In 1997 I started my first tech job. After a few days of settling in, learning the environment, and getting my .bashrc just the way I liked it, I was given my first project: train an algorithm to be smarter about the ways it was grouping and categorizing porn sites. Because why wouldn’t that be an appropriate task for a 17-year-old intern? Two summers later, a different company sent me on a sales call with a colleague who talked over me so much during the meeting that our prospective clients couldn’t hide their laughter. On the way back to the office, he proposed we “stop off for a quickie” in a nearby hotel. HR noted his behavior in a file, and did nothing. My first two jobs, and I was 0 for 2 on having a workplace free of inappropriate innuendo and advances.Around that time I began practicing yoga. One of my staples is Yin yoga: where most American yoga is yang – warm, fluid, and flowing – yin is cool, slow, and still. You choose a pose and settle in for the long haul, staying in one position for anywhere from three to fifteen minutes. These aren’t the muscular poses of a yang practice – Warriors, Dancers, or Handstands – but are almost always seated or lying down, like Forward Fold, Pigeon, or Child’s Pose.A Yin practice is designed to address the deep connective tissues that only respond to gentle and slow nudging. Its intention is to make subtle changes to the foundational structures of the body.It doesn’t sound particularly challenging – how hard can it be to hang out in head-to-knee pose for five minutes? – but most people who’ve tried it will describe Yin as the most difficult practice they’ve ever done. When you’re not distracted by movement and breath and muscular effort, there’s only one thing left to put your attention on: yourself.Yin poses are uncomfortable. Certainly not painful, but definitely uncomfortable. A few minutes into a long-held forward fold, your muscles start to let go of their tension and your fascia and tendons start feeling the tug, and it feels weird. It’s not dangerous, but it’s not exactly pleasant, and that’s when the real work starts.What do you do when you’re feeling uncomfortable? My urge is to lash out, to declare “this whole idea is stupid” and to storm off. If I can work in some vaguely-official sounding arguments ("connective tissue is supposed to be stiff; that’s how it does its job”), all the better. Some people react to discomfort by feeling anxious that they must be doing something wrong; that if this is hard it’s because they are failing and their bodies are terrible and everyone in the room probably hates them. Others look around and find someone who looks like they’re having a harder time, and feel smug and satisfied that at least they’re not as bad as that guy.Whatever the reaction, we tend to have the same one, pose after pose, all class long. I’ve been doing Yin for years, and it often takes a little while before I remember that my reaction has nothing to do with the pose, and everything to do with how I behave when I’m feeling uncomfortable. I always want to lash out when I’m not in my element. People who turn vague doubt into self-loathing, or look for weaker people to judge: they do that every time they’re faced with discomfort, on or off the mat. In Sanskrit that’s called “saṃskāra”, a word that roughly translates to a concept like “impressions” or “grooves”. They are behavior patterns that we fall into without thought, choices that we make because the ruts are well-worn into our decision paths. A Yin practice gives me a chance to jump the groove: I know that this pose won’t injure me, so what happens if this time, I don’t get angry? What if this time, I choose to let the fear of looking stupid wash over me, and through me? Do I survive? Am I still me? What have I lost? What have I gained? In a 90-minute class, I get 10 or 15 chances to be aware of my decisions, to be present with my urges, and to choose differently. There is a reason we call yoga a practice.2014 was a shit of a year for women working in technology. We were barraged with everything from egregious threats of violence to run-of-the-mill condescension, from “ladybrains can’t make code” pseudo-science to arguments opposing something as simple as a conference Code of Conduct.When I witness an erupting Twitter conversation, or read through article comments (I know, I know), what I see – spluttering, denial, derailing, and always alongside a rousing chorus of Not All Men – looks like nothing so much as people refusing to be present with their own discomfort. Yes, many women are angry, and injured, and our public seething will make you uncomfortable. Sit with that. Let it wash over you, and through you. Breathe, and feel the urge to squirm, and choose to be still instead. For we who have been living with this discomfort our whole careers, you can handle not-reacting for a few minutes. What do you lose when members of your community begin to speak freely about changing things that hurt them? What could you gain from actively listening to a conversation without sharing your opinion? What happens to you, and to us, if you make an effort to jump the groove?
19 Jan 2015