Obedience school

As I teach or take yoga in various settings, a comment from my hero Emilie Conrad echoes in my head.  “Yoga is obedience school,” she says.  I wish I could argue with her statement, but I can’t.  And I’m a bit horrified by the implications . . . they say a lot about me as well as our society.

We attend yoga class, or any class, and do what the teacher says.  Even now, after years of practicing and teaching, I’ll try to follow the routine she presents, even when my body says no.  And new students are worse.  How did we get so divorced from our own body wisdom, so passive, so ready to obediently follow the teacher? Why do we go to classes and gyms and yoga studios and use videos and all kinds of equipment to move at all?

I’m not saying this “working out” stuff is all bad, but I am amazed by it and want to know more.  We are surely conditioned in school and in our families as to how to behave.  When we are young we are vulnerable, often fearful, and we want to be accepted.  But we pay a large price in losing our joy in exploration.  Where is the joy of the child in spontaneous movement?  What happens to our sense of aliveness, curiosity, and expression in our worlds?  Can we find this presence again, and what are the implications of finding it?

I say Emilie Conrad is a voice in the wilderness, a woman with a mind of her own and a 78-year-old body more supple and attuned than that of many young yoga teachers.  My encounters with Emilie reveal to me my own servility as a citizen, my own deadened awareness, sensitivity, and potential.  I have never lost my joy in movement, and yet I am inhibited, rigid, and tight with my efforts to make my way in the world, to stay “in shape”  (we have spread a bound up ideal of what shape that should be).  I have done my share of working out for an hour to burn calories and be good.  As a yoga student and teacher I wear grooves in the mat from repeating poses in the same ways.  As a human, I worry about making a living instead of doing my work in the world.

“We create the world through our movement,” says Emilie.  And what kind of world have I created?  One of limitations, tentativeness, frustration.  I am expressing fear by staying in my grooves, playing it safe, going through motions.  Yet at times I venture into creative spaces, natural places, spontaneous movement or writing.  I am learning to move in more dimensions, because, again heeding Emilie’s words, when we move in different dimensions, our world becomes bigger; it develops dimension, new perspective, and fruit.

Emilie says, and I wholeheartedly concur, that if we learn to notice how we move, to vary it, to explore and experiment, our worlds will expand.  We will begin to really feel the fresh fall air brush our skin again, to hear the meadowlark’s sweet song, to engage with our loved ones, and to pause enough to hear the underlying motives of our enemies.  We will leave our ruts and find new worlds, new possibilities.   Sound too easy?  It is not.  We just don’t know how, and it is at first challenge to poke our heads out of our ruts.  But we can begin in our own homes or in the woods, to play, dance, and move more freely with more of ourselves.

I have experienced the truth of waking the body to change the world.  I have heard Matthew Sanford and Emilie Conrad speak of it, and I have had a teacher show me how it works.  And yet given the society we live in and my own fear and habits, I must practice:  Yoga and dance can be a spiritual practice, or a practice of one’s art, but the practice deepens us and our awareness.  It may be one the most accessible ways to change our lives and wake up, before it’s too late.

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Steve Jobs and me

I am reading Steve Jobs’s biography.   Why does this yoga teacher want to read about an arrogant nasty person whose work centered on technology?  Really it was encountering the applications of iPhones and iPads in the disability world and the recommendation of a woman I met at the Colorado Center for the Blind.

A person could write about 15 different aspects of Jobs’s career, but I’m particularly drawn toward two of his work traits.  He knew how to focus, and he usually knew what to focus on.  “Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do,” he said.  “That’s true for companies, and it’s true for products.”   So he narrowed down the projects that Apple worked on and sought to perfect the products and services associated.   The other trait I admire in him is realizing what people need before they need it and creating it (and yes, it can obviously be argued that we don’t need iPhones).

The truth is that my current greatest career challenges are learning to focus and developing the confidence to press forward to create something I think many folks don’t know they need.   I have this problem of being distracted by some shiny existing job with a good salary when I am already on track in terms of creating my work.

Instead I need to hone in on my task, find others to work with, and follow Jobs’s example by going my own way, keeping my finger on the pulse of change, creating that which people do not yet know they need.

What did Jobs decide to turn away from as he moved toward his vision?  He turned away from developing some products, from working with other companies in sharing software, from employees who were not smart, creative, and tough.  Perhaps he decided not to focus on gentleness in his rush to produce.  He certainly didn’t waste time with people or things or designs he didn’t like.  What he did focus on was products he thought people would need, that would help them to be more creative, that would change the world.

What do I need to turn away from?  Fear, fancy mainstream jobs, the latest “lucrative career fields” posted on Yahoo.com.  I think that the need to belong and the fear of poverty are behind the process.  Like everyone, I want to feel needed, valued, productive, and like I can make a good living.  Such needs can supersede my creativity.  In addition, we are trained and conditioned from an early age to take our places in the system as it is rather than to question it and create new things.  Such conditioning has a strong hold on me and it slips in when I feel frustrated or isolated in what I’m doing.  Jobs’s cantankerous personality and his rebellions streak may have actually helped him stay on track, to be immune to the above mentioned needs and fears.  I do think his drive to create affected his behavior with others and was linked to his meanness.  Yet it seems his internal value system influenced his ability to inspire those who are creative, intelligent, and self-motivated.

And how do I stay focused?  I need to turn toward what excites and challenges me.  And toward tasks that align with my personal characteristics.  To calling attention to the failings in our health and mental healthcare system and proposing new models, to teaching yoga and writing.  I need to keep poking my nose out there.Image

I keep connecting with organizations and individuals involved in health care as a yoga teacher and writer.  My thought is to help individuals with health issues tune into their own inner wisdom, their own talents (re Jobs), their communities.  I take inspiration from the part of Jobs that was committed, took risks, connected with bright individuals in garages and corporations, dressed to suit himself, and kept his sights on the product.  Yes, many of his qualities were not as inspiring, but his focus and drive are.  And I do choose to take his advice to “think different.”

Free for all

My current work environment is a “free for all.” Employees are free to create their own job, free to use their colleagues as they like (given they assent), free to set their hours and to choose how to use them, free to take a break when they need to. Dress code is casual, and yoga is offered. We even have a dog on staff (soon I’m going to add this cat).
No, it isn’t a top-ten innovative company filled with the best and the brightest; it’s an organization serving people with disabilities, and many of us employees have disabilities. The boss is simply laid back—caring, good at fundraising, and inclined to let us manage ourselves.
Now there are drawbacks as well as advantages to all this freedom: For one thing, I’ve had a hell of a time figuring out how to do my job and whether I like it. On the other hand, I’ve been able to do more of the things I like, such as writing a newsletter and creating a website, and I can minimize time spent on things I am not inclined to do, like casework or organizing social events. At one point I had to clarify my position with myself, the boss, and the staff: Since then I’ve felt more aligned and energized.
Given all this freedom, there is a temptation to take advantage. To slack, or to attempt to manipulate others, or to define their jobs for them. There could be a blaming of our own disabilities for falling short on a project or not doing something.
Yet, in all this wonderful chaos, there is regard for individuals, and there is laughter, and there is room for creating a support group or website or even a new conversation on health outside of the medical model. In that sense, it is a highly evolved work environment. In another sense, there is dysfunction that slides under the onus of disability rights. Everything and everyone has its dark side.
My point is: Out of chaos can come amazing things. I have learned to exercise new muscles in communication and in technology. I have gained much validation too, of my introverted nature and need to retreat and work on the website. I have learned how to serve in a way that suits me—not out of guilt and pushing myself, but in finding the tasks I can do well and helping willingly. By spending time listening to people’s stories instead of trying to fix problems, by standing up for myself when people ask too much, or ask for inappropriate things, or ask for things I cannot give without exhaustion and resentment. To give what I can and give it well.
The environment is wide open, the positions freely defined, and most importantly, the lessons really are free for all.

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