Are You Willing to do the Work?


book wings 29736928The first time I tried yoga, I hated it. My sister took me to a spa in the desert for my birthday and we practiced outside on the grass just as it was starting to rain. I had hardly any upper body strength and my muscles trembled in every pose—not from working hard, but from weakness and lack of stability. I compared my sister’s biceps to mine, and found it hard to imagine I’d ever make it through a full ninety-minute class.

At the yoga studio, I’d glance around the room at all the lean, strong, flexible, beautiful bodies. I wanted one too. I was particularly jealous of people who could easily kick up into handstands. Regardless of age, those people seemed youthful and fun, and reminded me that I’m serious and intense. So I set out to do what they could do.

I tried kicking up against the wall. And then I tried again. And again. And again. But I kept flopping over or kicking halfway, again and again. And again. People like to say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, but we’ve got it all wrong. This is a description of hard work.

After several months of doing the same thing over and over, I got different results. I will never forget the first time I kicked up and stayed up. Hallelujah! I could only balance for a second, but when I came back down, I stood up, involuntarily pressed my hands together, and bowed my head, an instinctive gesture of gratitude—for my yoga teacher’s instruction, for all those upside-down bodies around the room who showed me possibility, and for my own persistence. Now, each day of my regular practice yields different results, even though I repeat the same poses again and again and again.

Of course it’s true that I’m not doing exactly the same thing over and over. I build on my strengths and confront my weaknesses; I adjust my practice depending on my energy level and daily needs—but it’s still the repetition that creates opportunity for growth.

Yoga teaches me the difference between persistent hard work and repetitive behavior that feels like work but is actually habit or obsession. I know a man, for example, who submits several poems a year to the New Yorker. Since his work has never been accepted, I asked where else he submits poetry, and he snapped at me. “Nowhere! It’s the New Yorker or nothing!”

I’m not sure this guy is working so much as wrestling with ego. I doubt he’s thinking about who might read his poems—or why. That’s not to say he should stop submitting work to the New Yorker; writers must submit again and again before we get different results, but my poet-friend confuses rigidity with ambition. He is 64 years old, and his attitude reminds me of a few of my 18-year-old writing students, the ones who come to my office crying because they got a B+ or even an A- on their essays. For them, it’s an A or nothing.

I understand these students, because I used to be one of them. I was more interested in a perfect record than the work it took to get there. Even now, when rank and score are irrelevant, I catch myself in yoga class trying to do a pose perfectly instead of respecting my body’s structural or muscular limitations. I must confess: I still enjoy the teacher’s approval; if she walks by my mat and says “beautiful pose,” I feel like I got my A. But thankfully, the practice itself continually brings me back to the right kind of work.

twisting_half_moonThere’s one position, for example, that I still hate, which is why it teaches me the most. The second I’m in Parivritta Ardha Chandrasana, or twisting half-moon, I want out. How is it possible that my legs could feel so light in handstands, and then two seconds later, as I balance on one foot and twist my torso around to face the wall opposite my raised leg, I weigh a thousand pounds? I know what I am supposed to do: challenge myself to stay in the pose while respecting my edge, acknowledge my resistance and just breathe…but instead, I get angry—and occasionally envious of the people for whom this pose is easy. Then I get mad at myself for being mad and envious, and I understand why we equate repetitive effort with insanity.

I look forward to practicing handstands, because I think of them as fun and easy, but I still dread twisting half-moon, because it makes me feel stuck and weak. Even after years of practice, as soon as it’s time for that pose, my mind searches for a way out before my body has found its way in. I consider taking a break and relaxing on my mat (not because I need a break, but because I am avoiding the work); I consider taking a bathroom break; I consider using the time to wipe the sweat off my face; and finally, I enter the pose, but with a sigh, and without my full effort.

I see the same pattern in my college students. Some of them look for a way out of the work rather than cultivating a willingness to dive in. Very few humans are naturally and entirely self-motivated creatures who dive into discomfort without any coaching. The rest of us, myself included, try to avoid feeling stuck or weak. We need to make progress a practice.

I tried to communicate this idea to Warren, a student in my summer writing course. He brought his essay draft to my office for feedback, and was not happy to hear that it needed work. He was hoping his first effort warranted an A. When he came back to my office the next week, I was expecting to see his second draft, but instead, he handed me another first draft on an entirely new topic. “Is this one an A?” he asked. It was not.

Everything changed for Warren when he realized that every first draft would require additional effort. He made a choice to face his frustration, the same way I choose to be present for the pain of twisting half moon—not physical pain, but rather the psychological struggle that happens in my head when I realize that this process will demand more of me.

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika reminds us that perspiration and quivering come first, and steadiness is the final stage of the three (2:12). Yoga has taught me to apply this concept to everything else I do. Now I expect to work at my writing before something is published. I expect to work through conflicts in relationship rather than hoping someone will read my mind. Yoga has taught me to accept the sweat and experience the quivering, not only to tolerate it or wait until it’s over, because it is necessary for steadiness.

Students regularly come to office hours and ask me for tips on how to make the writing process easier and faster. As their teacher, I just want them to work harder—not necessarily faster—so they’ll see the results. I want them to be willing to sweat through the uncomfortable parts of the creative process so they’ll eventually find steadiness in the form of a stronger, more confident voice.

When we reach for the results without regard for the work, whether it’s a grade or another kind of goal, like a perfect handstand, we take ourselves out of the present moment and reach for the future. This isn’t necessarily a problem; after all, it was the vision of a stronger body that kept me coming back to yoga. But there’s a difference between being motivated by possibility and merely spinning fantasies. I’ve done both, and I can tell when I’m spinning, because I’m unsteady. I worry about what might happen—or what might not happen.

Students who expect a high grade before they’ve done the work are spinning fantasies. We can only sweat in the present, not the future. The funny (um…frustrating) thing is, the student who avoids the work of the moment is often the same one who will email me after the quarter is over and demand a different grade. There’s usually one in every class. This summer, it was a young man who had consistently received B or C level grades, and yet he emailed me (after final grades had been turned in) to find out what he could do to get an A.

I shook my head as I read his message. I wanted to be sympathetic, but because this student had ignored all my comments on his essays and had never come to office hours to discuss his concerns, I could only think: How can you get an A now? Well, you can get into your time machine and go back six weeks. You can participate in discussion instead of staring at the wall or pretending like you are not texting under the table. You can revise entire essays rather than changing four words. You can show up to class on time and bring full drafts on peer review days, rather than half a page of fragments. You can turn in your work on time and stop sending me emails at 3 a.m. confessing that you forgot—once again—to submit your work to turnitin.com. Then you would have earned your A and you wouldn’t have to ask me how to “get” one.

I’m not sorry for the snark. This student knows he is asking a first-week—not a finals week—question, and it’s one reason why he emailed me instead of chatting with me face-to-face. If he looks me in the eye, he’ll also have to face the truth about his own work ethic. Let me be clear: I am not talking about the student who has a legitimate grade complaint. Or the ambitious student seeking good grades. I am talking about the student who wants or expects something without working for it.

Almost everybody’s got some version of this student on the inside. If I could lose ten pounds by snapping my fingers instead of being disciplined, you better believe I’d do it. I wouldn’t mind winning the lottery either. But ease does not provide opportunity for the kind of growth that will reveal my strongest self.

Many of my students respond to assignments the way I respond to twisting half-moon, and many are taking my class because it is a university requirement, not because they wanted to join a writing workshop. I try to overcome these obstacles by designing a curriculum they’ll find useful and relevant. In one class, for example, I asked everyone to select a career they wanted to learn more about and then research that field; they had to interview professionals already working in the field, and then devise self-selected topics I’d help them shape and develop. I figured they couldn’t possibly resist their own interests.

What they resisted, of course, was the work. Half the class would come to office hours at some point during their vocational research and ask to change topics. When Jay saw how low the passing rates for the CPA Examination were, he realized how much work was in store for him, and he confessed to the class: I want to be successful someday, but I want it to be easy.

His honesty surprised me. Hmmm…he wants the steadiness…without any sweat. I asked him in front of the entire class: What have you worked hard at in your life?

He stopped and stared at me. Nothing, he confessed. I don’t think I’ve ever really worked hard for anything. He stopped and looked around the room. I’ve never really thought about this. He said it with a sense of curiosity about himself, not judgment.

I happened to know that Jay was a hip-hop dancer, so I asked him, Haven’t you worked hard on your routines?

hip_hop300Yeah, actually I have. He never thought about it as work, but he had put a great deal of time and effort into hip-hop dancing. Show us something; give us a move, I said.

He did, and it was amazing. The class applauded. He helped me realize why I am so hard on my students, and why I will continue to ask them to think more about their work than their grades: getting good grades does not necessarily nurture a sustainable sense of self. Hard work does.

We all have to find the right kind of work for ourselves. For some of my students, that does mean improving their grades. For others, it means easing up on anxiety and learning to relax. Many of us in the academic world need to learn to ask for help more often, and yet others need to work independently so they can stand on their own two feet.

I haven’t quite conquered my habits. I still get irritated sometimes when I feel stuck or weak. But I do respond to that irritation differently. When it’s time for twisting half-moon, I check in with myself and ask questions. Do I really need a break right now? Or am I just avoiding the challenge? What’s making me feel angry? Is it my physical limitations? Is it because I wanted to do a different sequence than the teacher is instructing? Is it because I’m impatient with my own progress? Can I stay in the pose even though I’m irritated?

Giving myself permission to be angry helps me let it go. It snaps me out of my internal struggle so I can enter the pose with a willingness to learn what it has to teach me. It is this willingness I’m seeking from my students, and I know it can be hard won. I think back to the classes that were tough for me, like chemistry and calculus, which required a different kind of work and a lot of tutoring. I remember what went through my head at the time: I don’t get it. I can’t do this. I don’t want to do this. Those messages were more formidable obstacles than the course material.

We’ve all got work we are willing to do and work we resist, and sometimes, the work we are willing to do becomes the work we resist. I love yoga and I love to write, but these practices still provide me with moments when I need to ask myself again and again: Are you willing to do the work?

If any part of me resists saying yes, I know that’s the part calling out for strength and stamina. It’s also the part I recognize in my students’ reluctance to revise their work. In an effort to coach them through those moments, I begin the quarter with some questions which might also inspire good conversations between other students and their teachers:

What have you worked hard at and what motivated you?

What kind of work do you resist and why?

What is your habitual response to this resistance?

When/how has any resistance become an obstacle to learning?

How have you been able to shift a bad attitude into a good one?

When/how has a sense of willingness helped you learn?

There comes a point during yoga class when I am dripping with sweat and flowing from pose to pose, no longer bothering to wipe off my face, no longer thinking about which poses I like or don’t like. I’m just practicing. In those moments, I feel incredibly alive, not only from the endorphins. It’s because when I’m willing and working and ready, I feel that anything is possible. I want my students to know that feeling, and I want them to work for it so they know what it’s worth.

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