a) working on her tennis serve, which, she insists, does not actually require a ball or racket;
b) looking good but seriously underdressed for holiday caroling in the neighborhood;
c) smiling with gratitude because the pile of ungraded papers is not quite as high as her outstretched arm.
The answer of course is d) posing for a photographer at her local yoga studio to illustrate a little piece she wrote for the Willow Street Yoga Center Newsletter. (Yeah, it ain't Critical Inquiry or glq, but she wouldn't get a merit raise if she published in those fancy venues this year anyway, so what the heck?) We've pasted in a slightly revised version of the essay below. You can access the original by clicking on this link and then opening the PDF for the winter 2012 newsletter.
This one goes out to all the readers and friends who have followed the adventures in embodiment of Moose 2.0 over the past year. Your support and interest have meant a lot, and your stories have inspired and delighted all of us in Roxie's World. The post is dedicated to Suzie Hurley, first teacher, with love and gratitude for all that her vision has brought into being.
I recently lost fifty pounds, and yoga helped me do it. Indeed, if I were inclined to be entrepreneurial, I would probably be making infomercials for something I might call the Yoga Diet, or perhaps even the Willow Street Diet: LOSE WEIGHT AND INCREASE FLEXIBILITY, WHILE STANDING ON ONE LEG!
I know: Maybe it’s a good thing I’m not especially entrepreneurial. Besides, Google tells me someone has beaten me to the punch on the Yoga Diet. Bear with me, though, as I try to explain my infomercial impulse.
Yoga may not be a major fat-burning activity, but I am serious when I say it contributed significantly to my efforts to re-contour my middle-aged body. I returned to Willow Street in the winter of 2009 after several years away. I had taken classes for a couple of years early in the 2000s, mostly Level Is with Suzie Hurley, but I decided to take a break in 2003 during a ridiculously stressful period in my life. (Two words are all I need to explain a crazy time and a dubious decision: home renovation.)
By the time I got back from my “break,” I was seriously out of shape and significantly overweight, because I had given up not only yoga but also a commitment I had maintained for most of my adult life to regular, vigorous cardiovascular activity. On the brink of my fiftieth birthday, I was feeling out of sorts and starting to worry about the long-term consequences of having gotten so out of shape. In other words, I was starting to feel old, and I didn’t like the feeling.
Returning to Willow Street was a small but important step on my long road back to health and fitness. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I see now that getting back to the mat was a way of gently yet powerfully re-connecting with a world and a self I was afraid I had left behind. Ultimately, that re-connection helped me find the will to lose weight by giving me a way to think about weight and body issues that feels affirming and enabling rather than punitive and disabling, which, I think, is how much of our culture’s talk about bodies, especially female ones, tends to be.
Back on the mat – first in Joe Miller’s Level I classes and lately in the I/II class he and Natalie Miller co-teach on Friday evenings – I learned three lessons that were enormously helpful in what I would eventually (and only half-jokingly) term my Lifestyle Adjustment Program. The first was to approach yoga in a spirit of play. This is an aspect of Joe’s teaching that deeply resonated with me, perhaps because it’s something I strive to do in my own classrooms. I am an English professor at the University of Maryland. The intellectual discipline of reading literature in a serious way can be intimidating, so I have always tried to cultivate a light, relaxed atmosphere in the classroom in the hope that students will learn more by worrying less and not noticing how hard they are working. Similarly, Joe’s insistent playfulness helps to demystify the discipline he teaches – which can also be intimidating -- and allows students to enter into it in their own way and at their own level. “Thanks for playing,” he often says at the end of class. Those words never fail to bring a smile to my face, but they’ve also encouraged me to feel comfortable trying to learn new and challenging skills. Fall out of a pose? No big deal! We’re just playing! Try it again!
That spirit of play guided me toward a second and equally valuable lesson, which was to love and honor the body I have, to appreciate what it can do now, and to stop berating myself for what it can’t (yet) do. My prolonged sedentary period had left me feeling alienated from a body I didn’t like or recognize. Yoga helped me let go of self-loathing and treat myself with a compassion that had eluded me for many years. Love and compassion, not disgust, were what finally got me, in January of 2011, to go to a meeting, step on a scale, and say, “OK, I am ready to do something different.”
Finally and perhaps most importantly, yoga gave me practice in mindfulness, which proved to be invaluable as I worked to cultivate and sustain new and better habits in relation to food and activity. I realized that my weight gain had a lot to do with the fact that I had just stopped paying attention to how much I was eating and how little I was moving. Food tastes better and is more satisfying when you pay attention to every bite, no matter how simply or sensibly it’s prepared. Mindfulness has meant that I experience my new way of eating as the opposite of the deprivations we associate with dieting. I have been cooking up a storm since I started losing weight, and I’ve enjoyed every moment in the kitchen and at the table – as has my well-fed partner, by the way!
Playfulness, compassion, and mindfulness: These are three lessons I learned on the mat that have helped me transform my body and my attitude fairly dramatically in the past year. You may not see me in an infomercial, but you will definitely see me in the studio, working hard but happily and with deep gratitude to continue this extraordinary process of learning. Thanks to everyone at Willow Street for playing with me and teaching me so well.