When I was eight years old, I wanted to go to Stanford. The world was like that for me: Overly abundant, incredibly privileged and wide open with infinite possibility. I had all of the opportunities in the world to explore who I was, what I was good at, and who I wanted to be. My dad is a surgeon. My friend’s parents were professionals and professors. We lived in a fancy neighborhood where the public schools won awards for everything from theater to academics. The only expectation in sight was tremendous success. Be the best, the brightest. Accept nothing less than perfection.
I always had different answers to the question: what do you want to be when you grow up?
My first answer was “Lawyer,” It was filmed for my first grade video (a revolutionary technology in 1991). Lawyer sounded fancy and important, and I liked that. As I grew up, a lot of adults told me I would make a good attorney. “You’re so articulate for your age.”
The older I got the more I wanted to be a teacher. My elementary school teachers were all extraordinary educators. They were creative, compassionate, energetic and incredibly effective. My most vivid memories are still the years between 3rd and 6th grade. Each of them had a tremendous impact on me, personally and academically.
My teenage years were kind of a blur of achievement, adolescent angst and family crisis. I had two priorities: Survive high school. Get to UCLA. I don’t think I ever considered what I wanted after that.
I went to college, found a passion for young people and community service, and felt what it’s like to impact someone else’s life. I learned my early education was exceptional, not typical. I learned that while I read Shakespeare and built “Poly-hedraville” in 5th grade, most elementary school kids did math problems on worksheets and read short stories edited by Houghton Mifflin. I just knew that if elementary school looked and felt like it did for me, every kid on the planet could love learning and thrive in the school environment. I knew if they loved learning they could empower themselves and their communities. I knew that education was the key to change. I wanted to change the world and I was convinced teaching was how I could do it.
I graduated from college almost 5 years ago and I’m a second year law student. Most days I wonder how it turned out that way.
I had my reasons. I wrote them in five different “personal statements” for my law school applications. I had to tell my boss at the job I left. I told my friends, my parents and anyone else who asked (an over-achiever’s favorite question), “what are you doing with your life?”
I told every one a different version of the story I’d made up for myself: I wanted to be challenged. I wanted to be an advocate for the under-served. I was tired of being powerless against systems and institutions I couldn’t control or penetrate. I wanted to do something meaningful, influential, important, etc.
Everything I said was true. Those ideas I had about law school persist, even today, as I write this, 2 years later.
The issue was never my dishonesty of expression, it was, and still is, my inability (unwillingness?) to be honest about everything I left UNexpressed: Fear that I wouldn’t live up to the imaginary expectation I’d created about what it meant to be successful in the world; A misguided sense of my purpose on the planet as an ambassador of an alternative female identity; A false impression that I had a responsibility to do something high-powered and hyper-intellectual with my life, as if all the privilege and opportunity (not to mention support and motivation) would go to waste if I did anything else.
The voice that wrote my personal statements and spoke eloquently about my ambitions was deep and strong, powerful and convincing. I cried the day I left my job at a high school, but assertively assured myself that it was all for a good cause. It was all part of the best story I ever told.
Up to a year and a half into law school I still hadn’t dropped the story. Depending on who wanted to know, I’d still rattle off one or more of the compelling and heroic reasons I went to law school. I’d tell some people “to advocate for young people”, others would get the domestic violence speech. In particularly vulnerable moments, I’d candidly say, “I have no idea” or “I want to help people, I just don’t know how, yet.” In the privacy of my most intimate relationships I’d confess my anxiety about being a lawyer, how I was “worried I lose my spunk and creativity” or that I’d never fit in.
And then about a month ago I had a breakdown, or what we sometimes call in yoga, a breakthrough.
I burst into tears while eating a peanut butter sandwich on the bottom floor of the building where I intern two days a week. I pulled myself together for about three hours and starting crying again as soon as I closed my car door. I cried and cried and cried. I cried all the way down wilshire blvd. I cried in my bedroom changing into my lululemon, and I cried again until I parked my car in santa monica for a friday evening yoga class. I hadn’t cried that much in years.
I cried because I’m sad and lonely and dislocated here in L.A. I cried because I’ve invested a lot of money, time, energy, etc, into an education I don’t ever want to use. I cried because I felt hopeless, and ashamed, and overwhelmed. I cried for all the other times I had refused to cry.
And when the tears dried up I felt vulnerable, honest and expressive.
I called my mom and talked for twenty minutes straight about everything from childhood expectations to grown-up responsibility. Pressure, excitement, fear, anxiety, resentment, hope.
In the end, I felt a sense of clarity wash over me, a feeling of “it’s going to be o.k,” “everything will work out,” and the echo of my yoga teacher’s most famous line: “you’re exactly where you should be.”
When the raw outpouring of emotion subsided, it was clear to me that my tears, my feelings and the accompanying realizations were little victories in an on-going battle I have with myself: My struggle to be soft and sensitive in a world that seems harsh and demanding, the struggle to be open and transparent, the struggle to be myself.
I face all of these things, every day, on my mat.
Most of the time, the combat is subtle and layered. It is nearly invisible beneath the experience of sensation, challenge and sweat. It sometimes masquerades as intense pressure in the hips, achy arms in warrior two or an inability to steady my mind.
I rarely begin a yoga class thinking: “today I will tackle my unwillingness to let people in” I rarely leave thinking, “heart: 3, ego: 2.”
But sure enough, in five years of practicing, the changes have come. I am a nicer person. I am less reactive in my daily life. Compared to my life before yoga, my anxiety-level is extremely low. And today, I can credit my yoga practice with allowing me to tap into the spaces between who I am and who I think I should be. It is in that space that I search for my true self.
They say in yoga “we are on a journey to become who we already are.” Lawyer, teacher, or something else entirely, I get on my mat every day to get explore the possibilities: societal, familial, cultural pressure aside. Just trying to figure it out, breath by breath. Knowing in the end, it’s not what I become, but who I am to myself and to others, that matters.