Kira Marshall-Mckelvey

Kira is studying English and French at Penn State University. She enjoys doing yoga, thinking about YouTube culture, drinking obscene amounts of coffee, and obsessing over John Green novels. You can check out her life blog at http://coffeeyogaandlifesothernecessities.blogspot.com/ and her writing blog at http://frolickinggenie.blogspot.com/.

More is Not the Answer

It’s vata aggravating outside.

The wind bustles through my lion’s mane as I head towards the chicken coup. I try to imagine the days when I perceived daily chores as dreary, when I wore anything but long, flowing skirts and greeted the day with sun salutations. I had physically stayed at the ashram for three weeks, but mentally, it was as though I had stayed there for three years.

I do not know what time it is; the “hussle-bustler” in me cringes, but it’s oddly liberating. The fresh greens I carry under my arm have sprouted, have been cultivated right in front of me. These vegetables do a better job accepting time as it is. Humans always want to push forward, or look back. Plants just are. They are gleeful in the sun, but don’t despair in rain. They are meditative plants. We watch these plants as we nourish them. We try to imitate the meditative plants. I will accept time…eventually.

The ashram is an introspective setting, but we do not question in order to change. We question in order to understand. I enter each meditation session wanting to know how breath could possibly make me a better person. I am a student of critical thinking; letting go is about as natural as driving a nail through my foot. I must meditate through this foot-nail. Maybe one day I will understand. I power through the “om”s. Take time to form your om, let yourself be heard, my teachers tell me, yet I am still bound by shame of my voice, bound by expectations for insta-enlightenment. Perhaps I need to add on layers of spirituality; maybe I should wear some dreadlocks and beads. Would earth-toned jewelry make me better understand the world? I inhale deeply, trying to find additions to my spiritual nature. I think about the latest “30 Rock” episode and fail miserably. Liz Lemon is my entertainment guru, but not my life guru. Entertainment guru is so much easier to adhere to. She tells me to go buy some sandwiches and life will be less painful. The life guru tells me to practice, and when I’m sick of practicing, to practice some more.

I am growing weary of my inner self. We battle out my need for external approval. Outer me questions the comment a resident made about my hair. Inner me tells outer me I’m being ridiculous. These two selves rarely get along; the cushion I’m sitting on fails to inform me which self is the true self. I am stuck in my two identities, spiraling through a practice, like I’m watching stars trying to align. Which self, I wonder, will make me more selfless?

I start wearing more flowy skirts and mala beads. I learn more chants. I feed the chickens in the evening, before losing my mind–literally, letting go of the mind. All I need, I tell myself, is more, more, more. More sanskrit words that vibrate through my tongue will make me more spiritual. More yoga postures, more “om”s, more “namaste”s will give me more knowledgeable of the world. I am sure that more is the answer, never the cause.

By week four, I have familiarized myself with the chants. I can play dress up with the hippie look. I can pile on selves to an unformed identity, to a confused eighteen year old who has nothing to create but a puzzle of broken promises, shattering innocence. I have learned the way of this simple life; I can blend in and pretend, but I am not happy in this new shell of prayer and pretzel-twists. What, I wonder, am I missing?

I approach my teacher. He is seated inside the temple, eyes open, but focusing on nothing. His face looks peaceful. I try to imitate his peace by relaxing my jaw line. I feel foolish. Self-contentment is starting to feel like a VIP party that I didn’t get the invite for. I have not exchanged many words with this teacher; we bump shoulders in the kitchen sometime, we sit down at the same table for the same meal, but we do not know what the other’s pre-ashram life contains. Yet he looks at me with the kind of love and compassion a friend or sibling would give. He motions for me to sit, and lifts the corners of his mouth slightly. I try to, as the yoga gurus often suggest, get my shit together, but I feel like a shell that truly enlightened people can jeer at in a museum. Look at her, they’ll say, she thought she could still go shopping and eat meat and still be spiritual. My teacher notices my troubled look, but does not engage; he merely observes.

“I’m sick of this mask,” I say. “I’ve chanted and stopped buying jeans. I’ve eaten all the ghee in the world, and what do I feel? Nothing.”

“What is this mask?” My teacher crosses his legs. He looks like he could sit for hours. My legs begin to twitch.

“This ‘go with the flow, everything’s happy, la dee da’ mask. I hate pretending to be fine with myself. To be past indulging in external pleasures.” I will not cry. I will not.

My teacher chortles. “Do you think that because we sit with ourselves for an hour a day we are perfectly okay with ourselves?”

“Yes.”

He closes his eyes, but he is still taking in the world. “We meditate not for the purpose of perfection, but for understanding. None of us are always happy with ourselves, and we certainly didn’t wear a mask to get to the bits we are happy with us. We meditate to strip down what is hanging over us, not to add more confusion to our lives.”

I blink. By forcing myself to think thoughts that weren’t my own, was I falsely meditating?

“You have what you need to meditate. Now you just need to strip away what makes you unhappy.”

I throw away the mental mask. I sit down on the cushion, and close my eyes. I think my own thoughts, stripping away what I no longer wish to become.

 

photo by: nandadevieast

What the Hell Just Happened? A Story of Going to College

I grew up in State College, PA, one of the premier college cities in the U.S. The downtown is quaint, full of cute hipster cafés and vintage clothing stores. I loved the vibrant feel of students bustling on sidewalks in their blue and white hoodies and pajama pants. Not knowing any of the store  owners’ backgrounds, I could still maintain a close connection to the man who sold handmade chocolates and the woman who put pride in a cup of organic coffee. This community gave me a sense that I wasn’t just a floating blob in a world that puts success on a pedestal and empathy as an afterthought. Living far enough from the downtown, I could ride the bus home, copy of Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants in hand, and remain unblemished by collegiate night life. I could observe the college students without having to judge—I could pick and choose which sides of this group I wanted to see, and so often it was the quiet, studious side. Oh, how little did I know.

As I entered freshman year at Penn State, I admit I had “townie arrogance”: I thought nothing the college advisors told incoming freshmen to expect applied to me. Me—lonely and lost? I knew the streets like the back of my hand! I had memories of doing yoga poses in the middle of a local hiking store. I had routines in place—milkshake Mondays at the 50’s-style diner, a local yoga studio of which I was already a loyal member. Yet what I had avoided thus far were the downtown streets after 10:00P.M. Soon I was at the same level of shock as every other freshman when I stumbled across drunken fights, well thought-out advice to “collect some bitches” and dresses that could easily fit a pre-schooler—maybe a kindergartener on a good day. A simple, late-night coffee craving turned into an obstacle course of stepping over beer cans and twisting through the line for the only pizza place that served cheap slices after 3A.M. Not once before have I heard two adults so fascinated by a blade of grass. And never in my life have I seen so many girls eagerly consuming hundreds of calories. It’s a strange world. When I was still in high school, I found accusations about the campus to be unjustified and harsh. Now, without the escape to suburbia, I’m starting to understand where these adults, tired of having their gardens peed on and their windows smashed, are coming from. Yet there is also a well-established group of people who make movies during their precious free time, or play Dungeons & Dragons, and engage in other delightfully nerdy activities. So why is it that the drunken mistakes get thrown around town gossip like a Frisbee?

While I don’t participate in drinking myself silly (my friends and I tend to act wild enough during an intense card game), I’ve observed the insanity almost like I’m watching a reality television show. But what I hear the most is not the puking into alleyways, or the ambulances—what I most hear are people bragging about how wasted they got, how ridiculous they acted. The number of high fives I have witnessed after “Dude, I totally blacked out last night” is a little ridiculous. Stupidity seems to be cause for the most bragging points. Downing a gallon of liquid in a few hours takes little skill. Falling down on a table doesn’t require hours of concentration. It may require a strong will to follow the crowd and feel like shit the next day, but that’s about it.

A few weeks ago, after I’d spent a weekend reading a Jodi Picoult novel, my classmates asked each other what they’d done over the weekend. Thrilled with my productivity, I chimed in that I was working on some short stories and that my poetry only sounded like a cheesy love story half the time, rather than two-thirds. While there were a few faux-impressed looks, later on I overheard a group of girls surmise that I “didn’t have any friends” and that refusing to go out was social suicide. Yes, obviously I am horribly messed up for not wanting to puke into a trash can and to wear midriff-baring shirts in fifty degree weather. This exchange taught me to shut up pretty fast.

Those who’ve made a few not-so-hot decisions are almost always the loudest—while the people who stay in and study, or those who vote to watch an indie film with some friends, are going to stay shamefully quiet because they didn’t do the “cool” thing. I don’t know about you, but I find having all your faculties work is cooler than flinging your body around someone’s overcrowded apartment. Somehow, embracing our Freudian ids has turned into a fad—similar to jeggings and half-shaved heads. It might not last long, but people feel mixing in the madness is the only way to survive in our culture. Maybe some of us go to college to learn, to engage, and to think critically, but I was shocked when, after a freshman orientation backpacking trip, I heard my camping-mates claim that they were most excited to party and that “college is more about socializing than learning.” $40,000 to socialize? Are these friends made out of solid gold?

As it turns out, my elementary school teachers were right—words do make a stronger impact than we think. As long as we follow the trendy beliefs that getting wasted to the point of black-out is all that’s boast-worthy, that’s what everyone is going to hear. But what about the students who get A’s, or win an internship, or fly out to foreign countries to tutor kids? So many of my peers who have put effort into their academic careers don’t mention it because they don’t want to seem self-congratulatory. I had a friend who, after receiving a winning test grade, shamefully flipped her paper over in class. A girl who blogs in her free time instead tells the world she downed a couple and felt fabulously buzzed. But expanding one’s thinking, and taking intellectual risks is  much more worthy of congratulations than trying to look cool. It’s the people who stay in and create who stand to contribute to our culture. A night of drinking will be there for a few hours; an engineer’s project, a dancer’s choreography, a writer’s novel—those will be around forever. So maybe, with the shift in people’s words and views on what should take precedence, we can unleash more of our inner nerds and less of our “what-the-hell-just-happened” selves.

A Yogic Journey

I remember rolling my shiny blue mat in front of a television screen for my first yoga class. There’s a kind of strange irony to that: to delve away from society, I was jumping straight into it. Yet when Bethany Frankel from Real Housewives of New York told me to go into Downward Facing Dog, I felt a connection with the outer world. Well, until the TV suggested I go buy some dumbbells and a Nordic Track after my workout. Then the connection broke just a little bit. However, when I laid down in that final Savasana, a sea of rejuvenation came sweeping over me, and I knew that I was done for. I had begun a yogi’s journey.

My relationship with yoga was meant to be simple. But, like any relationship, once you gain some familiarity, it becomes a strong presence in your life. My half hour on the mat became my two hours in Warrior and Down Dog. The source of my twenty-four hours of calm. It went from a form of exercise, to a lifestyle faster than I could even recognize the change. Once in a while, I’d catch myself taking a deep inhale that lasted about an eternity. Then I’d catch myself catching myself, and I’d laugh, because a good yogi knows to never take herself too seriously.

My friends often question my love for yoga; it is not a very common practice in a high school full of football fans and lacrosse stars. “Why yoga?” they ask, as though putting your palms together and chanting “om” is nothing to be excited about. Throughout my years as a student of yoga, my answer has always remained the same: “Why not?”

To me, yoga is like wringing out your muscles. It is wiping off a dirty surface of gossip, grades, and anxiety. Each time I fold myself into a pose, I am able to start fresh and reinvent myself. Even if I must return to the rest of the world as the girl I always was, it is less intimidating because yoga has made me at ease with that girl. The stretches I’ve learned have not turned me into a superhero; I recognize I am not perfect. I still make friendships messy, even if I’m the one trying to clean them up. Sometimes I’m the one to spill the gossip or ignite the competition in the first place. The difference is, I have given myself time to properly reflect on those messes. To consider what I can do differently next time. There will always be a next time, I realize, a second chance. Yoga has gifted me with a myriad of second chances.

I lost something silly a few years ago. Maybe it was an iPod, or a cell phone, or something a fifteen-year-old just could not live without. In my frantic state, I tore apart my room and yelled at a very shocked mother and cat. The cat understood the anger no more than I did. Why was this piece of technology so important to me? Why wouldn’t my heart quit thumping around my chest until I found it? I was in no immediate danger, yet my senses told me otherwise. I couldn’t breathe from panic. I wish I could have donated some of the excess breath I now have. It is astounding, how the two simple actions of inhaling and exhaling can significantly calm a person. I have lost many more equally silly objects. But somehow twisting myself into a pretzel has allowed me to see the big picture, and I breathe through the annoyance of forgetfulness. I don’t yell at innocent animal passersby either.

Last year, I lost someone not so silly. Other people could find him, but to me, he was blurry and distant. I breathed, albeit shakily, through the tears. That is the beautiful thing about yoga. It lets you remind yourself that this, too, shall pass. It can be smarter than the current self. I believed it to be the end, but yoga told me otherwise. To keep going strong.

I can try to drift away from the yoga practice. I have run for two blocks, and inched back home, dejected. I have danced and sung at the top of my lungs, but I keep coming back to yoga. I am a magnet to the strong, powerful poses because I wish to be a magnet to a strong, powerful life. The grounding poses bring peace to an otherwise hectic day. It is the best “me time” I have ever given myself. Yoga is not something I wish to master, then quit. I want to keep learning, keep trying poses I have previously swayed from (I hesitate to say “failed” because in yoga, there is no such thing as a perfect pose). I want yoga to stay with me for life. Yes, I will be one of those eighty-year-olds with saggy skin and no teeth, bending over into Downward Facing Tree. I watch those days approach with great anticipation, because I know I will still be at ease.

So, to those who are skeptical, who may ask the same question of “Why yoga?” I have a new answer — a quote by Ghandi — to ease those concerns: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” I credit yoga for why I’m ever-changing, for why I no longer lose it when I misplace an iPod. I have changed myself from unmoving, to always discovering, always learning, and always laughing and breathing while I continue this yogic journey.

Welcome to Adolescence

Welcome, dear friend, to adolescence. Population: you, and a billion other zitty, hormonal folks who seem to have lost the hems of their skirts. It is quite a journey, one that last year’s school slogan told us to approach in the spirit of “Carpe Diem.” It will be filled with obscene amounts of homework, judgmental friends, and absolutely no time for sleep. You are stuck here for seven years of your life, so you might as well enjoy it. After all, when else will you be this stressed and confused? Maybe when you get Alzheimer’s, but that is a different story all together.

A rocky teenagehood is something to embrace, but below I have compiled a survival guide for teens, just in case your 14th year isn’t nearly as joyous as it should be.

1) You’ve managed to hide behind the jocks in history class for a solid two months. But now — oh, no! — the teacher makes direct eye contact with you. You feel the storm gathering. “Samantha,” he says, “can you tell me the causes of World War II?” Wait a second — you know this one! It was in last night’s reading. You open your mouth to speak.

It may seem wise to rattle off the answer and impress all your friends, but here is the nitty gritty: if a teacher calls on you for an answer, you must never EVER talk for more than ten seconds. That, in this day and age, is what we call social suicide. It shows that you are not only interested, but also — gasp! — knowledgeable. Learning and fun go as nicely together as a pickle & jam sandwich. Which, unless you are me and will eat anything on bread, you will find utterly disgusting. In addition to those ten seconds of mumbling, you must be sure to make every answer an approximation. Adolf Hitler didn’t invade Poland; he like, kinda took over some European country? Yes, up-talking is also a must. Whip up that answer and your peers will consider you sufficiently stupid enough to be invited to next weekend’s party.

2) Excuse me. I should go edit that last point, because it is absolutely forbidden to call anyone in your age group your peers! If you do, people will look at you like you’re from the planet Zork. And Zork has no Xbox, so it’s a sad, sad place. “Peers” is code for no friends. To help you with this, I have conjured up a little rhyme: peers will bring you tears. (That took me an hour to write. I think I need a nap.)

3) If you took my earlier advice, and you are the lucky befriended sort, chances are you will be invited to some football games. No matter how tempted you are to stay home and eat cookie dough, you must go to these games. Yes, that means paying loads of money to watch 200 pounds of testosterone fling themselves at each other. In any other circumstance, this would be called a bar fight. But the secret here is, you cannot actually watch the game. You have shelled out ten dollars to hang out with your friends and catch up on gossip. Those bleachers that smell like overcooked French fries are the magical place where you finally find out that so-and-so is sleeping with what’s-his-face. Or so they say. In reality they’ve awkwardly held hands at a movie and were too scared to do anything. At this game, glance at the football players and quickly look away so your friends know you are not ignoring them. Cheer when the cheerleaders sound extra peppy and start throwing shiny things into the air.

4) There’s something about curls that are … savage. It might indicate a personality that doesn’t come from a Barbie commercial. It could bring up ethnicity issues. What’s worse, if you keep your hair curly, you might just be able to get spotted in a crowd. Therefore, I bring up my fourth point: you must make your hair look like it’s been steamrolled over your eyes. Sacrifice that extra hour of sleep to slam two pieces of metal over your hair. And if it’s not already blond, bring out the bleach and relish that chemical smell while you feel like your head has been set on fire. Hey girlfriend, it’s “no pain, no gain,” right? Except don’t tell anybody, not even your BFF Jill, that you’ve gone through pain to look like Lindsay Lohan post-redhead days. No, that straw that’s coming out of your scalp is perfectly natural. If you must, rub some concealer onto the bags under your eyes to hide that you’ve been getting up at 5:00 am every morning to burn your head.

So you’re tired. Getting up to plan those football games and hair-doing can be exhausting. Plus, every teacher thinks his class is the only one on your schedule so you’ve just done five hours of homework and pretended to blow it off. Advice? Complain about it! And not just the type of complaint that might come off as a minor annoyance. You can really dive deep into this pity. You have to say that you can’t deal with the confusion, that those hours of homework are making you not able to find yourself. “Where’s Lisa? Is she holed up in her room again?” Dad asks. Your answer? “How am I supposed to know, I can’t even find myself these days.” Don’t skimp on the loathing of, well, everything. This is the only socially acceptable time to announce your insecurities as though they were as blatant as today’s weather. Adults don’t have this luxury. They have to talk about the actual weather. Oh, and politics. The politics of high school are really how you’re dealing with that new zit that has craters fit for the moon. So go ahead, bemoan the emotional pressure that is landing with a resounding thump on your shoulders. Get all the whining out of your system before you’re an insecure twenty-year-old and just have to shut up. You’ll regret not having been a pain-in-the-butt teenager if you don’t. Besides, it’s a bonding experience with your peers.