Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Come Back to the Mat Ag'in, Moose Honey

The academic blogosphere and press is exploding with back-to-school posts. We used to sharpen pencils and polish shoes to get ready for the start of a new school year. Now we sit down and bang out lengthy essays full of advice, resolutions, political prognostication, and attacks on or defenses of PowerPoint (or other presentation software) in the classroom. Augmented by hilarious yet inspirational music videos. Here’s our contribution to the genre for this year. We approach the topic indirectly, as is our habit, but hang in there with us, kids. We’ve got a killer vid in the end, I promise.

Once upon a time a few years back, Moose was driving through our neighborhood and rolled unthinkingly through a 4-way stop sign that had recently been installed. A police officer pulled her over and pointed out what she had done. A sheepish Moose said, “I’m so sorry, officer. I drive this road all the time and just didn’t notice the new sign.” He let her off without a ticket but offered a word of wisdom that has stuck with her ever since. “Ma’am,” he said, “just because the road is familiar doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay attention.”

Moose loves this story, because the officer's gentle reprimand has always struck her as a reminder of the importance of cultivating what Buddhists call "beginner's mind." No matter how familiar the road, the task, or the activity may be, you need to pay attention to where you are going and what you are doing. Also, though, and this is the hard part, you need to approach the journey or the task without preconception, expectation, or judgment. Even if you've been doing it for years, approach it as if it were brand new. See it with fresh eyes, open to delight and new insight. See it as a child would see it, not as a world-weary, grouchy adult. See it as you are now, not as you were five months or even five minutes ago. (Those last two points are not as contradictory as they might sound. We're kinda in the realm of paradox here.)

(Image Credit:  Picked up here.)

Beginner's mind was on Moose's mind yesterday as she found herself in a yoga studio for the first time since April's unfortunate wrist incident. Moose is a tall, wide-hipped, middle-aged woman, not one of those petite Elastigirls with biceps of steel who gaze serenely out at you from the cover of Yoga Journal. Still, she has come to love yoga in the past couple of years and was terribly disappointed that the wrist injury put her mostly out of commission yoga-wise for awhile. (She actually went to one class in her splint but felt so frustrated by what she was able to do that she decided to take the summer off to heal completely.) Yesterday's class was a good way to return to the mat, because it was a workshop on -- what a coinkidink! -- how to take care of your wrists. To add to the appeal, it was taught by Moose's teacher for the past two years, Joe.

Moose is inordinately fond of Joe. She teases him that she doesn't do yoga; she does Joga. Aside from his physical skill and his patience as a teacher, what Moose loves about Joe's classes is his insistent playfulness. Joe encourages beginner's mind in his students by refusing to take any of this yoga stuff too seriously. When the class is working on something especially challenging, he'll break the tension by quipping, "And you thought yoga was going to be all about candles and incense, didn't you?" He teaches timing by telling students to hold a pose until "you start having violent thoughts about me." He'll often end classes with a smile and a friendly, "Thanks for playing today."

Joe is obviously quite serious about this yoga stuff. He has been studying anatomy and the philosophy behind the ancient discipline he teaches for more than twenty years. His irreverence in the classroom is an effective tool for demystifying the discipline and for helping students to enter into it in their own way and at their own level. It's a technique that helps the high-achieving Washington types who flock to yoga classes around here to relax and worry less than they are inclined to do about "getting it right." The important thing is to keep playing. The body you have right now is just fine. The pose you can do right now is perfect. Keep playing. Keep learning. Keep beginning. Again. And again. And again.

The World Is Just an Extension of the Yoga Mat

Moose actually said those words once to a friend and fellow yogi. They sound pretty cheesy and obnoxious, and yet they may help to make a point. Moose does not have the nerve of Natalie Houston, who has adopted techniques she learned in yoga to the undergraduate English classroom by having students do a minute of conscious breathing together at the start of each class meeting. (Go read that post. It's fascinating. Could you imagine doing anything similar in your own classes?) Nonetheless, Joe's emphasis on play as a pedagogical strategy is similar to Moose's own approach as a teacher, which is to keep things light in the hope that students will learn more by worrying less and not noticing how hard they are working. We mention that here not to tout her skill as a teacher, but to remind her, as she prepares to return to the classroom after a year away, that teaching is fun. Srsly.

More than many other professional worlds, academia encourages and rewards the cultivation of a beginner's mind. We have to keep learning throughout our careers in order to be able to do our jobs. If we are fortunate enough to have job security and our institutions haven't eliminated sabbaticals and leaves, we have opportunities to take time off for concentrated study, research, and writing. We can change fields, develop new areas of expertise, design courses that take us into new intellectual terrain. Further, that back-to-school buzz we get every year as we meet new classes and new students reminds us that in this business we are -- always, literally -- beginning again. And yet: it can be difficult to sustain that beginner's mind, especially these days, when so much creativity on campus has been hacked to bits by the budget ax or choked to death by bureaucratic make-work schemes. (Yep, LOA, we're talkin' 'bout you again. Still hate you. Mean it!) It's easy to get discouraged and to fall into communal habits of bitching or complaint. (See, for example, that previous parenthetical remark.) Yes, there is plenty to bitch about, on campus and off, but merely bitching never changed or fixed anything. As a tee-shirt Moose still has in a drawer somewhere suggests, "Stop Bitching -- Start a Revolution."

While we are waiting on -- or working toward -- the revolution, however, all of us in Roxie's World want to help Moose maintain her beginner's mind as she returns to yoga and the classroom in the next little while. To do that, we're going to play her off with a favorite song from her show queen's childhood, presented in a wild and wonderful 21st-century way that makes it entirely new. Click on the vid, darlings, and as a new school year unfolds, keep the wisdom of the great Zen master Fräulein Maria close to your own ever-young heart: "Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start."

Namaste, my pretties, and thanks for playing today.


  1. Anonymous9:19 AM EDT

    And you will choreograph something similar for the gorgeous open space on the first floor of Tawes?

    That would be lovely!


  2. Certainly, dear -- for the first day of class! And wouldn't that terrace up top be a wonderful place for yoga, t'ai chi, Pilates . . . ! What a healthy, happy bunch we shall be.

  3. I love the aspects of scholarship that allow one to begin over and over again. That part of teaching, that part of doing interdisciplinary work, that part of traveling the knowledge worlds -- these are my own passions -- the thinking that keeps me going in this profession -- the excitements and even ethical urgencies that I want to share with students, colleagues and the public who worry we are getting away with something as tenure, sabbatical, summer (not paid for) time.

    Tenure isn't job security: it just means we cannot be fired at will but only for cause. Oh, unless the state declares a financial emergency then at will is okay with notice. Sabbaticals are not vacations, but the essential time for beginning new research -- that is MAKING KNOWLEDGE NOT JUST TRANSMITTING IT -- or for consolidating it in forms to share with others. Working the usual 60 and 70 hr weeks most academics work makes it hard to the this work THAT OFTEN IS WHY WE ENTERED THIS PROFESSION! Summer is similar: I work 8 hr days in the summer, but do take breaks for walks and medical issues and food experiments.

    Trolling the week this week, I find that the state of Maryland congratulated itself in 2006 for increasing the workloads of University faculty by 10%. In 2006 they didn't even bother to call it productivity, the way they do now, in what is an on-going State project for increasing efficiency.

    Beginner's Mind. It allows me to get back to the source of why doing this work matters, to me and to the world. Because it does you know. (Even if retired academics make money for their books by claiming that 78 articles on Virgina Woolf are unneeded and a waste of money and time. 78 articles on sun spots are never evaluated that way....)

  4. Candy Man10:51 AM EDT

    Thanks, Roxie -- I love the breathing exercise idea (and I'm a friend of NH, which makes it all the more fun -- she's fabulous)! Not having to get ready for the first week of classes myself, I may still take some time out to breath and figure out where the heck to get started on this next book....

  5. coinkidink

    I've never heard anyone outside my immediate family use that word--and have gotten many an odd look for using it myself! Gives me a warm fuzzy to see it here.

    Good words for the start of the school year. I've a month to go and a new class to plan....

  6. Awesome fucken postte! I try to ensure that my lab is a playful place in exactly the way you describe Joe's yoga classes. This is particularly important in science, where holding too tightly to one's existing conceptual and methodlogical frameworks can blind one to what nature is trying to reveal.

  7. This is really interesting. I'm getting back into yoga after not having done it for 7 years, and am really loving it, and have been having similar thoughts about yoga teachers, my teaching, and life lessons generally.

    I'm glad you're back on the mat, Moose--take care, and enjoy the stretches and strength poses! Your yoga teacher Joe sounds wonderful.

  8. Amen, everybody -- Such lovely comments! Perhaps we should all become yoga bloggers. Think how much more pleasant teh Interwebz would be if we had a little more "Namaste!" and a little less "Why, you frakkin' idiot!" And yet, of course, there are so many idiots out there that one can hardly resist pointing it out from time to time.

  9. I'm late to class here, but I want to echo the thank you's for such a thought-provoking and timely posting: "beginner's mind" has helped me already this stressful week (and classes haven't yet started for us!).

    While I still struggle with crow's pose, and basically every inversion, I love my yoga class and its emphasis on being present. I may not say nameste at the end of class (sorry, but it still feels too close to "amen" to me, and thus feels so out of place) but being a beginner again, being present--these are reminders that can only make fall term, and life in general, so much more exciting.


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