Saturday, January 28, 2012

When Did Self-Care Become Selfish?

One of my Women’s Studies students approached me this week, deeply upset.  She was agonizing over a decision she had made to cancel a meeting she was supposed to lead so that she could attend a significant professional opportunity. 

“Did I make the right decision?” she wondered.  “I know that this event (which only occurs once a year) will offer me important feminist and career networking opportunities,” she told me, “but….am I being selfish?”

How easily we women resort to guilt and self-blame if we take care of ourselves.  We are supposed to succeed, and, thanks to feminist movements, have many more opportunities to do so.  But still, we are somehow expected to put everyone else’s needs ahead of our own.

Or at least we think we are.

“Can the meeting you were supposed to lead be rescheduled?” I asked. “Is there enough time to accomplish what you need to accomplish even if the meeting is rescheduled?”

“Yes,” she said, “but I feel selfish. Am I making the right decision?”

The sense of duty and responsibility she feels toward her feminist commitments is admirable.  It’s what happens when we devote our lives to a cause larger than ourselves.  It is a kind of Karma Yoga that calls us to serve others. 

Judith Lasater poses the provocative question, “Is it possible…to serve without attachment to outcome, including how you should appear to others? How do you honor the spirit of karma yoga and also honor your own needs?”

This young woman offers a great deal of her energies to feminist organizing—so why was this one choice to prioritize her own professional advancement seen as an act of selfish individualism?

Her angst was familiar.  I often envy my colleagues who promote themselves with apparent ease.  I, too, have a hard time tooting my own horn or compromising my sense of feminist duty to work on my own advancement.

And until yoga, I had an even harder time letting go of responsibilities to take care of myself.

But, as Toni Cade Bambara told us, “if your house ain’t in order, you ain’t in order.”
Putting your house in order means many things, including knowing when to step back, recharge, rest, and regroup.

There is a reason that airplane recordings tell us to fasten our own oxygen masks before helping anyone else.  We cannot stay in the game of social change for the long haul if we don’t take care of ourselves.  And we cannot be sure to keep a grounded, clear, compassionate feminist vision of social change if we let ourselves get so burned out that our vision gets skewed and reactionary.

Yoga has taught me that it is, in fact, feminist to engage in healthy self-care.  When I carve out time for my yoga practice, when I have fun with friends, when I chill out, I can come back to my responsibilities with refreshed, rejuvenated, and, yes, grounded.   When I come to my mat on a regular basis, then I am much more likely to approach my feminist work with the compassion, balance, and equanimity that I want to bring to it. 

Giving to ourselves means we have more of ourselves to give.

My student will have made connections at that event that will let her continue to do her feminist social change work in the long run.  That is a good feminist choice.

“When you serve yourself, you make it possible to serve others. And when you serve others, you acknowledge your interdependence with all of life.”
                                    --Judith Lasater

Check out the reposting on Elephant Journal

Sunday, January 22, 2012


When I was little, I wanted to be Wonder Woman.  Lynda Carter rocked my world, and I even tried to make her snazzy red white and blue costume out of paper one year for Halloween. (It didn’t work).

How many of us, though, have learned that we have to be super woman to be good at our jobs at work and in life?  How many of us hold ourselves to impossibly high standards and feel that the only way to be truly good at what we do is to be invincible?  To, like Wonder Woman in her invisible jet, hide the messy work of our own, human journey?

I did, for years, as I tried to perform the perfectionism in my nature. In my classroom, I presented a knowing self, feeling insecure whenever I was challenged, but performing the invulnerability that I had been taught was expected.

But that only took me so far, and it kept both my teaching and my learning constrained.  It wasn’t until I learned that my true “super girl” lies in my vulnerability.  Yoga—and life--taught me that.

In my yoga classes, I feel accepted for my whole being, the flaws as well as the gifts.  Yoga gives me the gifts to work with what I consider to be my flaws in ways that turn them into gifts.  Just as my lower back pain means I can’t easily pop into a backbend, learning the proper tools helps me deepen my sensitivity.  I draw on the tools I have (taking my thighs back, widening my sitz bones, scooping my tailbone, broadening my lower back) until I can slowly, carefully, and gloriously, inch into a back bend.

I find the same is true with my fears, angers, and insecurities.  In my youth, when students questioned me, I used to search for the answer that made me seem like the “master” of the field. I operated on the assumption (one I had been taught) that I could only be qualified if I knew everything.  What a flawed model to teach our students and ourselves.

Thanks to yoga, I have lightened up a great deal. Now I often start with where I am vulnerable.  When I prepare to teach a yoga class, I look around my life for the areas where I struggle.  What keeps pushing my buttons this week? Where do I reach for mindfulness practices and find them stabilizing, or perhaps find them not enough?  I design my yoga classes from there. Inevitably, these are the classes when students come up to me afterwards and tell me they felt the class was directed toward them.  Somehow, in sharing my own authenticity, I had touched theirs.

I find myself using this skill in the academic classroom as well.  When we explore feminist theories, I illustrate for students where I grapple with the failures of some of the ones I hold most closely.  I try to model for them how to believe in something deeply and yet still question it and see its limitations. There isn’t an easy answer to the world’s toughest questions, and suggesting to our students that there is does them a disservice. When they raise questions that I don’t know how to answer, I work with them on how to sit compassionately with those unsolvable dilemmas.   Student feedback suggests that these are the classes that teach them lessons they will draw on for years to come, not merely content they will forget in a year.

Parker Palmer writes that we teach who we are, not merely what we know.  Once, last year, when a student was sharing with me a dilemma she was facing, I shared a time from my own past when I stumbled and got sidetracked from what I thought my feminist path was.  She looks puzzled, shocked, and then immensely relieved, as she exclaimed, “I thought you were always this cool.  I hadn’t imagined that you might have struggled like this too once.”

Once, I thought.  How about every day?  That day was another reinforcing message that our students need the life skills to weather hard negotiation. Mindfulness offers some tools along that path.  It is not just knowledge students need, but also emotional intelligence and compassionate, wise capacity.  Just as teachers teach who we are, students also learn who they are. 

Our job is to help them do that, so that, in the words of Parker Palmer, “As we learn more about who we are, we can learn techniques that reveal rather than conceal the personhood from which good teaching comes.”
So maybe I am not Wonder Woman, with all those cool bullet- repellant bracelets. But I think I am teaching students that their "superbness" doesn't reside in their flawlessness but rather in their capacity to compassionately stay with the big questions.  

How do you bring your vulnerability into your teaching?