My Summer Email Vacation: what happened when I just stopped checking the post

If you read the blog regularly you know I’ve been focused a good deal lately on work/life balance issues, mental health and wellness for university staff and faculty, and the intensification of administrative downloading – which on its own is leading to a hell of a lot more email, make-work tasks, and generally unnecessary panic for me and my colleagues (and not just in the UK, where admin downloading has been the exhausting norm for a while now).

Which is a nice way of saying: I’ve been doing far too much fecking complaining lately about how tired I always am as a result of coping with work emergencies that are ABSOLUTELY NOT EMERGENCIES in the normal human sense of that term. (They aren’t even really that urgent. In fact, nobody is going to die, so who the hell cares?)

Certainly plenty of my complaints have been legit, and need to be laid at the feet of an increasingly teetering system in which academic professionals are invited, should they be Type-A like me, to take on responsibility for a whole bunch of stuff (like, oh, say, building and running a new academic program) for which universities no longer have enough staff, and then work ourselves into the ground. But let’s be honest: I am a tenured middle-aged woman with no kids. I have choices about which work I do, how much, and when. I have the choice to stop and give myself a break.

And yet, as I tried to explain to my therapist the other day, we work in a world chock-full of superficial choices that, at depth, amount to very little choice at all a lot of the time. This is a world of “flexible” labour that shames the break-takers and rewards those who are accessible and eager to help, 24/7. And the rewards are rarely just monetary (if they even are that! As a salaried prof I am one of the luckiest “flex” workers on earth, and I do know it). Working yourself to death also comes with an affective prize, the seductive Feeling Of Always Being Totally Checked In. (Don’t believe me? Click here to read a review of Jonathan Crary’s 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep.)

So sometime in the spring I decided this was it: I was making myself sick with overwork, and in the absence of a rescue helicopter from the fantasy world of Neoliberalism Is Over, I was going to have to take personal responsibility for my own wellbeing. Fuck the stuff that wasn’t going to get done on campus as a result; time to shift the priorities.

Step one in this gambit, I figured, needed to be to tune out. As in, to make all of the voices asking for things go away – if only for a little while.

I had to take a holiday, circa 2016, in which I DID NOT CHECK EMAIL.

For a whole week.

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Some of you might be rolling your eyes at me right now, but I suspect far more of you have just recoiled in horror. After all, we know what happens when busy professionals turn off the email for a week: hundreds of messages pile up. Coming back to that tsunami is worse than living with the daily, dull ache that comes with seeing the messages drip, drip, drip in.

I have long succumbed to the fear of turning off the email. Hell, at the ashram in Kerala I visited last summer I even checked messages once a day! But this time around I figured I’d hit the tipping point. Time to give email cold-turkey a try and see if the benefits outweighed the consequences.

Word up, people: they did!

Here’s how I managed the tune-out:

  1. I created a “rule” on my laptop mail program (Mac Mail) to send all incoming email from my work account into a folder I titled “holiday post”. (Mail users: go to “preferences”, click on the button in the pop-up window called “rules”, and add away.) That folder lived locally on my hard drive, and I moved it to the bottom of my folder roster in Mail so that if I happened to have my laptop open I would not see it. (And I didn’t: I was surprised how, after a day of being tuned out, I was not even tempted to look and see how many messages had come in.)
  2. I turned off access to work email on my phone and on my iPad. (Easy to do, apple users: go to “settings”, “mail, contacts, and calendars”, and click on the offending account. Turn mail to “off” just like you’d set, say, airplane mode when boarding a flight. Nothing is lost or disappears; the device just doesn’t look for post from that account again until you ask it to.)
  3. I checked my personal email account as normal, relishing the freedom that comes from being able to look at an empty inbox in the process. (SO FREEING!)

What happened when I came back to the land of typing and sending?

  1. The morning after my break ended, I checked the holiday post box and found 203 messages in it.
  2. After 45 minutes of gentle triage, over coffee, that number was down to 16 messages.
  3. Of those, roughly 8 needed answering. I chose to take an afternoon to deal with those, leaving all other work for after the email was up to date.
  4. I turned off the “rule” in my Mac Mail and reinstated my work email on my phone only after the triage was complete on my laptop.
  5. I chose not to reinstate work email on my iPad. After all, it’s mostly for reading the Guardian, watching Netflix and videos downloaded from the web, and looking at Facebook. There’s no need for it to be a work device! (That it took the email holiday to teach me how I use the iPad day-to-day is telling, I think.)
  6. I resumed working as normal, though at a slightly reduced pace. This week, only the one genuinely urgent (IE: overdue) thing got prioritised, and a couple of other tasks are on the roster for when that’s done, as a bonus, if I get there.

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How’d I fill all those free holiday hours? I used my away time to do some stuff in the garden I’d been meaning to do but never got to; I sat in my favourite cafe and did NOT do work; I walked the dog enough to satisfy her (not easy – trust me!). I was hoping to spend part of every (hot, crazy-sunny) day at my awesome local pool, but a bike accident involving a lot of road rash on my first email-free weekday (PAINFUL IRONY) scuppered that. Instead, I rode my bike a bunch, rowed, and chilled out in the back yard, not checking email. Revelatory!

Best of all, though, I was genuinely surprised (and pleased) at how easy it turned out to be to ignore my work email all week. I know those of you with strictly separated work and home devices (IE: work phone, home phone; work computer, home computer) might be a bit perplexed at this. But for those of us who work at least partly at home (and all academics do, some like me much more than others) it’s not practical to maintain separate devices. Which means we get in the habit of feeling the urge to check work email during leisure/non-work hours, and feeling it strongly.

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I found over the week I took off, though, that being tuned out felt way, way good. Much better than I could have guessed! And having given myself permission to feel free of work messages, free to use my time for my own pleasure and benefit, I became much more attached to that feeling than I could have predicted. The urge to look at work stuff literally melted away in the heat of high Ontario summer – so much so that, when I opened a work message that had been accidentally posted to my personal account, the light nausea in my stomach helped me realise, in my body, just how important the alternative feeling of freedom had become to my wellbeing. (And yes, I deleted it!)

Now, the challenge for me is figuring out how to carry the lessons from my week free of email into my regular work routine, and especially into the chaos of life during the teaching term. For one thing, I’ve already decided I’m going to do another email-free week in August, before things ramp up ahead of the start of term. Then, once we get into the term, I’m going to do something a bit wacky: I’m going to commit to not checking work email on weekends, ever. I’ll let the students know; I’ll set the email bounce. I’ll keep you posted.

Meanwhile, I’d love to hear what you do to maintain work email boundaries; I know anecdotally from friends that there are some excellent strategies out there. Please leave yours in a comment!

Kim

PS: next up, the promised post on how the heck to say NO – crowd sourced from Women Who Know.

 

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Give me an effing break already!

A couple of weeks ago, as finals wound down and the interminable meetings that litter the exam period came to an end, I ran into my chair, Bryce, in our department’s main office. We exchanged some chat about bikes (our mutual passion) and Theatre Studies (our mutual project); I talked about my latest workplace trauma (of course). Then he said:

‘I really hope you’re planning to take a break this summer.’

People, more needed words were never spoken. And yet my gut reaction?

When? How?! AAGGGHHH!!!!!

I told him I’d scheduled a break for the week previous, and had ended up doing book revisions instead. Then I’d moved the scheduled break to the week in which we were chatting; obviously, that one had also gone sideways. I was looking into the end of May by that point, and colliding with a conference I’d been co-organizing, plus more book revisions, a paper for a conference I was attending in June, more work-related travel commitments…

I thought maybe I could do the break in July.

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All this might well read to you as lame. ‘Good grief, woman!’ you might be thinking. You’re a tenured prof at a good school; take a freaking holiday already! And yet it’s actually hard, from the inside, to make that holiday time; thanks to email (aka 24/7 comms, aka My Modern Albatross), my tendency to say yes way too much (more on that in the coming weeks; see below), and my anxious reaction to Stuff That Piles Up On My Desk, I am far, far better at deferring the ‘scheduled’ holiday than taking it.

(My last holiday was a year ago, at the Sivananda ashram in southern Kerala, and a damn fine break it was. Although I did – in true academic fashion – check my email once a day just in case, and triage a page proof trauma one afternoon from the one spot in the joint that had reliable wifi. Do not judge me.)

Here, it doesn’t help either that I don’t have kids, or currently a partner, whose holiday needs might enforce my own; it also doesn’t help that I spend so much money on research travel (my own and my university’s, but – make no mistake – plenty of my own) that it’s hard to justify further outlays of cash on frivolities like, oh, I don’t know… my sanity.

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Sometimes, though, the heavens grant you a gift, and this past weekend I got one. My dear friends Steven and Peter were moving out to their cottage, on the gorgeous South Shore of Nova Scotia, for the summer; they were bringing the family cats and needed a third to carry Baz, the sweet (and heavy!) old one, on the plane. They enlisted me, which got me a free round-trip ticket to Halifax, accom in a fantastic woodland hideaway, plus day tripping to the beach and evenings in the hot tub.

So I took a freaking break, already.

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Make no mistake: this long weekend in the woods is NOT my summer holiday. If anything, it’s reminded me how much I need more down time this summer. So I’ve resolved that the week I return from my insane June research and conference travel will be a week off; I’m taking a virtual (email) holiday as well as a ‘real’ one. (You can hold me to it, and I’ll report on how it goes.)

Then, upon returning to work (slowly!), I am making it a proper task to figure out better work-life balance for the 2016-17 school year. Because I cannot live through another year like this past one, which was sheer hell and included a couple of serious close calls for me, personally. And because I have no intention of committing holiday time to thinking about my job in any way – even about how to balance my job and my life more effectively.

Academics may live our labour, but our labour does not need to live us.

***

As I travel in the coming weeks, I’ll be doing some teaching about teaching at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, England; I’ll also be reflecting on some of the stuff I learned about new (and old) advances in pedagogy in recent weeks from colleagues here in Canada, as well as thinking critically about the year of teaching just behind me.

Look forward to the following posts:

Next up: ‘Flipping’ the Theatre Studies Classroom… Back Again.

After that: The Year That Was, 2016: What Happened When the Students Created the Supplementary Course Reader and Set Their Own Deadlines

And then: Learning to SAY NO. (Especially for my female friends, colleagues, and readers. Just. Say. No.)

Meanwhile: some holiday snaps for your enjoyment. Because: Nova Scotia is so beautiful that everyone should see it!

Warmly,

Kim

 

Half term pulse check (part 1)

Reading week! Also known as: Fly to Jamaica Week. For me, though, it’s almost always Fly to London Week. I’m in the UK right now for work meetings, plenty of theatre-going, and, of course, catching up with the friends (actually, more like family) I left behind when I moved from Queen Mary back to Western in August 2014.

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Getting away for reading week has a number of advantages (for faculty and students alike). It’s necessary, I think, to get physically as well as mentally away from the classroom for a time, just to check in with ourselves and make sure we’re taking care of the needs that often go ignored in the term. (Proper nutrition! Proper sleep! Game of Thrones! OK, so I am so not a GofT person, but I know all y’all know what I mean.) For me, reading week is always a pleasure in part for the excuse it affords to check out of my head and back into my body for a few days. But it’s also a pleasure because it provides a welcome, comparatively relaxed opportunity for me to take the pulse of the classes I’m teaching and work out if anything needs tweaking or changing as we head into Term 2, Part 2.

This winter term I’m teaching two classes at Western: 20th Century Theatre (an English and Writing Studies course), and Performance Beyond Theatres (aka Performance Studies, a core course in our Theatre Studies program). 20th Century Theatre is a full year class, and I invited the students in that group to fill out an anonymous survey at the mid-point (Christmas break); I then made micro-adjustments after going through their responses with my TA Meghan before we returned in January. In Performance Beyond Theatres, though, THIS is the midpoint, so I did a quick survey with them last Thursday, specifically focused on the blended learning experiment we’ve been doing in that class this semester.

[What’s blended learning? Click here.]

This post is about that experiment, the students’ feedback on how it’s gone so far, and my response to that feedback. (My next post will be about the utterly amazing artists’ talk we held in 20th Century Theatre just before the break – inspirational, fun, and provocative. Look forward to that one.)

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Back at Christmas time, my friend and colleague from Brock University Natalie Alvarez and I embarked on an utterly mad teaching experiment. We decided to mingle our two undergraduate performance studies classes online in order to give our students on our separate campuses (about 200km apart in real space) some value-added learning opportunities. Why the hell? Well, for one thing, performance studies is still a relatively new phenomenon in Canada, and especially in undergraduate classrooms in Canada; Nat’s class and mine were thus not only unique birds, but they were also, kismet-like, happening at the same time. We therefore figured some kind of co-teach model would offer our students exposure to one another and to our shared expertise in the field as teachers and researchers, as well as an opportunity to collaborate on some pretty unique assignments. (We also hoped the experiment would set a precedent for blended learning opportunities in our separate departments going forward).

IMG_1925 (At right: Nat + me in Portland, before the blended learning madness overcame us.)

So, armed with optimism, courage, and a couple of drinks, we put together a shared course WordPress site (which needs to remain private, as it’s a place for learning, trial and error – no links here), created a short intro video explaining our logic to the class, and then committed to trial running the virtual portion of the course until reading week, when we would ask the students whether or not it was worth continuing.

The layout of our blended course has looked like this so far. Each week, one or the other of us creates an online lecture based on the week’s readings. (Our course outlines are not fully identical, but our readings and our assignments are deliberately matched.) That lecture is meant to be about 25 minutes long, and it includes a task for the students to do in the remaining 25 or so minutes of what we call their “virtual hour”. For example, during the week on Michel de Certeau’s “Walking in the City,” I delivered an online discussion of the reading, focusing on three key ideas, and followed that with a video demonstration (starring my dear friend and collaborator D.J. Hopkins) of the task I set for the group for the week.

(My demo with D.J. during de Certeau week: a taste of the student experience.)

Following this virtual hour labour, our individual classes have met live each week for two further hours in order to work through both our reading materials and the materials each student produces as part of their task work. (Each student has also been required to comment on one other student’s task materials in order to demonstrate online engagement; typically, my students comment on work by Brock students, while the Brock students, who are part of a much larger group, look at one another’s materials as well as Western students’ materials in equal portions). In typical “flipped classroom” fashion, we try to use our face-to-face meetings to explore challenges in the readings, work through problems we’ve encountered in making sense of them, and nuance our thinking about our weekly subject matter as much as possible. (IE: no lectures here.)

I’ve personally found our online work really gratifying, humbling, and instructive. It’s been a significant challenge for me to learn how to use video tools in a not-crap way (I’ve been teaching myself Screenflow, for example, and have figured out how to do basic video editing in Quicktime as well). As I rarely lecture in my “real” teaching life, I’ve also found preparing and delivering the online lecture materials a useful way to rethink stagnating elements of my own pedagogical practice. (Yes, active learning friends: lecturing does have some real advantages.) The materials my students have produced in response to the weekly online lectures have been consistently of a high calibre, and some of them have been simply outstanding. I always find they contain insights worth pulling out in “real time” classes, and frequently those insights lead us on to further discoveries.

The process has not been without bumps, though. In part because Nat and I are in no way AV experts our online materials have often been posted to our shared website later than planned, and other hiccups have occasionally interrupted their sharing. (Last week Youtube blocked my lecture on Judith Butler because one of the videos I embedded, by the awesome feminist performance artist The Famous Lauren Barri Holstein, contained a Backstreet Boys audio track. Welcome to the neoliberal classroom!) On the content side, sometimes in class I’ve felt like we’re treading ground already familiar from the lecture, and I find I have to really challenge myself to get the balance between concept reinforcement and further concept development right. (This is much harder than it sounds.)

So what do the students think so far? On our mid-term surveys we asked three questions:

  1. What have you found productive/useful about the virtual hour labour?
  2. What have you found unhelpful, or unproductive?
  3. Would you like to continue with the virtual hour after reading week?

The feedback did not provide a consensus – half the students wanted to keep the virtual hour, while the other half did not! – but it did prove remarkably consistent. Most students said they found the online lectures helpful and clarifying – and we’d already sensed in class that this was the case. They also, however, said that the lectures were too long and that the tasks plus lecture consumed easily more than an hour (more like 1.5 hours, in fact) each week.

The students are not wrong: by the end of our first six weeks our online lectures had crept well beyond 30 minutes (my last one was 43 minutes! Yikes!), and of course Nat and I easily forgot (as many teachers do) that students always take much longer than we do to complete any learning task – they are simply less experienced learners and so inevitably slower. I found myself, a bit embarrassed, thinking back to my review of Martin Bickman’s book back in January, and to his comment about how he, at least, was never bored by his own lectures… without question Nat and I fell a bit in love with our own commentary on our favourite performance studies topics, and forgot about our stopwatches.

At the same time, though, we found ourselves thinking carefully about the implications of this feedback for our teaching more broadly. After all, what the students’ comments reveal is that there simply isn’t enough time in any given teaching week to cover complex topics as fully as we might like to do – or as we believe we need to do.

Now, of course, we all know this is true: it’s a teacherly cliche to complain there’s not enough time! It’s also easy to forget, however, that you’re blabbing on too long or trying to cover too much when you can just run long in a live classroom hour and pick up the following week where you left off; I’m as guilty as everyone else of bad classroom time management. To our surprise, however, our virtual hour sessions seemed to operate like a pace car, showing us in real time how little teaching time we’re actually working with – and thus how prudent we actually need to be with our answer to the all-important question, “how much is actually enough?”

So what’s next for the blended experiment? We’ve decided to try one more virtual hour, and in it to enforce a rigorous 20-minute online lecture cut-off time. (REALLY.) We’ll do a further, quick pulse-check at the end of that week and then make a decision about the remaining three sessions – online, or go live, according to a student vote. Whatever the results of that vote, though, I know I’ve taken from this first trial run a total classroom time-management recalibration, which can only be a good thing.

Temperately,

Kim

On becoming a student again: ten days at the Sivananda Ashram in Kerala, South India (Part Two)

Note: Last Thursday, I published the first part of a post detailing my experiences at the Sivananda Ashram in Kerala, on the south-western tip of India. This post continues with the story of what I learned as a student – and not a very high-achieving one! – while at the ashram. If you haven’t yet had the chance to read the first post (or to look at the great photos!), please click here.

Like many of my peers in the academic labour force I do the job I do because I was naturally good at school and enjoyed it; I got a lot of As and didn’t really have to try that hard. Worse still, I had little sympathy for the dullards who didn’t get it. Though of course I try extremely hard not to be such a jerk now that I am a teacher, the fact is that I do not properly understand, in my bones or in my brain, what it feels like not to be an ace achiever, and research on young students suggests that this lack of empathy probably impacts my teaching regularly, though not in ways I often notice. I suspect it impacts most of us.

At the ashram, participating in yoga (at which I am good but not great) and meditation (at which I am dreadful) each day – that is, being the student who can’t read the script, can’t sit still for long, doesn’t know the pose, and cannot stand on her head with ease – was really discomfiting for me. Fully outside my comfort zone, and then some. I had to learn to make peace with being just OK, rather than A+. That took more than a couple of days. In the process, however, I received a gift: I began to view life at the ashram from the perspective of an average student, which for these ten days I absolutely was. And through those eyes I learned some valuable things.

First, I realised how truly important a welcoming space is to any classroom setup, and especially for those who think they probably suck at whatever it is you are about to do together. Content-appropriate teaching space is something I’ve long fought for as a drama teacher who often gets assigned lecture rooms with fixed seating (ugh!), but the true value of a space not just appropriate but genuinely warm and welcoming appeared to me in my first yoga class at the ashram. We formed two long rows down the centre of the Satsang hall, the breeze glancing over us through the open arches on either side. Our teachers began class at the head of the room but quickly moved to walk the length of the hall, back and forth, passing amongst us quietly to offer corrections and assistance. The sounds of the jungle accompanied our poses, as did the gentle, meditative sing-song with which Sivananda teachers are trained to deliver their asana instructions. My sense of intimidation dissipated quickly; whatever happened in my poses, however I struggled or failed, I felt happy, at ease, and brightened in my surroundings.

Around the ashram, Sivananda/Neyyar Dam Around the ashram, Sivananda/Neyyar Dam  Around the ashram, Sivananda/Neyyar Dam

Second, I learned that if you are going to maintain a tight ship (and wow, is an ashram ever a tight ship!), you need to build in time for proper rest, and you need to offer it consistently. Although the worship practice at the Sivananda ashram advocates transcendence and eschews worldly things, we were reminded always that offering genuine, loving care to our bodies was an essential part of that work. I was given plenty of time to care for my (aching) human body at Neyyar Dam, and nowhere more so than during asana classes themselves, when I frankly needed it most. If you are familiar with yoga you know that each class ends with a closing rest, but at the ashram that rest was magnified tenfold, and disbursed evenly throughout our time together. After each series of postures in each yoga class we spent time resting in Savasana, lying on our backs in stillness amid the jungle sounds outside the hall, and we ended each class with at least five to seven minutes of blissful, complete rest, and typically more. I soon realised the classes were programmed for two hours simply because a full quarter of that time was set aside deliberately for resting.

The value of this approach to planning lessons was a remarkable revelation for me, as I suspect it would be for most Type A teachers. Ask yourself: do I strive to cram as much content as possible into a lesson? Do I go overtime to squeeze out one more brilliant point? Am I ashamed if class accidentally ends early? That’s still me, even 10 years on, and even though each year I program fewer texts and less content. The fact is I had not until now fully recognised that rest is not antithetical to, but rather an essential part of, hard work – especially if you cannot stand on your head with the greatest of ease. Yes, I knew the value of rest days as a cyclist, and yes, I believed in breaks as a teacher. But I don’t need a lot of rest to ride well on my bike and I don’t need a lot of breaks to absorb tricky, abstract ideas, because these two things are among my strong suits. I am not gifted at yoga, though. I truly needed the multiple, regular rests at Neyyar Dam – simply in order to make progress.

Gabriella hauls our bin, Sivananda ashram

Third (and very much related): I learned how important it is to end class on time. I really learned this, in my very stomach. The student who is not your devoted follower and cannot get enough of your instruction really just wants to eat her lunch now. She stopped listening to you ten minutes ago. Give yourself a rest, and show her some grace too.

Finally, I learned to feel real compassion, genuine empathy, for those who live their lives according to someone else’s timetable and rules. It’s been a while since I went to college; I’d forgotten what it feels like! The daily schedule I detailed last week is not optional: everyone who comes to the Sivananda ashram is expected to take part in the whole program, every day, unless they are unwell or are undertaking one of the on-site clinic’s Ayurvedic detox programs. Wake now; be in class now, and now, and now; eat now (in silence!); now turn out your lights. While initially I felt enormous freedom in being given no choice but to partake in ashram life, released for once from the burden of figuring out my next move amidst the apparently endless array of distractions with which we live now, I also felt keenly the pressure exerted by someone else’s idea of What Is Best For Me.

Around the ashram, Sivananda/Neyyar Dam Around the ashram, Sivananda/Neyyar Dam

I don’t often meditate; my mind wonders and I frankly don’t care. (The unadorned world is a marvellous place to take in – especially in gorgeous Kerala! – and I would rather not shut it out for long periods at a time.) I hate sitting cross-legged with no back support. The ashram’s dress code stipulates that knees and shoulders must be covered at all times and that all clothing must be loose (no Lululemon here, bless!) – which is, to be honest, not at all my preferred wardrobe for sweaty exercise. I showed respect for the rules as much as possible, but I truly appreciated when they bent a little to make space for those of us resisting in our hearts, or just plain uncomfortable. Nobody (well, ok, one person once) complained when I regularly chose to pull my knees to my chest during evening Satsang, and to glance out into the sky. Nataraj made a point of reminding us that yoga is an individual practice, one in which we decide what we need and follow only that which serves us best. I was reprimanded once, privately, for wearing a (quite modest!) dress that inadvertently revealed my knees while I was cross-legged, but nobody called anyone out or nagged excessively. Within the rules we knew how to be, and on the whole generous and kind we were.

Nataraj at lecture, Sivananda ashram

Though as a student I was not on board with all of the life choices made by those in permanent residence at Neyyar Dam, I nevertheless felt appreciated on my own terms throughout my stay. Of course, back in my room, I laughed with my wonderful roommate Gabriella at the silliness of some of it (did I mention we were more or less living in dorms?), but I also came to realise, with compassion once again, that the job of herding cats on yoga vacations is probably rather hard, and that the ashram rules exist to support everyone’s continued sanity and good humour.

Teachers and students working in harmony, sharing community, growing their own selves wider and taller: that will be my main memory of this place in the damp south Indian hills. That remembrance is built of the ashram’s commitment to an honest, delightful welcome, proper room to rest and breathe throughout the day, every day, and by the chance this trip afforded me to feel in my own body the true challenges that come with learning the brand-new and often-difficult from scratch. I hope I can bring these small gifts with me into my own teaching spaces come fall.

Om, shanti, jai!
Kim

On becoming a student again: ten days at the Sivananda Ashram in Kerala, South India (Part One)

Note: this post was horrifically long, so I’ve divided it into two. The concluding post will follow next Thursday.

In the high summer, full-time academics often get asked what it is we are up to. Or, more accurately, we get knowing, slightly envious looks from people who ask us when we will be going back to work. Although I always gently correct in these situations, letting acquaintances know that we are in our research-intensive term and then explaining a bit about my current writing project, the truth is that most of us are enormously privileged to have large swaths of unscheduled time in July and August (and sometimes May and June, depending on where you work). Of course, such freedom bears with it responsibility: I need to mind my deadlines, and plan work days accordingly. But I’m also fortunate to be free in summer to experiment, try new things, and make fresh discoveries. That is something I happily trade for a slightly less impressive salary than I might make in one of the more timetable-intensive professions.

Regular readers of this blog know that I am a huge advocate of taking breaks and holidays; without dedicated recharging time I become weary and lacklustre, no good to my students or my colleagues. But holidays are also, for me, often a chance to learn and grow – whether as a scholar, a teacher, or just a human being in the world – and so they were for me this year.

I’ve just returned from three weeks in India, my first time in South Asia. I travelled to Hyderabad for the annual conference of the International Federation for Theatre Research (the next post up on the blog will feature a report from my friend and colleague Elaine Aston, on a stunning piece of feminist theatre we witnessed there), and then on to Neyyar Dam in Kerala, to the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari ashram.
Sivananda ashram Sivananda ashram

Around the ashram, Sivananda/Neyyar Dam

I spent ten days at the ashram, engaged in a rigorous daily program of meditation, chanting, volunteer work, and yoga. This post, and the upcoming part 2, tell the story of what I took, as a teacher, from that time.

The first thing to know about me is that I am probably the last person you might imagine at an ashram, let alone one in a jungle. I only began practicing yoga about five years ago; before that I notoriously resisted it. To this day I find myself cringing as often as not when (typically white, Anglo) yoga teachers close our practice with “Namaste”. (Note to those teachers: while in Neyyar Dam we read from chant books written in Sanskrit every day, and never once did we say Namaste.) I am also hopelessly afraid of spiders, snakes, do badly with mosquitoes, and would rather not shower in full view of a nervous-looking gecko. Plus, I am a fiend about cleanliness. Add all this up and you don’t exactly get Indian ashram, in the middle of monsoon season to boot.

What took me to the Sivananda centre, then? Well, I’m pretty thrifty: I could not imagine someone else (Western, my university) paying my way to India and not tacking a proper holiday onto my work duties. And I’ve had a really, really hard year, with family illness, lots of emotional turmoil, and moving continents all in the mix. (For more context, should you wish it, click here.) Finally, there was the slightly nervy allure of doing something completely outside of my normal: this year, of all years, I felt a pull to step beyond myself, even if only for a short time, to see what would happen if I cut myself off from my world and lived briefly in the shoes of another version of me. Could I let myself relax, in order to perhaps expand myself a bit, as we do in yogic breathing or when practicing poses? I’m always insisting my students challenge themselves to take a leap beyond their comfort zones; it’s only fair that I do the same once in a while.

Sivananda ashram

At Neyyar Dam, the day begins at 5:20am, or 5:15 if you are, like me, unlucky enough to get a room beside the first morning bell (there are two; the ashram is spread across a hillside in the unspeakably glorious Western Ghats). The next thing you hear is the sound of recorded devotional music ringing over the hills from the temple in the town below, and then you’re off, sprayed all over with insect repellant, yoga mat or meditation cushion in hand, hurrying toward the main hall for morning Satsang – half an hour of silent meditation, followed by daily chants, readings, and announcements. Tea is at 7:30, often accompanied by a very small snack of food blessed during the ceremony at the end of Satsang. Milky, warm, and sweet, the tea, offered beneath a tree in the communal courtyard below the hall, provides a small boost of protein and comfort before a challenging two hours of asana practice (yoga poses in the hatha style, in a set order according to Sivananda tradition). By 10am you are ravenous, so it’s lucky that brunch is ready: you head for the dining hall, leave your shoes at the entrance, wash your hands, and then take a place at one of the long prayer mats set facing one another at the far end of the room. Hare Krishna is sung, a mealtime prayer of thanks spoken, and the ashram’s founding teachers praised before everyone tucks in, side by side, eating with their hands in silence. The food is delicious, vegetarian, and bountiful: staff and volunteers return again and again offering seconds, thirds, and more. Finished, you return to the long, communal sink and wash up your plate and cup. Many hands, light work

tea kettles, Sivananda ashramKeralan Feast for Swami Shiva's death day, Sivananda ashramSivananda ashram

After the meal it’s time to help with chores; everyone, including staff, is assigned a modest duty that might take 15-30 minutes each day to complete. (Mine was emptying garbage bins; at first I grumped, until I realised it was among the quickest “karma yoga” jobs to finish. Suffice to say I have a new appreciation for the labour of garbage collectors!) From noon until 2pm ashram visitors can take optional meditation and asana coaching classes, and then it’s time for a lecture on some aspect of yoga practice or Hindu spirituality. Herbal refreshment and a small snack appears under the tea tree at 1:30pm, and at 3:30 a further two hour asana class is held. A lighter meal is served at 6pm, and at 8pm evening Satsang takes place, closing the day with another round of meditation and chanting, always accompanied by music played on a keyboard, with tambourines and other noise-makers. It is raucous, joyful, soulful. And then, thankfully, bed.

Like many taking part in the ashram’s “yoga vacation” program (it runs every two weeks throughout the year), I found this schedule thoroughly exhausting at the start, and I was briefly freaked out by both the amount and the fervour of the devotional practices that form the heart of Satsang. I’m not a morning person by any means, and for the first few days the morning bell tore me out of dreams, leaving my eyelids droopy and my chanting mostly yawns. Eating only twice in the day, and right after exercise, took getting used to as well; at first I seemed to starve profoundly in the mornings, and I wolfed far too much brunch as a consequence. And then there was the yoga itself. Even the beginner classes at the Sivananda centre progress quickly, and when I arrived the previous group’s beginner sessions had already moved on to poses I consider relatively advanced, from headstand to crow. As I’ve been doing yoga for some time now I challenged myself in the intermediate classes and set a goal for my stay: to manage a headstand, completely unaided. (I’m proud to say I achieved this, for three whole seconds on my penultimate day.) Nevertheless, every day was gruelling, with four hours of yoga followed by much cross-legged sitting for meals and Satsang. My body ached.

There were fringe benefits to all this, though. Soon I was sleeping soundly at night, waking before the bell, and then giving myself permission to nap after brunch. I began to find the regular chanting enchanting; what was at first intimidating and confusing grew familiar as I realised I had learned the words to a couple of our daily chants and could join in with tambourines and clapping as the pace sped up and our voices lifted higher. I confess I remained a professional skeptic during the lectures, frustrated in particular with what seemed to me a deeply anti-intellectual, anti-materialist approach to the idea of the human mind, but more and more I grew to appreciate the balance and inquisitiveness with which Nataraj, the ashram’s longtime director, handled questions from the group. I spoke up more. And then, on my final Saturday, I volunteered to curate our group talent show. (Ok, so that part is, perhaps, a touch predictable. Drama queen, me.)

The greatest benefit I derived from my time in Neyyar Dam I could not have imagined before arriving, though: I discovered, unexpectedly, what it is like to be a student again. And not just any student, but one who comes from outside the school’s norm, is unsure of everything, doesn’t speak the language, and isn’t especially good at lessons. In the second part of this post, I’ll share in detail the valuable lessons I learned when I found myself watching life at the ashram through the eyes of one of my own typical students: an average achiever.

Around the ashram, Sivananda/Neyyar Dam Around the ashram, Sivananda/Neyyar Dam

Om, shanti!

Kim