Saturday, August 28, 2010

Message on a bottle...

...or on a television show, or in front of the classroom, or in an advertisement, etc. It's impossible to pinpoint exactly where our subconscious gets the material that forms our self-image. It's even harder to decipher how the mind mashes up that information to create our worldview. Psychotherapists can spend years trying to help a patient unravel this complex web of messages, that can be so debilitating and destructive. Even if it isn't affecting your quality of life, that inner critic can be pretty opinionated.

Part of my motivation for pursuing science ed, is sort of a response to the teenage me. Despite showing some aptitude in science and math, I was bound and determined to avoid those subjects at all costs. Why? Because I was too artsy and journalistic for science? It was just for nerdy boys?
It was too hard? I'd be hard pressed to say where these ideas came from, but that was the basis for my prejudice. And what a shame, because I think I cut myself off from some really interesting opportunities by listening to that misguided inner voice.

Even with only four classes this past week, already I've heard many of the same misconceptions about studying the sciences from my young classmates, that I entertained in my late teens. The message is still loud and clear from somewhere--artists don't do science, math is too hard, it's gross/boring/hardhardhard. It's an uphill battle against an unseen enemy, but I would love to be a teacher who could change that message.

I would hope to inspire kids to see the subject matter as intriguing, something to explore. I became a yoga teacher, partially because I was so taken with the discipline that I wanted to learn how to show my friends and family what an amazing practice it is. I loved the subject; I wanted to share the subject. And so it goes with biology.

By helping kids learn to explore the natural world, to investigate a problem and discover the answer, comes learning how to think for yourself and forming ideas based on your own experience. How about that as a useful, subversive tool? Get something pierced, if you want, but a truly radical act is thinking for yourself.

And the sooner they get that message, the better.

Monday, August 23, 2010

It's the Transitions that'll kill ya...

Forgive the triathlon analogy, but it's on my mind these days (one more in September). So...multi-sport...swim/bike/run; the trick is to maintain your exertion level so you're working hard, but not working too hard. You can't blast into the swim and wreck your lungs for the bike, pedal like a maniac and fry your quads for the run, and, well, you just have to struggle through the run to get to the bagels. But, you also can't ignore the transitions--water to bike seat to open road. You have to change clothes, add equipment, grab a quick drink--and the time you spend is included in your final count. No lollygagging.

The trick is to finesse the transitions so, after a mad scramble, you can smoothly move into the next event--for which you've trained and have some time to settle into a rhythm and just focus on the task at hand.

And ain't that just like life?

It's the in-betweens that will lay you low--the changes in routine, the stopping short, the sharp left turn. They can be exciting, upsetting, re-energizing, alarming. They are the start of something new and, no matter how prepared you are, they are disruptive.

Here I am at the beginning of a transition. Tuesday morning is my first day back in school...25 years after the last first day of undergraduate school. Teacher Training, ladies and gentlemen, but this time it's for Biology. This is a trial semester--do I like teaching adolescents science as much as I like teaching adults yoga? Is this really what my contribution to the world will be? Protozoa?!?!

Hopefully this is a disruption that will lead to a smooth, focused ride. Eventually. I'm thrilled on a variety of levels, anxious on others. And I'm very, very curious how it will all play out (oh thank gods for pranayama!).

Back-to-school outfit is chosen (casual, but not too young), equipment is laid out (yay, new notebooks!), a Clif bar tucked into the purse. I'm as ready as I'll ever be for this transition. Hopefully, I don't need a helmet...

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Good Olden Days

This post is dedicated to all of you out there, who remember your first typewriter. [For the rest of you, Granny B has a tale from when telephones were connected to the wall and you had to flip the record every 20 minutes]

I had a brand, new electric model that I carted off to college. A graduation present. It was so fancy that it could remember the last five letters you typed, and erase them. No White-Out for me! (Four years later, I owned my first computer--a little boxy Mac SE with a screen like a postcard--and the typewriter was mothballed.)

Back in those days, you composed in a notebook, with a pencil or pen, and then rolled a piece of typing paper against the platen (crrk, crrk, hopefully the top edge of the paper was even) and typed up your piece--remembering to hit the return key (electric) or carriage return lever (manual) when the warning bell went off to roll the paper up a line. Woe to she who forgot and ran out of space for a word... (margin release key, hyphen) It was a slow process that required forethought, a variety of accessories (aforementioned White-Out to paint over mistakes; carbon paper, if you wanted a copy), and time. To "send," you folded up your piece of paper in an envelope, addressed it, and pressed a licked stamp on it before taking it to a mailbox.

Back then, an argument with some one you didn't know might play itself out in letters-to-the-editor or some other published space. Rebuttals weren't remotely immediate and there was time to think about the conflict, perhaps deciding your response wasn't even worth the effort. To fly off the handle at a stranger took at least three or four days, depending on your distance.

I suspect part of my discomfort with the whole tenor of last week's debate, was how fast it happened. While I see myself as completely computer-literate, it is my second language...I'm an ex-pat from the Land of the Analog. Clocks with hands. Typewriters. Phones with cords. Television knobs. Trying to keep up with all the comments and related blog posts was exhausting and the speed that opinions were posted gave me whiplash. A perfect storm of emotion and reaction. Often missing a pause for reflection (myself included).

And I'm glad we were all able to participate. How cool is a global discussion? But I still get agitated arguing with a person I've never met; forming opinions based on a single, careless adjective. ("How dare he call me jealous!") I lost a lot of sleep worrying about my own snippy comments, fired off in a moment of viewpoint-defending passion. How so not like me--a yoga teacher! A Midwesterner! A lot of anxiety was generated as I operated outside my usual contemplative, non-confrontational zone.

I guess that's life as an immigrant...never completely of one land or another, fondly remembering the traditions of Old Country, but embracing the innovations of the New. I'll have to remind myself, in the next go round, to keep a dictionary handy and remember cultural niceties. Don't gesture with the middle finger or stick chopsticks straight up and down in my rice. So to speak...

We still have a shelf-full of 45s and 12" singles, by the way (ask your parents about that, my dears...)

Monday, August 09, 2010

What are you lookin' at?

What seems to be missing from l'affaire toesox (as Carol Horton sensitively discusses here), is any acknowledgment of the difference between the way women and (straight) men perceive the use of naked women in yoga imagery. Or any imagery, for that matter.

In her book,
The Male Brain (2010), Louann Brizendine takes a close look at the chemistry of the male brain, as a follow-up to her earlier book The Female Brain. In her article "Sex, Mating and the Male Brain," she reminds us the main goal of any species is to procreate; to that end, the male brain has evolved to specifically seek out a female that offers the greatest potential to meet that goal--young, shapely, healthy, and not pregnant with another man's child. She writes, "Researchers at the University of California found that it takes the male brain only 1/5th of a second to classify a woman as sexually hot or not. This verdict is made long before a man's conscious thought processes can even engage." She also notes that the male brain has an area for sexual pursuit that is 2.5 larger than the female brain.

So, perhaps, therein explains part of the gulf between the "what's the big deal?" camp and the "How can you not see the big deal?" camp. They are seeing different images, while looking at the same picture.

The history of Western art is full of pictures of naked women (none of them selling any yoga accessories, by the way), often depicted in all their reproductive glory. Until very recently, almost all of these were painted by men for the use and enjoyment of other men. That's who had the power, the money. Whether immortalizing a mistress (Louis XV's, in this case), celebrating a munificent donation to the church (many an altarpiece), or serving as a beautiful decoration in a palace, wealthy donors regularly requested the inclusion of the idealized female form as a part of the composition.

Francois Boucher's Mademoiselle O'Murphy (1751), from the Wallraf, Richartz Museum in Cologne.

We've been looking at examples of beautiful naked women on display for a male audience for centuries, nay millenia. It's a hard habit to overcome and has become the standard for us all. As Carol astutely notes, "But that’s the thing about the dominant culture: If it’s invisible to us – if we uncritically accept it as normal and natural without reflection – we get sucked into it and end up reinforcing its norms unintentionally."

So I wonder if we're stuck in a place where the twain-shall-never-meet. One group hopes to challenge a status quo, that is reinforced both by culture and biology. The other sees nothing wrong with the status quo. Some want pretty, some want realistic. I'm hopeful we can talk; I'm hopeful we can stay civil--How about fair amounts of each aesthetic?

This issue is obviously much bigger than the yoga world. I guess that's why I got my feelings hurt this weekend by so many of the comments on elephant journal (and that's exactly what it was, feelings getting hurt, I should not be taking so much of this personally). Judith was so calm, so reasoned in her letter, I thought it would inspire a really good conversation about the contemporary yoga industry and where it seems to be headed. Maybe some one would have insight into why naked yoga ads are a good thing and make me question my assumptions. Instead it was internet-commentary-as-usual: emotional and defensive and far from the original ideas in the letter or roseanne's post.

Maybe the topic is too confrontational, too raw. Maybe this is the same old battle being fought. I had hoped this conversation could be the start of something beautiful, but I am wary.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Whose Beautiful is it, anyway?!?

With each of my pregnancies, I couldn't wait for the 20th week to roll around. That's the week you get the ultrasound that--usually--shows the sex of the child, if you want to know it. And I wanted to know. While I would have loved any child and was just hoping for healthy, I was also crossing my fingers that both babies would be boys.

This is a bit disingenuous, because I have many friends with wonderful, smart daughters and I have many wonderful, smart friends and relatives who would be great role models. But, having negotiated girlhood in this culture obsessed with the female form, I wasn't sure I had the strength to negotiate it again with a little girl.

Boys don't have to deal with thong panties, makeovers, boob jobs, sexy dance class routines, and an overall message that the only thing that truly matters is how smokin' hot you are. And if you are bit short of smokin' hot, there are lots of products you can buy, operations you can have, to get you there. Advertisers are trying to figure how to make boys insecure enough to buy male versions of the lotions and potions, but they just haven't quite got it. Yet.

So imagine my delight with this week's (hopefully, this year's) yoga talking point--Judith Hanson Lasater's letter to Yoga Journal on using sex to sell in its advertising. (it's all yoga, baby will bring you up to date) I've written before about my frustration with the way yoga is marketed and the image the yoga industry has decided to present to the world. Unrealistic bodies doing incredibly difficult poses--yeah, that will bring 'em in!

My contribution to the discussion is just to put forth the question, to everyone who says this is just about appreciating beautiful bodies or offering something to aspire to: what message are you sending teenage girls, who are looking to the world for an idea of what womanhood will be like? What do we, as a culture, value in women and what are the most important attributes to strive for? A tight ass? Sculpted abs? Surely not...

And I'm not so naive to think that anything will really change in the overall culture any time soon. The media has figured out what brings eyes to screens, clicks to pages, and these are seriously entrenched strategies that seduce everyone. But it breaks my heart that the yoga world embraces it, as well. The one practice that shouldn't be about the external or cling to screwy standards of physical perfection, and yet--naked yoga socks ads (what is it with yoga products for feet?!?).

Please, yoga industry, think about the girls (and boys) and what message they are getting from your choices. I'm glad you can fund your teaching retreats and "reach" so many more students. I'm glad yoga is getting coverage in the mainstream press (altho some of that coverage we could do without). I'm glad you can put your foot behind your head. But, seriously, don't you see this kind of advertising for what it is? Do you really believe that every reader will understand your outer beauty is simply a reflection of inner grace?

Aren't we more sophisticated in our thinking than that? I hope the response this letter has generated will really encourage some thinking, some re-assessing. Many of us have been harping about this for years...maybe this is the push that will really lead to shove.

Let's Take Back Beautiful!

Monday, August 02, 2010

The comfort of ritual

It was a weekend filled with significant ritual, one joyous, one sad. Neither was about me (altho, technically, a child's birthday commemorates a day his mother completed a very rigorous task, but never mind), so I was merely a bystander. On Saturday it was a birthday party; on Sunday, a funeral.

Ah, the delayed gratification of summer birthdays--we were camping on Eamonn's official day, so we planned to have friends over the weekend we got back. The event was fairly low-key--water balloons in the backyard, temporary tattoos, soap bubbles, hot dogs and juice. The six-year-olds tore around the house, delighting in their own company, but very aware of the vital elements of the celebration. The event had a logical progression: play, eat, play, open presents, play, get gift bags. If something wasn't happening soon enough, a guest was certain to remind us of the next activity. Very ordered. As I said, a ritual.

There was the same sense of security-through-logical-order at the funeral of a dear neighbor the next day. He was a proud veteran of WWII, and had an honor guard and a group of navy men at the service to prepare the flag that draped his coffin. It was moving, especially the
meticulous folding of the flag, to witness this ritual of preparing a sailor for burial and the send off for his soul. Taps on a single bugle.

Participating in these juxtaposed celebrations made me think about the role of ritual in our everyday life. They unfold without surprise, designed to mark a significant passage and to give those near and dear to the recipient a role in the event. One prepares a birthday cake, one writes a eulogy, one lights candles, one says a prayer. They provide comfort by bringing structure to the unstructureable--growing up, death. It's a way to impose a sense of order over things we can't control.

As a householder, I appreciate that which gives comfort, even if--ultimately--it is just an illusion. My sons will learn soon enough that the future is unknown, unwritten. That their parents have created a very safe, but very small, world for them to inhabit and that everywhere else is a free-for-all. Dog-eat-dog. I explained to Eamonn that Mr. Jayson had died and that we were going to the service. He wanted to know why he died, why your body shuts down when you get old. But he seemed pretty accepting of the news, and I think this glimpse at death wasn't too upsetting or scary. Maybe (I hope) his own life seems endless right night now and that 91 is an unconceiveably long way away. Now is the time to focus on birthday guests and who gets what color balloon.

It was a weekend of reflection, with this contrasting events. Each tempered the emotion of the other, leaving me a bit pensive. But in a good way. I'm all for ritual and habit, if it helps smooth the passage of these affecting events.