Balance

Well, I am writing to you from yet another state this week! I’m currently in New York City with a girl from my teaching fellowship. Our summer meeting is at the end of the week and I came a few days early to experience the city. I’m sure I’ll write about that next week! But for now, I’m going to come at the idea of balance a little more head on, rather than as an application to other parts of my life. And I’m going to do that through the lens of yoga.

The first time I tried yoga was in high school with my ski team. I remember laughing at the weird names for the poses and generally feeling very silly. I also remember trying crow pose and landing on my face, which was not my favorite thing to do. So I gave up on yoga for quite some time.

In fact, I didn’t try again until the summer of 2013, when I lived in Bocas del Toro. There was an in-house yoga studio three houses down from us, and when the girls and I decided we were curious, we tried it out. Sarah and Amber got bored fairly quickly, but I was hooked. At first I liked the core work and the stretching, which were familiar to me from ski racing. Then I started to like the shoulder strength, which is not something ski racers generally care much about! But what became really important to me were the breathing (not something that should be taken for granted, though I often do!) and the three principles the instructor shared with us.

Laura Kay grounded all of our practices in these three principles. The first was a good attitude. When people walked through the door and nervously mentioned they weren’t very flexible, Laura Kay would ask them to ditch that attitude and instead take up one of optimism and gratitude. The second principle was foundation: having strong legs and good alignment for the safety of all the joints involved. My knees certainly appreciated that one! The third and last principle was about opening the heart to shine our light out. Now, you can interpret that statement any way you like; my favorite way to think about it is how Laura Kay would tell us that smiling was the most advanced form of the pose.

One pose we did frequently in that class was called half moon pose, and it looks like this:

half moon pose

(Thanks to the Creative Commons Search, where I can look for pictures tagged for reuse!)

This can be quite the tricky balancing pose! I’m usually very good at standing on one foot, and I can also bend forward to touch the ground on one foot. But turn it sideways, and life gets a whole lot more exciting! Often I wobbled, or tried to lean too far backwards or reach too high up, and I flailed and fell over. When this happened, I would laugh. And it wasn’t the embarrassed nervous laughter of worrying about being judged; it was a genuine “that probably looked really silly and I’m glad I was pushing my limits” laughter.

When I came home from Bocas, I didn’t practice much for nearly two years. I tried a couple of different studios in Boulder, but they all felt competitive and like I had to push myself to keep up.

Enter Keeli, my freshman college roommate. She’s a ski racer from Winter Park I randomly got placed with our first year, and we’ve been great friends ever since. She’s awesome at spontaneously calling me and dragging me on adventures. One time she did just that and took me to her friend Maggie’s yoga class. Maggie teaches with a non-profit called Grass Roots Yoga in a large-ish classroom at CU. I’ve been going steadily ever since!

I like the mix of people in class – some older, some students – and I actually really like that it’s not in a traditional studio. Especially without mirrors, I feel much less pressure to be a “good yogi” and get into the “perfect” pose. And I especially love Maggie. I love how she offers modifications to change the poses for different bodies and different needs. Some days I need to push myself to be stronger and burn off some energy. Some days I need to chill out a little bit. I even spent the entirety of one class in child’s pose, because that’s what I needed that day.

One of my favorite things that Maggie has taught me is that balance is not a destination to be achieved. Rather, balance is a process that is constantly changing. In yoga, this means that we’re humans, not statues! Instead of trying to achieve stillness, the goal of a balancing pose is to learn to feel the wobbles and ride them.

But yoga advice is usually pretty good off the mat as well, and I think that’s definitely the case for balance. I can’t begin to explain the variety of advice I’ve gotten about work-life balance as a teacher. One mentor told me I should always take Friday night and Saturday completely off from school. Another told me I should make sure I have an hour for self-care every day. Yet another told me not to bother with all this new-age crap, and that I’d feel better if I just got stuff of my to-do list. And I do constantly feel the pressure to do more, be more efficient, and work harder.

This pressure exists in the consistent tasks in my life (grading, anyone?) but also in the one-time pressures. Test proctoring, extra (awesome) professional projects. Piloting a new textbook. Attending a conference. All the hard-and-fast rules I’ve read fall apart in the face of this inconsistency. I’ve been trying to figure out for years how to achieve balance in all of this.

But did you catch my language there? It’s not about achieving anything. The idea that balance is a process can apply to the rest of my life too. It means being observant of what’s going on in my life and how I’m reacting, and knowing how to ride out all the wobbles. I’ll candidly admit I’m quite terrible at this right now, but it seems like a worthwhile thing to practice.

My homework for you: How do you balance the important things in your life? How do you respond to all the varying pressures?

Hej då,

Jamie

Balance

Well, everyone, I’m writing to you from yet another state this week! I’m currently in New York City with another teaching fellow in the lead up to our summer meeting. I’m experimenting with being a city girl…I’ll let you know how that goes next week! After all the reflection and mixed-up-ed-ness of the last month, I thought I’d focus a little bit more on balance as a concept, rather just than as it applies.

The first time I ever did yoga I was with my ski team. I remember being in a circle in one of the baseball fields at the bottom of Howelsen Hill, trying to figure out what on earth we were doing while feeling very silly. Most of us were scoffing and generally blowing it off. I mostly remember face-planting in the grass trying to do a pose called crow pose. As you can imagine, I was not a fan!

Then when I lived in Bocas del Toro, Panama, I lived two houses away from a home yoga studio that offered classes for $5. The girls I was living with and I decided we were bored and wanted a work-out, so we tried it. Amber and Sarah lost interest pretty quickly, but I was hooked. At first I liked the core work and the stretching, which were the most familiar to me from my years of ski racing. Then I started to enjoy how it made my shoulders stronger (which was not something ski racers focus much on) and how it challenged my brain to get my body into interesting new shapes. I enjoyed being conscious of how good it felt to just breathe.

And the more I went, the more I appreciated the three principles my teacher, Laura Kay, said were the foundation of every yoga practice. Principle 1 was to have a positive attitude. Every time someone came in saying, “oh, I’m not very flexible,” Laura Kay would remind them to appreciate the things their body could do rather than bemoaning the things it couldn’t. Principle 2 was to have strong legs and good alignment to protect joints and prevent injuries. And principle 3 was to open our hearts and radiate out our light. You can take this any number of ways, but my favorite explanation was when Laura Kay would tell us that smiling was the most advanced form of the pose.

One pose we did a lot was called ardha chandrasana, or half moon pose. It’s a balancing pose that looks like this:

half moon pose

(Thank you to Creative Commons Search, which allows me to find images that are tagged for reuse!)

This pose is hard! I am fairly good at balancing on one foot. I can even bend forward and touch the ground on one foot. But turning sideways makes it WAY more interesting. I can’t tell you how many times I leaned a little too far back and tipped over. But the marvelous thing about yoga with Laura Kay was that the typical response to something like this was to laugh and try again. And it wasn’t embarrassed laughter. It was “that was awesome because I was trying and pushing myself and I definitely looked really silly as I flailed” laughter.

I stopped practicing yoga for nearly two years after I came back to Boulder. I tried out a couple of classes here, but a lot of them felt really serious. I felt like I had to try to keep up, and I missed the laughter.

Enter Keeli, my freshman college roommate. We grew up ski racing against each other, but barely knew each other until CU randomly matched us up. She’s awesome at calling me randomly and dragging me along on some spontaneous adventure. That time, she wanted me to go with her to a yoga class that her friend Maggie taught every Tuesday night. It was with a non-profit group called Grass Roots Yoga that held classes in a big CU classroom on east campus.

That was a year and a half ago, and I have completely fallen in love with the class. I like the group of people who practice. It’s a mix of all ages, and several of the people are science and engineering researchers at CU. I actually really like that it’s not a proper studio; there are no mirrors and no pressure to be a “good yogi.” And I really love Maggie’s teaching style. She’s wonderful about giving modifications for poses and she’s a huge advocate for listening to what our bodies need. Some days that’s pushing myself to get stronger. Other days, I opt for variations of the poses that require less energy. One day, I was so exhausted that I chilled in child’s pose for literally the entire hour-long class.

One of my favorite things Maggie has ever taught me about is balance. She taught me that balance is not a destination. It’s not something I can achieve. It’s a process, and it’s always changing.

This idea TOTALLY changed how I viewed balancing poses. When balancing is a process, that means wobbles are a good thing. Falling over is a good thing. This fit in so beautifully with how I remembered feeling while I was practicing half moon pose with Laura Kay. The goal is not to achieve stillness, it’s to learn to respond to what we’re feeling and doing. Maggie often laughs and tells us “we’re humans, not statues!”

I have lots of reasons I enjoy practicing yoga. I still like the stretching and the core work, the shoulder strength and the mental challenge. I like being conscious of my breathing. But my favorite thing about yoga is how the principles of practice don’t just apply to yoga. They apply to life as well.

Lots of people talk about balancing responsibilities or managing their time. I can’t tell you how many posts I see about achieving work-life balancing. And the messages are incredibly mixed! One mentor told me never to think about school on Friday night or Saturday. One post I read suggested carving out one hour a day for self-care time. But I also feel incredible, constant pressure to get more done, or to take advantage of opportunities. And while I feel like some of my responsibilities are consistent (grading, anyone?) some of them vary, be that proctoring standardized testing or one of the (totally amazing) professional projects I take on beyond my classroom. When every day is different, how do I achieve balance?

And even beyond balancing my time, I’ve been trying to figure out how to balance who I am. That’s part of what I’m doing here! How do I balance being an adventurer, a nerd, and a hobbit? How do those things intersect and how do they contradict?

These questions have been driving me crazy for years, until I realized that I was asking the wrong questions. I don’t achieve balance. As Maggie said, I’m a human, not a statue. As life changes, I need to adapt. That’s partially why hard rules like the ones I mentioned above were frustrating to me; they assumed I could do the same thing every single day or week.

Now, I’m not great at adapting. I don’t like change. (This is a bit of an understatement; my mom can tell you some fairly hilarious stories to illustrate this point.) But maybe if I practice enough sideways balancing poses, if I can learn to laugh when I fall over, then I can learn to manage the wobbliness that comes with balancing life.

Your homework: How do you work towards balance in your life? How do you (or how could you) embrace the wobbles?

Hej då,

Jamie