New Year’s Resolutions:  The Paradox of Intention

New Year’s Eve yoga. Whether people are getting a jump on a New Year’s resolution or trying to pre-detox before a night of revelry, the class teemed with wall-to-wall yogis. Nary a space for privacy or comfort, and “see if you can touch your neighbor” became less of a cliché challenge and more of a direct instruction.
Such was also true for “set your intention,” Sometimes it’s a mere feathery overture at the beginning of a class. Often, it is a buzzword in the jargon of the trending “mindfulness” movement . At times, it is rooted in the traditions of a directed word and scripted meditation: concentrate on a word and you will direct yourself toward it. But today, on the day before every Jane, Joe, and their brother decide to take on the mantle of self-improvement, “setting an intention” takes on a certain new kairos, dovetailing nicely into the more modern New Year’s Resolution.

It’s a funny pairing in the yoga class. As yoga has adapted to more modern society, it is often paired with transformation, rebirth, “being the change”—all the things that New Year’s Resolutions represent. The hope of a new you. So, when the teacher(s) exhort us to set an intention for our practice, to think about what we want for the new year, yoga seems like a catalyst to that change, to become the you who you want to be as you sweat and twist and breathe.

Older philosophies, the ones in which yoga was first born, take a slightly different path to this change. In many ways, yoga was not employed to spur a change that the individual wants, but to remind the individual of who they truly are—an extenstion of the divine. Thinking about what “the individual” you wants seems to run antithetical, even misleading to this more divine interpretation of the Self. By this more ancient idea, the struggle of becoming something is often a trap that leads us from the knoweldge of who we truly are by worrying the ego about who we are not.  Trying to change ourselves, trying to outwit life by making ourselves better, detracts from the knowedge of who we are all along.

Hence, the paradox of intention as I move into the new year. Last year, I made something of a resolution, and for the most part I was pretty good about sticking to it. Instead of rising from bed each morning and rushing into a routine or a list of tasks, I resolved to take the time to center myself—through silence, through meditation, through yoga, through scratching my dog’s belly–if even for ten minutes, before I got into the basics of rushing around for the day.  Most days, I followed through on the resolution.  Some days, it didn’t.  Most days, it bore fruit.  Some days, it was more of a struggle than others. Some days, I forced myself to do it–a ritual without meaning, the finger and not the moon–and the beautiful fruit was not always on the vine. What’s more, I look back on a resolution accomplished not necessarily feeling any different, better or worse, than I was a year ago. On the other hand, when I think of places I want to go or changes I want to make, they all require effort, moving in a particular direction, they require intention of thought as the seed to intention of action. Thus, to do something, we must have it; but even if we do, we can’t be sure of the outcome.

On the way back from Chapel Hill this week, my father-in-law and I got into a protracted conversation about much in the spiritual realm, including the nature of change and sin and karma, how the outcomes of our efforts to change are often unpredictable, the seeming futility of making ourselves and the world better through sheer effort, and the difficulty of accepting grace we don’t earn.  And as the arbitrary cultural marker to reflect on the last and plan the next trips around the sun approaches, I am drawn to these ideas over and over. On the one hand, we are who we are. On the other hand, we have aspirations of who we wish to be. Those two don’t always jibe. Intentions are slippery. I could set a goal to make more money, eat healthier, exercise more, be more politically active, further my education, learn a new language, or give my time to charity work. Or I could strive to hone character qualities: gratitutde, love, charity, patience. Any of these changes—accomplished or not—could lead my path in a new direction that at the end of 2017 I may look back and decide I need a new direction all together. I could follow an intention, achieve it, and get further from who I need to be.

 This sounds like it could just be a Homer Simpson cop-out. But that’s not what I’m getting at. I have some ideas of things I want to accomplish in 2017, but I also want to make sure that these intentions are not just the vain desires of an striving ego, but rather outward manifestations of the divinity within. New Year’s Resolutions made to satisfy questionable desires are just as likely to bring more need for change. For example, let’s say I want to exercise more and eat healthier. This could be great as I would feel better, think more clearly, have a mind and body more receptive to a balanced and happy life. On the other hand, I could pursue that same goal out of some misplaced vanity or unresolved feeling of inferiority, and I might find myself at the finish line of that resolution no better than I was when I started.

I know. I tend to overthink things, and that includes New Year’s resolutions. Maybe that should be my resolution. Don’t think. Feeeeeel. But, that is in some way a true expression of the Self that I don’t wish to compromise. So, then, here’s to a resolution or two borne of healthy soil, sound mind, and open heart, and may all thirty of my readers have a prosperous and beautiful 2017.

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Dancing on the Edge of the Event Horizon

Math and Science people don’t always like us Humanities people, taking their objective scientific laws and converting them into subjective ambiguous metaphors.  But in a pre-Thanksgiving warm-up, we decided to bring the tribes together–Physics and Philosophy–to see if we could find some common ground exploring the infinite minutiae of space and time.

Black holes.  That’s what sucked me in.  Gravity consuming.  Time dialating.  There’s so much of the normal confluence of our everyday existence that they turn on its head.  A student asks Mr. Shoaf why light is lost, since it has no mass and is therefore immune to gravity.  “It bends space-time,”‘he says.  “Imagine a bowling ball falling into the sheet of space-time.  It pulls everything down.  So photons follow the curvature of space.”

Science people and their metaphors.  Poor photons.  Creatures of light, still incapable of escapable of keeping their trajectory out of the black hole.  A student of mine asks Mr. Shoaf what this means for free will.  In the philosophy class, The Physics Master is appropriately philosophical:  analyzing the multiple possibilities of the answer, hedging a committed yes or no, laying out how the proposition is both true and false, dancing on the edge of the event horizon.

It’s a beautiful place to be, skating that very line between grave and certain philosophical positions.  You’re floating through time and space, believing you’re in complete control, the possibility that you’re not begins to exert its gravitational pull, bending your universe.  You can let yourself get sucked through that hole.  Unlike real black holes, you won’t die, shredded by the unfathomable force it exerts upon you, but you will come out the other side a bit different, a bit out of step with your contemporaries.  Time has slowed for you.  The thought has changed you.  As you yield to this contemplation, the rest of the world has continued at its normal rapid pace while you have deepened experience in your still body.

Thoreau, himself an intellectual time traveller, mused this possibility in one of my favorite parables in Walden, the artist from the city of Kouroo.  He posed the idea that we can get lost in contemplation or in the pursuit of some perfection and time slows down for us.  While the world wastes away around us, we exist out of time.  On the surface, it sounds like a magic elixir for staving the ravages for mortality.  But as Thoreau discovered, such timelessness has its cost: you find yourself somewhat isolated from the community.  In a very real sense, it’s the surprise Cooper in Interstellar finds as he eventually returns to communication with his family to find they have all lived full lives, reproduced and grown old without him–the other side of the travel through the black hole of timeless pursuit.  Thoreau venerated this as non-conformity, which is great when you choose it, but it could just as easily be labeled as a crippling isolation if you’re nothing more than a photon getting tossed around by the curvature of space.

 https://youtu.be/MoLkabPK3YU

 

 

Thanksgiving break thankfully came right after this intense lesson, so as I took long walks down the greenway with my dogs, I watched the leaves fall, the seasons slowly rotate, and mused about black holes, physical and metaphorical.  Don’t go for the easy interpretation:  this is not where this blog slides into depression.  Rather, I mused on the time-warping nature of seeking a goal or idea at the exclusion of all others.  How there are endeavors in life that we commit ourselves to wholeheartedly, and then come out the other side recognizing how much the world has gone on without us as we have followed our single minded pursuits.  Sometimes, these are obligations, like when I go into a paper grading hole for three days to finish up a set of essays I need to return.  Some of these are thrust upon people, like when a loved one becomes ill out of nowhere and we are forced to re-order our lives to participate in their care.  These seem out of our choice.  But some of these are pursuits we willingly enjoy, like learning an instrument, planning a wedding or vacation, or exploring a new hobby.  At least on those, we are choosing to move in a new direction, intentionally re-ordering our life, becoming who we more want to be?  But even as I followed that line of logic down the black rabbit hole, I ran into a personal conundrum as  I found myself agreeing with David Brooks.  Even as I look at the pursuits I want to enjoy–deeper companionship with my wife, with my friends and family, improving my middling guitar skills, furthering my yoga practice, writing more, pursuing higher education–I wonder how much I’m setting sail on a new uncharted course of self-exploration and how much I’m following the sheet into the bowling ball.  In either case, I ponder the opportunity costs.  I wonder once I follow those pursuits and I come up for air on the other side, how will the universe have followed its own course as I have been pulled into my own  personal black holes.

Somewhere on my mat at my favorite Saturday morning yoga class, this all comes rushing back on me.  It’s difficult to find balance, and my upper body and lower body seem out of harmony.  But I try to stay faithful to the process, though I find my muscles quivering at times.    I step back from the gravitational pull that black holes have been exercising on my imagination.  Backwards I pull to the lip of the Event Horizon, the millisecond before dive is made.  Here, on the rim of possibility, I see I have perhaps been staring into the abyss for a bit too long.  Here on the rim, I feel the pull of possibility on one way, and the awareness of being in the world in the other.  Can one develop the strength to skate over the surface, to look  into the abyss but daintily dance on the edge?  Here on the edge is the birth of the ecstatic shivering.  I find this in my practice this morning.  I come with my will and push myself to the limit of my will: forced to yield to limitations of body, I yield, only to find a deeper place of understanding, this gentle oscillation of the will and the not-will opening new windows.  As the Tao says, know the male but hold to the female.

Soon, class is almost over.  The woman on the mat next to me utters a gentle imprecations:  “my mother muscles are shivering.”  She has pushed herself to the limit.  Our society venerates it as the athlete pushes themselves just to the edge of breaking.  Einstein talks about pursuing cosmic wonder in the name of science to the point of spiritual edification.  In our common parlance, we hear this cropping up in the exhortations to “find balance” but this seems insufficient, especially in a society that seems to put such a premium on identity based on what we achieve, so much so that we blindly dive down rabbit holes unconsciously to fulfill these needs, treating our limitations as mere suggestions that keep us from having it all.  Often this is more juggling than balancing, trying to keep all our balls in the air and not letting any of them fall, we touch them just enough to keep them afloat, working to counteract gravity at the last possible second.  But sometimes, attuning our will to the curvature of space might yield us more than a simple juggling and balancing circus act could ever do.

It’s a week later on Saturday morning as I wrap this meditation up.  The musing on black holes that captured my imagination last week seems far in my rearview mirror, though I have to admit that by throwing myself pell-mell into a week of work that included grading, lesson planning, meetings, student conferences, and talent show practice, the universe has continued its workings while I’ve tended to my little plot of existence.  But as I take one last look at this meditation, I consider the strength necessary to pull one’s conscious mind out of its pursuit and will to be aware of the universe around it.  Perhaps pursuing its will while maintaing this awareness is the greatest trick of all, exercising control while yielding to the lack of it.  Simultaneously in and out of time.  Dancing on the edge of the Event Horizon.

 

Down Dog to Child’s Pose

Disclaimer:  This blog post will not cure your post election hangover, whatever flavor it may be.
October was the cruelest month.  I’m pretty sure someone more famous than myself may argue April, but he never had traverse the dry, parched rockbeds of my transition from summer to fall:  riots in the streets of my beloved city, the discomfort of a classroom move, the chasing of post-Matthew storm damage and renovations, all complicating the normal rigor of grading essays and writing college recs, distracting me enough to miss a race day registration.  Was there some mirth and merriment in the month?  The cider and bluegrass fest says “Of course”, but there were enough days of getting up an plunking myself in PJs at the kitchen table to scribble cryptic notes to my students that I began to feel like I was measuring out my life in writing critiques.  I barely dared to eat a peach, let alone disturb the universe.  Pair that with the punch-drunk feeling of perpetual political ads in this clusterfuck of an election, and I was starting to feel like quite the hollow man.

 But there is always is hope at the passing of deadlines.  As the month ended, grades submitted and recs uploaded, a brief breath of respite emerged.  While there are always essays to grade and lessons to plan, the weekend before a three day week interrupted by Election Day and Veterans Day seemed an apt day to carve out time and space to have a day of no plans, to wake and let the day take me where it would.

Nic had abdicated the house early for an all-day photo workshop, so the house was serenely still as I came to consciousness, recognizing the fur-bellied husky curled up in a ball beside me.  Slowly, I rolled from bed.  I found a book I had been putting off–“Drumming on the Edge of Magic”, Mickey Hart’s memoir/study into ethnomusicology.  I let myself get lost in the words–evolution of percussion, musings on rhythm–and a warm cup of tea for a good hour before finding my way to the red yoga mat in our library.

Well, that’s one use for it.  Atticus calls it his bed, so whenever I get into my practice, he keeps a close eye on me.  At times, he can be an active participant if he’s feeling frisky.  But today, his stomach was playing a percussion of its own, so he was content to watch my morning practice with a leery eye.

Etymologically, yoga derives from the idea of a “joining”, “a yoking”, or “a union.”  In spiritual interpretations, it is a practice of yoking the self to the divine; but in more secular, modern interpretations, it is often described as yoking the mind and the body, which gets loosely rolled in to “being mindful” or “being present.”  In either the case, stilling the mind seems so much easier when you get to sleep in and read leisurely.

At least it would seem so on this morning.  With the house still–one dog happily in the yard, one staring at me half asleep–I fell into an easy breath and flow, moving in gentle rhythm with the lazy Saturday morning.  But as it does sometimes on the mat, the frustrations we try to forget come bubbling through the dry stones of the subconscious.  Without a teacher to call poses, this upswell of past stresses hijacked the rhythm.  The body followed the unloading of the mind, perfectly yoked.  The move.  The grading.  The Red Sox loss.  The recs.  The election.  Jesus, the election.  Quick movement between poses.  Right side warrior.  Left side warrior.  Mountain climber.  Cheetah.

Up dog.  Atticus is agitated by my rapid movement.  He rises from his stupor. Down dog.  He nudges me with his massive head, licks my face, slumps beneath me.  I look down.  Front paws out.  Belly prostrate.  Rear paws folded underneath.  Perfect child pose.

He’ll do this sometimes, and often I’ll step over him and continue.  But today is different.  Today, I am yielding to the day, not carving it to my purposes.  Today, I yield to Atticus in child’s pose.  I lower myself, head beside his, arms outstretched so I can softly give him the scratches he wants so badly.

 Some yoga teachers more experienced than myself in this ancient art have called child’s pose “the hardest pose,” which always befuddled me.  It’s the first pose you learn, the pose of rest and yielding.  But so often, we want to rush through it to get to the crazy stretches, head stands, and spine-pretzling twists.  On Saturday, my head beside the bowling ball head, I found the will to stay unmoving in child’s pose, save for scratching the ears, head, and belly of a downward-lying-Rottweiler.  His breath and mine yoked–a deep, rhythmically contented ujjayi.  He settled down.  I settled down.  Entrainment.  That’s what Mickey Hart called to rhythms synchronizing over time–drums, walking gait, and here breath.  Slow, slow breath.

After what seemed a day floating in the ocean, I back to the down dog and flipped my canine over my canine, still resting softly on his favorite bed below.  My practice flowed softly to carry me through the rest of the day.

With all the chaos that has gone on in the last month and a half of life, lying on the mat with my dog doesn’t solve much.  I won’t even pretend like if we all found a Rottie with whom to share a yoga mat that the world will be a better place.  What I wil say is that the morning of letting things follow their course drew me into a strange but beautiful mediatation, and somehow afterwards the the anxiety that had threatened to overwhelm receeded into the background behind the calm streams of breath washing over the dry stones.

Harmonics, Yoga, and Happy Hour

There are things that I consciously pack in my backpack: stove, hammock, sleeping bag, food.  And so on.  All the essentials and a few luxuries my back will bear.

But in the packing process, there are other items that make their way into my pack and into the woods.  Subconscious little brain worms.  Books I’ve read.  Conversations I’ve had.  Lessons I’ve taught.  They are there just as real–if hidden–as those bomb-diggity campfire pizzas I created last weekend.  But on the long trails, when there is nothing but time and footsteps, these mind memes rise from the surface from the depths of my sub-conscious pack where they were stuffed last week.

One of those luxurious gems of contemplation is the idea of harmonics and vibration.  Last week in a study of imagery and mood in literature, I proposed this TED talk to my students.  Be forewarned: it’s a bit disorienting, exploring the relationship between sound and brain function.

At any rate, while I was in the woods, I had a lot of time to lay around and listen to the woods.  To some, that sounds really boring, as there seems to not be any sounds at all.  But when you get to the point where you get into that quiet place where you can actually hear the woods, you recognize the rich tapestry of music, a million little symphonies–the water over rocks, the mating calls of frogs and birds, the crack of sticks and leaves underfoot, the wind grazing the leaves in casual passing–repeated in cycle, over and over and over.

Such is a blessed and rare time and place where you breathe this music all day long, waking to a morning yoga and sleeping to a gentle blanket, all set to this natural harmony. One morning, I played with a technique I learned at the Hindu Center one class that uses a vibration of breath, matching that pitch of that vibration and the rhythm of the breath to the woods around me.   The body and spirit–set to the note of this harmony–radiates a palpable wellness of being.  By Monday, the bites and weary legs aside, I felt myself glowing as I approached the car to drive home.

There’s a lot to get to that natural harmony back in the city, where the repitition of tardy bells and the timber of twittering, trebling teenagers tends to  dictate the tunes.  By the end of the week, that harmony seemed a bit more distant.  But Della met me with a CD a student had made for me as a “thank you” for a rec I haven’t even written.  With an early release due to exams, I popped in her eclectic mix of down-tempo electronic, and I elected an afternoon yoga class as opposed to a decent Friday Happy hour like every other sane person.  There, the teacher bookended the class with music, but taught the class without, an option I usually enjoy.  I’ve heard lots of music in the years I’ve taken class, from new-age, froo-froo spiritual to house remixes of the Glee soundtrack.  My former philosophy students wouldn’t be surprised to know that re-mixes of chillstep to Alan Watts has become one of personal faves.  But nothing beats the silence.  Just you and the breath.  Sometimes the absence of sound is just as sweet as the sweetest harmonies.  As Keats said, “Pipes heard are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.”

Now it’s Friday evening.  I haven’t put a post on this site in months, but the music and harmony of the woods has resonated something deep within me, and I’m sitting in the backyard, husky at my feet with the sound of incipient summer: the ice cream truck, the neighbors’ music, children up and down the street, and my back yard haven–birds and insects and a soft soundtrack of music a friend made me years ago.  Somehow, the confluence of all things coming together a very happy hour indeed.

 

Spiritual Band-Aids and Drive-By Mindfullness

Wednesday was a road trip that almost didn’t happen.  Kristen had proposed it–a mid-week trip to see Sherman Alexie at Virginia Tech.  But as we become more comfortably ensconced in middle age, we all find that our web of responsibilities–jobs and families and sleep–tend to make the road trip much less frequent that it was in our wilder youth.

But of all those who received the offer, three of us pushed through the entanglements and hit the road about 1:00.  Grown-up road trip.  Going to see an author speak.  We small talked about this and that.

“I’m doing the 100 days of gratitude on Facebook,” said Nicole.  This trip would be her Day 4.

“That’s too much pressure for me,” replied Kristen.

Soon 81 climbed the mountain, and Nicole caught her first sight of an endless fall mountain vista: reds, oranges, barns, pumpkin patches, infinite sky–all setting her photographer’s heart aflutter.  The trip flowed as a beautiful stream of day: jokes at the store, wonderful dinner, the surprise of beautiful art, and…or course…Alexie’s storytelling.  So much to be thankful for, most worthy of the Day 4 post.  Soon, we were back on the road.  And miles to go before we sleep.  And miles to go before we sleep.

Philip Taffe's Asuka Passage, on display at VT's Center for the Arts.

Philip Taffe’s Asuka Passage, on display at VT’s Center for the Arts.

By Saturday, I was starting to shake off the effects of that night of small sleep.  Rain sat on the house.  Nicole had met a friend at Costco, so the soft morning was mine.  I eventually found my way to my quiet mat, a serene start to a sleepy Saturday.

Soon, I was out the door to handle the tasks of the day.  Stop 2–the Teeter–was a zoo.  A chaotic frenzy of kids and carts, people testing eggs and thumping melons.  Everyone, it seemed, had decided Saturday morning was the time for groceries.

I stood three-deep in the check-out line and avoided the angst of existence by checking the Facebook feed on my phone.  Nicole had posted Day 7: a morning with a good friend.  I liked and scrolled.  The distraction of Facebook used, I turned to the magazines for amusement, where Oprah promised 10 easy one-minute meditations to make the holidays less stressful.  Ten easy meditations?  How could I resist?  I flipped through the perfume and celebrity ideas and found such zingers as imagining your cranky uncle as a lovable infant and calming oneself in a Christmas party by zoning out to the sounds of the season.  I laughed a smug and self-righteous chuckle, still feeling radiant from my deep time on the mat, thanked the check-out girl, and headed home.

Back at the house, the new REI catalogue arrived, prompting me to “do my first downward dog” of the morning in their brand new Yoga gear.  Mindfulness, meditation, yoga–they’ve all become popular enough to be monetized, repackaged, and sold back to us in various forms.   Buy your way into effortless nirvana, it seems.

I have to check myself, sometimes, the part of me that gets snarky at all this.  In knowing the deep practice I found this morning, REI ads and quick-quipped Oprah meditation tips seem like poor shadows of some “true form” of mindfulness.  Even social media posts seem to be somehow but a quick-patch until we get back in the game of the topsy-turvy world.  The part of me that seeks to engage the deep, unifying spiritual facet of existence lays groundwork to be present and at peace, but it can also make me snort at an REI ad that simply uses the language without getting the meaning.

But like I said, I have to check myself, and was reminded of that this morning.  An honest expression of gratitude is an honest expression of gratitude, whether it’s a face-to-face thank you, a social media post, or–God-forbid–a tortured Sunday morning blog post on the subject.  A moment in mindful thought is a moment of mindful thought, regardless if this is the first our thousandth such moment this day.  It is only this moment.  And even if Oprah is only putting quick meditations on the cover to sell copy, imagining those who vex us as lovable children, or soaking in the beauty of a moment is good and fun practice, regardless of its source.  Worrying about the source or form of this idea, it seems, breeds the same dogmatism that lets established churches look down on iconoclasts as stake-worthy heretics.  Seeing the number of times I’ve been labeled the heretic by others, I should probably seek to curb the urge to label others as heretics.

The road trip was marvelous.  Nicole slept most of the way back, and Kristen and I kept each other awake with banter and snacks.  I hadn’t been on such a random mid-week trip in so long, and I’m not sure when I’ll do it again.  But doing it on that day, stepping out of the normal web of interactions and diving into such a joyous moment of that long evening, left me tired, running on fumes but filled with happiness.  For that moment, even if that moment is not a practice, I am eternally and humbly grateful.

Teachers and Yogis: The Lord God Made them All.

Graduation makes me smile so hard, so genuinely, that my face cramps up. One last time to see my former students, now fulfilling the promise of their work, one last time to see them off, one last time to beam in pride.

 

And, of course, it means the end of the school year, a joyous event for all. For all the complaints teachers have (legitimate or not) few jobs have the benefit of the end-of-the year exultation, that joyous release of life relaxing, if only for a brief few weeks.

 

In the context of this blog, however, school’s end has caused me a bit of ambivalence. While I enjoy opining on both the school and the non-school, the sacred and the profane (take your pick which label applies where), knowing that school was ending would shift any subject matter to more of the private life, somehow changing the nature of the grist for this literary mill.

 

This unnerves me. I often imagine a wall between my teacher self and my private self, fiercely guarding my private life from colleagues and students when possible. (Don’t worry—the irony of blogging on the internet about guarding my privacy does not escape me.) Moreover, when I’m behind that wall in my private sphere, I try not to let the teaching worries encroach too much, which includes articles about teaching that come across my Facebook feed.

 

In the summer, of course, it is easier to defend this wall. But the wall came crashing down—an idea on each side crashed through to meet the other—and a survey of the rubble inspired today’s epistle.

 

This bush-league epiphany came in one of the most frustrating yoga classes I’ve attended in some time. That it was outside in 95 degree mugginess on the “sun deck” was enough irritation; that Ken thought this was a good time to have yoga to beach music for “fun in the sun” yoga salted it. Showing up five minutes before class, I wedged myself in the corner against a serrated sheet metal wall overlooking the parking lot. Add to that sound the roof-top air conditioning, the thump-thump-thump of the gym’s punching bag, and the beach music, and I could barely hear Ken’s instructions when they were actually given clearly, spending most of the class figuring it out on the fly, unable to find a rhythmic flow.

 

 

As with all frustrations on the mat, I tried to let it go. But since I was letting the yoga go, my mind was bouncing to all manner of thoughts. Cat-Cow…The US/Ghana match. Twisted Cheetah…Planning a beach trip. Crescent Lunge…an argument about a teacher tenure article I had on Facebook.

 

Mr. Gorbachev. Tear down that wall.

 

In the California case, the plantiff’s had argued without proof “1-3% of teachers were unfit”, giving horror stories of teachers who let kids smoke pot in the back of class. And as my yoga teacher fumbled with his speakers playing some whack-ass beach music, I watched the students in the class with the eye of the critical evaluator: Below Standard on Down Dogs. Large percentage of students not on task. Students did not meet benchmarks in Crow, Half-Moon, or Wheel. This evaluation would not earn tenure today.

 

 

Before this belabored analogy goes much further, allow me to make a few concessions: the analogy of yoga teachers to traditional school teachers breaks down at so many points that it is as threadbare as overstretched white Lululemon pants. School attendance is compulsory; yoga attendance is optional. Yoga teachers are not held responsible for the outcomes of their students, while traditional teachers are. School classes are about preparing for the future; yoga classes are about being present in the moment. School classes have grades and tests and projects; yoga classes never have homework, and ‘judgment’ is often seen as ‘non-yoga.” The list goes on and on.

 

But I had been thinking about the similarities of classroom teachers and yoga teachers for sometime, perhaps for one reason alone: my practice in yoga has forced me to be a student, considering this relationship from the other side of the divide.

 

I began my yoga practice in 2008 shortly after I fractured my C2 in a mountain biking accident. I figured I could use some extra flexibility on my neck that now held some extra bone and metal. For all the rest that came with yoga—the chants, the om’s, the flowery metaphor—I was skeptical: I just wanted to be able to turn my head.

 

My first teacher was Ann, and after discovering her classes again, she is still one of my favorites. She is nurturing but challenging. If she plays music, it is soft and meditative. On the flip side, she is the only teacher I have ever seen who pissed off someone so bad that they got angry and left class, simply by telling the girl to not look in the mirror but to “feel the pose.” After Ann came Jonathon, flamboyant and boisterous, blaring house remixes of the Glee soundtrack. I struggled, having grown used to one style of practice. For a month, I was sure I was going to quit just because I hated the music. But he started turning it down then eventually off, and I started tuning in. His personal interaction with students and encouragement filled the class weekly, and I soon learned to adapt to different teaching styles. Unfortunately, the YMCA has a low tolerance for coarse language, dirty jokes, and sexual innuendo used to describe yoga poses, so Jonathon soon moved his practice elsewhere.

 

Over the years, I’ve had many teachers, some memorable, some not. Even the ones who I remember the most, however, would likely have met unwarranted, unnecessary critique if put against an evaluation that looks for weaknesses first. Ken barks out orders, teaches multiple challenging variations, and has taught me more variations that any teacher, but he sounds like he’s playing hippie magnetic poetry when he starts talking about “the universe” and “energy.” Jill, on the other hand, introduced me to Yin Yoga and her practice positively exudes a more holistic health and spiritual approach, but all the ladies at the Y who come to prepare for bikini season would scoff at the slow pace. One teacher taught me correctly how to do a free-standing headstand after four years, but her choice of music—piano covers of pop tunes—always had me playing a distracting game of “Name that Tune” in my head. Another one holds long, deep, beautiful stretches and lets the class hold them as long as they can, but she also tries to give yogis a “happy spritz” at the end of class, reads from a yoga book like a student teacher, quotes William Faulkner for inspiration, and cites dubious research that “Tree pose could cure ADHD.”

 

These “weaknesses” notwithstanding, every teacher has added to my understanding of my own yoga practice. What once started as simple rehabilitation for a neck injury has flourished into a practice that I hold very dear to my daily path. And I owe much to the diverse teachers who taught me different poses, encouraged me in different ways, used a new metaphor,or a new pattern of movement to strengthen my body and mind. And yet each one—were they to be evaluated based on the California logic that “there have to be bad yoga teachers out there”—would have something that would mark them down.

 

The diversity I’ve enjoyed would be impossible under a system that evaluates by reducing a teacher to a simple statistical category looking for the worst in order to expunge them, but such is the paradigm we are working toward in public education with the California ruling. Musing on this topic made me get straight-up nerdy, as I found this type of evaluation has a name: “rank and yank.” I won’t bore you with the details, but if you want them, this blog has a thorough statistical and metaphorical analysis.

 

However discredited, “rank and yank” is the trend in teacher evaluation. Championed at Microsoft, it is the philosophy behind teacher evaluations, and it is responsible for many harms to school culture. It is the reason we have such a bloated, expensive system of standardized testing infecting our schools. And it will be the cause of a reduction of diversity among classrooms as teachers elect not to play to their strengths, but rather to hide their perceived “weaknesses,” often a category created for classification alone. In trying to reduce these idiosyncrasies or “weaknesses” we will only reduce the strength that is created by varied styles of teaching.

 

It is summer. I don’t want to think too much about school. But as much as I wasn’t liking Ken that sweltering day (don’t worry—he’s a really good teacher, actually), thinking about school gave me a small pearl of wisdom—even if I didn’t want it.

The Rottweiler on my Yoga Mat

IMGP0693 2Starting a blog on the day after New Years may just be as cliche’ and annoying as going to the gym; you feel like a noob and everyone else seems to know what they’re doing.  But after hesitation after hesitation, I decided to try this blog thing out for no other reason than to give the space to share the kernels of truth (if I can even be so presumptions to claim that) that I see in everyday life.

Today’s initial post isn’t really all about me, however.  It’s about Atticus, our 20 month old, 90 lb Rottie.  Tuesday was New Year’s Eve, and after a long two day trip from Beaumont, where my wife’s family resides, I looked forward to a little quiet time on my mat to unwind.

However, whenever the blue mat hits the floor, Atticus is often mistaken in believing I am spreading it out for him.  When it’s nice outside, I sometimes put him in the yard, or I go in the yard and he stays in the house.  Either way, he scratches at the door mercilessly.  He is, to be blunt, hard to ignore.

As such, I’ve decided that having the dogs around when I get on my yoga mat isn’t the worst thing in the world.  There are times where it is positively sublime.  For instance, on Tuesday as I began in child’s pose, Atticus lay down on the mat, wedged his giant battering ram of a head in between my head and shoulder and sat there quietly.  I could hear and feel his pulse through his head, and he was very, very still.  Very synergistic, very cool.

At the least, I see my dogs as a welcome distraction.  A book I’ve been reading recently posited that meditation isn’t simply about creating the inner peace within, but also being able to encounter the world without with that same peace, regardless of the circumstance.  Such is a lofty goal, and when Atticus and Juno, our husky, run around me as I try to balance in a half moon, it certainly makes it more of a challenge to breathe through it and maintain a standing position.  Last week, in fact, Atticus began nibbling on my toes when I was in a bird of paradise, and I was more impressed that it didn’t bring me crashing down to the ground than anything.

But New Year’s Eve brought a breaking point.  It came as I was in a supta baddha konasana, one of my favorite resting poses, but one that has a certain vulnerability for males, if you catch my drift.  Atticus decided this was a good time to play one of his favorite games: lay the squeaky toy on your lap and see if he can snatch it before you can.  I loathe this game when it’s on my lap, because it has resulted in my fingers being bitten any number of times.  And though I’ve tried to get him to stop, he is still a puppy.  The problem, however, is that he decided to lay his toy right on top of my man parts, and then start the “nibbling.”

I freaked.  Very un-yogi like, I grabbed the toy, threw it in the adjacent closet, slammed the door, and yelled “Go Away!!”  He slunk into the living room, his fun over.  I for all the world tried to act like nothing had happened and get back into the pose, but of course this was impossible.  It’s a little difficult to get into a gentle breathing rhythm after such a threat to one’s livelihood.

But I’ve been mulling on the moment for a couple of days.  Maybe a meditative act like yoga helps you to deal with the world with peace and tranquility.  But this doesn’t mean being so passive as to allow destruction to yourself.  Sometimes, when the Rottie has placed his squeaky toy on your groin and dared you to grab it before he does–with his Rottie teeth–you have to sit up and say the game is over.

Happy New Year, everyone.