Still Learning from the Fire Monkey

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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.

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

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“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?

 

 

 

 

 

The Heart of a Teacher

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Yoga is the annihilation of the walls we build around our hearts.  –Baron Baptiste (in Cox, Warrior Self)

The courage to teach is the courage to keep one’s heart open in those very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able so that teacher and students and subject can be woven into the fabric of community that learning, and living, require. –Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach 

Much of what I am learning this year is about the discipline, the yoga, of teaching with an open heart. When I call it a yoga I mean that it is an intensely deliberate practice, one that involves paying attention to the ways resistance and receptivity arise in any learning environment and in ourselves. This approach to open-heartedness is different than simply being enthusiastic with students–which is how I would describe what I’ve always been before. I’ve always loved them, but it was automatic and easy for me, kind of the way it’s easy for a hyper-flexible person to do a split or a forward fold. My open-heartedness was just me being myself. Even those students who may not love me or my class I will pretty much love anyway because I remember what it’s like to feel disconnected from a teacher; I empathize. Love doesn’t have to be reciprocal. Likewise, I always love teaching, even on bad days, because it is such creative and compelling work. I will forever be learning how to teach. I love that, even when I don’t love how I’m teaching in a particular moment. But again, all of this is me defaulting to my habitual self as an open-hearted teacher teaching.

Many teachers are like this. Parker Palmer knows it. I think one of the things Palmer is challenging us to address is that open-heartedness brings with it a vulnerability and, I would add, a loss of mindfulness, that can be damaging to ourselves and others even if it sometimes enables us to do our best work.

Open-hearted teaching isn’t just about approaching our students with loving-kindness, nor about owning up to the fact that we care about whether they care about our teaching. To teach with an open heart you first must know where your heart is, and what it is. The walls Baron Baptiste inspires yogis to annihilate aren’t necessarily barriers we’ve erected to protect our hearts from others; they may also be barnacles–crusty creatures that have latched on to us over the years, giving our lives an interesting form but concealing who we are underneath. Palmer describes this truer heart as our identity and integrity, a melding of intellect and emotion and self-awareness and being.

Teaching yoga has been surprisingly difficult for me because my apprenticeship requires me to practice by leading a room full of students through a series of poses. This is what a yoga class looks like, after all. And yes when teaching  I am encouraged to walk around from person to person, not to stand and lecture, but the experience still feels profoundly artificial to me because what I want to do is work with just one person at a time–to look closely at her alignment and engage in a dialogue about how she got there before articulating a sequence of actions.

What I am describing is a tutorial–says my writing teacher self. So what I am learning, or remembering, about myself is that even though I have grown comfortable teaching groups of people about subjects I know better than yoga (such as writing) my teaching identity is really more of a tutor, someone whose heart opens most fully during one-to-one moments of teaching and learning. Those are the moments when I feel most effective. As a yoga teacher, part of my challenge is that I haven’t yet learned to scale-up my teaching, to quickly assess the needs of a dozen bodies aligned in rows, and until I can do that it’s tough to manage the choreography of deftly pausing to assist an individual.

Learning to teach something new has stripped away most of the scaffolding I’ve built over 20 years as a professor of writing and left me with just myself. In the studio, all I have is 200 hours of yoga-teacher training, a serious interest in therapeutics, and the heart of a tutor.

Recognizing that dimension of my teaching heart doesn’t excuse me from showing up and teaching a whole class, but it does give me a clue about what it looks like to ask my heart “to hold more than it is able.” To strengthen my heart’s capacity to be true to itself in the studio I must practice two things at once: holding fast to my integrity as someone who values personalized instruction, while releasing the expectation that I would, in a single transaction, make a bigger difference in each student’s life as a tutor than as a teacher. If the heart of my teaching is being present, in any context, I need to remember this is something that comes from within. The number of students in the room neither magnifies nor diminishes how much presence I can bring. Remembering that is yoga too.

 

The Courage to Teach . . . Yoga

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Last week I had a horrible teaching experience, then a wonderful one. A colleague is making a documentary film about liberal arts professors, and the film crew came to record my brilliant transformative teaching–I dressed in blue, had a smart interactive class planned as a lively debriefing about the arts-integrated field excursion my students had just completed. And as the cameras rolled various factors conspired to make the whole class period an awkward mess–and not in a good way 😉  I felt awful and embarrassed, and beat myself up afterwards but still had to walk over to the library to meet the film crew again for some additional footage, doing yoga with a former student to re-enact a funny memory from a year ago when we did spontaneous headstands in the classroom, and she reminded me why this work makes my heart sing, and that made everything nearly OK.

When I got home I opened Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach, and read this:

This book is for teachers who have good days and bad, and whose bad days bring the suffering that comes only from something one loves. It is for teachers who refuse to harden their hearts because they love learners, learning, and the teaching life. (1)

Here’s the thing: teaching is a humbling experience no matter how good you try to be, no matter how great your students may be, no matter what Period. And I tack on greater degrees of difficulty because I’m constantly integrating new community partnerships, new projects, new methods. When Palmer wrote that introduction he was entering his third decade of teaching. He’d been teaching 20 years. I began teaching college as a graduate student in 1996. I’m at the same moment in my career as Palmer was, seeking, as he did, to clarify my identity and integrity as a teacher, and to help my colleagues do the same.

About 2 years ago I began a process of attempting to start over, with beginner’s mind, the path of learning my teaching self. I enrolled in yoga teacher training. My purpose for doing so was in some ways straightforward, in others not. My practical motivation was that I was already informally teaching yoga in some of my writing workshops–we would do moving meditations and “yoga for writers” activities, but I wasn’t formally trained and knew I ought to be. Around this time a couple of friends were diagnosed with serious illnesses and I wanted to understand how therapeutic yoga could help them prepare for and recover from surgeries and after-effects. I was also still very much interested in how digital ways of knowing intersected with embodied ones and an immersion in asana and anatomy seemed like an interesting new way to get at that. Ultimately, though, my motivation was more selfish and less intellectual. Deep down, I just wanted to get out of my head.

During weekend intensives each month I spent 20 hours in a yoga studio learning to be a teacher. But I was really learning to be a student again.

Palmer says,

When you love your work that much–and many teachers do–the only way to get out of trouble is to go deeper in. We must enter, not evade, the tangles of teaching so we can understand them better and negotiate them with more grace, not only to guard our own spirits but also to serve our students well. (2)

One of the tangles of teaching is that it even though our best practices remind us to focus on the learning, on the students, teaching is still largely about us. We enter the room hoping to share knowledge that we believe matters so much that we’ve invested most of our lives into learning and sharing it, and we have selected subjects and activities that we believe are most crucial for students to engage–quite possibly because they have sparked our our own hearts and minds so brightly. We want to give students the experience of our subject they can best or only get, uniquely, through us. (Otherwise, why not just log on to a MOOC?) If you think a lot about all this (and many of us do) you can find yourself trying so hard to be a great teacher that you lose your grip on the fundamentals of being a good one. Fortunately, there is almost always another chance to do better–another class period, another semester. But this means there is also always another chance, a likelihood even, that you will flop again. Palmer’s book became a classic, I think, because his awareness of the vulnerable, personally invested “self who is teaching” is so honest and true. He challenges us to be, as Florida Scott-Maxwell put it, “fierce with reality”–to own who we are and where we’ve been and why we are still here doing this work (29).

I sit on the mat, nearing the end of my formal training [for now], grateful for that chance to begin again, from scratch, learning to be a teacher. Being a novice is frustrating. I haven’t yet memorized all the Sanskrit terminology or anatomy lessons; I stumble over ways to tell people where to put their feet; I take too long observing the students’ physical alignments before transitioning them into the next pose. But here’s what I know: this is nothing compared to what all there is to know, and yet it is really important stuff. It is fundamental. And when I return to my academic classroom, the teaching of yoga is reminding me to notice again, as if for the first time, where my students “feet” need to be in order to feel grounded enough to move from one task to the next. It is reminding me to notice where mine are as well.