Tuesday, January 18, 2011

All Of Us, In Costume

This is a little something that I started writing last month and finished writing tonight:

When I first started Bikram yoga, I didn't own any "yoga clothes," and I liked it that way.  I'd go to class in rolled-up tank tops, old cotton sports bras, running shorts,  swim-suit tops, cast-off ballet clothes, cut-up leggings - anything I had lying around in my closet that would let me get through a 90 minute hot class without completely over-heating or over-exposing myself.  I didn't expect that yoga would become a regular habit (hah!) and I didn't want to "dress up" for it.  I wasn't there to look cute in spandex, I was there to get the job done.

A couple months after I joined the work-study program, which officially made me a "regular" at the studio, I broke down and bought my first part of yoga shorts. I got the classic black, side-string Shakti shorts. (I still have them, although by now they've shrunk a bit and I don't wear them much.) My first real yoga costume!

Have you noticed that the dialogue refers to your outfit as "your costume"? It happens a couple of times. ("Heel touching the costume, sole of the foot facing the ceiling.") It’s an apt description. We do put on costumes to do yoga.  Everyone has at least one article of clothing - a favorite tank top or pair of shorts - that is For Yoga. And when you put that clothing on, you are in your yoga costume, looking like a yogi, ready to try to do some yoga.

At first it felt strange to be wearing a real yoga costume. Hmm, can I take myself seriously in this? Does this fit? Do I deserve it? Is this really me? But I quickly got used to the feeling, and then I grew to really enjoy it. Yes, world, here I am! All dressed and ready for yoga!

When I teach, I have a different costume. I wear shorts or a leotard for practice, but I always teach in capri pants. And I always teach wearing my red Swatch. I’ve never taught a class without it. (I replaced the watchband last month because the plastic had cracked from the stress of constantly going from hot to cold.) In my first month of teaching, when my identity as a teacher was still tenuous and unfamiliar, there were only two things that made me feel like I was a legitimate teacher: one thing was standing on the podium and the other was wearing my teaching costume.

Years ago, I read a short piece called “My First Day in Priest Clothes.” It’s one of the stories from I Thought My Father Was God, a collection of stories compiled for NPR’s National Story Project. This particular story is about a young man who has just entered seminary, still a few years away from becoming a priest. The first time he wears his collar and black suit out in public, he is on his way to a dentist’s appointment. He describes how strange it feels to be out in public dressed up like a priest.  Here’s the punchline to the story:

"As I nervously and so very self-consciously made my way along the sidewalk to the office - dressed so strangely for the first time, looking like a priest, but not at all a priest - along came five or six small kids, running, dancing laughing.  They were dressed up in costumes!  A ghost, a witch, a bear... they were coming from a school Halloween party.  My first day in priest costume, and it was Halloween.  We were all in costume."  - Eugene O'Brien

Love this.

Isn't it true?  We're always, all of us, in costume.  We dress up for work, for exercise, for play, for everything.  I dress up as a yoga teacher when I go to teach class.  Then I dress up as a professional, all business casual-like, for SAT classes and school presentations.  I dress up in tights and dancing shoes for swing dance nights.  (This is quickly becoming my favorite costume.)  Last weekend I dressed up in a skirt and boots for a night out at the orchestra.  There was a reception afterwards, the kind of party where a bunch of "young professionals" stand around tables eating little tortellini and talking about things.  I, too, was dressed up like a "young professional," and I couldn't believe that everyone fell for it; they couldn't tell that I'll never work a 9-to-5 and that I spend most of my time dressed in spandex.  The costume worked!  It was rather bizarre.

They say that clothes make the man (or woman), and this is certainly fair.  Our clothing has a huge influence on the way that we are perceived, and it also affects how we perceive ourselves.  One of my favorite not-so-guilty pleasure TV shows is "What Not To Wear," because the women who get made over are always glowing by the end.  They don't just get a wardrobe makeover, they get a whole self-esteem makeover!  They are told that they are beautiful just as they are, and then they are taught how to shine on the outside just as much as they shine on the inside.  I love this!

But it's also nice to let all of that fall away, and that's what happens for me in yoga.  We all come into class in our costumes, carrying our identities and our ideas about ourselves.  But as the sweat starts to roll and the dialogue washes over us, all of that melts away.  When we look into our own eyes in the mirror, we start to glimpse something simpler, something cleaner, something more honest.  We start to see our true Selves, which have always been there, sitting quietly, underneath all the layers.

During the day, we wrap ourselves in our identities.  We wear them like costumes, telling stories about who we are.  But it is so good to do yoga and forget all of that, if only for a few minutes.  It is so good to sweat and open your eyes and breathe.  Forget everything, peel back the layers.  Just breathe and be.  We are all equals, and we do this thing together, as honestly as possible.  It is remarkable.  It is so beautiful.

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