Liz Norell

Musings on life, love, and yoga

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You be you

Be you. The world will adjust.Last weekend, I was with my — and I cannot stress this enough — absolutely AMAZING Cultivating Kindness group. These brave women show up each week to explore a yoga practice (many of them having never practiced at all, or never having done yoga in front of other people) and have a heartfelt conversation about what it’s like to be a woman in this world. We talk about the stuff that’s just hard: our bodies, our worries, our fears, our insecurities. It takes tremendous courage for these women to jump into a conversation considered taboo by society writ large, but they do it with grace, kindness, and love. It inspires me weekly. It is my happy place.

But this post isn’t about me; it’s about something one of them said last time we got together. We were talking about the short reading I’d sent them for the week, called “The Disease of Being Busy,” by the director of Duke’s Islamic Studies Center, Omid Safi. This essay first came into my bubble via a Facebook share by a friend, but it has stuck with me for a long time. He poses the essential question we should be asking people when we see them: “How is your heart doing at this very moment, at this breath?”

And one of the women in our group said that she feels like she’s forever busy, but that she rarely actually finishes anything. She says she’s really good at starting, but then something else needs done, then something else, then something else … and so she spends her days feeling ever-so-busy, but at the end of the day, she’s not sure what she accomplished. She expressed a desire to be better about this.

I was so moved by this confession, because what I heard was: “I’ve been doing this thing for my whole life, and I feel like I’m wrong.”

How often do we feel this way? I’d wager you feel this way, like, ALL the time. It’s as though we’ve absorbed this litany of rules about how we’re supposed to be, and when we don’t measure up, we internalize this as failure.

Obviously, this goes deep. And I mean, DEEP. We struggle against our biologically rooted desire to eat the damned cookie, because we’re not “supposed” to. We fight our desire to sleep longer, because we’ve gotta get that day started! We yearn for quiet, but when we get very quiet, we have no idea what to do with it because society values productivity, not quiet.

And so my message to this brave woman was something like: “You are successful. You have a wonderful daughter, a husband who loves you, and a job where you get to help people all day. What about your life tells you that you’re failing?”

The response? The quiet we all need, as the room contemplated whether it might be OK to just accept ourselves as we are, rather than fighting our very nature.

Obviously, we all want to strive to be the best version of ourselves. And if you feel like your inability to see a project through to completion on a regular basis is affecting the quality of your life, by all means strive.

But as I told my group, I spent about, oh, fifteen years agitating about the fact that I never started writing a paper until the Very Last Moment before it was due… in high school, undergrad, and through multiple graduate programs. And then, somewhere just a few years before I finally finished the blasted PhD, I had an epiphany:

My system works for me

Just because procrastination is often described as a plague or a battle to fight, it was clearly not impeding my academic performance or progress. So why was I so convinced I had to change?

What other things do I falsely believe are character flaws or personal failings that are actually working quite well for me?

This shift in thinking for me was profound, and I like to think that sharing this can make your life a little better, too. What if we stopped criticizing ourselves for being who we are, and instead directed all that energy towards doing the things that make our lives sparkle with the happy? Whoa, y’all. That could be a whole lot more happy.

So this is my challenge to you: What about your life or your fundamental nature do you wish you could change? Could it be that this aspect of your life is actually working quite well for you, thank you very much?

What would it mean to let that aspiration go?

What would it mean to accept yourself — nay, LOVE yourself — as you are, rather than as the thing society tells you that you should be?

 

Eating is not a moral activityPS: Not to get off on an entirely different rant here, but … for heaven’s sake, eat the cookie. Maybe not all the cookies (not that I will judge you even a teeny little bit if you do), but if you want to eat a cookie and you feel like eating a cookie, then eat the damned cookie. Forget what people say you’re supposed to do. Food fuels our body. Fuel is good. But food also brings us joy, and joy is GOOD. Food choices don’t make you a good person or a bad person. Food choices aren’t moral choices. It’s just food.

Life is short. Eat the damned cookie.

Jes Baker is my hero(ine)!

It’s the beginning of a new semester AND a new year, so I’m reading slowly this month … but I am slowly reading Jes Baker’s unflinching book, Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls, and it’s the sort of stuff that makes me want to put down the book after each paragraph and find someone to read it aloud to.

Stuff like this:

I’m painfully aware of the fact that I have apologized for my body for over two decades. Verbally–excusing myself for taking up so much space. Making jokes about what I was eating. Turning down compliments because I didn’t feel deserving. And physically–wearing black, long-sleeved shirts in the Arizona summer. Shying away from anything loud, flashy, or sparkly. Basically doing anything I could to minimize the presence of my body. What a way to live, huh?

And sadly, I think we can all relate on some level. I look back on those years of my life now and shake my head. It’s as if I thought I was keeping the fact that I was fat a secret by attempting to disguise it. As if those who saw me in black would then see me in bright colors and gasp, “HOLY SHIT! UNTIL NOW, I HAD NO IDEA SHE WAS FAT!” Illogical. Our bodies cannot truly be hidden, no many how many black outfits we wear.  (page 22, emphasis mine)

Mind. Blown.

Do you do this? I do this. I try to hide my body by evaluating every article of clothing by how obviously it reveals my true contours underneath the clothing. If I find material that drapes just so, will it obscure the reality lurking beneath?

Is anyone really fooled by this?

Or this:

Happy people don’t try to purposely hurt other people. (page 52, emphasis in original)

This statement stood out to me … and not just because of the bold typeface. Jes was talking about the episode of This American Life wherein she reveals how she confronted an internet troll (listen here). This feels incredibly relevant here at the beginning of a new presidential administration, where internet trolling is rampant. When you let yourself read the comments, you must keep this simple truth in mind: Happy people don’t troll others.

Happiness is more fun, and remaining happy means staying away from those who are purposefully trying to hurt other people.

Or one more:

For those of you facing any kind of body hate, do me a favor: Ignore those people who tell you loving yourself is not okay. Have empathy for the people who hate you for being happy; we all know what that kind of self-loathing feels like. … Acknowledge that people spreading the animosity are simply regurgitating deception that’s been fed to our culture for decades; they just don’t know anything different. … In the words of Tess, don’t forget to “surround yourself with positive, like-minded people who support you. It’s crucial to your happiness and well-being. Never compare yourself to others and celebrate what makes you, YOU.” (page 59)

Jes Baker book coverIn that paragraph, Jes (and Tess Holliday, a plus-size model and body-acceptance role model) perfectly describes why I’m enamored of my Cultivating Kindness yoga series in Sewanee. I am trying, four weeks at a time, to create a community where women can be around positive, like-minded women who support one another and understand, deeply, what it’s like to feel less-than in this world. This is why I do what I do, and why I will keep on doin’ it.

So what I’m saying is: If any of this resonated with you, you should absolutely read Jes Baker’s book. You can buy it here from Amazon.

Books I read and loved in 2016

I was listening to Anna Guest-Jelley‘s podcast, Love, Curvy Yoga, this morning, and I heard her talk about her favorite books of 2016. And I thought — why haven’t I ever written such a list? It’s appalling, really. For someone whose first or second favorite hobby is buying books by the dozens (if you think that’s hyperbole, check in with my postal delivery professional), why haven’t I been doing best-of roundups for DECADES?!

So, without further fanfare, here are my favorite books that I read in 2016 (not necessarily ones that were published in 2016, it’s important to note). There is no rhyme or reason to the order — it’s too hard to choose just a few, much less rank them!

Incidentally, the links below go to Amazon.com with my affiliate ID. If you would like to support my writing and/or yoga teaching, much of which I do without much or any compensation, please use these links to show your support. Thanks!

Fiction
While much of the fiction I read is pretty terrible (I tend towards the 99-cent Kindle “women’s fiction” genre), a couple of the novels I read this year really stood out. Specifically:

  • Dietland, by Sarai Walker
    This book fictionalizes the growing movement of backlash against the diet culture. Plum finds herself on a bizarre mission to earn money for weight loss surgery, only … well. You’ll have to read this gem of a novel to see where she ends up.
  • In Twenty Years, by Allison Winn Scotch
    I absolutely love this woman’s novels, and this book was no exception. The characters and their adventures have stayed with me FAR longer than does the typical novel. It tells the story of a group of college friends who reunite somewhat unexpectedly twenty years after graduation. I strongly recommend this book.
  • Me After You, by Jojo Moyes
    I absolutely love this woman’s novels, too. They are always well-written and heartfelt, but in a way that lingers with you long after you finish reading. This sequel to her runaway bestseller Me Before You had me ugly-crying quickly and repeatedly. Nevertheless, it was WONDERFUL.
  • All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr
    Alternating between the perspectives of a young French girl and a young German soldier during World War II, this book is eloquent and capitivating. I wish I could re-read it for the first time. It just captured my imagination in a way few novels do.

World Politics
This year, in an effort to become a competent instructor of world politics, I significantly expanded my knowledge of hot spots around the world… largely through reading narrative nonfiction accounts of these places. Here are my absolute favorites, books I think everyone should read:

Social Science
Y’know … the day job. I read a few books in 2016 that generally sharpened my thinking about politics and American government:

Yoga, Intuitive Eating, Being You, & Body Image/Acceptance
The biggest passion of my year has been this inward quest to understand, accept, and be present in my body. These books have resonated with me at a deep level:

  • Big Girl: How I Gave Up Dieting & Got a Life, by Kelsey Miller
    Holy moly, this book seriously changed my life! It was my first exposure to this thing called “intuitive eating,” and while it’s memoir (not manual), Kelsey’s refreshingly honest voice captivated me from the moment I began reading. And yet, I forced myself to spread this book out, because I found my mind so thoroughly exploded as I read that I needed breaks to process. I will never be the same person I was before I read this amazing book.
  • Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight, by Linda Bacon
    This book also changed my life in extreme ways. It was so powerful and paradigm-altering that I bought nearly a dozen copies to give to women I knew would find its message similarly empowering. If you’ve ever struggled with thinking your body was the enemy, you simply MUST read this book.
  • Carry On, Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, by Glennon Doyle Melton
    Every woman should read this book. It’s an incredibly honest accounting of what it’s like to be a woman in today’s world, beautiful and brutal (or brutiful) as it is. Glennon Doyle Melton is a force to be reckoned with, and I loved this book so much I went to see her speak live… my only life author event of the year.
  • The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, by Brene Brown
    Everything Brene Brown writes, speaks, or does deserves our attention, but this is the book of hers I fully read in 2016. Her message of self-acceptance and the need to be vulnerable is one we can all benefit from hearing. I will reread this book many times before I fully appreciate its nuances and wisdom.
  • Living Your Yoga: Finding the Spiritual in Everyday Life, by Judith Hanson Lasater
    This book was the first required reading for my yoga teacher training program, but its lessons have far broader resonance. The message of Lasater’s book really grounds our yoga practice in the simple acts of everyday that keep us present in our lives. I think everyone can get something humbling and profound out of this little gem.

I love dogs… just not in my yoga practice

I'll show them downward dogWhen I first started yoga teacher training, I knew I was dreading the day we would talk about and work through downward facing dog. (If you’re not familiar with this common pose, check out this description.)

Our YTT teacher thoughtfully held off on introducing down dog until our second (of four) training modules. In fact, she said: “I want you to know it’s possible to do yoga without doing a down dog.” I wanted to cry with relief when she said that.

Because, you see, I LOATHE down dog.

When we finally did get to down dog in teacher training, I found myself in a real crisis of confidence. As I pressed my hands and feet into the mat, moving my hips back, feeling the stretch in my hamstrings and calves, the strength in my upper body, I broke down into tears. I didn’t stop crying for the rest of that day’s practice.

I can’t exactly trace the source of my anger and bitterness over this pose, but I know that I have long associated the down dog with “success” in yoga … as in, if you can’t do a down dog, and if you can’t hold it for several breaths, you’re not really doing yoga right. But, my body doesn’t like this pose. It screams at me. My focus leaves my body and turns to self-loathing. I feel inadequate. I feel like a poser. In other words, down dog is my yoga kryptonite.

So, after we learned a few modifications for down dog — such as doing it at a chair, at the wall, or opting instead for down puppy — I resolved not to do down dog as part of my regular yoga practice. Occasionally, I’ll move into the pose and see how it feels, but as soon as I start hearing the angry voices inside me scream out, I come out of the pose.

As a teacher, I don’t incorporate down dogs into my sequences. I feel like the people I’m most hoping to reach with my yoga teaching would feel similarly frustrated with this pose, and I don’t exactly feel like there’s a shortage on other yoga teachers who incorporate this pose into their classes regularly. Yesterday, for example, I went to a “gentle flow” class that included at least a dozen passes through down dog. I made it through two of them. Then I switched to down puppy or just hanging out in a different pose until the rest of the class shifted.

Before I went through yoga teacher training, I felt less-than when I made these adjustments for myself. Now that I’m a yoga teacher myself, I can recognize that I’m doing what’s often the hardest work of yoga: staying on my mat, not comparing my practice to those of others. I’m also putting confident energy into the room that normalizes rejection of a pose that doesn’t serve you or your body. I no longer feel shame; instead, I feel power.

As I find myself saying almost daily, yoga (to me) means presence. It means maintaining focus on the now, on the self, on the body’s needs and limits. Yoga is not, nor will it ever be, defined by a single pose or sequence.

If you’re reading this and thinking, “I don’t mind down dog, but I really dislike _______” — I encourage you to give yourself permission not to do that pose. It’s your yoga practice, not mine. And if you’re one of my students who really, desperately adores down dog, do it! I won’t scowl at you. I just won’t do it with you! 🙂

One person at a time

I’m hardly unique in my desire to be known, to be seen, and to be remembered. I think so many of us in our teens, twenties, and maybe even into our thirties imagine these desires will best be realized if we achieve some measure of fame–if not People-magazine-cover fame, at least a level of recognition by those we see regularly, be that in our personal or professional lives.

My initial thoughts on how I would impact the world always flowed from my writing. If I could turn a phrase especially well, perhaps my writing would earn me recognition and the ability to impact the lives of others in positive ways. Maybe that would be in novels (my friend Edward continues to ask after my first book, long loosely titled Conversations with Myself), or maybe I’d write a particularly accessible explanation of how American government works (the aspiration of May/June 2016), or maybe I’d just blog myself to fame.

Earlier this week, I finally let go of these notions of achieving fame as a measure of my impact on the world.

I remember the moment it happened. I was teaching a yoga class to some coworkers, and one of them suggested I might come do a workshop in their division in the new year: “maybe as part of a self-care unit? Work-life balance? That sort of thing?”

And it clicked for me: My calling in this life isn’t to write the Great American Novel or the narrative version of my college class introducing people to the machinations of the American political system. I may still attempt to do those things, but they’re not where my strengths lie right now. Instead, I see so clearly that my immediate place in this world is to help the people who are around me right now, those who may not orbit in the same social network spheres as I do, who may not be aware that there is this fantastic, growing movement of women who are challenging the age-old norms about what women are and are not supposed to look like / act like / be like / feel like.

When I have even one single person come to a yoga class I’m teaching and leave feeling more in tune with her body, I have made a difference.

When I can show someone who’s been afraid of trying yoga for 40+ years that her body can, in fact, stretch in ways that feel nurturing and kind, I have made a difference.

When I welcome someone full of anxiety into a space that is warm, accepting, and supportive, I have made a difference.

Armed with this new mindset, I spent the balance of my week observing all the many ways I can make a difference on a daily basis. A kind remark, a warm smile, an invitation to be present … these are all gifts we give one another. They say, “I accept you. I welcome you. You are enough.”

Imagine the change we could see in this world if more people genuinely felt accepted, welcomed, and like they were enough.

For now, this is my mission: Spread the love, spread the kindness, spread the presence. The other stuff — the writing, etc. — it can come later. For now, this work is just too important. There are too many people in our bubbles who need it.

….

Hmm. After rereading this draft, it occurred to me that this post screams, “I’m so amazing! Tell me how awesome I am!” Haha. That’s not at all why I wrote this.

Rather, I think we each have the ability to make a huge impact on other people, one person at a time. I hope you will look for ways your presence and whole-heartedness can similar find those who need a message of love and kindness in this difficult time. If the very essence of being human is hoping to belong, to finding our tribe, to feeling accepted, we are living in an era that promotes the very opposite. We divide ourselves into groups and fight endless battles with those who identify differently. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to fight for what you believe in. Yet, when those battles obscure the humanity of our opponents, we have gone down a dark and dangerous path. We must recognize the humanity of all, to let them know that intelligent, kind, generous people can disagree and not hate one another.

Ultimately, this message of reaching out to others, one person at a time, is what animates everything I do in my life: My teaching, my yoga practice, my yoga teaching practice, and my relationships all center on how I can be present for others. When I stopped to think about what an incredible blessing it is to be that presence to those I love, I realized that no fame or fortune can replace the simple act of loving another.

The lost art of listening

The world is noisy this week: first, the giddy anticipation of Election Day, women all around this great country joining Pantsuit Nation on Facebook and proudly donning their “I voted!” stickers; then, the unfolding surprises on election night; finally, the reality slowly seeping in that a loud and bullish man was just elected president.

The noise is deafening. On both sides of the political aisle, we are feeling our voices raise as we either celebrate or lament the outcome of the 2016 election.

I believe that we each know best how to process this election result for ourselves. For some, that means engaging in public acts of protest or celebration. For others, it feels like stupor, the sense that we can’t quite wrap our minds around what has happened in the last three months of our lives. Still others feel a deep sense of loss. Perhaps you’re feeling adrift, not sure where to devote your attention after spending so much of the year mentally engaged in a collective sense of disbelief and uproar.

Noisy, isn’t it?

This is why I believe that, once we’ve had a chance to let this election sink in and the immediate, reactive emotions fade a bit, we need to cultivate some quiet.

We need to stop yelling. We may even need to stop talking. I believe the work ahead of us, if we are to move forward in productive ways, comes in the lost art of listening.

On the left, we had a diverse coalition of people celebrating the imminent shattering of the glass ceiling. A woman who has spent her life fighting for women and children seemed destined to become our first female president. The reasons to celebrate were many. This coalition was pushing for broader access to education, healthcare, clean energy, environmental protection and preservation, and reproductive care. The intentions were noble and the argument came laced with facts, figures, and self-evident truths.

On the right, we had a somewhat less-diverse coalition of people frustrated to the point of outright anger over a system that seemed to have left them behind. They pushed for a clean sweep of the wealthy government officials who don’t understand what life is like for a factory worker laid off when a company moved production overseas, or who resent the seeming aura of superiority and disdain adopted by the well-educated and progressive. These were and are legitimate feelings of being left behind by a world that increasingly demands sophisticated technological skills and deep education. Politics is inherently rooted in emotion, and these voters were by far the most expressive of those underlying emotions.

[Aside: Speaking from experience, no matter what you say or do, when you have more education than those around you, basically everything you do is interpreted through the lens of someone who just expects and believes you think you’re superior. This is a reasonable thing when you consider that every human being is wired to want to fit in and be accepted as they are. The sense that the well-educated assume themselves superior becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when the left makes arguments with these aforementioned facts, figures, and self-evident truths. If the left is to become less despised by the right, they must learn to speak the language of emotion, not reason. See Haidt.]

Not everyone on the left was capable of seeing the legitimate concerns of those on the right; not everyone on the right was willing to see the problems as endemic of a developed economy and not as the result of demographic change.

And here we are: Absolutely nobody is happy. The left is miserable with loss of hope and fear of the future; the right is miserable with the present and fearful the new president won’t be able to do enough to shake up the status quo.

Our solutions, though, lie not in trying to find a single leader who will occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and shake things up. In fact, when it comes to our deepest misunderstandings, the president is only ever going to divide public opinion into supporters and opponents; at best, the president is a net neutral. Electing either of these candidates was going to fracture the country further.

My friends, the only solution I can give you is this: Listen. Really, really listen. Don’t sit quietly while you wait until it’s your turn to talk. LISTEN.

I’m not suggesting you should abide by outright hatred, racism, bigotry, misogyny, etc. However, we know from our experiences of the last few decades, particularly with the LGBTQ community, that the best defense against ignorance and fear of the other is knowledge of the other. Twenty years ago, most Americans felt the LGBTQ community was populated by a bunch of immoral and dangerous people; today, most Americans not only accept this community, but say our LGBTQ friends should be able to marry the person of their choosing and form families. This shift happened because our gay friends came out and said, “Here I am!”

When you know someone who’s gay, it’s much harder to demonize the entire category of people.

When you know someone who voted for Trump and you actually listen to them, you understand how they got there.

When you know someone who voted for Clinton and you actually listen to them, you understand how they got there.

When you know someone who’s a Muslim, you see their humanity.

When you know someone who came here as an unaccompanied minor to escape violence of Central America, you see their humanity.

When you know someone who is afraid to be pulled over by the police because they might get deported for having a tail light out, you see their humanity.

We have stopped knowing people who aren’t like us, and it’s the single most dangerous thing in our country, I believe.

I’m not saying we can change minds or hearts overnight. We cannot. I’m not saying we should condone hatred and bigotry. We must not. I’m not saying you have to do this tomorrow. You need not.

But as we move forward and try to find ways to calm the hatred surrounding us, this is the only viable path. One person at a time, one conversation at a time, we must listen, understand, and let others know us.

I remain convinced that most people, most of the time, are mostly good. Nobody is good all the time, and very few people are irredeemably bad. You can find some commonality with almost anyone you meet. I mean, almost everyone likes pizza, right? Set aside the good fight for a moment and find the common ground. Eat some pizza. Smile. Show compassion for the troubles we all — every single one of us — face.

Listen, friends. Just listen.

Why yoga makes sense for a political scientist

For a lot of 2016, I’ve thought about how divergent my life’s two biggest current passions are — political science and yoga. American politics this year have been — dare I say it? — unusually nasty, and yoga is the very opposite. What is the common thread?

At first, my impulse was to think of yoga as the yin to the yang of my professional life. Political science involves studying how a whole lot of tough decisions get made about (as Harold Lasswell famously said) who gets what, when, and how. Understanding how those decisions get made is at the heart of what I explore intellectually and teach to my students. Inherently, then, political science contains a strong undercurrent of competition, of sorting out the winners and losers.

Yoga couldn’t be more different. Yoga challenges us to embrace now, just as it is. Meeting yourself where you are, as you are, is one of yoga’s greatest gifts. We set aside the striving for a few stolen moments of the yoga practice, and we tune into the quiet voice inside us that knows what we need. Yoga is about wholeness, about love, about presence. It is the very opposite of the practice of politics.

And yet, for me, these two things have increasingly come into harmony for me. It’ll take me a little bit to get you there, but bear with me.

Remarkably, the catalyst for this unexpected marriage of philosophy has come from my work this semester teaching World Politics offline for the first time. To be honest, I dreaded teaching this class: I’m not an international relations scholar, I don’t know much about IR theory (other than what I learned in my one required seminar in grad school), and I’m pretty ignorant about events happening in most of the world. That’s not because I don’t see the value in being informed; rather, it’s because when I have taken the time to learn about world events, I find myself somewhere between despairing and disappointed with the incredible persecution that happens out there in the world. I’ll gladly take the (relatively) petty differences of American politics over the genocide, war crimes, and intractable problems out there in the world.

As a political scientist, though, this avoidance of the tough questions couldn’t last forever, of course. When I was told I’d be teaching World Politics to actual, real students, my first impulse was to hope the class wouldn’t attract enough enrollment to run. We ended up with 12 students, which is a bit low, but the Powers That Be decided it was enough for us to run the class. Faced with 15 weeks of class time to fill, I had to come up with something to say or do with these inquisitive students.

It all started with a whim, really: What if we dove deeply into the Syrian conflict, trying to see the situation from the variety of perspectives involved, then see if we could brainstorm possible actions to move the conflict forward?

I bought an eBook on the history of Syria’s leader, Bashar al-Assad, and assigned my students to research one of the major perspectives. I devoured the book about Assad, told in narrative fashion by a scholar who had visited Assad many times. Staying just a couple of steps ahead of my students, I led us through a “simulation” of Syria. One of my students said, “Is this problem even fixable?” It was the right question. None of us could answer. But in the process, I came to see the humanity of each person or organization involved. Assad isn’t making humane choices, but it’s not that big of a leap to understand why he would fight back against his own people.

Next, we tackled North Korea. I think it’s human nature to be intrigued by North Korea. Reading two personal narratives of Americans who went to North Korea — one for vacation, one posing as a missionary English teacher — deeply affected me. My heart aches for those living in North Korea. They don’t have the benefit of the ignorance I’d been choosing for 39 years: They can’t find out what’s happening in the rest of the world, and if they try, they can be sentenced to life in a work camp or, worse yet, wind up dead. And yet, as we simulated the North Korea situation, my students and I came to understand why the various actors, including Kim Jong-un, behave as they do.

Today, I finished a moving book about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict called The Lemon Tree. I was profoundly affected by this story. The story (again, narrative nonfiction) weaves the story of two people — one Palestinian, one Israeli — connected by one house, behind which stood a lemon tree.

It was in finishing this book that I have come to understand how political science and yoga fit together: They each teach us about how to relate our own experience to the broader human experience. When you try to understand how and why others make the choices they do, you challenge yourself to find the common humanity. The Jewish woman in The Lemon Tree embodies this in a way most of us will never have the courage or conviction to do; Dalia understood that if we do not reach out to our enemy, to The Other, we will never stop fighting. We will never have peace.

This reminds me of Jonathan Haidt’s incredibly important work on understanding the moral foundations of liberals and conservatives. Haidt challenges us in his TED Talk to step outside of the fight of good against evil at least occasionally. Instead, he says, we must learn to cultivate a certain moral humility and try to understand one another. When we stop engaging in the mindset of teams (e.g., Democrats and Republicans), we can approach the world with a more open mind and open heart.

And ultimately, isn’t that what yoga is all about? I think it is. Yoga encourages humility; it demands we accept the world as is. People new to yoga often feel invited to compare themselves to the others practicing in the class with them. Yoga invites us instead to turn our focus inward, to listen to our own wisdom.

How much better this world might be if we could invite that same acceptance and humility into our lives more broadly. When we seek out the humanity in others, rather than demonizing or comparing or engaging in Us against Them thinking, we find common ground. We can be present. We can love.

So there you go — my brand of political science is quickly becoming an extension of my yoga practice. It’s been heading in that direction for years, but it’s only thanks to my experiences struggling with my lack of knowledge in World Politics that I’ve really made the connection.

In August 1994, I was entering my senior year of high school after having spent the summer in France as an exchange student, then at a stay-away six-week summer camp for rising high school seniors called Governor’s School. That summer shifted the way I thought about myself and my future. I chose to apply to colleges thinking I’d major in French and international relations, then join the foreign service. It took me approximately 48 hours of homesickness at GW to realize that I wasn’t cut out for that kind of life. I never even took an IR class as an undergrad. I barely even took any political science classes at GW. I’m struck today, as I’ve been struck at many times in my life, how everything has once again come full circle: Twenty-two years later, I’ve fallen in love with a class about international relations and the lessons it has taught — and continues to teach — me.

Each of the books I linked above is a great read. If you find yourself curious about the most difficult problems facing our world, check one (or more!) out.

What I learned from Feast

Rachel Cole’s online, 12-week course Feast aims to guide women along the path to becoming “well-fed” — by food, by careers, by movement, by LIFE. I am celebrating the end of this program this weekend.

The program focuses on grounding into intuitive eating principles, showcased in the fabulous book, Intuitive Eating, by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. But that’s really only the foundation, because once you make peace with food and with feeding yourself, the door really opens to feed yourself in other ways as well.

As I reflect back on the last 12 weeks, thinking about what this journey has meant to me (particularly in concert with my yoga teacher training), I’m left with the feeling of full-ness. By this, I mean that I have the strong sense of being well-fed by my life, in a way that I haven’t ever quite experienced before.

One of the more important lessons I gleaned from Feast is the importance of recognizing your own sensitivities, then allowing yourself a life that accommodates them. This was perhaps most keenly visible in my experience going to see the Dixie Chicks in mid-August, right around the time we were talking about what it means to be a highly sensitive person. Through my reflections and work around my sensitivities, I became acutely aware of how large crowds completely overwhelm my system. This wasn’t, of course, a ground-breaking revelation on my part; I’ve always know that large crowds exhaust me in a uniquely draining way, but I didn’t have a structure for understanding how or why. Armed with this new knowledge, I was able to set some parameters for the concert that supported my needs — namely, leaving after about 90 minutes, because I just couldn’t take any more sensory input.

Another lesson learned: Stop and listen. Each of us has such tremendous inner wisdom about what we need and want from our lives, but we’ve been too often pressured to ignore that wisdom and instead chase the shoulds — what should I be doing, what should I be eating, what should I fill up my time with? When I pause to listen to my inner wisdom, I recognize that the shoulds are crowding out my deeply felt desires: to connect with others in a deeper way; to hold space for thinking, reading, and resting; to pause and take in the beauty and joy of my life; to see and appreciate all that others do for me. I had so many shoulds that I had no space at day’s end for the things that really matter.

Should is one of our mind’s greatest diseases. I don’t mean to imply that life is all about shirking responsibility or forsaking work for a life of sloth and leisure. Yet, I’ve learned that it’s all too easy to convince ourselves that the world’s demands are ceaseless and uncompromising. The group of women gathered in Feast this season almost all spoke of doing so much for others that no energy or time was left for themselves. This feels nearly universal among women — at least, women I come into contact with. There’s more to life, though. Feast gave me a structure, a language, and the space to find my own, fuller life.

As I begin to take baby steps from student to teacher in this realm, I feel tremendous gratitude for the space created by Rachel in this program. Each of us needs such a space, a place to be still, tune into our inner wisdom, and find ways to let that wisdom shine.

The journey to becoming a well-fed woman never ends, but there’s no question I’m much further along the path than I’ve ever been before.

What I learned from yoga teacher training

BREAKING NEWS! Today was graduation day from Yoga Teacher Training. I’m now officially certified to teach yoga classes, after completing my RYT-200 program through Curvy Yoga in Nashville.

I’m feeling alllll of the feels today: excitement at teaching yoga (anyone want to come over for a quick practice, like, right now??); overwhelming love for the other eight newly minted yoga teachers and our two fearless leaders; gratitude for the body — my body — that supported me through this process; and, perhaps most acutely, tremendous sadness that the journey has come to a close.

I never said this out loud to the group of women assembled for the first time back in March, but when I walked into this training seven months ago, I crossed the threshold already sad that our training was going to end in mid-October. Walking into that training in March, I knew in my heart that I was about to find my tribe, to feel completely seen and accepted by a group of women for, quite literally, the first time in my life. I journaled about my incredible excitement to meet them before I left for our first training module. I knew we were destined to cultivate and grow something genuinely life-changing. And I was right: This experience has changed my life.

Going in, I expected this training would allow me to guide other women along the path towards body acceptance and self-care. I wanted to learn more about yoga and how to make various poses work in my body. I thought our focus would be on building strength, flexibility, and knowledge. In this respect, I was dead wrong.

Yoga teacher training instead turned out to be a journey within, a process of speaking my truth — first, to the tribe assembled at our four training modules; slowly, over the last seven months, to the world at large. It turns out, yoga poses are a teeny tiny portion of what it means to “do yoga.” I just … I seriously never understood this until I began this journey, and I don’t know that it fully hit me until just a few weeks ago.

I was on a coaching call for Feast (check it out here) a few days ago, and when it came time for my weekly check-in, I started by saying, “I am … great. I feel so good.” In those moments, the leader of Feast (the incomparably empathic Rachel Cole) said, “You are so full right now. I can hear it in your voice.” So true. So true.

Yoga teacher training, and all the work it has brought into my life — in subtle and not-so-subtle ways — has filled my bucket to bursting. I think my heart has doubled in size. I know my awareness has.

So, yes. If you’re reading this, I’m ready to teach you yoga poses. But more than anything, I hope the light in me honors the light in you, always, regardless of whether or not we’re on yoga mats at the moment.

Namaste.

Grief, all spread out

NOTE: Before I dive in here, I need to say clearly and firmly that nobody died in the writing of this blog post. 

Have you ever lost someone you love and wanted one more conversation, one more chance to make up for the time when you thought they would be here forever? If so, then you know you can go your whole life collecting days, and none will outweigh the one you wish you had back.

Mitch Albom, “For One More Day”

About two years ago, maybe more, I lost someone extremely dear to me. For most of my adult life, I’ve described him as my favorite person in the world. I’ve long felt like he understood me better than anyone else I’ve ever known. If he turned up on my doorstep tonight, I’d feel completely known, understood, and loved. The twinkle in his eye would make me giggle uncontrollably. A simple hand gesture would make me feel awash in that feeling of being at home. A raised eyebrow would communicate volumes. A smile would make my heart swell up with love and acceptance and feeling like this life is going to turn out OK, after all.

But I lost him. And I have no idea how it happened.

The first time I met him, he was a tiny creature who had the gall to show up in my world with a Y chromosome and a name that was not Amy. My mother placed him in my arms on my grandma’s couch, and pictures snapped the moment I first met my little brother. From that moment forward, I felt a fierce sense of protectiveness. I’m not his mother, but I’ve felt like his mother many, many times in my instinctual need to shield him from the troubles of the world.

Eiffel Tower, creatively wrapped

Robert and his girlfriend bought this Eiffel Tower for me for Christmas in 2008. They cleverly engineered the water bottle cover so that, when they wrapped it, it wouldn’t be as obvious what it was. I never took the water bottle cover off, because it makes me giggle at how clever, inventive, and wonderful he is.

As he grew up, he went through a manic phase of wiggling, jumping, and yelling. He was a boy; we must forgive the boyishness. When I was in high school, he yearned to tag along with me and my friends, and in many cases he would, inserting himself when we’d be hanging out on a Friday night. I’m sure there were times that I found his presence irritating — I mean, I was a teenage girl, so basically everyone irritated me occasionally — but my memories of those days are marked with feelings of affection and appreciation for his presence in my life.

As a child, he was unusually willing to help people around him. His big heart made itself known very early. In those days, technology hadn’t delivered unto us a wireless remote to control the TV. No worries, though. We had Bobby. “Hey, Bobby, will you put the TV on channel 3?” He was only too delighted to be of service. My mom would say, for much of his childhood, “EVERYONE needs a Bobby.” She was right. Each of us needed a Bobby.

We still do.

Sometime around adolescence, he retreated into himself. Again, he was a teenager; we expect these things. He became much more headstrong; if he didn’t want to do something, he just … wouldn’t. The Norells are a stubborn bunch, but none is more stubborn than my brother. He’s turned stubbornness into an Olympic sport, and he’s the gold medal winner time after time. My brother, it’s fair to say, is the Usain Bolt of stubbornness.

While others find his persistent resistance difficult to deal with, I’ve always had a Robert-whisperer streak in me. When he was just learning to talk, I always knew exactly what he was saying, even when nobody else could. I served as Bobby-to-English translator for a while. When he was struggling in high school — “struggling” not with mastery but rather with homework completion — my parents had no idea how to handle the situation. I came back from college and tried to run interference.

Robert at St Louis

This picture was taken in St. Louis in March 2014, when we met for a few days during my spring break. It was the last time I felt genuinely connected to him. We had a wonderful trip.

As adults, I’ve always felt my brother understands me as no one else has ever been able to rival. Even though we’ve always seen each other infrequently as adults — he lived in Kansas City, then Colorado Springs, now back in KC; I lived in Dallas, then Nashville, now southern middle Tennessee — I feel a very strong, very clear connection to this person wandering around the world. If we were twins, this would make more sense. We’d call it “twin sense” and shrug. But it’s not that. I feel connected to him through shared experience and remarkably similar worldview. We are much, much more like one another than we are like anyone else in our family, immediate or extended. I can feel his feelings, even from afar. It’s as though a part of him is me, and vice versa. Sometimes it feels like I don’t make sense in this world without him.

My brother has the uncommon ability — I’m telling you, the stuff of gold medals! — to become stubborn even when nobody’s asking him to do something. Because I know him so well, because I can almost hear his thoughts even from 10 hours away, I know what he’s thinking. He has constructed a story about our relationship, and even if he knows, deep down, that it’s not true, he can’t will himself to break out of the inertia of that narrative.

Liz and Robert

Christmas 2008

And so, here we are, more than two years into almost complete radio silence. Calls go unanswered; texts go unacknowledged; holidays are spent with an empty space on the couch and — more importantly — in our hearts as we miss the joy of having him nearby. The holidays feel hollow, unsatisfying, because this person who feels like home to me isn’t there.

I weep. I mourn. I grieve.

I miss this man so much it literally, physically hurts.

And I send out a little loving kindness to him Every Single Day, hoping that this Quiet Period will be over soon, that my favorite person in this world will come back to me, and that my life and my world will once again make sense to me.

 

 

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