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It's an undoing.
One million years ago, when I was a yoga teacher and took classes for a living, I had a wonderful teacher named Dana. When I first moved to New York and worked at the front desk at OM Yoga, she was already a popular teacher: smart, incisive, tough, clear-as-day, a little scary, and gorgeous in that effortless dancer way. She was five years older than me — I looked up to her like a big sister — and she’d run into the studio to teach and then run off to what seemed to me to be a very sophisticated, glamorous life: off to dance rehearsal or to dinner with her boyfriend or her friends or to teach her private students or or or (I didn’t really know). I could immediately feel myself being propelled in her direction: Dana was a professional modern dancer and yoga teacher and a real New Yorker and in five years, that could (maybe) be me, too. (It was.)
Eventually, she — along with my beloved Jennifer Brilliant — trained me to teach yoga, so I was in class with her all the time, learning the intricacies of helping people move their bodies through space.
I’ve not thought about Dana for years, but this weekend, when I came to the end of a very busy work week, a week in which I taught (writing! not yoga) every morning and every evening and did a whole lot of parenting and prepping and cooking and laundry in between and generally felt burned out (burned out! so quickly into the school year!), I thought of something Dana once said in class.
We were in downward dog (how I remember this so vividly, I have no idea, it’s been almost 20 years), and she was talking about doing less. By the time of this class — I want to say, 2003 or 2004? — she had taken her Buddhist refuge vows and was a devoted meditator and no longer taught with music on or tried to make it fun (it was fun in a different way, just not in a rock-out-to-Marvin Gaye-in-sun-salutations way). She was interested only in how we breathed in the poses, where we placed our attention while inhabiting the poses. Maybe by then she wasn’t really interested in vinyasa anymore, only in anatomy and breathing and mindful awareness.
People were in downward dog shaking out their necks to loosen up, as they do, and generally trying to do less by doing more: playing with their mouths to release the stress in the jaw, bending and straightening knees, and, of course, doing the infamous rolling/shaking/bouncing of the neck to let the head hang more completely. She seemed miffed.
It’s not a doing, she said, it’s an undoing.
For a moment I’m quite sure none of us knew what she was talking about. What’s an undoing? Do you want us to…go into child’s pose? Head right to savasana?
But soon it became clear. When you want to do less, why are you still doing more? Even if the more is something different than capital-M More? In other words, can you be in the pose and actually do less? And by less she meant: what if you simply relaxed your head, your jaw, your heels? No shaking, no blubbering of the lips, no treading of the feet to make yourself to less. Just: turn it all down. What if the action required wasn’t a doing but something else, maybe even the opposite thing: an undoing, as she called it.
It reminded me of another moment in class from those days, during my teacher training, when, in addition to two master classes and one meditation/Buddhist talk a week, we had to make it to four asana practices no matter what and I was sick and showed up anyway (we did that then) and realized that it was actually okay to be there and exert the least amount of energy possible. I didn’t have to give it my all every single time. Doing my practice in a quieter, gentler way taught me something then — that maybe I was, on the whole, trying too hard, exerting energy unnecessarily. Maybe I could show up and breathe and move and still experience the yoga, I could still experience my body in space, just as it was in that moment, imperfect and tired and with not a whole lot to give. Maybe I could still get something back that way.
All of this came back to me this weekend when I had an afternoon to collapse — the kid was off with her best friend — and I kept thinking: Why do my limbs feel like lead? What can I do to get my energy back? What would help right now? TV? Reading? A bath? A podcast? A walk? A phone call?
And eventually I decided: nothing. Nothing would help.
So I went to sleep, midday. And when I woke up, I listened to a podcast in bed, and even that felt like input, like trying too hard, like too many voices, so I turned it off and stared at the ceiling and eventually thumbed my way through a cookbook with zero ambition to actually cook. And I realized that what I was doing was an undoing. I wasn’t trying to stuff the Doing piled with Relaxing Things. I was, instead, not filling it up at all.
When I woke up on Monday morning, I felt more human again, ready to open the shades and put on real clothing and take a walk and make some breakfast and write this letter and do all the things I do. But I needed a moment of nothing to make it possible.
I know how impossible this is is for so many of us. Where to fit that in? I have no idea, each of our lives are so different. But I do think of Dana, of reminding me, in the midst of standing solidly on my hands and feet, butt up in the air, hamstrings opening and shoulder blades spreading and ribs tucking in, that even that can, in its own way, be an undoing.
A FEW THINGS I was delighted by Bonnie Garmus’ Lessons in Chemistry. I also loved listening to Wesley Morris talk about Serena Williams’ legacy and Michael Cunningham discuss the opening of The Hours on Book Exploder. Thoroughly enjoyed Gutsy. I’ve been sort of underwhelmed by Meghan Markle’s Archetypes, but really enjoyed the episode with Mindy Kaling.
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