In the past two weeks the pile of unopened mail in my kitchen has grown taller and more unruly. Every so often I try to neaten its edges but I have done nothing to reduce its size. It’s not that I don’t want to; it just hasn’t risen high enough on my list to do anything about it. I’ve pulled out all the bills, but the extracurricular literature—magazines I hope to read sooner or later—remains neglected.
The current mountain is an accumulated backlog resulting from my taking a weekend off to attend a music festival in San Francisco. The lofty heap, with its magazines waiting to be enjoyed, represents the small pleasures that have gradually slipped out of my life over the past few years. It reminds me of all the things I would like to do, but have not made the time.
As I was growing up, the greatest sin a member of our family could commit was to be selfish. My sisters and I learned well that we must give first priority to our responsibilities to others. Whatever time is left over could be spent enjoying what we like to do. Being responsible, honest, punctual and honoring commitments were among the highest virtues in my upbringing.
I am grateful that my parents instilled these qualities in my sisters and me. I enjoy dealing with the many reliable people in my own life who keep their promises and show up on time. These relationships are self-sustaining, fortified by a foundation of ease and trust.
Still, I wonder about the nature of responsibility. Is there more to it than my parents taught? What about that stack of brochures and magazines? Is it really irresponsible of me to take a half hour to read an article simply for the enjoyment of it? Or, better yet, to lose myself in a great novel for a weekend? Is it a waste of valuable time to set aside my responsibilities for a day? How noble is it to work oneself to exhaustion? Is constant hard work the only expression of virtue, or might balance be a valid form of its expression?
Years ago, I took a workshop with Rod Stryker. Much of the weekend’s class time focused on pranayama, the fourth limb of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga. Because the breath is the carrier of our “prana” or life force, exercises that free and refine the breath have the potential to balance not only our physiological systems, but also the subtler essential energies that animate our bodies.
I have practiced pranayama on and off for 30 years, often quitting in frustration at my inability to inhale deeply with any consistency. During the course, I asked the teacher if he had any insights into why inhaling deeply might be so difficult, while long, slow exhalations were very easy for me. His reply: “You’ve been teaching yoga a long time, haven’t you?” I nodded. “I see this all the time,” he continued. “People who have been teaching for a long time become very good at giving out their energy, but not so good at taking it back in.”
He then advised me to practice pranayama, but to turn my focus entirely to building my inhalations, and to let my exhalations occur as they may. Focusing on the inhalation addresses an essential physical imbalance that has left me feeling depleted much of the time. Psychologically it has begun to change an unhealthy habit of giving away more than I’m willing to take in.
Teaching Yoga is a Two-Way Street
Teaching yoga is not generally the most lucrative of callings. Because of this many of us—myself included—have to “moonlight,” working one or more other jobs to make ends meet. Teachers who don’t want to moonlight often teach an unsustainable number of classes just to stay afloat.
In any relationship there is an exchange of energy. In a student/teacher relationship, for example, the teacher shares information, guidance and heart with his/her students. The teacher’s gift is easy to see. What is more subtle is the student’s reciprocal offering. Because no one is there to spell out the student’s lesson for a teacher, it is the teacher’s job to listen so that he/she can hear the lessons the student is offering back. Often this is simply a matter of giving oneself the time to listen, and being willing to receive the gifts offered. Look deeply at your relationships with friends, colleagues and family. Can you honor what you give to each relationship? Can you identify and accept those gifts that come to you?
People with a strong sense of responsibility to others often tend to diminish their own needs and desires. Can we honor those commitments we’ve made to ourselves in the same way we honor those we’ve made to others? For example, I would never consider not showing up to teach one of my yoga classes. But how many times have I not shown up for my own practice? What makes my practice any less important than anyone else’s? If I do not commit to my own practice, there is no way it will happen. It could be that responsibility is not simply a gift to be offered to others. Responsibility also applies to how we govern our own lives and how we honor our own needs and more important, our dreams.
In metta (lovingkindness) practice, it’s traditional to begin by wishing metta to oneself. This is not an expression of narcissism. It springs from the truth that in order to offer metta to others, we must first cultivate it in ourselves. Giving to oneself allows you to give to others from a state of abundance.
Here are some ideas for being responsible to yourself:
- Replenish yourself by practicing simple pranayama—long, slow inhalations and exhalations. Focus on deepening your inhalations, but make sure you don’t create stress by trying too hard. Start with five minutes a day and add a minute or so every few weeks.
- Add Restorative Yoga to your practice. Rest replenishes your energies.
- Take on only as much as you can handle gracefully. It can be tempting to take on an exciting new task. When you feel that temptation, consider what you can let go of in order to fit that new responsibility into your life. If there’s nothing you can let go of, please say “no thanks” for now.
- Go outside. Spend some time in nature. I know it’s a cliché, but nature has a way of replenishing us. You don’t have to spend all day. Take an hour or two.
- Let the world around you nourish you, as you offer your own gifts back. Read a novel, paint, write, take a walk or do nothing, even if it means you have to put off something else for a few hours. It is your responsibility to see that you have the energy to carry you through your daily life. Commit to yourself as you have to others. What you invest in yourself will naturally invigorate all your relationships.