When you first start writing, chances are you’re not doing it for anyone other than yourself. You might begin by keeping a journal, or producing badly illustrated, yarn-bound books about anthropomorphic cats named Stubby, or else writing raw, angst-written teenage poetry by moonlight while the rest of your family (who, by the way, don’t understand you) are asleep. I mean, maybe. It’s not like I’m drawing examples from my personal life here or anything.
It might be that writing for yourself is all you want to do, and that’s great. That means that you can write whatever you want, edit as much (or as little) as you want, and basically be able to not give a fuck about, well, anything. JD Salinger (the king of giving no fucks) said,
There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. … It’s peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I live to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure. … I don’t necessarily intend to publish posthumously, but I do like to write for myself. … I pay for this kind of attitude. I’m known as a strange, aloof kind of man. But all I’m doing is trying to protect myself and my work.
If you want any kind of commercial success, though, you need to start thinking about other people. In a best case scenario, you could write exactly what you want to write, and, due to some crazy alignment of the stars or a perfect moment of cultural zeitgeist, it would make the New York Times bestseller list. For example, you could write smutty Twilight fan fiction, change a few names, and have it become a wildly successful work of erotica. However, if that business model isn’t working for you (and don’t worry, you’re not alone), you need to figure out who your audience is and what the hell it is they want to read.
I feel like this is kind of where I am right now, not just with writing but also with yoga.
When I first started practicing yoga, it was (obviously) something I only did for myself. I remember my first class vividly; I struggled through it, but afterwards I was so relaxed that I felt high. It was love at first downward dog.
In the beginning it was just a physical practice, but later it became something more. I’m hesitant to describe it as “spiritual”, but the way I practice now certainly goes deeper than just my body. There have been times when yoga has triggered unexpected emotions in me; I laughed the first time I went into urdhva dhanurasana (full wheel), and kicking up into handstand still makes me insanely happy. There have been poses that have made me feel irrationally angry, and, much to my embarrassment, I’ve cried in class once or twice. Luckily, the lights were dim, and I was able to slink out the door without anyone noticing that something was amiss.
The feeling that I associate the most with yoga, though, is what I like to refer to as the “bell jar” feeling. I call it that because of the way Sylvia Plath describes feeling after her first shock treatment:
All the heat and fear had purged itself. I felt surprisingly at peace. The bell jar hung, suspended, a few feet above my head. I was open to the circulating air.
The bell jar, of course, is the metaphor she uses to describe her depression:
If Mrs. Guinea had given me a ticket to Europe, or a round-the-world cruise, it wouldn’t have made one scrap of difference to me, because wherever I sat – on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok – I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.
I mean, let’s face it, we all have bell jars of one sort or another, though some may be lighter and clearer than others. For me, yoga, both the physical practice and the philosophy, was the best way of lifting mine for a little while.
Then I started teaching yoga, and it went from being this beautiful, deeply personal thing to being, well, a business. When you’re teaching, you can’t just do whatever you want. You can’t just teach your favourite poses over and over, or have a 20 minute savasana. I mean, sure, if you’re some kind of yoga superstar and you’re having to turn people away from your overcrowded classes, then maybe. But I’m still working my way up the ladder, and for now I have to figure out what the people want and how to give it to them.
It’s been a tough lesson to learn, especially since people in the yoga world aren’t always exactly, well, yogic. They can get angry if a class isn’t exactly what they wanted, or if they think you’ve made a mistake, or if you go five minutes too long or too short. You, the teacher, are providing a service, and the student, your customer, is always right. Or, rather, they are if you want them to ever come back to your class. Which, by the way, you probably do.
And then there’s the fact that you, as a teacher, should maintain a personal practice. It’s hard, though, to convince myself to roll out my mat when I get home from a day that’s been nothing but yoga: teaching yoga, doing yoga studio admin, writing emails about yoga. By the time I make it back to my apartment, all I want to do is snuggle Theo, hang out with Matt, and write.
So yeah, I’m feeling a little burned out on yoga these days. And then I feel guilty for feeling burned out, because it seems unfair to my students that their teacher is kind of tired of yoga. And then I think about how everyone always tells you to try to find work doing what you love, and I wonder if the natural consequence of doing what you love is that instead of loving your job, you end up feeling resentful about something that used to bring you so much joy.
Today, though, I cracked Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras for the first time in months. Reading through the second sutra, I caught myself thinking, oh yes, I do love this. Later, when I went to teach my class, I ended by talking a little bit about what I’d read in the sutras that day, and that felt good. Afterwards one of my students came up to me and told me how much she’d enjoyed the class, especially the bit at the end. And that felt really good.
I guess that what I’ve realized is that there has to be balance between what you love and what you give out to other people. Yes, you need to offer something that people want, at least if you want to make any money doing whatever it is you’re doing, but you need to inject some of yourself into your work as well. Being yourself when you teach or when you write is what makes your work authentic, and people can sense that. Have you ever read a book that was written specifically to appeal to a certain demographic? Usually they’re pretty terrible. By the same token, a book that’s just the author nattering on and on about whatever their pet subject is can often be just as bad.
So if you can find that perfect sweet spot of sharing what you love and giving what people need, then you’re probably golden. If you can find a way of separating thing-that-I-love-doing from thing-that-I-get-paid-for while at the same time acknowledging that, to a certain degree, they are the same thing, then you’re probably way ahead of the curve. And if you can find a way to admit that it’s okay to feel burned out on the places, people and leisure activities in your life, and that you can come back to them when you feel ready, then you get a thousand high fives.
And that, my friend, is a lot of high fives.