Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Thoughts on a Word: Graceful

Much like the practice of yoga itself, the blog Anytime Yoga is focused yet expansive, grounded yet flowing. Whether Tori is writing on not using food choices as a moral compass, victim-blaming, the folly of schoolteacher-as-hero, or, of course, yoga, she's sure to do it in an astute, nuanced fashion. I was delighted when she agreed to guest post here, doubly so when she proposed writing on a word that, especially given its classic meaning, we give far too narrow a treatment. Here, her thoughts on graceful:

I'm sitting with my fingertips on my shoulders, arms out like chicken wings, legs tucked neatly to one side. My pink tights and ballet shoes collect dirt from the tile floor. The point of the exercise is to rise from this position to standing without touching our hands down. I'm seven years old and receiving formal, explicit instruction in what it means to be graceful.

The first thing I notice is how it throws off my balance, requiring more strength from my legs and stability from my belly. I didn't expect it to be so much work. Second, I observe that—our attempts at elegance notwithstanding—we look like a bunch of gangly baby giraffes trying to learn the chicken dance. I wonder if everyone puts this much effort in trying to appear graceful.


The word graceful first appeared in the English language in the mid-15th century. Initially, it simply meant "pleasing" but within a few decades had already shifted to "showing elegance, beauty, and smoothness of form or movement." Its origin is the word grace, which worked its way from the 12th century Anglo-French meaning "divine mercy, favor, virtue" and from the Latin gratia ("favor, charm") and gratus ("pleasing, grateful"). So while some part of grace and graceful were always about being pleasing, the direct association with beauty is something that evolved along the way—more slowly for grace, rather quickly for graceful.

With its current ties to beauty, my conceptualization of graceful includes the baggage packed in with narrow beauty standards. Graceful is long, lean, poised, balanced, flexible. Graceful is smooth arcs and flowing fabrics, curving but not too curvy. When graceful tries new forms or movements with her body, that body falls into place effortlessly, no work required. Graceful is every image I've ever seen in Yoga Journal, online or in print.

For a long time, I wanted to be that depiction of graceful, without recognizing that my desire was at best unrealistic and at worst potentially injurious.


This is not my pose, I think to myself as my teacher instructs us up into king dancer. It's a standing balance combined with a backbend, and—for it to be physically therapeutic for me—I've got to have just one or the other. In time, I'll learn to play with it as a mental exercise, but I'm not there yet. Right now, all I can call to mind is that in pictures—and as my instructor demonstrates—it's such a refined, graceful pose. I don't think of all the times yogis must fall here, because the times that are publicly recorded are those when they don't.

I wait for the teacher to offer the wall as a prop. Good instructors know about modifications, right? They understand what it's like to be a nervous student who also happens to be elegance challenged?

I want that wall. I want to be told—implicitly if not outright—that it's okay not to be perfectly poised and solid in my movements, that it's okay to value function over beauty of form. She doesn't offer, and no other students in the class turn toward the wall, either. Surely, confidently, every single person enters king dancer unsupported in the center of the room.

So I try it too. I'm uncomfortable, but this is the standard for virtue and acceptance, at least as I perceive it. Surprisingly, I do not have too much of a problem with the balance part, at least compared to what I was expecting. I weeble and wobble but don't fall down. However, in my struggle to stay upright—to keep whatever tenuous grasp on grace that I can still claim—I forget to support my back extension with my abs. When I weeble too far away from my balance point, it's only the muscles of my low back—instead of including my front and oblique abdominals—that pull me back in line. And there's nothing to keep my lumbar vertebrae from grating against one another.

I am graceful; I am beautiful; I hurt for weeks.


Perhaps, yes, there is something perversely appealing in learning such a fitting life lesson from such a flowing, arcing pose. But perhaps somewhere over the years I've become cognizant of performing grace, just as one might perform gender or perform beauty. That is, of actively working and rehearsing toward a graceful appearance—and being continually aware that there are people (not all people everywhere, but there are people) who are aware that graceful is a standard and who are judging me—maliciously or not, consciously or not—against it.

My mind plays with what might happen if the primary meaning of graceful were still "pleasing." I can't picture what it would mean everywhere, but I think in part, it's why I've taken a small retreat from practicing asana in public, though my current yoga studio is much more accommodating than the one in this anecdote. But no matter how many times I take a less elegant variation, fall out of a balance pose, or even get to standing by touching my hands down to the ground—it's pleasing and graceful and beautiful and freeing to move like I'm the only one watching.


  1. Eloquent.

    "I am graceful; I am beautiful; I hurt for weeks."

    I feel like that line will be stuck in my head for weeks.

  2. Hi Westwood--Thank you for reading (and for your own work; I'm now following your blog). And yes, Tori is, as ever, wonderfully eloquent. Graceful, I daresay.


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