We had been staring at each other for three minutes. And in case you’ve never held sustained eye contact with someone for three minutes, let me assure you: it’s a lot longer than it sounds. We had started out smiling, faded to comfortable recognition, then spent a few seconds blinking and moving from left eye to right eye before settling into a serious stare. There was a moment of terror when I saw her notice something in my eyes, then another when she saw me notice the same thing in hers. There was another moment when both our eyes started watering.
After three minutes, I was told to step to her side and place one hand on her upper chest, the other on the back of her heart (to “bookend the heart”). We were to stay that way for another three minutes – which, I’ll say again, is a lot longer than it sounds. At the end of six minutes, we were instructed to make eye contact once more and thank each other. As we looked at each other one final time, we both knew we didn’t have to say anything; it had already been said through silence.
Only in yoga teacher training.
I think about this experience often, though I don’t often talk about it (my reputation as a GD hippie doesn’t need to be reinforced). I think about it when I ask my high school English students if they’ve finished their homework and they look away – anywhere but at me – and say, “Um… I think I left it at home.” I thought about it when I tried to have a difficult conversation with my roommate, and could only look at the wall behind him. I think about it when I see my yoga students come into class, roll out their mats and immediately take a child’s pose. I thought about it when I tried to make eye contact with my ex-boyfriend and he wouldn’t.
Looking at each other is not something we generally do deliberately and carefully. In fact, it’s something we are trained not to do. I remember being on the bus in kindergarten, looking intently at a sixth grader whom I found particularly captivating. Rather than look back, he asked tersely: “You got a staring problem?” No, I thought, as I glanced away, embarrassed. I was just looking at you. It was not until I took an acting class in college that I learned that looking is okay – necessary, in fact, if we are to form human connection. It was not until my first boyfriend, my first love, that I felt what it was like to be looked at. And it was not until my yoga teacher training that I re-learned how to look.
As any improviser, yoga teacher (and probably pet owner and parent, too) will tell you, looking does not just mean viewing with one’s eyeballs. Looking means seeing. It means paying attention. Ironically, most of us desperately want to be seen and to be paid attention – but once we are, we panic. Our eyes dart around, we laugh or smile nervously, our bodies shift and stiffen, we talk when words are not necessary. But when we trust the person who sees us, when we believe that in seeing us, she recognizes us as part of herself, we can find a comfort like no other.
I used to feel ashamed that I felt a constant desire to be around people. Like many of us, I was told at various points in my life that I should not rely on others, that I should become self-sufficient. Lately, however, I have accepted the idea that we do, in fact, need others for our emotional and mental health. Sure, we can technically survive doing most things ourselves (once we are adults), but what sort of life is that? We can lean on others, just as we can support others; we can accept a hug, just as we can offer one; and we can allow others to see us, just as we can allow ourselves to see them.
In Rachel Stern’s and my upcoming Partner Yoga workshop, you’ll have the chance to explore this theme. Partner Yoga offers the best of both worlds: the serenity of going within, plus the joy and comfort of human connection. Through partner poses and simple assists, you and your yoga partner will allow each other to move deeper into your poses and bodies while creating space for each other simply to be. I hope to see you there.