The Perils of Un-Physical Education: a personal narrative

By Elizabeth Maynard

This text is based on a longer presentation at the Race and Yoga conference, University of California Berkeley in 2014.

 

“You can do it,” they said.

I finished my dissertation in a hurry in the summer of 2014. To manage a full-time teaching load, a 30 hr/wk job and finish my dissertation, I set up a rigorous schedule, giving myself two months to finish my thesis, because my advisor was leaving my university, and because I just couldn’t have the yoke of my degree on my shoulders anymore. I allotted two weeks per chapter, accounting for 17 hours of conscious time per day with anywhere from 6-14 hours of writing per day, depending on what my part-time job required of me. I cooked all my meals in advance, I paid someone to buy my groceries. I subscribed to an online yoga class service (which I never used); just thinking of about the time to get to the studio sent paroxysms of anxiety through my body. I thoughtfully scheduled some time for socializing with friends, but anxiety would creep up, and I couldn’t concentrate on being with them, only focus on the work I wasn’t doing while time was passing. The act of writing also took a very physical toll. My chronic back pain became so acute that I went through salonpas patches by the boxful, I developed cysts in my legs that only resolved recently, and in the weeks before my defense, my sciatica made it painful to sit, to stand, to sleep. The night before my defense, I was so exhausted and strung out and that I couldn’t sleep, I just sobbed with fear, until my mother made me drink a shot of vodka, just to calm down my nervous system.

But I did it. My friends and family were so happy for me, but I didn’t even have the energy left to be relieved. I immediately fell into a profound depression and became utterly convinced that I was physically dying. When I got home from work or sat in traffic, when I stopped moving for more than a moment, I felt a bleak stillness in my body, I was barely breathing. My schedule for completion hadn’t accounted for what would happen after I finished, or for what it would mean to so thoroughly sacrifice my body and my energy to my deadline. In academia, we’re taught about the treasures of the life of the mind, of the intellectual innovation born of long hours of reading and writing, but beyond a few sparing e-mails on the student listserv about how to manage stress in grad school, we do not talk about the often damaging physical experience of long hours of scholarly work.  

 

Feeling Scholarship

I have old memories of the physical anxiety I would fear when a subject I had a difficult time being “objective” about would come up in class. Unsure that I would be able to talk without my voice wavering or my face flushing, I wouldn’t participate, knowing that my affective (and physically visible) response would mean that I couldn’t be taken seriously. I learned to resent my body’s response to contentious conversations in class, and then to (mostly) suppress my physical reactions, while instead shoring up the critical theory, history, and philosophy that I could “objectively” mobilize in debate—as if such a thing were possible. The more theory I learned the thicker my scholarly armor became to shield the very real kernel of passion that lies at the heart of whyI am in academia at all. In more than one way I learned to ignore my body and what it had to tell me.

I wonder then, if this is why in part the affective turn in critical theory has been so compelling for some of us—finally a chance to talk about our bodies, our feelings as if they had legitimacy and wisdom rather than as if they were simply messy impediments to the rational mind. The truth is, that when you do scholarly work on social justice, it is personal. It elicits personal reactions, and to dismiss or suppress those reactions is simply layering more repression and setting up more obstacles for working through historical traumas. I believe this is especially true for authors who write about subjects in which their own bodies are immediately implicated. The notion that we can do objective work about embodied trauma without any physical empathy just doesn’t resonate for me. My point here, of course, is not that we shouldn’t do such scholarship, but that we have to re-evaluate what it means for us as scholars to do it, and to stop diminishing or resenting our bodies’ response to the work.

I think one of the most important ways that we can protect ourselves, to ensure our survival in academia, is by listening to and caring for our bodies. My mode of healing after finishing my degree was to do a yoga teacher training. To spend a month just listening to my body rather than denying its every cry for help, and subjecting it to whatever I need to get my project done went a substantial way towards recovering from the very real physical damage wrought by a decade of higher education. It has also given me the skills to tune into the emotional impacts of doing the kind of scholarship that I do. Working with images of rended and burned bodies, artwork that insists on the atrocity of war, on the vulnerability of the physical self, has a palpable effect on a person, on a body. Now, as I have had the time and space to recover from my project, and I return to these artworks, I can look at them with a new attunement. I can recognize and remember the washes of feeling that would come over me while looking at such a painting, but now I can name it. I can point to it in my body, register it and then let it go. It is this process that so intrigues me at this point in my research. In my next steps I’m hoping to examine more closely this physical and emotional component of research. For so long we have relegated this undeniable experience as a secondary distraction to the real “meat” of critical analysis, but my experience with confronting what academia has done to my body has opened a window for exploring what scholarship might look like if I refocused the lens of inquiry on the parts of me around my mind, around my thoughts, and to see what this might have to offer in the way of an alternative, perhaps more inclusive, epistemology.

 

Teaching: bringing theory into practice

Many of us come into our research and teaching practices from a place of personal interest and investment, though we’re usually taught not to disclose such messily subjective narratives. Working as a part-time professor at Rhode Island School of Design has given me the flexibility and freedom to work from a place of affective regard for my own somato-intellectual experience, and to explore these themes with my students. Given the rigor of their art education, I find it has been a rich place to bring the perils of not being attentive to physical demands of school into high relief. I explore this in my earlier blogpost: “Embodied awareness as pedagogy and practice for academic resilience: the body as both epistemological subject and site.

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