing ourselves within the eggshell (or a bubble, or light, whatever works) and saying I am protected here (or, my bubble keeps me safe, whatever affirmation isn't to dorky or weird for you). From within this bubble, we can see the meeting play out as on a screen, without taking the heightened emotions that play out into our own psychic space. I say that this might be especially important for junior faculty because we are still growing into this profession, and for me, at least, it's important that bitterness is not part of the professional persona I grow into. Though April may be the cruelest month, there are metaphors we can use to ensure we hatch safely some day.
Daily practices are often just a matter of minutes. The yoga that most of us practice today comes to us because the yogis discovered a need to develop a system that combined meditation, movement, sense withdrawal, and breathing techniques into an efficient practice for regular people. They called these regular people "householders." Unlike hardcore yogis who lived in caves and devoted 10 hours a day to their practice, the householder had worldly obligations: family, jobs, a house to maintain.
Most of us are householders, which means that we need systems that can be practiced in terms of minutes, not swaths of hours. And most of us are householders when it comes to both our writing and our yoga practices. We have classes that need teaching, service commitments, etc., etc. Even though writing is often a priority in academic life, perhaps the main priority, it is not the only one.
And yet...With both our writing practice and our yoga practice, we often behave as though it is outrageous that we cannot retreat to our caves and do our practice for 8 hours a day, and when we can't, we say, I don't have enough time to do yoga; I don't have enough time to write.
But we are forgetting, we're on householder time, and the householder deserves to practice, too. And we also forget that because the most of us live and work in the householding world, this practice is liable to come in parcels of minutes, not hours, each day.
This could seem like a bummer, but the world needs householders to run along its course. And rather than thinking of what we don't have--why oh why don't I live in a gorgeous cabin in the woods where I do nothing but my totally excellent writing practice and my totally brilliant writing all day?--we can think about what we nonetheless deserve to have as householders in this world: some minutes taken aside for our daily practice. Minutes that are very precious indeed.
The variation of yoga in which I am receiving my training, Flow Yoga, doesn't usually rely on a prescribed list of sequences. Instead, teachers will often come into class with an idea of a "peak" posture for which they will warm students up and then ease them out of using a series of counter poses. For Example, if a class were to be doing Full Wheel (a big back bend), a series of smaller backbends as well as back strengthening exercises such as Locust pose might come first, and then forward folds might come after to even things out. This is a helpful way to think about planning a yoga class as well as a daily home practice.
I haven't been sure, however, that this idea resonates with writing practice. When I worked as a writing center administrator, I tended to find that people who insisted they had a lot of "needs" that had to be met before writing were people who didn't get much writing done. ( If you "need" to clean your office, make a cup of coffee, read one more article, and review your notes before writing--well, that's a whole lotta wind up that's using up a whole lotta your writing time.) So, I'm a little skeptical about that kind of warming up, though I think gathering these materials for the next day, after doing today's writing is a useful part of the cool down process that helps you be ready for next time.
Instead, an idea that has been exciting me lately, and which I am trying to use for lesson planning as well as writing is to use writing itself as a warmup. This idea comes from Robert Boice's book, Advice for New Faculty Members. He recommends doing a little freewriting/prewriting first, a little messy pump-priming to get going and get creativity and focus moving. To me, this resonates much more strongly than office cleaning or reading notes--if you want to do full wheel, start with a little Camel pose; if you want to write and article, start in messy brainstorm posture. In each case, the beginning posture is not so scary as the full expression of the posture, but it's opening you to safely move in that direction.
Get a Life, PhD
The Professor is In
The Thesis Whisperer
Tenure, She Wrote