The Persistent Academic

May 2016

I struggled to engage the mind, as a substantial workload presented itself. Lengthy rubrics and deadlines fueled a forest fire of doubt, and anxiety woke from its restless slumber. The word “can’t” flooded my mind, duplicating itself like countless pages being ejected from a printer… falling onto the expanse of a room void of confidence. I attempted to hush the subconscious mind, which was active in protest. The conscious mind was a fool to believe that its peaceful demonstration could repress such intimidation.

February 2017

I graduated from high school and have successfully completed my first semester of college. I am taking a course similar to the one of which I spoke several months ago. But there is one significant difference between the former and the latter course. I no longer encounter the mental roadblocks that once hindered my academic performance. Anxiety is a feeble enemy, particularly to the persistent academic.

Allow me to digress. I would like to mention that I earned an ‘F’ on my final exam in the class I discussed in May (and yes, I do mean, “earned”). But when I received my report card in the summer, I was not disappointed… because my ‘F’ was more than a letter grade. It was the purest symbol of trying and failing, and trying and failing, and trying again. It was a representation of my long-term fight against anxiety, and the many lessons I learned. I learned that my mental well-being is a greater priority than grades. I learned never to ignore my intuition, even if I can’t muster the words to explain the problem. I would rather receive an unsatisfactory letter grade and have grown intellectually than to earn an ‘A’ but not have achieved personal growth. Quite frankly, the aim of acquiring information is not to achieve an ideal result but to learn from the process.

On another note, it would bother me for others to perceive my academic success as a paved route. I am so thankful to have earned a spot on my school’s Dean’s list. But it is vital to note that high-achieving students often possess effective problem-solving abilities because they have had substantial experience tackling personal and academic challenges.

Ever-burning Fire

The roots of an active lifestyle often begin in childhood. When I was 11-years-old, my sister encouraged me to take part in physical activity by getting me a gym membership. Mental and physical health disorders are no rarity in either my family or the country. Over several years of cardio obsessions, love-hate relationships with the sport of running, and tumbling in my pastime, I decided to try something new. Outdoor track season had ended, and that meant I was off the sidewalks of Alexandria and dragging myself to the gym. I needed a break from cardio; even thinking about running was exhausting. So, why didn’t I stop going to the gym altogether? Sounds like a pretty simple escape, huh? Working out was a bonding activity between me and my sister, and saying, “no,” to exercise was the equivalent of giving up on holding our bond together. Even thinking about making such a choice was dangerous territory.

So I put my love-hate relationship for cardio behind me and tried a Body Flow class, which was a 1-hour workout that combines tai chi, yoga, and pilates. My instructor was a tall, energetic woman in her 50s named Wanda. I didn’t know what to expect from the class, but I liked the idea of not knowing. I needed a break from the predictability of interval training. Kanye West’s “All of the Lights” began to play, as Wanda guided us through various postures, from downward-facing dog and forward fold, to mountain pose and upward-facing dog. I’m going to be real with you. I thought all of these movements were just plain weird. I couldn’t help but be aware that my butt was in the air while I was in downward dog. Well, everyone was doing it, so there was no point in wondering if other people were staring (but who cares, right?). During the last five minutes of class, Wanda guided us through meditation. At the time, I had neither meditated nor thought about completely emptying my mind. My thoughts were always loud. I was always thinking, and if I were doing anything besides that, I was overthinking… reanalyzing, reflecting, replaying… you get the point. I rested on my back in corpse pose, my thoughts gradually becoming quiet. Wanda had turned off the lights. I felt safe and comfortable to be honest with my mind’s activity. Thoughts of attachment to people who served little purpose in my life kept coming to mind. My thoughts shifted from calm to critical… but I eventually found a balance. I let myself accept the state of my well-being… accept my body… accept my circumstances… accept who I was. But above all, I was free from judgement and criticism. It was okay not to be okay. I focused on breathing. My lungs expanded and contracted, my thoughts swimming in a sea of peaceful darkness. Tears began to spill from the edges of my eyes. I was saddened by the thoughts that occasionally interrupted my peace, yet empowered by self-acceptance. I was a step closer to personal freedom. Wanda eventually invited us to sit up. We took our final in-breath of the class, and Wanda said, “Namaste.”

I exhaled. Yoga was transformative. I was powerful not because I was one of the youngest people in the class or because I had the flexibility of a dancer. I was powerful because I knew how to gain control over my mind. I could practice controlling my thoughts, which were ultimately the root of my dying motivation for cardio training. I ran for every cross-country and outdoor track season until the end of my high school career, and my subconscious mind began to actively search for activities that made me feel just as full as I had felt in my first Body Flow class. I craved euphoria. I craved the adrenaline rush of crossing the finish line. And I eventually found another high… one that taught me how to keep the door to free expression wide open and even break the walls down if I needed to. Contemporary dance enabled me to unite my mind, body, and spirit, as I learned what it meant to truly live in the present moment. I began to perceive self-expression as more than just a 1-hour class at the gym on a Sunday morning. Self-expression was a limitless world in which I could move, speak, and dance in any way that brought freedom and dignity to my being. I lit a fire on all of my passions, from cross-country and track, to yoga, dance, and even weight-lifting. The fire still burns, and eventually, I will pass the torch, as I will begin a 200-hour yoga teacher training in February. I hope to inspire my students to become walking examples of creative expression, to make healthy choices that enable them to live more fully. Regardless of the decisions that we make for ourselves, we all truly want to live more fully. The greatest difference is, is our perceptions of what it means to live in such a way. It’s vital that our passions enable us to unite the mind and spirit.

To my generous and caring sister, Areeba, who helped me build the heat that would fuel my fire, I am thankful beyond what words could ever express. At night, I stand in front of the mirror and observe my figure. My long arms, my soft skin, my gorgeous pixie cut… I whisper positive affirmations, let them ground themselves in my mind, for mental health is equally important as physical health. These positive affirmations, this healthy body, are the product of those who supported me for years. To Coach Geraty, my former cross-country coach, whose cheers I can still hear in my mind to this day. To Coach Viviani, my former track coach, whose unwavering support led me to believing in myself more firmly. To Ms. Jessica Scharl, my former English teacher, who guided me in maintaining healthy relationships and often provided academic advice.  To Mr. Nelson, my former Creative Writing teacher, who encouraged me to start a blog where I have experimented with diverse genres of writing. To Wanda, who inspired me to become a yoga instructor. And to so many more. I am overwhelmed with gratitude. My success and well-being is due in part to each and every one of you.

My ever-burning lantern will remain lit. I will find myself on the sidewalks of Northern Virginian cities, running road races with hundreds of unfamiliar faces. I will dance on the floors of my yoga studio, let lyrics climb up every one of my ribs as exhilaration crawls through my lungs. I will continue to share my stories through this wonderful blog where creativity knows no bounds. But above all, I will walk through the doors of free expression and pour gasoline over creativity. Watch it kindle in times of darkness, let it shine in times of ease.

 

 

Adrenaline Rush

Writer’s Note:  Neurological rewards, such as the adrenaline rush, keep me coming back to the gym for more. This piece is meant to capture that powerful sensation. I love reflecting on my deep enjoyment of physical activity. Hopefully, this piece will motivate you to exercise. Enjoy!- Naima

Adrenaline Rush

Mount the elliptical and don’t hesitate to begin. Hit ‘play’ on Halsey’s “Colors.” The body hits ‘play’ on adrenaline.  Head up, chest out, knees up. Sweat soaks my Under Armour shirt. Pick your knees up faster. The body craves an endorphin rush. The beat quickens. Heartbeat, light, and sound coalesce into a celebration of life. A fire kindles in my quadriceps and intensifies. Faster. The fire ignites an incomparable high. Open your lungs and take it all in. This movement is a dance in disguise. Halsey sings, “You’re dripping like a saturated sunrise.” My vision becomes blurry from sweat dripping into my eyes. Heart beat knocks against the walls of my lungs. Harder. I can feel my pulse in my bicep. Every inch of me has come alive. The mind is stimulated. The body refuses to quit. I increase the incline of the machine, increase the resistance. It’s not enough to spark a stronger high. Speed up. Use your arms! The song reaches its chorus. Techno music flows in, sweat flows out. Energy can be limitless. Energy must be limitless. I continue to celebrate my health, my youth, my happiness. The fire continues to burn through my legs, building heat. Nothing can blow out the flame. I have become the flame. Every muscle in the body is working toward the peak of this adrenaline rush. Light an entire forest on fire until there’s nothing left but hot wax. Sweat continues to soak every inch of my bright red shirt. Sit deeper into your quads and build toward your maximum speed. I can’t see my legs moving, but the fire still kindles. I eventually slow down and dismount the machine. The flame still fuels my pulse, as blood flows to my temples. Happiness floods my veins and is delivered to the heart. Let the fire burn.

Alive

Heartbeat

Echoes against

The walls of my lungs.

Breathing

Deepens

As I settle into

The pace.

Dismount the elliptical,

And rush to the yoga studio.

Dim the lights,

And bask in solitude.

Hit the ‘play’ button on Daughter’s “Smother.”

Open your lungs,

Creating a beautiful arch in your back.

Feel your body

Blossom like a flower

As you confidently

Open

Your chest,

Your hands,

Your lungs.

 

Dance.

Carefully

Cartwheel,

Landing gently

Onto the floor.

Strike a

Split,

Handstand.

Round-off.

 

Run!

The pace

Has quickened.

Let emotion spill out of your body.

Let lyrics flood your mind.

Let blood continue to flow

Through hard-working veins

And beautiful skin.

 

Heartbeat echoes

Against

The walls of my lungs.

I wrap my arms around my body,

Let movement

Ignite energy,

Ignite shamelessness.

Run,

And crawl,

And tumble,

And turn,

Until you can’t take anymore.

I want every emotion to come alive

Through movement,

Through the steady heartbeat that quickens

As the rhythm of music

Quickens.

 

Sweat glistens,

Along the temples.

Blood flows

to the brain,

Breathing

Deepens.

 

This is how it feels

To be alive.

Creative Thinking in the Classroom

Writer’s Note: This short-story is an account of my dance class with Professor Dan Joyce at George Mason University. My goal in writing this piece was to point out the lack of creative thought within the traditional classroom. With this short-story, I leave you with one question: if you were finally given the opportunity to use your imagination in a classroom, how would you express your creativity?

Creative Thinking in the Classroom

“Dance is a way to tell a story through movement,” my dance instructor, Dan, told my class today. Will, the drummer boy, sat behind his drumset with neat red hair and a stern expression. Dancers stood in lines behind their classmates, waiting to demonstrate the skills our instructor taught us. Students begin walking forward for four beats and strike a pose of their choice, as Dan instructed. “I want you to use your imagination,” Dan says, as I notice the passion in his voice. I continue to count on beats of eight until it’s my turn to dance. Poised, I walk forward for four counts. Strike any pose and let the imagination thrive. Standing split. Walk forward for four more counts. Kick into a carefree front-walkover. I reach the other side of the room and get back in line behind a dancer. Exhilaration crawls into my veins and laughter is drowned out by the drumbeat. I observe students dance as I wait for my next turn. Their eyes dart in a million directions. Watching themselves in the mirror and watching others watching them. In this room, fear of embarrassment hides behind a creative imagination. But I can’t help but wonder, if all dancers stretched the boundaries of their discomfort and unleashed their creativity, what would happen? Would we find ourselves telling stories through movement? Expressing ourselves without shame or hesitation?

So to the other dancers, I ask, what is the worst that can happen if you just express yourself? If you’re broken and tired, wear your emotions on your sleeve. 1…2… 3… 4. Strike any pose you want. Wrap your arms around your body, open your lungs, and look up toward the sky. A proud warrior. If you crave to tap at the edges of your boundaries, turn your body in a 360-degree circle and open your arms. Celebrate your presence…here. Stay present. The room, this space, this is all yours. No restrictions, no boundaries, no regulations.

In a traditional classroom, we are so used to being told how to behave, how to think, and how to express ourselves. But strict conformity has no place in a mind that thrives with creativity. As you are given the chance to be and do anything you want, will you take that opportunity? Will you stretch your arms, open your lungs, and move without hesitation? In this studio, free expression thrives… so that we may thrive.

Overwhelming Gratitude

Exhausted from my early Communications class, I recline on my bed. I roll onto my stomach, enjoying the feeling of clean sheets against my skin. Two hours slowly pass, and I open my eyes at 6:00p.m. My mind craves stimulation. I pull on my athletic tights and Under Armour shirt and drive to the gym. As I poise myself on the elliptical, I encourage a peaceful self-awareness. Chin up, chest open, arms swinging back and forth. I breathe deeply, guiding my mind toward positive thinking. I walk my thoughts into the golden gate of past and present occurrences. Cross-country races. I can hear the voice of a female spectator cheering, “Come on, Hayfield!” Thoughts of being content at George Mason University. The encouragement of fellow Patriots echoes in my mind, as they told me, “You’re doing great for your first week!” And of course, those little moments when tears of joy collected along my eyelid. Every time I try to explain why I am so overjoyed to be at Mason, I struggle to find words. But I can summarize it into the following quote: “Verily, after every hardship, there is ease.” (Qur’an 94:5).

Every students’ high school career has its fair share of highs and lows, but I underwent some particularly difficult circumstances that sometimes hindered my ability to learn. I am thankful to have developed problem-solving skills and to apply critical thinking to everyday conflicts. Being at Mason is the sunshine that breaks through gray skies after the storm is over. The storm is over. And I knew it was when I found I could finally feel comfortable in a classroom again and to express myself freely. The storm is over. And I knew it was as I noted that I am encouraged and supported by the Patriot community. So I wake up early on Monday mornings and go on runs around campus. I let oxygen fill my lungs as I stride up and down the beautiful hills of Fairfax city. This run, this honest self-expression is not only a celebration of my time at Mason. It is a celebration of life, a statement of gratitude for becoming stronger despite adversity. Today, I hold my head higher than before, as I observe the gradual changes in heartrate as I work out. The repetitive motion of swinging my arms back and forth calms me, and I increase the resistance of the machine. I let lyrics flow into my mind, filling my head with positive thoughts. The musician sings, “You can still be what you want to. You’ve got a warm heart. You’ve got a beautiful brain.” The sun illuminated the healthy green trees, as I sat at a table in front of the Johnson Center yesterday. Poised and confident, I observed passersby who rushed to their destinations. A woman walked past me, briefly making eye contact and sharing a warm smile. After she faded into the distance, my eyes welled up with tears of joy because once again, I was reminded that I am part of a healthy community. I am free. Free to express myself, seek support if needed, and to become successful without any destructive obstacles in the way.

Increasing the incline of the elliptical, I continue to listen to my body. The voice of a soulful singer flows into my mind. “You’ve got a warm heart. You’ve got a beautiful brain.” At the end of my day, I share this blogpost and wipe away tears of joy as I write. I am so thankful to be a Patriot, for my ability to thrive on the beautiful campus, for the chance to become the best version of myself. The tears fall unapologetically. The music still echoes in my head. And the visualization of sunlight breaking through trees in front of the Johnson Center comes to mind once more. I can sit on a bench outside the Performing Arts Building, or in a lecture room in Innovation Hall, or in a classroom in East Building. No matter where I am, I am overwhelmed with gratitude. Dismounting the elliptical, my beating heart eventually fades to a resting calm.

Stronger than Mental Illness

brain

The heart speaks louder than the shaking voices of victims who didn’t know how to handle mental illness.

But even as your heart hammers against your chest,

Don’t be afraid to speak.

Surround yourself with supportive people.

Paint the town in wise words you’ve learned from your situation.

Sing the song of your triumph after the storm has passed.

Let the liberation of self-expression run through the flesh,

The very blood stream that connects to a healthy heart.

A beat that was once an unsettled qualm,

Is now a beautiful, steady rhythm

That feeds an honest self-awareness.

I repeat

Your health is a priority.

Repeat

Your health is a priority

Even before grades and schoolwork,

Nagging tasks and unfinished papers.

You are free to prioritize yourself,

Polish the best version of your personality.

You are not your disorder,

You are a living triumph,

A beautiful song that continues to play

Even after the drumbeat of your heart has grown weary.

You will wake up to another day

When you will expand your lungs to fill them with oxygen.

Tell me,

How amazing is this freedom?

The space

Between this inhale

And the next exhale

Is the greatest liberation I know.

The mind

And the heart

Are no longer weighed down by shackles.

Rather, they have grown stronger from having carried them for so long.

So parade in this wonderful freedom.

Beautiful green and blue veins ignite euphoria,

A liveliness once unknown.

Red blood traveling through the temples,

And eventually to the mind.

Tears of joy collect along your eyelid,

Tipping over the edge slowly.

You are free.

A living triumph,

A walking warrior,

Liberation personified.

healthy

 

 

The Drive to Personal Freedom

I started this blog in 2014 to share my experiences related to running. Thoughts of the sport occupied my mind most of the time; I always had ideas for original content. Running liberated my heart, mind, and body in ways that no other sport could. But as my blog unravels, I realize that I can achieve personal freedom through activities besides cross-country and track.

POST5

My blogposts are like a stereo. I hit the pause button on cross-country and hit ‘play’ on the music that echoed off the walls of my yoga studio. I awoke a wave of liberation as I struck countless asanas. The peace and contentment of meditation cannot be found on any cross-country course. So I stretched my calves in downward dog, pointed my toes as I sat in a split, and encouraged myself to breathe deeply. I wasn’t able to achieve this improvement in wellbeing by running. But I was blessed that my mental health climbed to new heights.

My yoga track now intertwines with the sound of poolside waves, as I learned how to swim today. I floated above water and performed graceful breaststrokes, wishing my oxygen capacity were unlimited so I could stay underwater. The smell of chlorine still lingers on my skin, the image of cool blue water is the wallpaper of my mind. As I swam, I turned my freedom’s volume to ‘max.’ Although I’ve stopped writing about running, I combined every one of my freedoms today as I floated in four feet of cool water.  My body absorbs the impact of strides on merciless pavement. My lungs breathe into mindful asanas. And my legs kick through powerful breaststrokes. I was a swimmer, runner, and yogi all at once. I swam through clear blue water, ran from waterslide to pool, and struck a dancer’s pose underwater. As I write these stories, I gently play the notes on this keyboard. My blogposts record my every song of freedom.

POST2

Movement frees the body and heart, but what’s missing? The mind. I may have stumbled upon liberation as I cartwheeled throughout the yoga studio. But in order to free the mind, I open the gates of my thoughts. I carefully type drafts onto a Word Document, often covering the pages in controversial thoughts. It’s easy to write a personal narrative, but arguing takes serious work. The current Presidential race fuels fire between our two candidates, as the United States of America become a little less… united. Minorities are under attack on a daily basis, as the LBTQ  community fights for their right to love and to feel safe in our (supposedly post-modern) society. The Black Lives Matter Movement strives to eradicate the harsh shortcomings of systematic racism. And the list goes on.

Writing Header

We associate the American flag with “freedom”, but the actions we take to achieve personal liberation can lead us to live meaningfully. Write, whether your ideas are popular or not. Exercise, whether you are “fit” or not. Dance, tumble, run, swim, or do anything that frees you.  I’m thankful to say that, today, as I finished my last breaststroke before leaving the waterpark, I truly lived up to my meaning of “freedom.”

Heartbeat

Keep beating

Inside my chest.

A steady rhythm when I’m running,

A gentle beat when I’m meditating.

Stay healthy

As you pump blood to green and blue veins.

That remind me

I am awake,

Breathing,

Living.

Whatever you do,

Protect yourself

From fear.

Just be the same soft, gentle beat

I feel during meditation.

Let this serenity forever be with me.

Can I perpetuate this calm,

This honest self-awareness?

Pose