When only a few of us show up to yoga class on a given day, I feel a delicious shiver of anticipation. A class with just a handful of students, anxious and awkward feeling at being in an unusually empty studio space, is also an opportunity.
Among other things, it means we’ll be more one-on-one with our teacher than usual. Among other things, it means no hiding. Among other things, it means going to the wall!
In a yoga class context, “going to the wall” means getting to practice inversions (handstands, headstands, forearm balances) with a bit of support. For scaredy-cats like me, it means getting to practice them at all.
Though I will do headstands and sometimes forearm balances away from the wall at home, I almost never do them at yoga class. I’m too scared of flopping over onto the hardwood floor, too aware of the possibility for embarrassment should I flail and land on someone else’s mat, too obsessed with the one story I hear the one time about a friend who kicked up and caught another woman in the face, breaking her nose. To doing such advanced postures in class, my answer is a firm and polite “no thank you.” I just quietly hang out in my wide leg forward fold, letting the more intrepid members of the class press up into tripod headstand.
But when there’s just the few of us in the room, and when it’s a teacher who knows me, I find myself scared but also a little excited. “What will she make me do,” a quick little voice whispers through my head.
This week it’s Scorpion, a pose I love.
Well, let me back up. I love the idea of Scorpion. I love watching other people do it. I don’t practice it and I love it in many ways because it feels so beyond me, both in terms of my capabilities and in the way I perceive myself.
Even the name, it seems dangerous and sexy. I feel like it's a pose I’ve seen used to advertise a fancy brand of sake. It’s a pose that seems at the edge of yoga and cirque de soleil, a combination of strength and flexibility, something exotic and wild. It is, in short, the kind of pose that the stolid, polite, cautious person looks at with longing, but does not approach. It’s a pose from my alternative dream life where I am a secret agent traveling the world, not a mom and English professor with papers to grade and a committee meeting to attend.
And yet. In the near-empty yoga class, there I am. And there it is.
We go to the wall, the three of us, too shy to make eye contact. And the teacher shows us Scorpion, our next option. She says, “know what you can do. This is a difficult pose and there’s no extra credit to be earned.” But she also says something else, quoting a master teacher, “if you can, you must.”
And so, I do. Not wildly, not without the support of the wall. But still, I kick up, press down through my hands, which are now acting as feet as they ground me, and try to keep breathing. I press my pelvis forward and walk my feet backward down the wall. For a moment, I am arcing, pressing, stretching and strong—I am in!
And then it’s over, quick-fast. But I have had a taste, a little bit of something I might be brave enough to try again. And maybe again.
It’s the bit of a possibility made possible by close attention and a little push.
Recently, I’ve had opportunity to think a bit about the joy of one-on-one attention and its capacity for cultivating bravery when wielded well in my teaching life.
Before my current job, I worked as a college writing center administrator and I loved the intensity of collaboration that took place between a tutor and a writer, especially when the tutor was able to coax the writer through taking a leap, into saying the thing that was harder to express, but which rang more true to the writer’s thoughts and feelings.
As my teaching career has changed and adapted, I find myself with less opportunity for this kind of work, this serving as handmaiden to students’ brave acts of expression. At present, I’m teaching more than three hundred undergraduates, and so it’s mostly my Ph.D. students with whom I’m able to sit down and work exhaustively with the scary thing that is putting words to paper.
But this week, the same week in which I experienced the short-lived delight of testing a pose I didn’t think of as part of my repertoire—too sophisticated and lovely, that Scorpion—I also got to touch back with one of the delights that belongs to those of us who teach for a living. An undergraduate student came twice (!) to talk with me about her paper and to work through her changing ideas about a famous memoir.
The student worried that the complex idea she wanted to express was going to come across muddled. And though there were some things to hammer out together, a place or two I asked her to say more about her evidence, her idea was not muddled. Instead, it was difficulty and twisty in a way that did justice to the complexities of the narrative she was describing. She was nervous about attacking this hard idea that didn’t reduce the memoir into something neat and easy to describe, fretful about edging up on the kind of writing that is scary but exciting to do.
I wish I had been to yoga class before our meeting. If I had, I would have told her, “if you can, you must.” But, that’s probably putting too neat of a point on it, being a little too cute. And, honestly, overemphasizing the importance of anything that I could say.
The thing about an exhilarating idea or posture is that it has its own way of convincing you—it invites you back in. The thrilling qualities of our materials, whatever kind of teacher we may be, should humble us. One thing I learned when working at the writing center is that, very often, the student needs no more from you but your patient witnessing. As I worked my Scorpion, I just needed a teacher in the room, someone to have put that pose on my path. And when meeting with the bright young woman in my office, the best talking that happened was all hers, and my job was to be her audience, her witness, and her scribe—the person watching so that she didn’t turn back in the face of her own prickly, smart thinking.
So, for the time being, this is my new thought in my ongoing, not-so-brave person’s contemplation on how to be brave: sometimes we just need to know we are being seen. Sometimes we just need a witness to keep us trying.
Like many of my friends, my husband and I binge watched Stranger Things, the new nostalgia-fest from Netflix. After the heavier pleasures of series like Mad Men, Narcos, Breaking Bad, or The Americans, part of the joy of Stranger Things is the condensation of real troubles (class distinctions in a small town, sick kids, and crap parents) onto a clearly fantasy demon that can be battled. In this case, some weird skinless, faceless thing called a demogorgon. In the show, the demogorgon lives in a place called "the upside down," a shadow world to our own, from which he sometimes breaks loose to terrorize the good people of the show.
The upside down and the demogorgon seem like a good metaphor for the way the world looks when things get bleak, scary, or out of control. There's the world as is, and then there's the world as it appears to us when shadows of jealousy, anxious expectation, or rumination cast their unlovely pall across it.
I had occasion to think about this as well as to take some of my own medicine the day before school started on my campus. As any teacher knows, it can be less than 100% fun when your institution changes educational technology. The few days before classes began, I was scrambling to learn new course management software, to add captions to video clips to meet ADA standards, and to update materials for a new film studies course. The night before school started, I was in near panic mode when my husband stopped me.
"What's the worst that's going to happen?," he asked me.
"Well, my technologies will all fail and then I'll be humiliated in front of two-hundred plus students." Duh, husband!
Sometimes you say something and your partner just stares at you. This was one of those moments.
"Um, that's not a thing that can happen. That's how you'll react to it."
Aha. This is my mindfulness talk back to set me straight. Taking your own medicine is always a bit bitter, but he was right. Part of what's encapsulated in that old chestnut, "Be here now," is the advice to see what's actually happening in the present moment, to be there for what is really happening, rather than spinning it out into a narrative about how the present event is connected to what's come before or expectations for the future. Instead, mindfulness would ask us to pay attention to what's actually contained in the moment.
And the truth of the matter is that my technology, quite predictably, did fail. In my first lecture of the day a polling slide in my PowerPoint didn't open, and in my second class the link to a film failed. But the earth did not open and swallow me whole, sending me into the upside down and my students did not turn into faceless demogorgons intent on devouring their foolish teacher. Instead, I apologized and told the students I'd look into the problem. And then we all moved on.
Now, the evening after the first day, my whole family came down with a wild case of food poisoning. Let me tell you, that was real.
Get a Life, PhD
The Professor is In
The Thesis Whisperer
Tenure, She Wrote