About Brooke Hessler

Community-engaged professor

Writing begets Writing

BrookeHessler-FlashHaiga-Orientation

Every morning before work, a friend and I compose and send each other a quick poem, a “flash haiga.” The rules are: it must include an image we made ourselves, preferably that morning, and the writing (done as a loose sort of haiku) can’t take more than 15 minutes. (We can revise later, but the first, fresh thing must be done in a flash.)

It’s a discipline. A creative practice. It primes the pump for a day of thinking and writing and making–even if the main thing we think and write and make that day is, say, a training schedule for new teachers.

We’ve been frolicking with words for years, and although we are playful about haiku we actually respect the form deeply and understand that our correspondence is a way to pay closer attention to the details of our daily lives–sometimes even before we’ve made sense of why they seem to matter enough to share.

 

Advertisements

Back to Basics

My breakfast this morning was a gloppy, vile mess. I ate it anyway because I’d spent hours last night preparing it: a new no-one-is-a-blacksmith-at-birthcrockpot recipe for kitchari, the nutritious Ayurvedic porridge of beans, grains, spices, and vegetables that has become my mainstay during cold weather or whenever I’m organized enough to prepare a big batch that I can eat all day.

I used Meyer lemons from the tree in my new backyard, and ghee and tricolor quinoa, organic parsnips, coconut, a stick of cinnamon, cloves, other good things. Sounds delicious, doesn’t it? Nope. Vile. And the texture was repulsive–mush and objects that felt like mushrooms only there were no mushrooms. But nourishing, surely. And instructive. The commonsense me thought, “Of course it was awful. You tried too hard.”

It’s true. When I try too hard at things, overthink them, invest too much time and aspire too much, the outcome is usually mediocre at best. Yesterday I’d fantasized throughout the afternoon about preparing the meal, shopping for the ingredients after work, pouring a glass of wine and relaxing into the process–but the process went on too long and became too much and  I couldn’t find a place to plug in the crockpot and had to dig in the attic for an extension cord and just generally I was a big ball of peevishness by the time I set the timer and left the kitchen.

This is a clear pattern in my teaching as well–as a yogi and as a professor–when I turn the corner of basic preparedness to over-planning, when I hope too much or expect too much from a class it becomes too precious and I lose my mojo.

I’m trying hard to remember this lesson as I prepare to teach my first class at a new college. Of course I want to be a great teacher to my students, but as a critically reflective practitioner I want to bring my best self to this experience, the one who is prepared but not obsessively so; the one who improvises easily and joyfully; the one whose students know she cares deeply about their well-being, no matter what else the day or class may bring.

My reflections today are about my core values and expertise, the things that are tried and true to my pedagogy, not about all the things I have done or that I could do–that’s all just too much; it’s how I ended up adding the seaweed to the kitchari.

Still Learning from the Fire Monkey

headstand-by-overholser

Seconds after this photo was taken, I crashed a few inches from the jagged rocks of the fire pit. It was 2014, the year I decided to blow up my old life and start a new one. By the Chinese zodiac it was the Year of the Horse, a year of action and optimism. I was born under the sign of the Horse and I mistakenly believed that made it an auspicious year for me and my changes. (I later learned that, according to tradition, our zodiac years are the toughest.) 2014 was good, but it was hard. And 2016 was better, and much harder.

2016 was the year of the Fire Monkey, a year of tumult and reinvention. I galloped into the year with an energy that was equal parts desperation and courage. 2014 was the year I committed to move, but I kept pausing in an effort to get it right. A tenured professor with a mortgage and deep roots in a place I knew I couldn’t remain forever, I worried that if I slowed down I’d get stuck again. Living restless was taking its toll. I flew around the world three times in two years–teaching, conferencing, fleeing home, chasing a different version of myself. The version I liked better was the one doing the headstand in 2014: unsteady but determined, willing to take risks to find the right balance in the long run. My decisions were a little more reckless and dangerous than usual, but they didn’t feel wrong. I was more than willing to get hurt if necessary. Indeed, getting hurt seemed inevitable.

My yoga then as now was more than asana, it was an attempt to manage the push-pull of my desires, the need to strengthen my foundation as I reached far beyond it. All serious yogis do this: we put our bodies into physical shapes that are embodied metaphors for the challenges of everyday living. When we stand in Tadasana, mountain pose, we are called to attention, Samasthiti–physically, this means finding equal balance, but this equipoise is also a state of mind; we are maintaining awareness as well as acceptance of how and where we are. Likewise, Vrksasana, tree pose, is the practice of remaining grounded as you take an asymmetrical form: allowing yourself to sway teaches you how to be steady; you also learn that swaying doesn’t necessarily mean unsteadiness.

By the lunar calendar, Fire Monkey year concludes soon, on January 27. After catapulting into a new city, a new job, and a new relationship, I have been attempting to decelerate, to transition as gracefully as possible, with gratitude and care. But in asana I have been spending more time in asymmetrical balancing shapes, especially Vrksasana variations, testing my edge, reminding myself that it isn’t over, that in some way I must always remain able to pivot, to choose when and where to be steadfast, and for whom.

 

hanuman-fire

 

The mythology behind Vrksasana involves another fire monkey, the deity Hanuman. In the epic Ramayana, goddess Sita–virtuous Queen to Rama–meditates against an ashoka tree for many months, resisting the provocations of her narcissistic captor, Ravana. In her stillness Sita emulates the tree, acquiring patience and fortitude. Ultimately, Sita is rescued by Rama’s loyal servant Hanuman, whose tail is set ablaze by Ravana. Hanuman’s flight from Ravana is triumphant and funny–he grows his tail impossibly long then soars through Ravana’s kingdom igniting fires until at last he quenches his tail in the ocean.

Hanuman’s pose, Hanumanasana, resembles the monkey god flying through the air: legs in a forward split, arms stretched to the sky. But this pose, like vrksasana, is as much about stability as it is about movement.

Sita and Hanuman are both divine figures of steadfastness and loyalty: Sita through pious forbearance, Hanuman through audacious adventure.

The god on my altar is Hanuman.

 

 

 

 

The Problem with Kintsugi as a Self-Improvement Metaphor

This week a student in Erik Scollon‘s “Craft as Social Justice” course truly inspired me with her project on the ethics and aesthetics of mending. She used the ceramic gold-mending technique kintsugi as her central inspiration for a call to action that challenges her audience–artists and amateurs alike–to deploy their ingenuity to preserve and hokintsugi-process-ti-the-cleaned-seams-front-by-pomax-flickr-ccbyncsa-04apr2015nor well-worn objects.

I spent much of the afternoon reflecting on ways I could apply this metaphor to my own life, highlighting and respecting inevitable cracks and fissures–in my own body, relationships, possessions, sociopolitical institutions–rather than attempting to conceal, reject, or ignore them. Kintsugi is about fixing things, yes, but it’s also about identifying ruptures and filling them with beauty.

As a digital storytelling activist I help people reclaim personal experiences, often tender ones, remaking them as attentively crafted, durable narratives. The tellers weave together fragments of memory stored in old photographs, crinkled love notes, scuffed boots. We call it storywork but it is also a form of kintsugi. Piecing together the past. Healing an old wound by telling the tale of the scar.

It is so natural, so tempting, to adopt kintsugi as a metaphor for living better in the new year ahead. But there are so many ruptures all around us. If we were to spend each day finding one precious thing and mending it we would never have time to make something new. And most precious things cannot be mended in a day. And mending doesn’t happen just once, especially not if the thing is returned to use. And preservation is about how we use things, not just about how we mend them.

So I wonder if perhaps what kintsugi is teaching me (today at least) is to focus not on the fissures or on the mending but on the gold. Perhaps the metaphor I need is that of beauty–or better yet, craftsmanship itself–as a way to bring people and things together.

“There is Some Kiss We Want”: Anava-Mala and the Yoga of Yearning

Rumi’s poetry speaks of our lifelong quest to unite with the divine as if with a lover, a yearning that is both spiritual and embodied, transcending language, rationality, and humanity–we are the lily, the moon, and the “seawater [that] begs the pearl to break its shell.”

Two years ago I began working with this poem in a yoga retreat–working with its insights as a way to confront something I’d been doing without naming it, a kind of applied yearning, a use of asana to manage the host of physical, emotional, vocational, and interpersonal transitions that arise for so many of us at mid-life. During moments of grief or frustration I would hold poses for extended periods of time, tuning into the sensations of discomfort, weakness, strength. If asked about this practice I would say I was practicing self-acceptance–but it was also an attempt to transcend the person I thought I’d become, someone I didn’t love enough, living a life that felt too mundane and small for my big heart.

I sometimes called it “fuck you yoga”–a defiant, satisfyingly ego-centered vinyasa. I would do  vasisthasana variations on a paddleboard, cranking Martha Wainright and Amy Winehouse anthems into my ears, because I could–which is to say that I was reminding myself that I could, at fortysomething, be someone who did that with my body. It made me feel youthful and empowered. I extended my limbs, testing my limits, forever reaching toward an experience of self that felt more true. At the time I understood this practice as a moving meditation, a prayer even; I was beseeching the universe for something beyond the self I was afraid I had settled into being. In retrospect, I’d now call it more of an incantation. I was seeking release.

But a part of me was searching for something else–groundedness, compassion, a way to feel strong without feeling reckless. A different kind of empowerment. An empowerment that comes from connection rather than stoic self-reliance. My illusion, the one that seemed to have sustained me for a decade living alone in a broken house with an anxious dog–was that my toughness would preserve me. I’d periodically make crappy decisions, but I would endure the consequences and keep on trucking. I felt grateful to the universe for the privilege of my independence and guilty for not making enough of it.

In his first book on the Bhavagad-Gita, yogi Ted Cox discusses three categories of maya–illusions that block each of us from recognizing our true Self. These illusions conceal truth and feed our self-doubts, manifesting in three ways: mayiya-mala, a sense that we are different from everyone else, which tempts us to compare ourselves to others and become jealous of them; karma-mala, a feeling that we aren’t doing enough and lack the resources to do better; and anava-mala, a belief that we are separate from the divine, that we are imperfect, unworthy and incomplete.

Cox explains that the anava-mala is potentially the most debilitating illusion because it reinforces the others: we erect boundaries that feed our isolation and keep us stuck. On the other hand, anava-mala is also a catalyst for personal transformation, an “urge to merge with something greater than ourselves” (142-43). This simultaneous, seemingly contradictory denial of/yearning for connectedness is the yoga of living with our illusions.

Those of us who so fervently seek a better life, a different life, a truer life are missing the point that we are already our best selves. We can change things about the way we live, but we are always already wonderful–and, deep down, so is everyone else.

Rumi says, “There is some kiss we want with our whole lives, the touch of Spirit on the body. . . .” As an embodied practice, asana can help us perform acts of grace in moments of uncertainty. We can experience the wonder of that. And what about the yearning? The yearning becomes a reminder of what we already have.

Strike a Pose: Drag as Shtirasukha

In The Heart of Yoga T.K.V. Desikachar explains how in every pose yogis aim to achieve shtirasukha, a combination of steady alertness (shthira) with comfort and lightness (sukha).

Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 8.21.41 PMHe illustrates the idea with an image from Hindu mythology of Ananta, king of the serpents, carrying the whole universe on his head while providing a bed for the Lord Vishnu on his coiled body.

Ananta must be strong and steady to support the universe (shthira) but keep his body relaxed to serve as a comfortable bed for his lord (sukha) (53).

You can experience it in tree pose as you steady yourself by contracting your abdominals and hugging your leg muscles close the bone, while also softening the knee of your standing leg and maintaining a flexible poise that accepts and adapts to the gentle, inevitable wavering as you balance and breathe.

But as with everything yoga, the qualities we seek in asana aren’t only about asana, and the inner self practicing shtirasukha isn’t just a philosopher; she is also an everyday human seeking to maintain the shtira of an authentic life along with the sukha of self-love and acceptance.

Perhaps this is why my preferred model of shtirasukha is not actually Ananta, but Kim Chi, a divine contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Kim Chi at Wicked Witch of the West RPDRS8

In a moving article about this television show’s influence in and beyond the LGBTQ community, Atlantic writer Manuel Betancourt credits RuPaul Charles for illuminating drag as the art of self-love.

When Kim Chi stomps the runway in high heels, performing her anime-inspired Glamazon, the artist is embodying a self whose power and poise are every bit as demanding as the act of living one’s truth in the drag of the mundane world of bills and bigotry.

Desikachar suggests that yogis seeking shtirasukha begin by visualizing the perfect posture, getting a feel for it by imagining ourselves within it, steady and relaxed. Asana is practice; its aim is not perfection, its aim is being here, now, in the pose. We note instances of discomfort, of limitation–a distracted mind, a narrow range of motion–but we experience the fullness of what we can express in that moment.

What drag queens know better than most of us is how to perform an ideal self with grace and humor–to step into the illusion as a way to embrace and project an authenticity that others may not ordinarily see, and that they themselves may not see until they create it in the mirror. There’s a profound self-awareness to drag, an intimate knowledge of who you are and what you are making of yourself today, in this moment, in this mirror, on this stage. You hug in, stand tall, and release the breath of fire.

On Posing

Last March I stood on a boulder at the Cape of Good Hope: the sun was bright on my shoulders, the brisk waves of the south Atlantic ocean were breaking beneath me and as my heart and lungs expanded my limbs did too–my body and spirit were starting asana. Yoga for me is like dance–it’s training I’ve done for years and in profound encounters with nature I am moved to physical expression through asana in much the way that, as a little girl, I would twirl through the fields of rural New York. But an important part of my yoga is a commitment to asana as an inner practice, not a performance. More bluntly, it is about posing as posture versus posing as Posing.

So I stood on the rock, surrounded by friends with cameras who I knew would photograph me if I struck a beautiful pose, and I turned inward: I folded forward, then down into plank, giving myself a physical experience that would not be photographically interesting because I knew the moment I did something “pretty” I’d be distracted by the performance of it; I’d cheapen the moment. I nixed the once-in-a-lifetime Facebook shot on purpose. What’s unfortunate is that the pose I felt like doing, Camatkarasana, didn’t get expressed–my heart and limbs wanted it but I didn’t want an audience and more truthfully I think I was too worried people would think I was seeking attention. I didn’t want to be, or appear to be, a poser. So I resisted the pose. And I regret missing that moment. Perhaps it was meant to spark this process, this yoga, of self-examination: why am I so concerned about narcissism and narcissists and (ironically enough) about behaving like one that I would resist an authentic moment of self-expression?