Many moons ago, I found myself in a field of 800 or so yoga practitioners dancing wildly to live music. As I observed the crowd, it occurred to me that most of the dancers were nearly indistinguishable from each other. The hair, clothes, temporary tattoos, all the way to the body mechanics were carbon copies. Now, I understand that being mindful and environmentally conscious about our choices means that we end up shopping at some of the same places, but this gathering seemed to represent something beyond coincidence.
I suppose it’s possible that each one of the 800 or so people in the crowd woke up that morning and decided upon their wardrobe free from outside influence. But I can’t help feeling as if there was a subconscious awareness of group identification that provided motive for the choices. Were we all adhering to an unspoken yogi dress code? How much of our appearance was a true representation of who we were verses merely posturing and affectation?
As I began to question the visual uniformity displayed in front of me, I couldn’t help but wonder why, in a practice that I have embraced to be about freedom, did everybody look the same? The obvious (and unbelievable?) answer is that this must be what freedom looks like.
Meanwhile a drunk dancer vomited in the shadows over my left shoulder. Another girl was crying behind me because the guy she went home with the night before stood her up. And a little further away from me, another yogi was taken away on a stretcher because his intoxicated dancing resulted in a broken leg.
As I began to ponder over what I was witnessing, I started to see clearly that yoga can be not just a practice but also an identity. And for some of us I think it might be more of an identity than it is a practice. We go through life searching for something to belong to, for something to define us; and, consequently we can spend our lives searching for who to be rather than who we are.
Yoga has become a label accompanied by an invisible set of appearance guidelines, aka a costume. And in some cases you don’t even have to make shapes with your body or pay attention to your breath or sit down to meditate… you just have to dress up. Ironically, deep yoga teachings refer to life itself being a grand play called a “Lila”, but what I was witnessing was not this kind of play. I was witnessing performances in the kind of play that we create in our minds. I was witnessing performances in a play about fitting in to create self-worth. I was witnessing performances in a play where we follow trends defined by other people’s likes and dislikes. I was witnessing a play where some of the players believe they are setting themselves free when they are actually putting on another mask.
And there I was in the middle of it all, fully invested in my mental performance, dressed head to toe in my yoga costume.
I now recognize that this “Aha” moment marked my exit from the yoga “scene.” Yes, my exit resulted from a judgy interpretation of my experience, but it was a necessary one. It provided the clarity needed for me to see my own captivity hidden beneath a cloak of freedom.
The heart of yoga is about being present. It is about dismantling motivations that are rooted in illusory perceptions of the world. It is about ridding ourselves of the societal standards that tell us who we need to be and how we need to live. It’s about awakening our deepest wisdom and connection to all things, giving voice to the instincts and intuitions driven by and towards light and love. Even further, the yogic experience of freedom comes from seeing and experiencing the whole truth, without attachment to identities or labels.
So I can’t help but wonder if by boxing ourselves into a “yoga” identity, are we are also missing the point of yoga? Are we putting edges on a practice intended to expand? By labeling ourselves, by dressing up, are we putting ourselves out of touch with a bigger truth?
In my case, I could see that I was mentally separating myself from the whole of existence through a strong identification with a subsection of it. Groups can be tricky that way. They give us the feeling of being accepted, they satisfy our need to belong; yet, at the same time, the very nature of a group is that has lines separating it from everything else.
So, a yoga “identity” – an identity built around a practice centered in connection to all things – suddenly felt like a walking contradiction. And with a swooping shock to my system, I removed my costume and went on my way.
Now, I do recognize that there was nothing “wrong” with that moment on the lawn until my mind made it so. However, the beauty of my mental assessment is that I could see my own captivity reflected in what I was witnessing. Thank goodness, because within the judgement I found the key to my own freedom.
Here’s the thing: We will embrace all kinds of roles as we live out our life stories. We are free to wear all kinds of costumes and play all kinds of parts. It’s fun and beautiful and fulfilling to explore and discover and taste the experiences that life has to offer. But remember: We are not these things. We are bigger and beyond and more. And you don’t have to take my word for it, take it from Eckhart Tolle. He says: “Who you are cannot be defined through thinking or mental labels or definitions, because it’s beyond that. It is the very sense of being, or presence, that is there when you become conscious of the present moment. In essence, you and what we call the present moment are, at the deepest level, one.”
Or, he puts it more simply with these words: “What a liberation to realize that the ‘voice in my head’ is not who I am. ‘Who am I, then?’ The one who sees that.”
Although I may be completely off, I’m fairly certain there are some people out there who recognize the truth in what I am writing. And maybe through the process of shedding light on the presence of my own captivity I can inspire you to shed some light on yours. Only by seeing our captivity can we begin to dismantle it.
Here’s a writing or thinking prompt to get you digging: Where do you feel free? What are your motivations? Are you attached to your identities?
Here’s a life application to get you playing: Take off your costume. Today, dress and behave as YOU. The vital, beautiful you who was put on this earth with the ability to be inspired by colors and textures and patterns solely based on your instinct. Notice when your choices are influenced by someone else’s expectations. Dress in a way that is only you. And rock the hell out of it. Express yo’ self. And don’t apologize.
Lastly: Put something somewhere that reminds you to stay rooted in your truth. Maybe it’s a bracelet, a post-it note, or a photo taped to your bathroom mirror. We all need to drop anchors in truth, because the pull of illusion is strong.