For many many years, shoulderstands scared the crap out of me. In traditional shoulderstand, I always had terrible anxiety and basically thought that I was going to die, that my whole body would come crashing down onto my head.
Now that I am a little more seasoned, I've relocated this set of anxieties to a shoulderstand variation, Urdhva Padmasana ( http://www.ashtangayoga.info/practice/the-finishing-sequence/item/urdhva-padmasana/ ). It's a shoulderstand with your legs in lotus position and hands on knees. Basically, you're sitting, except that you are upside down and you've got the floor under your shoulders instead of your booty, where you might be used to it.
Bringing my hands up to my knees, and totally balancing on my shoulders terrifies me. I typically go at it in a very tentative way, touching one hand to wobbly knee, then another.
This morning, I tried something different: I engage my core and straightened my arms, bracing my hands against my knees. With strong ab and arm muscles engaged, the pose felt different--more stable, more straight, much less shaking.
Ironically, going for it was less scary than being tentative. And safer, too.
I'm rolling this idea about what it means for strength to be supportive around in my head. Obviously, strong muscles provide a better support and better balance for the skeleton.
The chapter I am revising was originally written a bit more like a narrative than an argument; as a result, the claims are a bit submerged. I've also been helping my husband with an article, in which he tends to make his points inductively, rather than beginning his paragraphs with the points he is making.
As in my wobbly shoulderstands, there's fear in the submerged argument. Also as in the shoulderstand, pussy footing around in writing is actually less effective in the long run.
In writing, making one's argument clear and claiming one's claims may result in rejection when the reader doesn't like what's being said. However, making strong claims does mean that something is actually being said--that the piece has a backbone. And sometimes it will succeed. Conversely, not claiming claims, not supporting our ideas with strength means never really getting into the pose to begin with, which is ultimately the much weaker position.
While the wobbly claim or wobbly shoulderstand might feel safer in the short term, it's being brave enough to be strong that we really support our practice for the long run.
This graphic has been circulating on the internet lately, and it encapsulates much of my thought about yoga, writing, meditation, and the general practice of being a human in the world.
Yesterday I wrote a little about "writing now" as opposed to when we are "enough."
Today, I've been thinking about writing ugly. Or doing yoga ugly.
It's definitely been ugly for me on both fronts. Early in my time doing yoga, pushing up into Chautaranga involved me laying on the floor, tucking my toes, and grunting.
That was it, no lift off, just a lot of "unh unh unh," sweating, and a red face.
Similarly, the first academic article I sent out was quickly returned to me with a reader's report that opened with the sentence. "This is a very strange essay."
The essay on Augie March, New Criticism, and The Partisan Review remains unpublished to this day (though I still suspect an idea lurks there.
And, the ugliness doesn't go away over time. I am currently ripping apart the thing that was once a dissertation, that transformed into a rejected book manuscript, and that is now, well, a Frankenstein's monster of some sort, held together by clipboards, tape, post-its, a lot of scribbles and a little faith. Yesterday, I recruited my husband to help talk me through things, and I held up a post-it with my hieroglyph handwriting on it, hoping it was a brilliant question or reminder to myself, only to discover that it read "Fuck?."
Such failure/ugliness abounds when you work daily on hard stuff. What I like so much about the graphic above is that it reminds us that failure doesn't make us not artists/writers/yogis/whatever. And conversely, one time success doesn't make us those thing either.
Did a last article get accepted? Rejected? Keep writing anyway.
Did you fall out of shoulder stand? Did you nail a perfect handstand? Keep practicing anyway.
The adage that you are what you perpetually do holds true. Even if you do it messy. Even if no one else likes it.
The practice is what defines the practitioner.
I confess that self-help books are a guilty pleasure of mine. A little later than everyone else, I am finally reading Brene Brown's The Gifts of Imperfection. Before becoming known through Oprah's book club, Brown Brown's research focused on shame.
In her book, she writes about how many of us have developed what she calls a list of "worthiness prerequisites." As in, "I'll do x thing once I'm (thin, rich, educated, trained, etc.) enough."
In other words, there's a tendency to shame ourselves out of pursuing what's most important because we feel some kind of embarrassing lack. For example, I have a weird hang up about teaching yoga because I can't do a handstand away from the wall. The fact that I've never read either Joyce's Ulysses or Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow is a source of shame for me as an English professor.
This sense of shame or not being whatever "enough" can prevent us from doing the very work that makes us feel most accomplished--whether that's throwing our voices out and teaching yoga publicly, or putting pen to page.
The fear of being unworthy of writing ideas afflicts graduate students especially. In my old job as a writing center administrator, I often worked with Ph.D. students who told me that they would write when they had read "enough." The truth is, those students were the ones who tended not to finish.
Ironically, enough is never enough.
To combat these feelings, Brown suggests cultivating a feeling of being "Worthy now."
I'd put this a little differently: write now. yoga now.
Writing now makes you a writer. Teaching now makes you a teacher. Practicing yoga makes you a yogi. Doing the very things that are scary actually has the effect of fighting the shame-anxiety that surrounds them.
Shame is about externality--past judgements and fear of future censure. Daily practice is about doing things in the present time. Rather than being momentus and thus potentially shame-inducing, daily practice normalizes the process, making it a day to day routine.
I was once in a writing group with a woman who, on busy days, would make her writing goal to just "touch" her project.
This strikes me as such a nice way to think about getting a little in--the idea that some days it's okay to say, I'll do a little something, but nothing much.
Maybe you do a couple tries at a forearm balance, but no extended practice.
Maybe it's sitting down with a few pages and seeing how a couple of line edits come along.
This was my morning today. I thought about working on a new fall course, but instead I decided to just do a little writing while I had coffee. Whatever revisions could get done before I finished my second cup would be what happened today--no big deal, no bother.
What's nice about just "touching" your daily practice some days, approaching the work with this most minimal of goals, is that the moment you sit down, you've already succeeded. Whatever else happens is just icing on the cake.
Sometimes little is good.
Some of my best lessons have come from women senior to me giving me a good scolding and a solid whack.
In graduate school, the always bold Cecelia Tichi called me into her office and said, "you have a great voice, but when you talk in seminar, you let it get thin and weak. Stop doing that."
Recently, I taught my first public yoga class. For the purposes of full disclosure, I told everyone as much. And at various moments, I found myself apologizing--for the music not being right, for get left side and right side confused, for looking at the lesson plan, etc.
The following day, I saw a woman who was in the class. She thanked me for the class (which was free), and I immediately replied, "thank you; it was my first class, so I hope it wasn't too bad, etc., etc.." The woman, a stranger, responded by whacking me on the arm. "Stop saying that," she said, "you didn't seem like a novice. You should stop apologizing."
And she's right. Many women have a tendency to apologize for themselves, which is an undermining and unprofessional behavior. I can think of two young women graduate students who use the word "sorry" in the way that Valley Girls say "like." It is as though they are constantly apologizing for the very fact of their existence--"I am so sorry to be imposing my presence on the world."
In yoga and university classroom teaching, some young women would also pepper their teaching with apologies, weakening phrases, putting commands as questions, and verbal uptick (making the end of their sentences sound like questions). Instead of saying, "take out your assignments," or "come to the top of your yoga mats," women ask "would you do x."
Particularly for young women, the tendency to apologize for and to undermine the self goes against the principle of Ahimsa (non-harming). Most of us would not undermine someone else in the same way, so it's time to stop doing it to ourselves.
I'm an English professor, so sometimes it makes me a little defensive when yoga teachers talk about the "stories" we tell ourselves as unhealthy/unhelpful. But I get it--it's about how we either dwell on past hurts and resentments or turn everything into a story about how things will be in the future (either because the future will be better than the crappy now, or because we just know that things will go to hell, just like they always do).
In either case, storytelling is a way of not being present. It's also a way of not taking full responsibility for how we engage in our present moment--storytelling is a way of putting things onto others or onto external circumstance ("people have hurt me;" "things will be better in a year").
And email plays into this. When I open my email, I often find that I am steeling myself for bad news or I am seeking external confirmation ("when, when, when will that journal editor get back to me;" "have I gotten into a conference," "oh, no, is there a student who is mad about his grade"). All of these are part of narratives about my failures and success, and all of them are external to me and the pleasure of daily work.
Though i am very undisciplined in this arena, it strikes me that making my writing time a time that is sacredly sealed off from emailing would be a very healthy thing--no emailing prior to writing, no email breaks during writing. If one aspect of maintaining a daily practice is finding pleasure in it for its own sake, then switching into the mode of looking for feedback that plays into my stories about acceptance and rejection would seem to be counterproductive.
The feelings of pleasure and responsibility that come from regular writing come from being in the present-time flow. They are the writer's own. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
I’ve been grading the AP English exam this week.
For anyone who hasn’t done a massive normed grading of an exam before, the process of reading well over a thousand handwritten student essays in a is a brutal experience: many essays are bad, and by the end of the week, nothing seems new or fresh anymore. And yet, for each student writer, his or her essay is in fact unique—it’s the first time considering the idea, a unique instance of putting pen to paper to write the idea down, the first foray of the piece of writing out into the world.
One aspect of the training we receive that I particularly appreciate and that I hope to communicate to my TAs this fall is about the angle of approach we take to student writing.
Two of the Niyamas of yoga are Ahimsa (nonharming) and Satya (truthfulness). Ideally, the two are in balance; truthfulness is not an excuse for cruelty, but fear of causing upset doesn’t get in the way of honesty.
Though I’m not sure the College Board has thought about AP exam scoring in precisely these terms, they usefully remind graders to look for what the student has done well.
This fall, I hope to impart a similar idea to my TAs, encouraging them to come to each essay they grade with the initial instinct to look for what a student has achieved, rather than how the student has disappointed them. Indeed, even if the student’s achievement is relatively modest, those of us who write regularly no that the simple act of showing up and trying is worthy of some notice.
And so we who teach and evaluate do act as warriors, playing both sides of combat for our students. On the one hand, we wield the sword of truthfulness, letting our students know how they might improve, habits that need correcting. But on the other hand, we should also hold the shield for our students, protecting them from unnecessary harm as they too engage in the brave act that is sitting down and putting words to page.
There's something to be said for eating the frog first thing in the morning--getting the hard thing out of the way first thing in the day. However, sometimes it's hard to feel inspired about rolling out of bed only in order to swallow a nasty slimy bite.
With my resistant feelings about working on my book this summer, I'm experimenting with more playful approaches to work.
This morning at AP English grading, I started the day by finishing up a folder of essays that I had already mostly graded the day before. As I quickly finished it, I got a little hit of accomplishment.
This makes me think that while some days are good days for breakfasting on amphibians, it might also be nice to start with a "win" on other mornings. What might a win look like--maybe a favorite show-offy yoga pose. For my writing, which is hard right now, it might mean just 15 minutes on "write or die," a little hit of productivity and timer-inspired inspiration.
This summer, it's all about making writing fun and sustainable. Tastier than a frog, anyway.
This is related to, but not identical to the idea of parking on a downhill slope: http://www.katherinefusco.com/yogini-in-academe/driving-uphill-is-a-hard-way-to-start-the-day
The background for this photo is a green yoga mat. The background for the yoga mat is the Galt House hotel, in Louisville, KY.
The green mat is a yoga studio. The clipboard is an office.
Traveling can challenge the best of daily practices. Even more so than during the academic year, the daily practitioner has to jealously guard her writing and yoga time. Since all routine goes on the window during summer's shifting schedules and travels, the daily practice doesn't have an ordered slot to fit into in the way it may during a normal semester. On the one hand, this may make the work hard to get done. On the other hand, the instability of the rest of summer's schedule reveals the sanity-making importance of the regular practice--it's the one thing that remains constant as time zones, locales, and other activities form an ever changing kaleidoscope.
Getting this work done while traveling may mean shifting one's sense of the supplies necessary for practice. Staying in a hotel room while grading the AP English exam this week means not only no access to my home meditation space, but also a roommate who doesn't necessarily want to hear any Sanskrit chanting, gongs, or whatever else I may have going on at 5:30 in the morning. So, the headphones in the picture become my meditation space. I have a little plastic neti pot that can travel, and a mat; well, that's always been a portable yoga studio.
Technology has made writing and researching on the road a little easier; I have a novel I plan to use in my chapter revisions ready on my Kindle, and I can always look up stray facts on my phone. But low-tech solutions are equally important, and even beneficial. Having printed out my chapter, I can tuck just a few pages in my satchel to work on during breaks. While I might prefer to have my laptop, not lugging it with me each day saves my back and also means fewer internet distractions.
Again, it's all about the healthy pose, not the perfect pose.
How else does daily writing or daily yoga get done when everything else is shifting?
Yoga teachers often talk about the body's fascia, a layer of connective tissue that surrounds and connects various muscle groups. Over time, fascia can stiffen or harden, especially because of stress and injury. As a result, our bodies experience pain or restricted movement. Yoga asana (poses) is one technique for releasing tension in the body's fascia.
But because yoga poses do engage this connective tissue, sometimes the process of breaking up these knots and old places of tension can be uncomfortable. In yoga, there's an idea that the body stores emotional trauma as well as physical--an idea that seems very common sense in the context of the stressed out body that clenches its jaw or wears its shoulders high up like earrings. Working with the fascial tissue in these areas of the body, then, may bring those feelings back to the surface.
Similarly, certain pieces of writing may contain old traumas. First book projects that began as dissertations spring immediately to my mind. But pieces that received unnecessarily and unprofessionally cruel feedback may also be traumatic. Working on these pieces may bring old, bad feelings rushing forward.
When working with a piece of writing that bears the vestigal traces of a traumatic grad school experience or other horror, it can be important to establish a safe space for working through the writing, much as the 2x6 mat is a safe place for working through trauma in the body. Creating "safe space" for writing might involve a supportive writing community, a comfortable chair and cup of tea, a freewrite about why the writing project is important and interesting, reviewing recent writing successes and so on. The point is to exorcise/exercise out the old demons so that the new work can go on.
Get a Life, PhD
The Professor is In
The Thesis Whisperer
Tenure, She Wrote