Body image & “The Triple Bind”

I have a new essay about going braless up at the body image website Adios Barbie. I confess: it is  slightly anxiety-inducing to talk about your body on the Internet. I’m taking deep breaths right now. Still, I wrote the essay because I think Susan Bordo’s work in Unbearable Weight is important and deserves to be grounded in lived experience and shared with others.

Also on my radar this week is psychologist Stephen Hinshaw’s The Triple Bind: Saving Our Teenage Girls from Today’s Pressures. Hinshaw argues that young women today are trapped in a set of competing pressures that are impossible to negotiate. Compellingly, he describes those binds: “Today’s girl know she’s supposed to fulfill all the ‘traditional’ girl expectations–look pretty, be nice, get a boyfriend–while excelling at the “girl skills” of empathy, cooperation, and relationship building” but  a “successful girl must also master [traditional] boy skills of assertion”  by getting straight-As, excelling in sports, and aiming for a top-flight career, all the while being “effortlessly” sexy and thin. Here’s a FORA talk he gave surrounding the book’s publication.

For anyone interested in these issues, I highly recommend The Triple Bind. I have to give more thought to Hinshaw’s work and what potential strategies young women can use to escape all these pressures. I suspect yoga may offer some alternatives ways of thinking about womanhood, body image, and competition, but I’m still thinking.



5 Things You Should Read About Yoga

So, there are many, many books about yoga in the world. But let’s say you don’t really want a yoga how-to manual, but a memoir or something more personal? These 5 books are for you. They range from spiritual to slapstick in tone, but all are about women who find something important in yoga.

1. Curvy Voices, the collection of personal essays gathered by Anna Guest-Jelley of Curvy Yoga.

You can download it for free here. These 30+ essays from real women describing how they came to yoga and their relationship with yoga practice is diverse, fascinating, and often funny. My favorite might be Noel Rozny’s “The Revolution Started with Yoga Pants.” But don’t miss essays by Mara Glatzel–of Medicinal Marzipan fame–or Melanie Klein’s fantastic “Feminism, Yoga & Body Image.”

2. Donna Farhi’s Bringing Yoga to Life: the Everyday Practice of Enlightened Living.

Farhi is a beautiful writer, exploring the potential of yoga practice to transform your thinking. A quote from her website: “When we realize that what we are advancing toward is not some physical form but an inward recognition of the truth of who we are, then we will not feel ourselves to be failing if we cannot attain difficult postures. “Advance” practice is any movement that brings us closer to this recognition of our true self.”

3. Kimberly Wilson’s Hip Tranquil Chick: A Guide to Life On and Off the Yoga Mat. 

Wilson’s style is breezy and fun; she’s the yoga writer for you if you also enjoy crafting, fashion, and style. The book contains several different sequences, which are playfully illustrated and full of Wilson’s anecdotes about how she left behind a legal job to teach yoga. Since I heart pink, I love this one and Wilson’s follow-up, Tranquilista, about creating a yoga-influenced work/life balance.

4. Lucy Edge’s Yoga School Dropout: A Hilarious, Hapless, and Desperate Quest for Mystic Indians and Tantric Bliss.  

Edge is sort of the Bridget Jones of yoga writing. An advertising professional, she decides to ditch her busy London life and go to an Indian ashram, ill-prepared for the culture shock, demanding regimen, or the ‘serious’ yoga practitioners she meets along the way. I thought she was incredibly funny, but if you can’t laugh at yourself, she may not be for you.

5. Claire Dederer’s Poser: A Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses.
Dederer’s writing, centered on her yoga practice and years of being a stay-at-home mom, will appeal to other yoga moms, particularly those who are frustrated with ‘serene motherhood’ stereotypes. Like Edge, she’s sarcastic and pokes fun at some of the seriousness of yoga culture.

Incredible! Sculptures by Janet Echelman

Here is the most brilliant and inspiring thing I’ve seen today: the artist Janet Echelman giving a TED talk about her large-scale fabric sculptures.  Here is Echelman’s portfolio. Aren’t they amazing? I love the way they have color and fluidity. There’s something very yogic about the way the sculptures are able to shift with the breeze and their abstract sensibility. They’re so open–to the environment and interpretation. Echelman’s story is a great lesson in creativity, too. She was a painter on a Fulbright in India; however, her paint supplies never arrived and she had to fulfill her grant requirements in some other way. In a coastal Indian town, she found herself inspired by fishing nets.


Meditation. Not Just for Monks Anymore.

For a long time, I’ve struggled with meditation–the idea of sitting without thinking seemed impossible. And lotus pose? My knees were all ‘Oh no, you don’t, missy.’

Which is, by the by, a pretty serious way of injuring your knee, trying to force it into lotus. Please don’t!

Anyhow, because I found traditional meditation suggestions intimidating–and to be honest, most of my meditation sessions involved the dogs crawling all over me & kissing my face—I went looking for cool meditation techniques. There are a variety of types of meditation, from “loving kindness” meditation, which involves sending out good intentions towards a particular individual, to the mindfulness mediation program associated with Jon Kabat-Zinn. Here he is, giving a talk at Google:

His ideas are interesting and thought-provoking, particularly regarding awareness and what psychology calls “metacognition,” being able to think about your own thought processes and choices. How do you think? What do you think about? More importantly, he emphasizes that you don’t need a huge chunk of time to meditate. “Make friends with your mind,” as Kabat-Zinn puts it. I’ve been mulling over the types of meditation that make the most sense to me & want to talk about a few over the next few posts, beginning with walking meditation.

Walking meditation is, most simply, the practice of bringing your awareness to the process of walking and what you experience as you walk.* It’s based on the idea that many of us hurry through over experiences and miss many interesting details. Thoreau’s Walden is the great text for nature lovers and walkers alike:

“Sometimes I rambled to pine groves, standing like temples, or like fleets at sea, full-rigged, with wavy boughs, and rippling with light, so soft and green and shady that the Druids would have forsaken their oaks to worship them….Instead of calling on some scholar, I paid many a visit to some particular trees, of kinds which are rare in this neighborhood, standing far away in the middle of some pasture, or in the depths of a wood or swamp, or a hill-top…”

No one waxes poetic about the beauty and variety of trees the way Thoreau can, but the experience of walking meditation is achievable for urbanites as well. One of the books I’m waiting on is called The Most Beautiful Walk in The World, which explores the favorite Parisian walks of authors like Fitzgerald and Hemingway. I’ve always found more pedestrian-friendly cities interesting places to walk around, because there is so much variety in a small space.  *Important note: Best practiced in pedestrian-safe areas.

When I think about the intrigue of walking, I sometimes wonder about this photograph I have. I took it in France during a trip in the summer of 2001 (ten-plus years! I still don’t believe it)  and I have absolutely no idea what it depicts. Is it Chambord? Chartres? Versailles? No clue. That’s kind of what makes it interesting–I have it in a scrapbook labeled as “Mysterious Places Somewhere in France.” I think because I was on a pretty hectic trip–lots of places, monuments, churches–that I missed this one is a reflection of how I wasn’t doing walking meditation at the time–lots of things just whizzed by.  I have some activities planned this weekend that I actually want to photograph in a more observant way, actually.

France, Location Unknown

But does anyone actually know where this is?

Musings on Education & Yoga: Notes from bell hooks

This week, I’m reading the progressive English professor bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress. She’s a wonderful writer and educator–clear, sensitive, articulate about learning. She uses her own grade school experience during desegregation to describe how students become disengaged from their education for various reasons. I was particularly moved by her description of the ideal learning environment, with teachers who practice what she calls “Engaged Pedagogy.”

“To educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. That learning process comes easiest to those of us who teach who also believe that there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred; who believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.”

Now doesn’t that sound like teaching yoga? But why not literature, chemistry, or philosophy?

Of course, not all yoga teachers are perfect. However, you are much more likely to hear this kind of fluid, thoughtful language in a yoga school. I’ve been  reading Christina Sell’s blog as she has explored  these issues in beginning her own yoga school. Why can yoga be so different from traditional education? Is it that we choose yoga, so we are ultimately engaged in this practice for our own enrichment? Does that make it easier for yoga teachers to embed their teaching in a system of values and student engagement? I don’t have answers, but I sense this is an issue that will continue to emerge in our classrooms and yoga studios.

Meditating on the souls of students,

New Theme! And no yoga! Uh-oh.

Namaste, everybody–
Some fun news:  I’ve changed the blog’s WordPress theme today–it’s always good to try something new, right? What do you think? Like this new theme? Or did you love the old pink & green one? Design feedback is welcomed. I have an ambition to start incorporating more photos into the blog, which I might work on soon.

The bad news is: I’ll be limited in my mat practice for the next few weeks. I have a minor, non-yoga related injury–alert William Broad!–I tripped recently and  scraped my knee on my driveway and it hasn’t healed fully. I was trying to do several things at once–run out of the house carrying coffee in a hurry on the way to work–but mostly I just hurt myself.  I saw a very funny & charming physician’s assistant today who asked me, “Did you save the coffee?” He was right; I’d saved the coffee!

Important yoga/life lesson: Stop trying to hurry so much. Slow down. Beware of the drainage lip on the driveway (I knew that one already). Is this the universe’s way of telling me to be more careful? I have no idea!

As long as I leave my knee alone I should be back to the mat in two or three weeks. I’m not even sure I would have recognize the hurt if my yoga practice hadn’t tipped me off: I get an un-wonderful stabby feeling in my right knee when I do any pose that requires me to kneel or puts pressure on one particular spot. Uh-oh. So, no Cat/Cow Pose, no kneeling lunges, no Sphinx and no Cobra. Nothing that asks you to slide down on your knees gradually and no vinyasa transitions that stress out my knee. I’m really sad about it! For the time being, I’ll be concentrating on trying not to do so much at once, and using pranayama & meditation to stay calm. Which makes me wonder what other people do when they’re confronted with a minor injury that slows them down–do you transition into a meditation-heavy practice? What do you do?


“Find Your Intelligent Edge”: Yoga & Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit

I got my latest issue of Yoga Journal in the mail today and I was delighted to find a blurb about how yoga helps unlock creativity on the cover. Ironically, I’ve been exploring creativity all semester–researching how to utilize creativity in teaching, tutoring, and mentoring students. Although I finished my MFA thesis, I decided to stay on for an additional semester to take an education course on tutoring, as I work as an on-campus writing tutor. Of all the books that I’ve been working with, Twyla Tharp’s book The Creative Habit has been the most influential. Tharp is a famed modern dance choreographer but her suggestions for incorporating creativity into your life aren’t limited to the arts–you could use them in a business plan or your yoga practice. I’d suggest finding a copy of her book if you are interested in exploring your own creative ideas. Her ‘creative autobiography’ is fantastic quiz designed to help readers identify their passions and learn to make those activities an important part of daily life. In fact, I imagine that Tharp and K. Pattabhi Jois would be in agreement: “Practice, practice, and all is coming!” She talks about the importance of everyday practice of your creative activity  and how curiosity and emotional flexibility are crucial to the creative process.

In many ways, yoga helps teach us all the principles necessary to be creative. This semester I was able to discuss Shiva Rea in a seminar paper on creativity in tutoring; I talked about how many traditional educational theories place authority for classifying students’ learning styles or developmental levels with the teacher and don’t explicitly teach students to practice self awareness and assessment. Unfortunately, many students emerge from the American education system in a kind of passive mode–after lots of standardized tests, they disengage from learning or they wait for someone else to tell them what the rules are. You can listen to a TED talk from education specialist Ken Robinson on this problem. Being passive saps your passion. There is widespread agreement in education that students need to move in progressive steps while learning, but disagreement on how.

I think we can borrow from yoga when we think about how we’re educated and the attitude we  bring to traditional academic achievements. What resonates with me is one of Shiva Rea’s instructions: “Find your intelligent edge,” she often says in DVDs.   If I’m finding my intelligent edge, I’m actively engaging in my practice, while recognizing that I need to progress in increments and modifications, rather than jumping into crow pose and pulling a muscle.  The fantastic thing about yoga is that it asks students to explore and assess their own progress–their emotional state, the tension in their hamstrings–every time they get on the mat. Yoga recognizes that each day is different, fluid. The same guidance that helps you in your physical practice could help a seventeen year old struggling with English 101. Something worth meditating on.

TED talks are fantastic resources on creativity, too. Explore them!


“Powering Your Spirituality” & Elena Brower at YJ

Hey, everybody!
I feel like I’ve neglected the blog as of late, but I have been busy with all kinds of wonderful part time projects over January. As a result, I’ve lagged a bit in my yoga practice and my new goal for February is to recommit to a weekly practice. I know I’ll need yoga keep going in the busy semester I have planned! In a funny bit of kismet, I read the most wonderful essay from Virayoga founder Elena Brower on Yoga Journal’s website, which posted today. Brower writes about creating an “action plan” for yourself in tackling areas of your life and behavior that you feel need improvement. Like many of us, I know I feel more frustrated when I’m tired or feeling overwhelmed, so I think her suggestions are spot-on.

I also recently read Tranquilista by yogini and lifestyle maven Kimberly Wilson. It’s a great guide for those of you interested in integrating positive thinking and yogic values into your work lives, in a lighthearted and stylish way. She has a fabulous manifesto from her first book, Hip Tranquil Chick, posted now. It’s adorable!



Rinse and repeat….

Lately, I’ve been following Shiva Rea’s Daily Energy DVD for all my yoga sessions. As with all of Rea’s DVDs, this one contains a “yoga matrix” that allows you to combine individual segments into your own sequence. There are seven 20-minute segments with various themes: “Earth” for grounding poses, “Shakti” for relaxing poses and so on. Also included are short opening and closing segments and one guided shavasana. It’s very easy to follow, nicely paced, and has a voiceover track that can be turned off and on for instruction and cueing. Production on this is less exotic (no White Sands National Park or Maldives Island) but still, very pretty. More importantly, the cinematography supports the yoga.

Daily Energy is a little different from her Fluid Power and Lunar Flow Vinyasa DVDs and perhaps more accessible; I’d say it feels more like her Flow Yoga for Beginners DVD. I think it, like Flow Yoga for Beginners, may be a great choice for people who are just starting out with yoga. Many of the combinations I’ve tried seem to focus on repetitions of an essential sequence: lunge variations/cobra/downward-facing dog.

Daily Energy Yoga Clip:

At first, I thought the repetitions would be boring, but I was surprised by how much I benefited from them, in terms of both increased flexibility and feedback. I’m beginning to realize how much my range of motion is different in each hip–pigeon pose is somewhat achievable with my left hip, but much more challenging with my right. Alongside that, there are noticeable differences in balance and strength. It’s a funny thing, having that awareness of your body. I find that my awareness helps me recognize my limits and work on them gradually and gently.

I’ve also been reading Donna Farhi’s book Bringing Yoga to Life and it is an excellent book. Farhi is accessible, interesting, and thoughtful. If you are at all interested in yoga as an emotional and spiritual practice, read this book.  A quote from her website:

“When we realize that what we are advancing toward is not some physical form but an inward recognition of the truth of who we are, then we will not feel ourselves to be failing if we cannot attain difficult postures. “Advance” practice is any movement that brings us closer to this recognition of our true self.”

~ Donna Farhi, Bringing Yoga to Life: The Everyday Practice of Enlightened Living

Practice, practice……

It was Ashtanga yoga founder Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009) who reportedly declared that yoga was “99% practice and 1% theory,” and encouraged his students to “practice, practice, all is coming!” I had a small lesson in the value of practice recently–I had to read part of my master’s thesis in public. Now I loathe public speaking, and this was a big event, because it is the final required event for graduating writers in my program and frequently, friends and relatives attend. My mom and my childhood physical therapist wanted to come, so I knew I had to go through with it.  Luckily, I passed my defense a few days before my scheduled reading, so this was really the Last Big Thing Before Graduation.

Now, imagine me in the middle of a ‘mondo freakout,’ if you will. Many creative writing workshops ask an author–or a volunteer– to read a section of their writing at the beginning of the class; during workshop discussion the author is traditionally silent. For me, reading aloud in workshop usually goes like this:  a good steady start, then as I grow aware of eyes watching me, my voice cracks, creeps higher, squeaks, breaks. I run out of oxygen, only I don’t stop to breathe, because the squeaking has made me feel more self-conscious. So, I rush ahead in a verbal dash, blurring my words together just to get all those eyes off of me right now.  I have more than a little phobia about reading aloud. In fact, I’d avoided all the public MFA readings in the last three years because I was afraid.*

But a funny thing happened while I was busy being afraid. I got the job I have now, as a writing tutor, and we are encouraged to ask our students to read aloud as a proof-reading technique. It is actually a really wonderful technique for correcting typos and errors, as well as refining your prose. To craft a beautiful sentence, you really need to hear it move. So, for the past two years I have been sitting in tutoring rooms with students, either listening to them read or reading with them. Within the context of work, my relationship to reading aloud changed, became something different: a daily practice, not a public display of awkwardness. I started reading my own work aloud, at home, to copy edit my MFA exams as well as sections of my thesis.

When the week of my MFA reading arrived, I knew what I had to do: “practice, practice, all is coming!”

I began by deciding what thesis section I wanted to read. Our program’s Publishing Lab designs broadsides–small brochures with an image and a section of thesis-text–for each person’s MFA reading. They are really wonderful things, and are given out to the audience at the reading. My colleague and friend Sarah, the loveliest graphic designer anyone could ask for, worked hard to get permission from Columbia/Sony to use an image of Rita Hayworth from The Lady from Shanghai to accompany a section of my thesis where I discuss Hayworth’s haircut in the film. When I saw her broadside design, I knew I had to read from that section for the reading itself. The opportunity was too good to pass up.

But how to condense an entire chapter into a 10-minute narrative without losing the story arc?

The answer was simple: I read the chapter aloud. I listened for the best parts, the ones that resonated with emotion, personality, the ones that capture Hayworth’s own voice. I cut, I pasted, and I read. Aloud. At home, sitting at my computer. Once, I had a good draft–about six pages–I kept reading. And reading.  I polished the prose. I thought about the places where I wanted to pause, to stress. I practiced using a slightly different voice for each quote. Louella Parsons became sharper, Rita Hayworth sadder. I even read aloud for my dogs. I took the draft to work with me and read it to three different coworkers.

All that practice held me up on the big night, when I stood up in front of that audience and my voice didn’t crack or squeak. Not once. I even wrangled a water bottle without spilling. And it was fun!

If you’d like to see the utterly-gorgeous Rita Hayworth broadside, click here: The Broadside

*Which is utterly silly. I wish I hadn’t now. Bad, bad Hope!