What's Authenticity Got to do With Yoga?
It has taken me 10 years to figure out why I love Yoga so much. And that's because it's a practice for everyone and for everything.
What I mean is it seems like Yoga is a good stretch or a good workout. And, it is. That's why most people come to the practice in the first place. But once you start showing up consistently, it bleeds into every aspect of your life. And, when we look at the vast, deep, and varied history and philosophy of Yoga, that's the intention. Yoga IS a physical practice but it is also:
Chanting and Singing
Acts of Kindness
Worship (honoring your specific religion or beliefs)
...and so so so much more
I truly believe this is why people keep coming back. Because once you begin to practice consistently, your body isn't the only thing that changes.
Some teachers refer to this as 'peeling the layers of the onion.' It's like Shrek but a little more poetic. I'll spare you the metaphorical details but if you've come to Yoga for any amount of time, you know what I am saying. Lately, my Yoga practice has taken the shape of self-study. I've been less interested in the physical aspects, and more interested in how to shift my habits, heal my trauma, and move forward with more mindfulness and awareness. In doing that, I've been reading A LOT of personal growth books. I recently ordered The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown. In this book, she lays out the 10 Guideposts for Wholehearted Living. The first being, let go of what people think and cultivate authenticity. I love this idea of setting a foundation of authenticity and it is a huge component of my personal mission in the yoga classroom, in my business, and in my life. You might be wondering... "What's authenticity got to do with Yoga?" So, let's chat a bit about that...
**First, it feels incredibly important for me to say that I believe Yoga studios and classrooms should be the most accessible, safe, and comfortable spaces that we enter. Because of the nature of our culture, the colonization of Yoga, and outright cultural appropriation, that is not always the case. If you are searching for a Yoga studio or teacher, keep looking until you find a place where it's safe to be yourself and practice in a way that honors your body.
I will put some resources at the bottom of this article from teachers that speak far more eloquently on this than I can.**
The coolest part about mentioning authenticity in relation to yoga is its historical and philosophical connections. You'll see that as we dive in...
Authenticity as an Internal Practice
Before we go too deep into authenticity, it's important to set a solid foundation by first tapping into an internal practice of authenticity.
We find that the Yoga Sutras (known as the authoritative text on yoga) themselves speak about the idea of authenticity through this lens...
In Sutra 11.6, Patanjali states,
"False-identification is confusing the nature of the self with the nature of the instrument of perception. In other words, false identification happens when we mistake the mind, body, or senses for the true self."
What Pantajali is describing here is asmita, or false-identification. Kate Holcomb of Yoga Journal says, "Sometimes translated as “ego,” asmita is the second of five afflictions of the mind, or klesas, outlined in the second chapter of the Yoga Sutra. Asmita happens when you identify with the parts of yourself that change—everything from your mind to your body, appearance, or job title—instead of with the quiet place within you that does not change.
It’s when you mistakenly believe, on some level, that how you look or feel or what you do for a living (or even how nice or beat-up of a car you drive) has something to do with who you are and that these things define you, instead of recognizing that your true Self—who you are at your core—is unchanging."
Essentially, identifying with these ever-changing pieces of yourself leads to suffering. So what can we do in order to identify less with things that are culturally praised? The answer is both easy and hard. For me, it's stillness and meditation. Regular meditation gives you glimpses of your true essence - and "yoga teaches that this essence remains stable no matter what happens around you or to you, whether you feel connected to this part of you [or not]."
Authenticity as a Physical Practice
Finding glimpses of your true essence and connecting to it more often is a foundational piece to tapping into authenticity but it isn't the only way. For some, authenticity is easier felt in physical expressions.
In physical yoga classes you'll often hear things like:
"Take your variation of the post"
"Honor your body"
"Listen to your body"
"Do what you can today"
"Do what works for you"
These phrases are really prompting us to tap into our intuition and be our most authentic self, from one pose to another, in each changing moment.
Michelle Vitale says, "Every time you choose a pose on your mat, you have the opportunity to express your most authentic self in that moment."
This philosophy sounds wonderful but in practice it can be incredibly difficult. We are faced with many challenges when we enter yoga spaces because our ego likes to get in the way:
We compare our bodies and our abilities to other people
We identify heavily with impediments and injuries
We sometimes place too much emphasis on the physical
We injure ourselves going too hard
Essentially, we get wrapped up in how we look and forget to honor how we feel.
So what can we do to practice authenticity on our mats and in other physical practices? Try these tips:
Try keeping your eyes closed for the majority of your practice. If closing your eyes doesn't feel comfortable for whatever reason, try a soft gaze. You can find focal points in the room that aren't people so you can keep most of your practice inward.
Practice listening to your body and intuition as you move through physical postures. Remember the body has immeasurable wisdom to give us as long as we are willing to listen.
Look at your patterns with curiosity and practice non-judgment. When they come up, can you offer yourself some compassion? Sometimes it helps to create a mantra for self-compassion. My favorites are: "I approve of myself." "I am perfect, whole, and complete." You are welcome to create your own and adopt it in repetition.
Authenticity in Our Relationships
In the Yamas (which are part of the eight limb path of Yoga - also from the Yoga Sutras), two important components are kindness (ahimsa - non-violence) and honesty (satya - truthfulness).
We are asked first to be kind and honest in our relationship with self so that we can be kind and honest with others. This "helps us awaken to the ways that dampening our light and obscuring our truth (even with the best of intentions) is ultimately a disservice to all of life.
We are each here to lend our unique voice to the greater expression of life and fulfilling our part with anything other than complete commitment only serves to diminish the whole.
We owe it to ourselves and to one another to show-up as fully, as honestly, and as real as we possibly can in each moment. When we step more fully into ourselves, we free others up to be the truest expression of themselves. Step-by-step, moment-by-moment, and breath-by-breath, we engage with life from a place of trust, of truth, and of deeply surrendered courage. Living as our authentic selves is a gift we give the world." I love that quote from Soulful Space so much that I had to include it all. It fully sums up how the Yamas first make their way into our self-study, then bleed over into our actions, which can ripple out into our relationships and eventually change the entire world.
In this way, authentic living is a gift we carry into the world.
Putting Authenticity Into Action
I know this is a lot to think about so I want to sum it all up into some actionable practices you can work towards each day.
Practice stillness + meditation: Start with 5 minutes a day. Remember you aren't trying to turn off the thoughts. You are just noticing.
Try intuitive movement: Whether it be in yoga or at home in your living room, practice listening to your body without judgement. I like to go with the first thing my body tells me it wants then move from there.
Practice curiosity + compassion with yourself: When shit hits the fan (which it will), how can you be compassionate with yourself? When negative patterns or feelings come up, how can you practice being curious?
Repeat a self-love mantra: Loving yourself is a practice. Adopting a mantra can be incredibly helpful to rewiring your brain towards self-love.
Be kind + honest in your relationships: Allow yourself to be human. You are a full spectrum of emotions, failures, successes - and so is everyone else. We are our harshest critics so remember most people are more willing to forgive, accept, and love than we think they are.
Being more mindful of cultural appropriation, accessibility, colonization, etc in Yoga