It's 6am and I am drinking my second cup of coffee as I write this.
Saucha, or the Niyama that gets translated roughly as purity, asks yogis to consider the baggage they carry around with them and or that they are adding to their lives, whether in the form of bodily impuritities (hence, neti pots), stale thoughts (hello, guilt!), or clutter.
Substance use/abuse can fall into the bucket of things to consider when considering Saucha. And I, for one, have been very resistant to thinking I have any issues here. When we first discussed substance use in teacher training, I dug in my heels, thinking, I've already given everything really bad up, please let me have these bitty little vices. I used to smoke menthol cigarettes (gone), drink hard alcohol (gone), occasional recreational substances in college (gone)--for god's sakes, I don't even eat carbs or sugar anymore!!!"
BUT the big two, coffee and wine, are very much a part of the academic lifestyle and my own. I suspect many of us have done "grocery" shoppings that consist of nothing but these two items. Or maybe you throw in a food so it's not quite so painfully obvious: coffee, pinot grigio, and a gallon of milk--oh really, what's for dinner?
If you are a grad student or faculty at a well-funded institution, the wine and cheese reception is part of the routine, and even if you're not, it may be part of your own routine. I attended graduate school as the cocktail culture inspired by Sex in the City turned into the cocktail culture inspired by Madmen, which meant we all went from drinking vodka to drinking bourbon.
It's not that these pleasures are "bad" in themselves. But it's the routine part that makes me ask what these substances are doing in our lives. If the coffee is there every morning to help get going, and the glass of wine is there every evening to stop going, the routinization of these pleasures might make one ask, what would happen if I got up and unwound on my own? That is to say, purely?
This matter may be of special interest to young women in graduate school or on the tenure track, since alcohol and caffeine affect the overall hormonal balance of the female body (for a great book on this, check out Alisa Vitti's Woman Code http://floliving.com/womancode.html ). But for any academic or young professional, given the likely overstimulation of the adrenals that already comes from living in a state of fight-or-flight due to high stress, why add the baggage of a hit of caffeine to the system?
As I finish writing this, I've finished that second cup of coffee. Ah, well. There's always tomorrow to try for tea.
Productivity experts warn writers about too much emailing. It's a tempting distraction from creative flow that gives the illusion of productivity: email in, check! Email out, check! Oh, wow, I processed 50 emails today! Ah, but where did the writing time go?
In addition to giving an easy hit of accomplishment, email feels urgent, especially when it comes with its own sound effects--ding! This makes it an unfair competitor against long-term projects that don't shout "deal with me now."
But beyond all this, if it weren't enough that it takes time from meaningful work, email is like a drug in other ways. In addition to giving fleeting highs, email physically harms. In a piece in Huffington Post, Linda Stone coined the term "email apnea" to describe a digital age health risk (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/linda-stone/just-breathe-building-the_b_85651.html). When checking email, we often stop breathing, unconsciously holding the breath or taking shallow breaths. This suggests to me both the psychic anxiety that email checking can cause, as well as the health risks associated.
As for solutions, it seems like quarantining email as much as possible might be a good start. When we have to check email, it might be good to invoke the conscious breathing learned in yoga class--just breathe through that inbox!
This post is a follow up on the previous post about trying different styles.
Do I "believe" in chakras? Hm, not so sure. The idea of chakras relates to what gets called the subtle, or energetic body, in yoga. It's not the physiological "gross" body. The chakras are the energy centers in this energetic body, and the idea is, that the freedom or blockage of these centers relates to areas of freedom or blockage in the way we live our lives. To me, talk of Chakras falls in the realm of new age spirituality--What I have occasionally dismissed as "hoodoo."
As an academic, as the child of an atheist household, I am very skeptical about taking things "on faith." Why would anyone do that?
But as a student of literature, I do believe in the power of a good metaphor. Emerson's Eyeball, Morrison's ghost Beloved, Melville's Whale. The metaphor isn't necessarily "real" but it does work nonetheless. Pinning a metaphor down and proving that, for example, slavery produced real ghosts (or didn't, for that matter) wouldn't make Beloved more or less powerful. Metaphors do work without being literal.
My very brief initial encounter with Chakra-based yoga was powerful. Using guided meditation, the teacher asked the students in the class to do a series of breathing and physical exercises with eyes closed, imagining the colors associated with the different chakra centers. For me, it was powerful to realize that while I could easily see yellow in my solar plexus (associated with personal strength), when it was time to see the green associated with the heart chakra (an emotional center) I came up with nothing.
Now, do I *believe* that I have a heart chakra--no idea. Maybe not? BUT, the metaphor resonated. As an academic, and particularly as a young woman in academe, it's not surprising that I have grown out of touch with my emotions, which might be seen as liabilities on this career path.
Though I retain skeptical about the "truth" of the metaphor, it nonetheless does work, all of which makes me think that academics, who are trained in various scientific and other methods of inquiry, might indeed try to be more curious and explore systems of thought about which we are VERY skeptical. Not that we will necessarily come to accept other accounts of reality AS our reality, but we may nonetheless find new metaphors to guide us.
There's something to be said for habit, for discipline. Many of us know how we write or what style of yoga we prefer. But what begins as discipline can also slide into laziness or can block the kind of innovation that only comes through encounters with the new.
When I worked at a writing center, we often talked about how writers are either "eekers" or "gushers." Basically, you have the people who want outlines, note cards, and lots of structure when they write, and then you have the people who love brainstorming, mess making, freewriting as part of their process. There's nothing particularly wrong or right about either approach; they are just different.
Similarly, some yogis discover that they love the freedom and improvisation of flow yoga. Others like the regimentation and discipline of Ashtanga. Still other yogis appreciate the academic focus on detail that comes in Iyengar yoga. Again, no wrong, no right, it's all yoga.
As far as habit goes, there's certainly something to be said for knowing one's strengths and weakness and developing a routine that works. But sometimes, routine becomes, well, routine. And though it's comfortable, routines can get boring or stale.
Adding a little variation can remind the practitioner of the broader field--other ways of doing yoga, other ways of writing. I'm not suggesting we do this all the time, mind you, that might eliminate productive disciplinary expertise. But just a dash now and again might bring new insights, bring new flavor to the practices we've grown to know and love very well. Even if we hate the experiment, we gain new appreciation for our habits. And if we love the experiment, well that's just gravy.
Part of a yoga practice consists of contemplating the Yamas and the Niyamas. The first Niyama is called Saucha, which translates into something like Purity. This can be practiced through fasting, using a neti pot, or other practices like purifying the mind by letting go of grudges or guilt. For many, it can also mean getting rid of clutter--all the STUFF that junks up our space. My challenge from my teacher this week is to clean up my yoga practice space. As it turns out, my yoga practice space is the same as my writing space--a home office I share with my husband.
Early this morning I awoke with a strange feeling. When I got up, Biscuit (my golden doodle) was crying to be let out. Apparently she must have been crying for a while, because when I wandered into the office to see what time it was, I discovered that she had already relieved herself.
While this may be a simple matter of a dog failing to wake a deep-sleeping human sometime around 4am, as I was cleaning Biscuit's mess, I thought, "well, that's appropriate. I do treat this space like sh*t."
And there's some truth to this, Biscuit, though not the brainiest golden doodle, has a kind of dog wisdom. When she's experience gastrointestinal distress and can't hold it, she never goes in the kitchen, which is where she eats, or in the bedroom, which is where she sleeps. Instead, she inevitably goes in the office, a room she can crap in because she doesn't give a crap about it.
In addition to being grateful that Biz (we're familiar, so I get to call her that) got me up in plenty of time for 5:30 am yoga, she's helping me think about Saucha in a very real, material, and smelly way. How do I want to treat the space where I do my most important work--my yoga, my writing? It's the place where I do my most valuable work, so why treat it like a place where my dog can do her business?
I'll occasionally use this space to shout-out to the teachers who inspire yoga practice (Hey, Melissa http://www.melissamcyoga.com/ ), but there are teachers who we never meet that also inspire. Many of these live on our bookshelves.
On the very early mornings before yoga teacher training, I have been trying to squeeze in a small chunk of academic writing time. To ready myself the night before, I pull up on my laptop the documents I'll be working with. That way, when I roll out of bed, a little groggy, a little creaky, and a little grumpy, I'm not giving myself one more roadblock to sitting down to write. There's the talk I need to give at the end of the week, sitting ready for a bit of work.
This technique isn't so fancy. Indeed, it's the same type of behavior many of our parents encouraged in us when we were little when they asked us to pack our school bags the night before. But as I think through the struggles of getting started or gettting into our "seats" (whether that means getting to the writing desk or getting to the writing studio), I release the importance of practices that set us up to succeed in overcoming inertia--that hulking monster!
One of my writing teachers and one of the earliest places I encountered the idea of writing as a daily practice is Joan Bolker's Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day. In addition to the idea of daily practice (hint: it turns out you can't quite write a dissertation in 15 minutes a day, but if you give 15 minutes everyday, chances are, they'll turn into more minutes), she suggested techniques like the one I mention above for helping those 15 minutes happen. She calls pre-preparing "parking on a downhill slope." I like the ease of her metaphor. If inertia is a big hill, starting from zero each morning seems like a recipe for failure. Instead, by setting up your workspace, gathering your materials, and even starting a little bit the night before, you're setting yourself to slide more easily into your daily practice. This could look like putting your yoga clothes and yoga mat by the door, or it could mean finding the books and notes you need the day before you plan to write about them. It's all about making it EASIER to get rolling down that hill.
Here's the link to Bolker's book--a good one for dissertation writers, or academics at any stage:
I had a beer with a colleague yesterday, and when I told him about this blog, he asked whether writing practice could inform yoga practice, rather than it always being the other way around.
Today, I have been more "successful" with my writing practice than my yoga practice, and I have a hunch about why.
So, this post ends up being a little bit of an advertisement for a website that I love, Dr. Wicked's Write or Die (http://writeordie.com). You set a timer, for as little time as you have, you start writing into a box on the website, and if you stop, a series of consequences start kicking in--first, a siren sounds, then the screen starts flashing, and finally the cursor starts moving backward, deleting your prose. I know!
What's good for me about Write or Die is that on days I really don't feel like writing or on which I have just teeny weeny bits of time, the program teaches me how much just a little will get me. Today, for example, 20 minutes yielded a messy single-spaced page of a talk that I have avoided writing until just now.
It makes me curious about all that a twenty-minute yoga practice might yield on a busy day. Maybe there's something good to be squeezed out of those precious next five minutes. Maybe they are precious not because they are scarce, but because they contain beautiful possibilities ....
Ah, yoga! Of course there is a pose called "awkward posture." Also known as chair pose, Utkatasana is awkward indeed. In the posture, one simultaneously sinks down in the hips and lifts up and out through the arms, building back strength. Utkatasana is also a warrior posture, which means you are supposed to feel strong in it, even though the strangeness of simultaneously squatting, lifting, lengthening and distributing weight can make you feel anything but.
Of course, this is where muscle memory helps out--eventually! After the 15th or maybe 50th try, the body says, "oh, I've been here before." Rather than struggling to understand where getting into the pose begins, you get to start playing, working, refining. But the danged thing of it is, you gotta get on the mat and squat down. (for the record, I stinkin' hate Utkatasana.)
This is very similar to the old quote about how to become a writer, you get a bucket of glue, brush some glue on the seat of your chair and take a seat. Voila--chair pose, writer's pose. This, of course, is the hardest part. Sitting down. It's awkward. But once the writer sits, if the writer has been sitting regularly, doing the daily practice, the body/mind can take over and start refining the pose/prose.
For me, this is often an awkward seat and I try to wriggle out of it (see Frog Pose). But the hope is that as I keep putting myself in the posture, my practice will develop. Showing up on the mat is the first step.
I teach a volunteer class a few times a semester. When I showed up today, one of the students observed, "you're not running today." When I looked confused, she explained, "last time you were a little late, it seems like you rushed to get here."
Rushing in is a way of not being fully there.
One of the instructions for being a yoga teacher is to wash your hands and feet before class. There are sanitary reasons for doing this, as well as purity reasons that come from older belief systems. For me, though, there's a nice metaphor here about taking time before teaching to "wash off" whatever emotional junk a teacher can accumulate throughout the day. Usually before I teach, I try to squeeze in one more thing--another email, another graded quiz, whatever. Lately, I've been trying to do this hand washing practice before going to teach my English classes. There's something nice about taking that moment to collect myself, to let go of other things that may be on my mind, and to generally prepare myself to be fully attentive to my students. To go in clean, as it were.
On average, a person urinates around six times a day.
I have a hunch that writers working on particularly difficult drafting and revision go a lot more.
It's often the case that in an uncomfortable yoga pose, particularly one held for a long time, the mind starts to wander. Among the places the mind goes, is to the question of whether it's time to get up, leave the yoga room, and go to the bathroom.
This morning in class, we got into Frog Pose. I though, "Nope, that's it, I definitely have to pee." Frog pose is an intense hip opener--it is physically uncomfortable. Also, is you believe in this sort of thing, tight hips can correspond to an uptight personality, so opening up might be psychologically uncomfortable as well.
Well, I went into the restroom, but no dice. Huh. Back on the mat, we were entering a pose that I find even more distressing--an advanced version of Malasana (yogic squat). Darn, escaped Frog momentarily just to get right back into the hips even more intensely. Whoops!
A version of this happens in writing life as well. We get started doing something uncomfortable--writing--and the urge to urinate, to have a glass of water, get a snack, whatever. And it's urgent! The body is tricky this way. Writing might not be physically uncomfortable in the way Frog Pose is, but it's intellectually challenging and emotionally scary (possible rejection! will this idea show the world how dumb I am?!). In scary situations, the body tries to remove the pressure--it's fight or flight time. Hence, the urge to pee--the body is trying to get you back into a "safe" space.
But writing an article or doing Frog Pose is not encountering a predator in the wild. So, how to stay there?
One technique I hear my yoga teachers use is letting the class know how long a pose will last--"we'll stay here for 10 breaths." This same insight informs the advice to use the Pomodoro technique with writing, "write just for 25 minutes." Chances are, even if a person really did need to go to the bathroom, have a drink, etc., she could wait for that amount of time. Even more likely, the urge will pass....
Get a Life, PhD
The Professor is In
The Thesis Whisperer
Tenure, She Wrote