Roads Taken and Not Taken: Dana Miller ’86
There was no yoga at Haverford when I was there. I didn’t really have a clue what yoga even was back then, my understanding of it limited to a vague memory of Richard Dreyfuss chanting “Om” in the film The Goodbye Girl. No, the only intersection of the physical and the spiritual in my life at Haverford was running the Nature Trail, religiously, every day ; or trucking with my suitemates, week after week, to an aerobics class somewhere on the Main Line, decked out in sherbet-colored leotards and Haverford sweatshirts with the necks cut out a la Flashdance.
My love affair with yoga began in 1998, on the last day of the last week of a free pass to a ritzier-than-I-was-comfortable-with gym on New York’s Upper West Side. By the end of that very first class, yoga felt like something I’d done all my life. The poses, or asanas, weren’t familiar, but I did have a sense that yoga, with its magical interplay of body and mind, was somehow in my cells.
Frankly, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about this fit. But I knew something unusual was going on. I’d been pretty fortunate in terms of the things I’d chosen to do with my time since college, but nothing felt quite this seamlessly “me.” Not writing ad copy for Mountain Dew and Frito Lay. Not trying to write salable screenplays in L.A. Not working as stage manager for the L.A. stage premiere of Prelude to a Kiss or serving beer to professional volleyball players on a Malibu beach. Not even working as dean of students at an adult-education creative-writing school in New York, something I liked so much I’m still doing it today. No, yoga was in me and of me—after that first class and every day before and since I trained to teach it in 2005. But I didn’t start thinking about why that was until I was lucky enough to teach some yoga classes at Alumni Weekend this past May.
To perhaps state the obvious, yoga is about more than twisting oneself into funny shapes. It’s a philosophy of right living, a way of being in the world focused on the attainment of balance and bliss. And while for me, personally, yoga is about a million more things, at its essence it’s about paying attention. And that’s where yoga and Haverford intersect.
The very first thing I learned when I started practicing yoga was to pay attention to my breath. It’s still the first thing I do when I come to my mat, and it’s the first thing I ask of my students when they come to theirs. A funny thing happens, though, when you start to pay regular attention to your breath: You start to pay more attention to everything. First, maybe it’s to things like how to place your feet in Downward Facing Dog in class. But then it starts to get interesting. You start paying attention to what you say and how you act off the mat, seeing yourself in others and others in you. And that means Gwyneth and Sting and famous yogis, but also your completely unspiritual next-door neighbor and the mat toter you see on the street, and then the untold millions, yogis or not, the whole planet over, lions and tigers and bears, too. By paying attention to how we are in the world, we connect, and realize in a very real way that we are part of something larger than ourselves: a community.
As I boiled yoga down to this one idea, it became clear that Haverford and the Honor Code by which we were each asked to live are in essence driven by the same thing. Haverford, too, asked that we pay attention—to our actions, to our speech; that we see ourselves in each other and, in so doing, connect into a community. That Haverford encouraged such mindfulness and cultivated community, valuing it above all else, was an incredibly important part of my time there. That I was practicing yoga without even knowing it is pretty interesting.
I sometimes think it might have been comforting to have been exposed to the mindful-breathing part of yoga back in college. That breathing can get one through a lot, let me tell you. And while I’m not much for “woulda, coulda, shoulda” and truly believe that changing one frame of the life movie changes it in total, it seems I’d be teaching this sweet, sweet practice no matter what. For that, I’m grateful and glad.
Dana Miller works as dean of students at Gotham Writers’ Workshop in New York from 9 to 5. She teaches yoga privately during her off hours and recently started two group classes, one for adults and one for teenage girls. Learn more about her at www.stayatom.com and follow her attempt to wed yoga with writing at beautifulyogagirls.blogspot.com.