Rainer Maria Rilke
“Let's try Bunny Breath," I told my very first yoga therapy student. It was early last spring when we first met one-on-one. I am an elementary school teacher who works with troubled kids. I live in New England. After the deep-freeze of a harsh and cold winter, we New Englanders welcome spring with wide open and happy arms. As my little student and I entered the yoga space together for the first time, she launched into a speed race around the room. A moment later, she flopped down on one of the two yoga mats I had placed on the floor. Twisting from side to side as though she was trying to exorcise an alien from the depths of her soul, Selena casually chatted about her school day, "I played with Matty who loves to play kickball, and I played with Savannah who told me a funny story, and I got in trouble for jumping up and down in my chair in my class...." She finally settled into an agitated little Buddha pose, alight on a lavender yoga mat. In the music room where I teach group yoga to elementary-aged kids every Friday afternoon, sat my first little yoga therapy student, Selena, and me.
With my yoga mat in front of Selena's, I demonstrated Bunny Breath with three quick little breaths in. “Sniff, sniff, sniff,” I modeled. As short bursts of oxygen flooded my tired, Friday-afternoon brain I felt exhilarated and re-charged. Slowly exhaling, I opened my eyes, expecting Selena to look re-charged and alert but centered and in control of her body.. Instead of peace and calm, I tilted my head slowly in amazement as I wondered what was going on. Selena’s body was flopping around madly looking just like a fish out of water gasping for its last breath. OK, clearly this is going to be a little trickier than I imagined.
I have taught yoga to kids for quite some time. My focus is always on helping kids calm down, feel at home in their bodies, and learn how to find peace and focus in mind and body. I knew the direction I was headed as I worked with her in this new role of yoga therapist. But I had no idea were the roadblocks would be or down which path I'd pop a tire. In her second grade classroom Selena's teacher frequently told her to stand at her desk the teacher tried to manage the pencil-tapping and squirmy little girl whose head wobbled back and forth, up and down like one of those doll’s in the back of a car, swinging and bouncing around to attend to every noise, breath, or comment made in class. She was a bright, charming, very verbal little girl. Her mother confided in me that it was hard for her to go to sleep at night (no kidding).
You teach like you are. You are like you are. I used to think the title of the book, "Where Ever You Go, There You Are," was a ridiculous title for a book. But, it's so true. The one person you cannot get away from, despite all valiant and self-deluding attempts, is yourself. My mother once wrote in some writings I found long after she died, "I keep so much secret; like I must hide myself from discovery." Don't we all?
Gone nearly 3 years now, I both loved and feared my mom. Loved her, she was my mom, and feared her, she could be mean. I actually had been thinking a lot about my mother during the last five years of heavy-duty yoga and meditation teacher training. As I sat for meditation in the wee hours of the early morning, thoughts of my mother would float up and swim around as I patiently waited for "enlightenment." At my yoga mentor's suggestion, I worked through The Artist’s Way, a Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron last summer. It's a day-by-day guide to helping one overcome artistic blocks. "Who in your life, as a child, did not support your creative leanings?" Ms. Cameron prompted us in a journal assignment. "Why don't you think you deserve to be successful?" week 3's assignment directed us to ponder and then journal about. All summer long as I unsuccessfully chiseled away at the granite boulders strewn along my "creative path" my mother was ever-present. This is not to say that my mother was Mommie Dearest. She had a wild sense of humor and a sharp mind. She could show love in the deepest sense, particularly to the patients she nursed. And, I know she wished me well, love, happiness and success. It's just that on a day-to-day basis I didn't feel that.
My mom’s moods would swing wildly and without warning like a party balloon full of air and pinched tightly closed, suddenly set free, darting randomly through space. As she deflated into depression, the safe, loving mom who made me amazing Barbie doll cakes with layers of pink and lavender butter cream skirts, vanished. In her place stood a tall, dark, foreboding woman (and my mom was 5 feet tall) with cold, piercing, and frightening little black eyes that sent a once carefree, sweet little girl who liked to dance in the sun and sing at bedtime, fleeing for cover. Her constantly changing moods shook my little world. When I look at old pictures taken in quick succession I see my mom, all soft and warm, nestled between my brother and Dad who stand in the kitchen with their arms around her. A split-second later, with a face is wrinkled up and tight like one of those apple dolls that sits in the sun for a long, long time. A dead stare through hate-filled eyes challenged the camera while nobody else in the photo had shifted an inch. What demons made my mother morph like that I will never really know. As a teenager when I began to stand up for myself, my mother would demand, “Who do you think you are?” And, “What about me? What about my feelings? Huh?” Donna Reed she was not.
You would think that as a child I would have learned and been prepared for her sudden shape shifting. Nope. Ever the hopeful child, I always thought, this time, it will be different. A week before she died, my mother and I spoke on the phone. We were talking about the newest self-help book she had read, The Seat of the Soul. My mother was bright, well-read, and very articulate. And, she was painfully and fully aware she had not mothered me and my siblings in so many important ways. And yet throughout every conversation, including the very last one I shared with her, I was wary and always on-watch. At what point would she make a hurtful remark? At what point would I need to hang up the phone to save my self?
My mother suffered from intense mood swings and a lacerating tongue. A therapist once told her she suffered from depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive thought disorder, and a generalized lack of self-esteem. She told me that she lived most of her life feeling depersonalized. That is, most of the time she felt as though she didn't live in her own body. I, too, as a teenage, felt those same feelings. I remember the first time I drove a car. I sat behind the wheel, turned on the motor and backed out of our driveway. As I headed into our little town I suddenly felt I no longer was in my body, that somebody else was driving the car and I was watching.
I used to say that when my mom was in a mood and carrying on in a way that made me feel small and invisible, that it felt like snakes and frogs were spewing forth and my only thought was "seek shelter, quickly." My mother’s mother was schizophrenic. Grandma, who was wild, loved men and wrote poetry, would hear voices on the car radio and more than once stopped taking her psychotropic medication, calling family from Hawaii where she was at the base of Mauna Kea, in search of Elvis. In my childhood, I couldn’t trust my mother at all. My childish thinking was that if I was cute enough, artistic enough, smart enough or funny enough I could snap my mom out of her dark mood or prevent her from spiraling in the first place. I tried to assert control wherever I could because everything around me felt out of control.
I have always loved working with troubled kids. That is probably no surprise. I love them because I know them and they know I know them. I also love being in control and I did a good job of controlling disruptive, wild kids. When you cannot control the very thing that you need to live, your mother or somebody else central in your life, you try to control everything else. Well, this is how my thinking went long ago. Over the past few years I have changed my approach to working with kids and that is because I have changed. I have come to believe that by trying to control others (as I tried to control my moody and unreliable mother) I am not open to allowing my students to be who they needed to be. I cannot see them, let alone watch them or truly understand them. And in that, I am, unaware and sadly, acting pretty much like my mother did with me despite the fact that I was good at controlling their behavior. And, I imagine that my students felt invisible and as though what they had to say, how they felt, what they did made no difference in my actions towards them.
"Take a slow breath in and out. Make it sound like the ocean waves at the beach, way back in your throat," I spoke as I modeled for Selena. "Now that calms you down, right?" I asked my little yoga student; sure I knew what was best for her. I took a deep breath in and then pushed it out slowly, ever-so-slightly contracting the muscles in the back of my throat. I tried to make the sounds of sea waves gently making their way towards the sandy shore. Relaxation filled my body. I was positive that when I opened my eyes my little yogi would be the pinnacle of relaxation. “So, how was that?” I asked. "Well," Selena began with enthusiasm, "I am imagining myself at the beach climbing up the ladder so that I can.... No, now I can see myself swimming in the ocean...Wait, now I am surfing...Hey, I can see a fish out in the water!" Calm and relaxed? Hardly!
Once again I was trying to control the situation without paying attention to this sweet little girl sitting right in front of me. And as I struggled with that awareness, I, gratefully shifted gears. "Selena, lay down on your back. Now, as I slowly count 1, 2, 3 you breathe in and then out to that slow count of 1, 2, 3." I also moved my mat so that I lay next to her, each of us on our own mat, inches apart and side-by-side. It was as though the distance between us was part of the problem, as well, and so I positioned myself more near her. We're in this together, I thought. I teach you and you teach me. I slowly counted aloud, 1, 2, 3. " We repeated this 1, 2, 3 breath several times. "OK. Now how do you feel?" I asked Selena, at this point honestly having no idea how she'd respond. I had finally given up controlling the situation. "I feel like I am sleeping and slowly rolling down a hill," she whispered as she rolled over a couple of times, off her mat and down her peaceful little imaginary hill.
In graduate school I watched an unforgettable video describing a series of studies designed to investigate what kind of maternal support led to creative, confident problem solvers. I, of course, had a personal interest I this video having struggled to understand my own upbringing and the way in which that has affected my self-confidence for most of my adult years. On the one hand, I had the confidence to earn a Ph.D. (yes, in psychology) and yet, taking a boat ride with my husband at the controls as we slice our way through swell after swell in open water on a beautiful, calm summer day, terrifies me. I can’t swim, I don’t know how to pilot the boat and I don’t trust that he knows what he is doing despite the fact that he was a championship swimmer and in the Coast Guard.
The task before the young child in the research videos was to put a plastic shape into a larger plastic opening. Several steps were required to solve the puzzle. What interested me was that when a parent helped too much, by offering too many comments, or even taking the puzzle piece and manipulating it into the hole, the child became dependent and helpless. When a parent didn't help enough, by standing back and just staring at the child, the child became frustrated and gave up. I think I might be in the "give up" category. My mother was not able to help, assist, and/or nurture and so I was pretty much left to my own devices. It was the parent who could balance supportive comments with restraint, based on what their child needed moment to moment, that led to the most creative and self-confident problem solvers. Don't we all wish we had a parent like this!
I am thankful for my upbringing (well, mostly!) as it taught me how to be attentive to the moods and behaviors of others. That's how I survived. Graduate work in psychology honed those skills, gave names to and provided insight into all the behaviors I innately and deeply understand in other people. The irony is that I really didn't control as many people as I thought I did (my mom continued to morph from Glenda to the Wicked Witch of the West). And, yet, I am good at understanding and managing challenging kids. The little girl who is standing on the desk in the first grade classroom screaming at the top of her lungs, call me, I can handle that. The teenager, recently released from a neuropsychiatric hospital who is crouching under the table, removing all his clothes to shock the middle school staff. Yep, without thought, I can handle him, too.
Once our yoga therapy sessions were over, I happened to see Selena at recess. "So, do you use yoga at all?" I asked her, genuinely wondering if our two yoga therapy sessions had made a dent in her swirling, dizzying little life. "Yep. Right before bedtime I take deep breaths and count to 3 so that I can go to sleep better," she answered with a smile as she ran off to swing on the monkey bars, scramble over the jungle-gym equipment, and fly high in the seat of a swing.
We teach as we are. We are as we are. And, as ever-changing as that is, how could it be any other way?