List

Everyone says, “Make sure you exercise” when you first start graduate school. They’ll remind you at annual meetings about life-work balance. They chime in again at check-ins. It’s a constant topic of conversation over beers, usually followed by, “I should exercise more,” or “I started running again – i’m going to do a marathon this year!” But it takes time and perseverance to get into a schedule. Sometimes it takes major medical disasters brought on by sitting too much or by making bad decisions about lifestyle. We all know a grad student who had to take time off for one concern or another. Exercise is as much about the physical body as it is about the mental and emotional.

For me, it was when a defect was discovered in my spine. It is tiny and probably would have gone un-checked, but for an unfortunate series of events that led to an un-ignorable pain and reduction in mobility. Most of the exercises i was given in physical therapy, it turned out, were not dissimilar to yoga – and in fact, PT helped me improve my alignment in poses. So i returned to yoga. Better a yoga class than PT appointments.

I’ve always assumed i was the kind of yoga student who liked the Om’s and songs and things in my class. Gentle reminders to breathe and to push without harm. When we moved to the Bay Area, i scoured the area for a yoga studio, finally landing on The Yoga Loft. At my first class, the founder of the studio played the sarod all through the 85 minute class. It was divine, the instructor was delightful, and i wandered home sweaty and blissful.

I have a terrible time sticking to a schedule. And i can talk myself out of going to yoga at the drop of a pin. But that also means that i got to try several different yoga teachers in a very short space of time. Most of the teachers start with an Om. One sings while we’re in shavasana, or as we sit in meditation. The Sunday night candlelight class includes a 15-minute guided meditation “quieting the mind to still oneself for the coming week.” I always leave so peaceful that on more than one occasion, i’ve nearly been hit by cars (i now keep a bright blinking bicycle light clipped to my yoga bag if i’m out in dusk, dawn, or the dark).

On Mondays and Wednesdays, i go with Jason to Berkeley, where he is enrolled in an LLM program at the Law School. They are long days, which means that if i want to make it to yoga, i have to get up at 6:30 and take the first class for which i’m qualified. And this is how i met Dastan Khosraw. He’s not your typical yoga teacher. There is no Om. There are no chants. He sits in Seiza, not Lotus, at the beginning of class. And he pushes. It’s like he saw all my fears and decided he was going to rid me of them – no matter what it took. There is no hippie-dippie coaxing – he’s all business, all the time. From the tiniest movement of micro-muscles to total weight distribution and proper alignment.

San Francisco is not an early rising city – which means i nearly always have Dastan to myself. I normally would find this unsettling – i usually hide at the back of yoga classes, tucked up against the wall behind the largest person i can find. I have my litany of excuses of why i have to modify this pose, or adjust that pose to suit my needs. But for some reason, in his class, all of my excuses simply melt away. His no-nonsense presence has made all my excuses seem exactly like what they are – excuses.

For him, yoga is a powerful meditation, not unlike a martial art. It is not just an exercise, nor is it passive. As we move through the poses, perfecting a different one each week, he tells me the stories behind them – the battles, the weapons, and the myth behind the movements. It is no longer just a graceful flow – it’s a an intense confrontation with myself – my excuses, my weaknesses, my fears. But he also reminds me to laugh. For him, he tells me each week, yoga is about returning to the suppleness of a child – to be playful in the body, to let go of all the things that tie us up. It is work, he reminds me daily – discomfort is how we grow – but the rewards are mighty.

There is no moral of the story. I used to be both a short and long distance runner and spent several years racing. I am competitive. The angrier i would get, the better i would race (an unfortunate truth my coach discovered one day – and a mighty weapon at meets). Even in yoga, i compete to out-hold, out-balance, out-stretch, and out-pretzel everyone around me (which is why i now practice with my eyes closed). But there is something so very different about competing only with my inner dialog. We are, many of us, our own worst enemies. How many times have we not applied for funding (or postdoc, or job) because we figured we weren’t good enough? How often have we failed to perform at our best because preparing to fail is easier than preparing to succeed? How often have we given up just before we met a goal? Graduate students are notorious self-sabotagers. I was told, when i completed my exams, that only 50% of PhCs actually finish the dissertation. The overall attrition rate of Doctoral students is around 59%, ranging wildly between subjects and areas. The attrition rate of women is higher than men, and the attrition rate of students of color is higher than for white students (for a comprehensive overview of the literature, see Gardner’s 2008 paper).

Perhaps what i’m saying is that i’m lucky i found Dastan. And that i hope everyone finds his or her teacher – the one that will push you beyond yourself and who will help you reach around all of the stumbling blocks you’ve strewn along your path. Who knew exercise could be so much more?