Wednesday, February 11, 2009

In the Spirit of Inquiry:
Finding Balance in Mid-Semester Crunch
By: Beth Berila

“Our own self-judgment or the judgment of other people can stifle our life force, its spontaneity and natural expression. “
Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.
In this time of frigid cold stretches , when campus is carpeted in treacherous ice and we have to bundle ourselves in warm layers until we are hardly recognizable, I find myself longing for warm spring days. Like many people, I rejoiced in the brief warm spell this past weekend, when everyone seemed in a better mood and neighbors I hadn’t seen in weeks ventured outdoors. In beautiful weather such as that, it becomes easier to be spontaneous and playful, to reach out to others and connect.

Many people expressed psychic shock at the rapid return of the cold on Monday. We knew, of course, that Minnesota winter was nowhere near over. Still, the sudden arctic air seemed unduly harsh. People scurried back to their warm shelters (if they are privileged enough to have a heated roof over their heads). Many students were absent from class on Monday and those who were present seemed physically drooped; their bodies literally slumped in the seats while they fought to remain awake in what is otherwise a usually lively bunch.

Of course, students’ fatigue is not merely a factor of a post-Superbowl winter Monday. We are approaching the time in the semester when semester crunch hits, when our schedules start piling up so high that we find it hard to make time for fun, sleep, or a nutritious meal. Often, we promise ourselves those things after we make it through the hump of deadlines, but the result is that we end up running on empty.

I wonder, as I steel myself against the biting wind and the upcoming onslaught of work deadlines, how we can cultivate an inner warmth and playfulness even when outer circumstances do not easily warrant it. How can we foster that exuberant vibrance when we seem so burdened by responsibilities, obstacles, stresses, illness, and yes, even weather?
In yoga this question is perhaps best addressed through the complimentary Universal Principles of Alignment called Muscular and Organic Energy. Muscular Energy is charged when we draw energy into our core to ground ourselves. As such, Muscular Energy is a source of strength and stability; we literally “hug into” our inner strength as a way to nurture and revitalize ourselves. It’s the type of energy many of us need to resist midsemester winter blues.

Organic Energy occurs when we extend outward, shooting our energy out through extended arms, head, and legs, imagining ourselves taking up more space with our energy then we do with our literal body. We radiate Organic Energy when we are creative and inspired, when we suggest new ideas or meet old ones with revitalized energy. Organic Energy infuses the air on the first couple warm days of spring; it’s exciting, imaginative, and passionate, which is why it is often considered more desirable.

And yet, we need them both. They are complimentary forces that feed one another. They are considered Universal Principles of Alignment because they are present in every yoga pose. They pulsate in a spanda, a dance where both play an equally important role, much like our breath moves both inward and outward. Muscular Energy always precedes Organic Energy for obvious reasons; we have to ground ourselves before we can expand. We cannot give what we do not have, though too often we try, particularly if we are women.

Similarly, we cannot sustain Organic Energy—that creative, inspiring, exuberance--unless we also take the time to hug in and support ourselves in whatever way works best for each of us. Self-care practices do not have to be overly expensive or time consuming. They can include simple, obvious gestures: a walk, a quiet time, or a fun evening with friends, but whatever rituals we do to care for ourselves are vital if we are to have the energy and vitality to extend ourselves in healthy ways, rather than overextended ones.

We absolutely need Organic Energy to revitalize and inspire us. Muscular Energy by itself would be like wearing winter jackets and scarves all year long; not only is it unnecessary, it will likely become stifling. We nourish ourselves in part so that we can reach out and share our insights and our gifts with others in order to contribute to our communities. The pulsation between the two should be balanced and rhythmic, like our breath. But it’s the balance itself that allows us to reach farther and explore our limits in healthy ways from the grounded strength of our firm foundation.

I think of this yogic insight as we head into that time of the semester when I often see students forgetting to eat or sleep in order to complete exams, work, and contribute to campus organizing. Those are all important goals, but they can only be sustained if we remember to hug in and give ourselves what we need to take care of ourselves. I write this column now to remind young activists and students to take care of themselves. We are not doing anyone any favors if we exhaust our energies in the short term to such an extent that we cannot contribute over the longer haul.

This is an important lesson to learn for those who are going into feminist and social justice fields, because so often those urgent social issues will absorb anything and everything we have to give. Add to that the gendered social ideology that women are supposed to give abundantly to others but rarely give to ourselves, and we have a self-defeating scenario. Moreover, in this time of economic uncertainty and budget cuts, many of us will be asked to do more with less. That many feminists will step up to the plate and do the work rather than let urgently needed programs die attests to our dedication and vitality. But we also need to make sure that we do not burn ourselves or others out in the process.

It’s important to remember that our commitment to feminist social justice cannot supercede our commitment to maintaining our own healthy selves. It’s usually when we feel we can least afford the time for that self-care ritual that we need to take it—we will be able to return refreshed and energized to the causes about which we are so passionate.

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