My kids taught me an expression that I absolutely love.
I love the freedom it gives to the person to keep on doing whatever weird thing it is that caught the speaker’s attention in the first place.
For example: [Looking up from cell phone.] “What’s that you’re doing, Mom?”
Me: “Trying to get my leg behind my head.”
[Perplexed look. Pause. Smile and shrug.] “You do you.” [Looks happily back at cell phone.]
In the same moment, we could have changed roles and the conversation could have gone precisely the same way.
For example: [Looks up from yoga mat.] “What’s that you’re doing, buddy?”
My son: “Trying to catch this super rare Pokemon. It’s a fire type and it evolves into the coolest forms with super high attack stats.”
[Perplexed look. Pause. Smile and shrug.] “You do you.” [Happily returns to trying to put her leg behind her head.]
Happily coexisting. Respectful of the others’ interests even though they are not shared. Leaving the other to be just as purely themselves as you are being. (Imagine if the world was more like this.)
Back when I was growing up (creak, creak, creak), it was more typical for someone to get mocked for not fitting in, for not being “normal,” for (to quote my parents) “dancing to the beat of their own drum.” To witness teens giving one another the space to be themselves is almost breathtaking. Now, I’m not naïve enough to think this radical acceptance is pandemic. In fact, I watch just enough of the news to know it’s something we still really need to work on. But I have to believe the fact that it has become part of teen slang is a step in the right direction.
Being yourself evolves over the course of your lifetime. At my kids’ ages, it’s perfectly normal to be trying on personas. “The good girl.” “The partier.” “The jock.” “The A student.” “The hyper crazy pal.” “The laid back, mellow kid.” “The nice guy.” In fact, several may fit so well, that we comfortably flip back and forth between them depending on what we’re doing, where we are and who we’re with. By the time we’re well into our twenties, however, we typically have a pretty good handle on our personality type.
But as we age and grow, we can start to feel a little boxed in by the labels we’ve applied to ourselves. Maybe we find ourselves suddenly interested in painting, or teaching or flying remote control airplanes. Our job at this point is to say to ourselves (with the same smile and shrug that my son and I gave one another), “You do you.” and then sit back to see what happens.
Because it doesn’t matter if what we try sticks. It doesn’t matter if it becomes part of who we are or a brief detour on the way to being who we are. Allowing ourselves the freedom to follow the impulse to try is the point. This is how we learn what we like, what we don’t like, what makes our hearts race a little, what makes us crazy excited, what lights us up. This type of exploring is exactly how to figure out how to “Do you.”
If we’re so worried about what our friends will think, or whether we’ll be awful at it, or whether we’ll be able to explain it to our kids, we’ll be as limiting to ourselves as those mocking teens I mentioned above could be. We need to be more like teens today – saying consistently to ourselves, in an empowering, encouraging, respectful, happy tone, “You do you.” And then get right down to the business of doing so. (Don’t forget to encourage the people in your life to do exactly the same thing.)
Repeat after me. “You do you…”
I first read these words and thought, “That can’t be right.” But they continued to rattle around in my head until I understood that they can be an intention rather than an indictment. They can be a lens to help you see the way to be the person you want to be. Let me explain.
A few weeks ago, I “lost” a posture that I’ve been doing for years. It’s never been an easy one for me. In fact, more often than I’d like, I would need several tries to get it. But once I got into it each day, I was strong and balanced. If you’d asked me what I was working on the day I lost the posture, it would have been on the list. But nowhere near the top. It was a posture I was refining rather than learning. There were (are and always will be) others that mostly escape me.
This is not the first time I’ve “lost” a posture. It happens. It’s not the greatest thing ever, but I have enough trust in yoga to know it will be back one day. Not only will the posture return to me, but when it does, I will have learned a great deal. When a lost posture re-emerges, it is often in a far more developed form. All this is to say that I’ve spent the last few weeks holding tight to my optimism and seeking the lessons that lie in wait for me.
Yet the way I “lost” the posture has weighed heavily on my heart. Not the physical bit. I know what happened. When I kicked up, my foundation shifted and I nearly fell. Not the emotional bit. I know what happened there, too. I got scared. In fact, I suspect that most of the lessons ahead of me are nestled in learning to face fear.
What’s been eating at me is the brutal way I treated myself that morning. I was militant, unforgiving and harsh. I hammered away at that posture until I was in tears. By the time I rolled up my mat, my elbows were bleeding and bruised. Let’s just say that the external damage was a perfect match to the damage I’d done within. I was as shaken by the onslaught as I was by my wobbly foundation in the posture.
Worries about the “lost” posture itself were dwarfed by a deep-seated fear that I was a yoga fraud. I was in awe of how I’d behaved toward me. Had I learned nothing in the past 14 years? Did I not really believe all that I teach? That what we do when we jump around on our mats is simply the tip of the iceberg. Sure, it’s good for us to have healthier, stronger, more flexible bodies. But, really, the practice is designed to teach us how to treat ourselves and one another. And the way I’d treated myself that morning was the opposite of the love, compassion, gentleness and acceptance that yoga has taught me.
So you can see why the opening quote stirred my pot. If it’s true that “The way you do anything is the way you do everything,” I’m kind of doomed as a yogi. But as these words rattled around in my head, I had an epiphany. I do not need to read them as an indictment. In fact, they present an opportunity to root more deeply into the reason I fell in love with this practice so long ago.
So I had a bad morning. So I behaved in a way that I find abhorrent. So I misused this practice that I treasure. So I got a little crazy. This does not mean that I’m going to behave this way all the time, that I’m going to continue to use yoga as a stick with which to beat myself and my students or that I am actually (full-time) crazy. To cut to the chase, the way I handled that morning is not the way I’m going to handle all future setbacks and failures in my life. Rather, that morning is a light to shine on the way yoga has changed me and the way I live.
In the last 14 years, I have learned to be more loving, compassionate, gentle and accepting of myself and others. It’s one of the gifts of yoga for which I am most grateful. It’s totally changed the way I experience my life. It’s made me a better wife, mother, friend, sister and daughter. It’s helped me train puppies, work on volunteer teams and teach in a way that makes me hopeful that my life will make the world a slightly better place. In short, over the past 14 years, I have worked hard to allow the way I do yoga to touch the way I do everything.
Take a look at the thing you love most to do. It doesn’t matter what it is – skiing, arguing a court case, knitting, gardening, running, writing, being a parent. I suspect that the way you do it – with heart, focus, energy, tenderness, commitment – is the way you do everything when you’re on your game. No worries if you, like me, slip up. Because this is something we love to do, we’ll have plenty of chances to try again.
The community that springs from a yoga class is a beautiful and mysterious thing. Yoga, after all, is a quiet practice. The work that we do is quite individual – done on our own within the bounds of our mat. Our awareness or concentration is fixed squarely on ourselves – the movements of our body, the sound of our breath and the focus of our mind. During each class, we confront our own “stuff” – wandering thoughts, limiting fears, complacent hearts and striving egos.
Yet somehow, sharing our practice with others – whether weekly or daily – creates deep and meaningful bonds that can seem incongruous to the five or ten minutes of chatting that happens before or after class. That said, these relationships are very real and often become valuable and highly trusted supports for us as we navigate our lives. These connections cross barriers of age, profession and gender in ways it can be hard for other friendships to do.
These yoga-based communities can serve as guiding lights to students entering new stages of life such as parenthood, marriage, or divorce. They can be profoundly supportive to grieving students. They erupt into ebullient celebrations of a member’s success as often as they become immediate and intimate sources of loving compassion when a member is suffering a setback or failure. No state of mind or feeling is out of bounds. Whether these emotions are openly shared or simply perceived by the rest of the community does not matter. Confusion, pride, frustration and joy are equally welcomed into the folds of these relationships.
We use a Sanskrit word to describe these communities – sangha. That this word also refers to communities of Buddhist monks or nuns does not surprise me. The deep, meaningful nature of the relationships that develop in yoga classes has a spiritual feel to it. These friendships are connections at a very different level than we’re accustomed to in our daily lives. The fact that we’ve spent our time on our mat practicing being kind, loving, gentle and accepting of ourselves creates a loving environment where we are naturally kind, loving, gentle and accepting of everyone in the room. As we practice yoga, we are changing on all levels – body, mind and spirit. The relationships forged when we’re so open and so vulnerable seem to spontaneously deepen.
This is, I believe, the way we were created to live – constantly aware that we are a part of something greater than ourselves. We are beings who thrive on connection and who wither in isolation. When we’re feeling strong and vital, we can share that energy with the world around us. When we are feeling small, sad, alone or low, the simple of act of reaching out – going to church, volunteering at an animal shelter, calling a friend, going to a class – can be transformational. Re-joining the world around us, even in a tiny way, helps to remind us that we are an integral part of this great big, complicated, messy creation.
It’s not just the depressed or withdrawn who have a hard time connecting. Our culture celebrates the individual. We get stuck in our own head. We get wrapped up in our own successes and our own struggles. Even with regards to our spiritual lives, it is remarkably easy for us to become consumed with our own salvation or our own relationship with God. English scholar Owen Barfield describes this state of mind as the “desert of nonparticipation.” Living as an autonomous individual finding his or her own way through the wilderness of the world can be a hard habit to recognize – let alone to break.
Just as yoga allows us to practice better posture, more efficient movements, refreshing and nurturing breathing patterns and focused states of mind, it allows us to practice being in community. As with all the skills that we practice on our mats, this one translates beautifully into “real life.” Better yet, our “practice” communities (our sanghas) are as real and as powerful as the bodily and mental strength we create through yoga.
As we see and receive the gifts from these beautiful connections, we begin to trust ourselves to reach out in this same way to the people who fill our days. We are hopeful and optimistic that it is possible to connect despite surface differences. We find it easier to be gentle rather than judging. We approach the world around us with a sense of generosity and acceptance. It begins to feel more natural and less frightening to be open and a little vulnerable.
In short, yoga, which comes from the Sanskrit word “yuj,” meaning to unite or to connect, becomes much more than a practice. It becomes a way of living a life deeply connected to the world around us.
As I walked out of grad school, diploma in hand, I swore I’d never be a student again. My two year program was plenty long enough to convince me that I was much better suited to the “real world” than to academia. You can hear the ridiculous childhood rhyme that was echoing in my head, right? “No more papers! No more books! No more teachers’ dirty looks!!”
In a shocking twist, it turns out that my 24-year-old self still had an awful lot to learn.
In the 24 years since, I’ve been a student nearly every day. I’ve studied the publishing industry, speech writing, the world of educational software, marketing, child-rearing, child-launching, religious and spiritual studies, a little about gardening and a lot about yoga. A whole lot about yoga. My studies have required me to read shelves and shelves of books, to do hours of online research, to compile and synthesize data from many different and divergent sources. I’ve spent hours taking notes. And even more hours writing papers, presentations and essays.
Every single area of study has taught me something that has translated into other areas of my life. I still refer to material I included in speeches I wrote for the president of a publishing house as a newly minted business person. I still lean heavily on the creative and innovative muscles I developed while working in the brand new industry of interactive software. Every Sunday I come home from church a little wiser. Lord knows, I’ve learned more from raising three kids than from any school or any professor I have ever had. Don’t even get me started on the yoga. (At least not yet.)
Abraham Lincoln once said,
I couldn’t have said it better myself. To study and to learn daily makes life an adventure to explore. When you’re in student mode, you are stretching, growing and challenging yourself. You continue to become a better … whatever! On the contrary, to stop studying or to assume that you have nothing left to learn is the most direct route I can think of to stagnation and boredom.
The moment I finished my thesis and thought to myself, there is not another thing I want or need to know about the agrarian nature of the Peruvian economy (honestly, don’t even ask), I was probably right. My mistake was to think that just because I was all done learning about the economics of developing countries, that I was all done learning.
What I had lost sight of as a professional student, is that being a student is fun, exciting and invigorating. In my quest to finally know “enough” (to graduate), I lost sight of the fact that not knowing is a much more desirable position. Not knowing allows you to think, to dream, to explore, to experiment, to consider, to question, to change and to grow. Knowing? Well, when you think you know it all, that’s all you know.
This weekend I was lucky to attend a three day workshop with a yoga teacher I’ve always wanted to meet. I’ve read his book countless times. I’ve watched every DVD he’s published. I’ve spent 13 years practicing the kind of yoga he teaches. I teach this same yoga nearly every day. It would have been easy to assume I knew “enough.” In fact, more than one person asked me, “Why on earth are you choosing to spend three whole (weekend!!) days listening to someone talk about what you already know?”
The answer is easy. I don’t think I will ever know “enough.” Hearing his story was powerful and, somehow, shed a new light on my own. Listening to him share the wisdom he learned from his teacher gave me a new understanding and a new perspective on the practice we share. Yes, he taught some postures in a way that left me thinking, “I knew that already.” Still, it was nice to have that knowledge reinforced and affirmed. There were also a few postures that he approached entirely differently than I do. Does that mean he’s right and I’m wrong? I don’t know yet. I need to play around with what he taught me for a little while.
Let’s just say, it was a great three days. I came home happily full and tired – body, mind and spirit. As I listened to myself teach this week, I could see the gifts of being a student. My language changed a little. My suggestions in certain postures shifted. I felt energized by a desire to share all that I had learned. And, as I watched my students respond to these new ideas, I learned even more. What a happy, endless cycle it is to learn and to teach!
Today, as I continue to walk through the school of life (on and off my mat) without a diploma or a graduation date in sight, I solemnly swear that I will never NOT be a student. And, as an addendum to this vow, I pledge to embrace with open arms and an open mind every single instant that I’m graced with the chance to learn a little more about living. What do you say? Would you like to join me?
[mk_blockquote style=”quote-style” font_family=”none” text_size=”16″ align=”left”]When you open yourself to the continually changing, impermanent, dynamic nature of your own being and reality, you increase your capacity to love and care about other people and your capacity to not be afraid. You’re able to keep your eyes open, your heart open, and your mind open. And you notice when you get caught up in prejudice, bias, and aggression. You develop an enthusiasm for no longer watering those negative seeds, from now until the day you die. And you begin to think of your life as offering endless opportunities to start to do things differently.” – Pema Chodron [/mk_blockquote]
The world is a scary place these days. Between terrorist attacks and this shameful, hate-filled presidential campaign, you can hardly turn on the news without seeing a story that makes you want to turn it off again. And that’s just the big stuff. We all face people who make us feel uncomfortable or intimidated or small or scared every single day.
Even scarier to me than these things is how our fear tempts us to withdraw – to stay home and curl in a little ball. This isolation is no good. Maya Angelou says, “when you do nothing, you feel overwhelmed and powerless. But when you get involved, you feel the sense of hope and accomplishment that comes from knowing you are working to make things better.”
Even worse than staying home, though, is when our fear manifests in an “us/them” mentality. It can be a little sneaky. After all, it’s pretty easy to point fingers at terrorists or politicians spouting racist or misogynist rhetoric. (I know this from personal experience.) It’s also pretty easy to feel sanctimonious when the obnoxious member of the committee you sit on starts ranting — again. But we really, really, really want to avoid this slippery slope. We want to remember that, like us, these are people – with beliefs and passions and opinions. We want to hold onto at least a tiny question mark of curiosity when we consider them. Even a hint of curiosity keeps us engaged and connected. It inspires us to ask questions, to try to understand another perspective. Without this, we end up just as entrenched and just as close-minded as we feel that they are.
We practice maintaining this curious state of mind as we practice yoga. Day after day, as we move through yoga postures, we witness our capacity to change. One day we can’t. One day we can. One day, out of the clear blue, we’re strong enough. One day, out of the clear blue, a posture simply disappears. We see change as we grow and progress. We see change as we back-slide and regress.
The more we notice ourselves changing, the more open-minded we become about ourselves. We set aside assumptions, preconceived notions and limiting beliefs. We find that we’re hunting for changes eagerly, as if every practice is a scavenger hunt. In this state of mind, we can’t help but to learn more about ourselves. We learn “good” things about ourselves: what we’re capable of; what makes our heart thrill; what inspires us to think, “I want that!” We learn “not so good” things about ourselves: what scares us; what we loathe; what inspires us to run the other way. And we learn that it’s all ok because nothing is permanent. It’s always changing. WE’RE always changing.
As we know, what happens on the yoga mat is only the tip of the iceberg. This curious state of mind, like the rest of yoga, becomes a well-engrained habit. Almost without effort, we see the world and the people around it with the same curiosity with which we’ve learned to see ourselves on our mats. In this curious, wondering, open state of mind, it is much less tempting to slip into an “us/them” mentality. (And, when we do, we are much more likely to notice, which is the first step toward changing it.)
Instead, we choose to do things differently. We stay engaged. We stay involved – even if just in tiny ways. We keep hunting for ways to connect, ways to learn and ways to grow. Even those things or people that scare us badly lose a little of their power over us. The understanding that everything and everybody is capable of changing is so deeply rooted in us that, when faced with something or someone that scares us, we are able to replace our fear with hope.
Yes, the world can be a scary place. But we have the capacity to not be afraid and to see life as an endless string of opportunities to change the world for the better. All it takes is keeping a tiny question mark of curiosity alive in your heart.