When I’m feeling scattered and panicked, like I’m all fizzy brain and frazzle plan, reactive instead of active, there’s a little yoga exercise I do. I’m doing it a lot, because it’s conference season and I spun really fast from my very first Trudeau Foundation Summer Retreat / Institute for Engaged Leadership in rural Québec right back out to Congress in Vancouver. A lot of people I know are in similar situations, bouncing from one thing to the next, high speed, scattering powerpoints and nametags and boarding passes as they go.
This might be you, too. You might like my yoga trick, then.
I call it the re-balance. I roll myself heavily from standing down into a loose forward fold, legs a little wider, knees more than a little bent, back snake-y, arms hung long from unstructured shoulders. I literally hang out. I feel the blood shift through my neck, my face, making my head feel heavier and warmer. I contemplate my toes. My arms get heavy. My thighbones push back deeply into my hip sockets. My outer hips stretch long, an unexpected sensation. The big glute muscles in my butt and the hamstring muscles in the backs of my legs wake up, producing more unexpected sensations. I just haaaaaaaang ooooooouuuuut for a bit, notice the shift in perspective, in my body, and then in my head. Good. We could stop here. Forward folds are yoga’s chill pill. This might be enough. Catch your breath. Take a pause.
But there’s more. With as little movement as I can, I shift my weight forward in my feet, and feel how my body compensates to keep from falling over. One toe or two push a little harder, one little muscle on the side of my shin fired up. When I find this new micro-balance, I shift again, back or to the right or to the left, unsettling and then finding anew my balance. If I’m a bit tippier than usual, I might spider-out my fingertips onto the floor to help me feel where the balance comes from. And more: now I close my eyes, and do it all over again: the balance and the proprioception is different without the visual cues. I’ll shift my upper body. Or straighten my knees maybe, or deepen their bend.
The longer I do this, the more I feel my soul coming back into my body, the more my breathing will slow, my heart rate even out, my panic subside. The more I feel … what? Not so much control, but a sense of purpose or at least agency. Groundedness. I am aware of the little muscles in my feet, the little movements made possible by the little spaces between my vertebra, uncompressed and flipped. By just stopping, and attending to my feelings of overwhelm by addressing them through stillness and and little movements and gentleness and attention, I remember that, actually, I can stop.
I can stop.
I remember, too, that my big clever fancy brain is just one part of who I am, that this brain is for feelings as much as it is for Big Ideas. That this brain is not just attached to but a fundamental part of my body, that my body has needs, needs for movement, for stillness, for variety, for food, for the sensation of sunshine on my belly and smoothed out beach rocks under my back. That I’m not just eyes for reading, but eyes to look up from where I’m standing, to get a little dizzy at the bigness and the farness of the mountains that surround us here. Ears not just for taking in words but for birdsong, for the multi-dimensionality of space and scale and distance evoked by the tips of very tall trees in the wind, a muffled highway, the dampening effect of leaf litter on footfall, the hither-and-yon rustling of ferns and scrub in the undergrowth right next to me, or fifty feet away.
So much of academic work seems to press against, to dissolve our boundaries, to disrespect them in some fundamental way. Thou shalt have no other god than reading, and that for 12 hours a day. The emails must be answered right now. You are only as good as the next thing on the horizon, the next brass ring. Faster. Better. Don’t show weakness. Academic work is always more more more in ways that leave us less and less and less sure of who we are, what we want, and even what we need.
Take a minute. Come back to yourself. You can do my little exercise in a chair. You can do it without folding over, even. Maybe you can do it in child’s pose, or by spreading your arms far up above you or gently out to the sides, or by rolling your neck every so softly and with care. Maybe you just close your eyes wherever you are and feel your own breath disappearing down into your body and then appearing again on its exit. Maybe you breathe and send a little wyd? do all the distant and tiny bits of your body you’ve been not paying much attention to because so many reason.
Come back to yourself. Feel where the edges of your body mark a boundary of care: this is you, from that roughened callus on your writing finger, to the twinge in your knee from your characteristic sitting posture, to the softness of your heels after your did that peeling foot mask last week, that feels so nice when you shimmy your foot into your sandal with your hands in the morning. All of this is you, and you deserve to take care of you. Once you find your edges, let your own little inner voice squeak its tentative message from your core. Let the little voice be amplifed in the hollows of your quieted bones. Listen.
My voice was saying: stop.
I have been to exactly one panel at Congress: the one I was presenting on. I brought my everything to that, stayed to answer questions, to ask questions, to listen to people’s stories and ideas.
I had a lovely dinner with a friend from grad school who is studying for her PhD now and living her life. I joined up with a girl gang I only ever get to hang out with on Teh Intertubes, and had a gossipy, affirming supper. I walked 7km to get there because my body wanted to. I had a long unplanned wide ranging sit down coffee chat with a colleague from years and years ago. I met a new friend and we learned about each others’ research and celebrated our recent triumphs. By chance I ran across a new friend and Trudeau Scholar on the lawn outside my residence and we sat on the grass and chatted for just a few minutes. I’m having naps to try to work through a violent chest cold I kept telling myself I didn’t have time for.
I have another post about conferences and the politics of going to panels or avoiding them. There’s some structural questions to think about there but right now the most important thing was: stop.
I’m taking the time to write this post. I wanted to share my little yoga exercise with you, if it would feel good in your body. And I wanted to share my own little vulnerability, to overwhelm and status anxiety and FOMO and always-more academic culture, to tell you that my little voice said stop and I listened and it’s been so valuable and I’m getting so much out of the conference because of it, rather than despite it.
I know you would take care with those you love. Yes. Keep doing that. But today, if you can, or if you need to, and if you can make it happen somehow take care. Of you.
Your little voice has something to say, and it’s pretty wise.