Originally posted: Sep 30, 2015
Emma Schaff and I met in a Social Work class last Fall and she started coming to my yoga classes shortly after. I wanted to interview Emma because she and I have spoken about her journey to yoga through meditation. I admire her as one of the few folks I know who has a consistent and well-explored meditation practice and I knew that both myself and my readers would benefit from hearing about her and how meditation has changed her life. Emma is a warm-hearted and very thoughtful person. It is always clear to me how intentional she is with her self-care practices and her interactions with others. Contrary to the title, this interview serves to DEmystify meditation and mindfulness. Enjoy our conversation below!
Raina: How did you start to practice yoga and meditation?
Emma: I started in undergrad. I went to Albion college and there was one yoga class you could take for credit or you could take the free rec classes, so that was where I got my feet wet. I dabbled in it because I had a friend who was more proficient in her practice and she would bring me along, but I never really got into it until my senior year in the fall when I was really busy. I was writing a thesis and doing all this different stuff. I was kind of in a really low place mental health wise, and I realized I wasn’t ever really happy. It was a really stressful time in my life and I think I was kind of depressed. Around that time I started going to therapy too, then started taking the meditation class and a separate yoga class, both for credit. My therapist was really into mindfulness and meditation, too. Having both her support and getting more serious into meditation practice - with the class you had to do a daily meditation journal, so all of those things kind of together, started all at once and drastically changed my life and really improved my thought process and how I viewed myself and the world. Nothing has helped me so much in my life as that.
Raina: So you kind of had this synchronicity of everything happening and the opportunity to build yourself back up and create some coping skills. You said you had the support of your friend and your therapist, but what made you so open to those ideas?
Emma: For me it always goes back to love. It sounds really cheesy. But the dominating factor in my life that really helped was seeing the love both my therapist had for me - she wanted me as a client to succeed and be happy - and my yoga instructor, who was also the meditation teacher too, she just had compassion pouring out of her. Always encouraging us to see in ourselves what she saw in us. And having my friend and being able to talk with her about these things. Those were all really important things in getting my mind ready to be open to that. That was the big thing for me - realizing that I deserved that same sort of love too. I’ve always been a very love-y person to other people, but not necessarily to myself. All that synchronicity, with other people’s influences, that kind of helped. Like, come on, Emma, you give all that to other people, you should have some of that too! That’s been important with social work too, that self-care aspect, not getting burned out and trying to give too much.
Raina: For some reason, that is definitely the social worker struggle! How long did you take off between undergrad and grad?
Emma: I went straight through. So that was just a year and a half ago that I started to make it a daily practice.
Raina: And had you applied for social work then, or thought about applying to social work?
Emma: Yeah I had applied and was waiting to hear back. I always knew that I wanted to do some sort of work with people. I thought about being a school counselor for some time, then I thought I wanted to be a teacher. Then I realized social work is a really versatile degree, but I didn’t really start connecting the two - social work and yoga - until pretty recently, probably second semester this past school year. I think it was through a lot of my Julie Ribaudo classes. She’s really attachment focused and relationships are the most important thing in creating change--that kind of love and compassion that entirely change your life when experienced. Seeing that love in terms of yoga philosophy, and I’ve been dabbling in the Zen Buddhist Temple. The first time I went there - I don’t know if you’ve ever been there?
Raina: Not for a service!
Emma: They have just an open service to the public 10 am on Sunday mornings. When you go you do a longer period of meditation - 20 to 25 minutes - and that’s followed by chanting and they say the precepts and that’s part of the chanting too, then you meditate for a shorter period, then there’s the dharma talk. The first dharma talk I went to was about what we can do as individuals to help the world. Someone stood up and said “love” and that really clicked for me. That was also around the beginning of the summer when I was thinking about all this and so that was a serendipitous thing to happen that the very first one I went to we talked about love. And through our connectedness, that's the key to it.
Raina: I would love to go sometime and sneak off to class after!
Emma: I’m thinking that’s going to be my Sunday thing - going to the Temple and then to your class at the Phoenix Center.
Raina: So where do you - and you don’t have to have an answer to this - how do you see your personal practice and professional practice merging? Even if it’s just for you, or if it’s how you’ll work with your clients. What’s your vision?
Emma: I feel like the more I’m in it the more I feel like my vision is happening, little by little. The more I connect to the values deep within me and commit to always remembering those values and challenging myself to remember them even when it feels really difficult to be compassionate and mindful is key. I think, “What would you say to yourself if you were meditating or you had just finished a meditation?” I think in my social work practice, it would look like living in a wholeheartedly, fully compassionate way, and in a way that demonstrates and honors our connectedness. Realizing if a client is really challenging or we're tired or stressed, realizing that they are us and we are them - like, people. To help others is to help yourself. I think that’s also part of realizing that for myself - that I deserve that same compassionate view for myself that I give to others. It’s kind of like this reciprocity thing.
Raina: I like that you said you feel like it’s already happening. When I think about it or ask this question, I know it’s happening but I still have this - well, this is where I wanna be eventually! - instead of having this exploratory perspective of what I’m in the midst of.
Emma: I’ve been realizing the fluidity of a lot of things in my life. I used to want to categorize everything. But I’m realizing that accepting ambiguity, like you said in a blog post, is an ok thing. That was really important for me to realize, and it’s still a practice in integrating that more fully. It’s ok, even if I’m imagining myself one way, I’m getting there eventually, even just committing to it on a daily basis.
Raina: Yeah, you don’t realize it for a period of time, and then you finally learn it and then it’s a practice of practicing it and always working with it. I think for a lot of people meditation is very mystical. What does your meditation practice look like.
Emma: It’s very not mystical.
Raina: Yeah - and that’s why I ask!
Emma: Right. I actually just received a set of Mala beads for my birthday that I’ve been using. That’s been something that I’ve wanted but have struggled with the cultural appropriation stuff and the commodification of yoga. But, anyway, I’m getting off track! I usually do it in the morning or the evening and just kind of get quiet. It’s the least mystical thing I do, really, because it makes me feel - well actually, I guess it’s kind of mystical! - it makes me feel both grounded and expansive. Have you heard of loving kindness meditations? You wish well for yourself, for people you care about, people you feel in different ways about, and the world. It’s kind of these graduating levels of well wishes for people. That’s one of my favorite meditations to do because I can feel my heart expanding and encompassing the connected world. It can feel mystical at times, but it’s also a way for me to tap into my inner-self and get grounded. Sometimes when I’m meditating I imagine myself like that connectedness. I imagine myself as I’m laying there as part of the earth.
Raina: I love that visualization. I think I shared this quote in my last blog post. Virginia Wolfe said, “I am rooted, but I flow.” I love that concept of both, because we can get stuck in either one of them. Are there other mindfulness practices that you have or ways your life has changed?
Emma: One that comes up with people often is that in my meditation class we were supposed to pick one thing in our life to do mindfully for a week and journal about it. I picked doing the dishes and now I love doing the dishes.
Raina: I hate doing the dishes! I know it’s an opportunity that I could use, so maybe I should be inspired by you… I have a dishes problem.
Emma: Doing them mindfully really changes it! Our teacher would have us do something different each week to “drop into yourself,” which is the phrase my teacher used. One week we colored, one week we played on a playground, one time we did this obstacle course, so many different things. I’m really grateful for that experience. For learning that mindfulness and healing can happen a lot of places, not just sitting in meditation.
Raina: I just bought a Buddha Board - it’s like a little canvas and you draw and as you draw, it disappears.
Emma: *gasps* Where did you get that!
Raina: I got it at Paper Source. It was like $15! Not bad, one-time investment. I was out and I saw it and I just thought - I could use that! Do you think there are identities that play in for you like when you go to different classes, or different communities you are willing or not willing to share this with.
Emma: As a white woman I always question my participation. Yoga is something that has changed my life in many ways, but I also recognize the other stuff that goes along with it. There are so many people that look like me that are at all of these classes and I question my contribution and participation. I realize I want to make space for others and I want to remove myself if needed to make that space, but I still struggle with conceptualizing how that looks in practice.
Raina: It’s been important for me to remember that you don’t have to have all the answers. It’s not necessarily sufficient to just be aware, but it’s good to be aware.
Emma: Definitely. It’s something I have a lot of trouble putting words to because I feel so many conflicting things. But that’s a lovely reminder.
Raina: I think constantly about figuring out all the answers but not becoming hypercritical to where I’m not welcoming. It’s an interesting balance.
Emma: What you’re doing is important though, because not a lot of yoga practitioners in Ann Arbor do that - creating those spaces and being intentional with the atmosphere you create each time you teach. It’s a really cool thing. Everyone should experience that kind of yoga at some point in their life. So, good job!
Raina: Thank you. There’s not a lot of readings on these topics, so it’s nice to include other people’s voices, like in these interviews, I don’t think everything in my head vacuum is sufficient. Do you have a favorite pose and why?
Emma: I love crescent pose. It makes me feel both strong and open. I love the backbend part of it - lately I love heart openers and I think that parallels my discovery of love and compassion and how these values are coming in my life in so many different areas. That open heart part of it is really important to me, but also having that strong foundation.
Raina: I’m always surprised by people’s answers to that question. Everyone always has an interesting pose, but then I guess I don’t know what the go-to is! Last question - do you have any questions for me?
Emma: Not that I can think of.
Raina: Well, thank you for this interview!
Emma and I's conversation was definitely a thought-exploration for both of us and I think we both needed time to digest. I was honored to speak with her and think critically about the ways I can both forgive myself and challenge myself. To date, I’ve done about 10 total dishes mindfully, but I continue to remind myself that every opportunity is one for mindfulness and presence. One quote I’d love to share related to this topic and in reflection of my conversation with Emma comes from the book, The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran.
“You are good when you are one with yourself.
Yet when you are not one with yourself you are not evil.”
The times when I forget or am ironically too lazy to be mindful do not make me a bad person, bad meditator, or bad yogi, but the times when I create the space to actually practice mindfulness prove invaluable for me. I find, as I’m sure many do, that it’s really more difficult for me to get myself TO the mindfulness than it actually is to be IN the mindfulness. Regardless, I think one thing I gleaned from my conversation with Emma is that we can look to each other for support and inspiration. This is the gift of friendship, community, and love. I know for sure that I will continue to think of Emma as a beautiful example of what my mindfulness practice can (note: not will or should) look like.