On Balance: A Refresher

In the Staying Alive workshops that Mark and I offer at campuses and conferences, we use yoga postures as emblems for the phases of an academic career.  Balance works at the heart of yoga, which tones the whole body, cleanses the internal organs, and promotes both serenity and mindfulness.  In Ashtanga yoga, which I practice, every session includes balancing postures as well as the familiar sun salutations, standing poses (such as the Warrior sequence discussed in earlier blogs), bending poses, and seated poses along with twists and stretches.  When we talk about leading a balanced life over the course of  an academic career, we find that the yoga conception of balance helps people understand how to cope with the competing demands of person, profession, and institution without going nuts.

When I started, the balance poses really threw me for a loop.  The teacher looked so calm and graceful when she stretched up into the Tree Pose or lengthened horizontally into Dancer.  I have good natural balance, so I thought nothing of it, but when I tried, my legs began wobbling uncontrollably and I almost fell over.   I thought it was simply a matter of locking in to the right position.  But balance turned out to be a process rather than a state; it was something dynamic, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.  It turned out to be a matter of core strength as well as focused attention.  Image

I soon learned that every balancing pose begins with a preparatory step, followed by a series of entry moves that culminate in the full pose, which is maintained for a period of time, generally at least five breaths, after which you must exit the pose through another series of moves that return you to a relaxed, standing position.  If you try to rush or short-circuit this process, you are likely to fall out and may even injure yourself.  It’s important to go step by step, feeling your way and maintaining a sense of control.

Take for example the Dancer Pose, which serves as our emblem for the Citizen Phase.  Remember how, in the Warrior poses, we discerned a four-way movement of energy along both vertical and horizontal axes.  Here the same geometry applies, but with a shift in configuration appropriate to the challenges and responsibilities of citizenship.  The vertical leg supports everything else, representing your foundational skills and values.  The forward arm extends outward, projecting energy into the community.  The rear leg, rather than being extended backward for support, reaches up to be grasped by the other arm, forming a circle that captures the heavenly light of creativity, passion, and aspiration and then amplifies it in a generative feedback loop that provides the energy to the forward arm.

To get into Dancer you must assume a relaxed standing position with your hands in prayer position, heart-center.  Choose your supporting leg, then roll forward onto the ball of the foot, spreading your toes and grounding the foot.  Flex your leg, feeling the muscles, and  begin to breathe evenly.  After two breaths, raise your opposite foot and bring it up behind your buttocks, grasping it with your hand.  Steady yourself for a moment, then touch finger to thumb of your opposite hand and, as you breathe in, raise your arm straight up above your head.  Now choose something in front of you that’s not going to move and focus on it as you begin to tilt forward from the waist, stretching forward as you push out and back with your opposite leg, still grasped by your opposite hand.  Maintain steady, even breathing as you open the circle formed by your leg, arm, and back.  After five or more breaths, begin to exit the pose by tilting backward into an upright position.  Release your opposite hand and lower your leg to the floor. As you breathe out, lower your extended arm,  Release your finger and thumb and come back into a relaxed standing position with your hands in prayer position, heart-center.

It is important to recognize that during the whole process you continue to breathe, ideally in a calm and measured way.  Breathing connects inner and outer, and yoga recognizes many different kinds of breath.  So, during the entry, holding, and exit from the pose, you are not only dealing with the circulation of energy within your body but also interacting with the environment. Maintaining this vital flow is an ecological and spiritual necessity. As you can see from the photo, Dancer is lovely to look at, and if you try it, you’ll realize that it also feels wonderful.  When you are holding the pose, you feel strong and radiant.  In life, as in yoga, balance manifests externally as grace and internally as health and happiness.  Balance may be thought of as a process of dynamic equilibrium characterized by energy, harmony, and beauty.  A person in balance appears to lead a convincing life.

As I practiced the Dancer pose, I soon came to realize that my body was always moving, even when stationary.  My muscles were always working; they were never at rest.  As I went through the entry, holding, and exit moves, I could sense my muscles communicate with each other, as if they were dancing.  I could feel the energy flowing and shifting at need. I could feel my breathing as a nourishing conversation between myself and the larger world that sustained me.  Balance, I realized, was not a state but a system, a process, a dance, a constant and ever changing improvisation.  And the key was managing energy flows.  That’s what Mark and I mean in these workshops by tools for balance: they are techniques for managing your resources and energies.  We derive them from stories of people who seem to be leading convincing lives.  Balance, therefore, is not something you attain once and then you’re done.  It’s a matter of attentive learning and lifelong practice.

(image source: http://thesoniashow.files.wordpress.com/2009/04/dancers-pose.jpg )

Tasks and Strengths of the Warrior

In the second stage of an academic career, which we call the Warrior Phase, the main task is to establish yourself in the world.  Training is over; combat and struggle begin.  In school, you relate mostly with people your own age.  But in the real world you must deal with people of every age, level of experience, or variety of character.  Doors open on situations of breathtaking complexity or slam shut without warning on simple, sincere expectations.  Challenges lurk and opportunities abound.

Erik Erikson calls this phase “Young Adulthood” and defines its tasks as intimacy and belonging vs. isolation, to which we bring the strengths of affiliation and love.  It is enacted in the realm of community, where one learns how to make a living, and in the realm of personal relationships where one finds a mate, establishes a home, and starts a family.   Erikson locates this phase between ages 18 and 35, but in academic life, with its extended adolescence, it more commonly occurs between 26 and 40  – or, in the standard model, between grad school and tenure.

Warrior Pose B. (Liberty Bell, North Cascades)

The image of a warrior suggests fighting and aggression, but we like to think of it more in terms of engagement.  This phase often feels like a wrestling match with life.  To prevail, you must bring to all the skills of a warrior, primarily strength, flexibility, and centeredness.

Yoga embodies these virtues in classic Warrior Poses,  where core strength holds the body in position as energy radiates down through the legs to ground you firmly in the earth, and outward through the arms to engage with the world.  In order to maintain a firm horizontal and vertical alignment, your core muscles have to engage resolutely and consistently.  Without centeredness, your arms flag or droop, your knees wobble, and you can fall out of the pose.   Without flexibility, you can’t enter or exit the pose, nor move from one pose to another, without hurting yourself.

For academic people, staying alive through the Warrior Phase means practicing strength, flexibility, and centeredness in all three dimensions of life: the personal, the professional, and the institutional.  Stay tuned.

Image: NC Mountain Guides

Balance in Grad School: Examples from the ASLE Workshop

We asked participants at our June 2009 workshop to think about people they had known in grad school who were leading convincing lives.  They had to scratch their heads for a moment.  Most of us remember grad school as a period of anxiety and stress, when we are all bound up with ourselves, studying for exams, trying to finish our dissertations, and arming ourselves to face the hopeless odds of the job search.  Among survivors, grad school is hardly remembered as a time of fun, fulfillment, or healthy relationships.

Our yoga balance posture for grad school is the Eagle  PoseeagleforblogWhen you are all wrapped up in yourself, how can you stay on your feet, and even stretch upward, without toppling over?  How can your energy be oriented around the emerging self without strangling it or flying outward in all directions?  It is not easy, but it can be done.

One person remembered a colleague who worked on building a canoe in his spare time.  Another recalled a friend who spent time socializing, often at a local watering hole where he played darts. Another had a friend who liked to act.  Another maintained “two identities,” doing research and playing sports.   Still another, a woman in her 40’s, seemed to “glow” even though her free-thinking put her at odds with prevailing intellectual fashions; she was stressed but not up tight, and she seemed happy amid the “creative chaos” of her life and work.

In discussion the group decided that convincing lives in grad school seemed to “radiate outward.”  These people did their work but also connected to something else.  Some brought family or regional traditions with them, such as the fellow from the South who held “bream cookouts” for his colleagues.  Another described one friend who took a menial stocking job at Target and would bring back  “really refreshing” stories. “These kinds of things buoyed us,” she said.  Reaching beyond your work, connecting to a larger community, and self-nurturing activities seemed to be key tools for balance here.

Up next: a detailed case

(picture source: full-well.blogspot.com/2008/09/yoga-finally.htm)

Report from ASLE Victoria

We offered an updated version of our “Staying Alive” workshop at the biennial conference of ASLE in Victoria BC earlier this month.  About twenty faculty attended, representing every career stage and variety of institution.  We piloted an enhanced format and a new series of ideas.  It was great fun and encouraged us to think about taking our show on the road.  For those of you who attended, we hope you’ll keep reading this blog and use it to carry on the conversation.  For those who missed it, here’s a brief report.

We began with a circle and introductions.  Mark then read our “recently discovered fragment of a draft of “Walden,” which supposedly details Thoreau’s disenchantment with academe.  Knowing smiles did not begin to break out until he was about halfway through, and he laughingly explained that, when he read it as part of his acceptance speech for a teaching award back home at Keene State, no one got the joke until he had finished and remarked, “Of course this is only a parody.”

We then spent a half hour presenting basic concepts, some of which have appeared in these blogs: the dimensions of person, profession, and institution, the challenge of leading a balanced life, and the necessity of pursuing your own personal growth.  We used yoga balancing postures as the master metaphor, explaining that balance is a process of entering and sustaining dynamic equilibrium.

Dancer Pose
Dancer Pose

It is effortful, requiring both strength and coordination, and it manifests internally as aliveness or pleasure while manifesting externally as beauty. There is typically a single axis or center, about which the other limbs configure, so that there are always four “points” in play.  In our model these are the person, the profession, the institution, and the phase of life or career.  We offer tools for balancing, which can be thought of as ways of organizing energy flows.

The four phases of an academic career we correlate to Erik Erikson’s stages of adult life, but also to the traditional Indian model, in which a man (sic) is first a student or apprentice, then a warrior, then a householder, and finally a sadhu or yogi practicing in the forest.  For academic people, the apprentice phase is graduate school, where we are all learning the ropes (age 22-28).  The comes the warrior phase, where one struggles to find a place in the world (28-38).  Next comes the settler/householder phase (38-55), where one exercises leadership and achieves productivity and honor in the community.  And finally comes the elder phase (55+), when one becomes a wisdom carrier and story-teller.  (Mentoring and faculty coaching programs typically target the first two phases and neglect the latter two, but we feel that all are important and worth addressing.)

After this introduction, we moved on to discussions of each individual phase, a half-hour each.  We asked everyone to do a short free-writing on someone they knew who had led a convincing life during that phase.  Then we shared and discussed these impressions, looking for tools we could identify and use.  These discussions proved extremely rich and exciting, no doubt because people seldom have such an opportunity to explore their deepest feelings and personal history in a professional setting free of competition. By the end of our three-hour session we had developed quite a few tools and were able to wrap up with a synthesis of principles and strategies for balanced living.

We’ll elaborate on some of these ideas and tools in subsequent posts.  Please send us your views and let us know if your colleagues might benefit from a workshop like this.

Note:  institutions represented at the Victoria workshop included Lafayette College, Salisbury University, University of Northern BC,  University of Gothenburg (Sweden), Middlebury College, University of Dayton, Mount Holyoke College,  South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, University of Minnesota – Morris, Penn State University – Altoona, and the University of Connecticut.

(picture source: http://www.yogagardennh.com/)