day in the life · health · heavy-handed metaphors


It has come to my attention recently that I hold my breath. What does this have to do with academia? Probably everything.

I hold my breath when I am nervous, when I am excited, when I am thinking, and when I am working. I hold my breath when I watch television. I especially hold my breath when I fret, and goodness knows this is a profession that facilitates fretting.

I may well have reached a new fretting-record in the last few months. Between teaching four courses, travelling to several conferences, attempting to write, and trying to keep my personal life afloat at home and with my friends I suspect I have held my breath for a sum total of about six weeks. Sometimes I feel kind of smug about being able to ‘handle’ the stress of the schedule I keep. Lately though, I have felt like lying on the floor and drinking wine through a straw while watching reruns of Mad Men. The end of the semester always leaves me feeling depleted and even more breathless than usual, and not in a Godard/Truffaut kind of way. My thought pattern goes something like this: I have accomplished so much! And there is so much more to do! So much! All of the things must be done! I will write a book! I will make bread from scratch! I will write a book while making bread from scratch and learning French and teaching a spring course!


I practice yoga pretty regularly and have just started working on drop-backs. Drop-backs require that you go from standing at the front of your mat to ending up in a backbend. The in-between bit is where the dropping comes in: to make it into a drop-back you have to have a balance between leaning forward from the waist down in order to counter gravity. You also have to lean waaaay back from the wait up and look toward the floor. Somewhere between upright and upside down your hands catch you and voila! You have dropped back. It looks a little like this:

Well, actually my drop-backs look nothing like this, but you get the picture. Here’s where the breathing comes in: if you hold your breath at any stage of this crazy set of moves things do not proceed well. I get tunnel vision, constriction in my chest, and find it hard to think straight and remember seemingly obvious actions such as ‘place hands on floor to save head.’

The third or fourth time through this morning–after having forgotten each time to breathe–I asked my teacher why it was so difficult. It was a rhetorical question, I did not expect him to answer, but he did. He told me that I was thinking too much. As I thought about that he tipped me backwards quickly. I had no time to think, I just popped my hand down and landed. He did this several times in a row. It felt like I was moving faster than a speeding metronome. And just like that I realized that I was breathing without thinking about it.

Huh. Heavy-handed metaphor for surviving academia? Yes. Compelling for me today? Yes.

4 thoughts on “Breathe!

  1. I'm working on drop-backs too. My teacher said something that resonated with me: you have to trust that the floor will be there. Which is pretty meaningful when you're academically contingent, as you are: one of the reasons you stop breathing and work so hard is that the floor is not reliably there for you. It's hard to reach for the unseen floor behind you, exposing your heart and risking your head, when it's chancy whether the floor will be there to catch you or not.

    Keep breathing. And keep reaching up to the sky on your journey backwards to the floor.


  2. This post and Aimee's comment really resonate for me. I need to get back into yoga. In response to Aimee, I really feel the sense of insecurity and fragility when it comes to conferences. I am terrified that no one will care what I have to say, and that I will put all of this effort into creating a paper to present and yet after all of that emotional and intellectual effort no one will care . . . there will be no pay off. So I guess I am afraid to breathe, and afraid there will be no floor to catch me when I drop-back. I try to reduce my stress pre-presentation by hitting the gym, but maybe I should add yoga classes to that regiment.


  3. @ Aimee: Exactly, and thank you for saying so in such a wonderfully generous way. Any chance I'll see you in Waterloo?

    @ Stephanie: Exercise is so wonderful because you must breathe to do it! That said, I think your comments about worrying about conferences are so natural for so many. I can't count the number of conferences I have presented and left feeling as though I hadn't made an impact. However, ever conference paper you write does make an impact where it matters most: in your own thinking!


  4. Thanks Erin, I feel better knowing I am not alone. This is my first time at Congress so I'm really out of sorts! lol Exercise is saving my sanity 😉 btw I had a dream the other night that I was trying to do drop backs and kept whacking my head on the floor . . . hmm performance anxiety, I wouldn't know anything about that 😉


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