Defining ourselves: a constant struggle to resist fixed identities

Last week I went to an evening of “Stories you can’t tell on the radio.” I sat transfixed as a journalist recounted in a buttery soothing voice the uncensored story of a cross-country bike ride, and one fabled “naked mile” through the grassy prairies of my own native Minnesota.

But the last line of her story, the final image, was not the wind on her bare back or the delight feeling leaves of grass brushing against her bare thighs. It was the memory of being left out of a comment about her more ‘voluptuous’ riding partner by a man in their riding group. All the joy of that liberating mile through the cornfields, overshadowed by less than ideal body image.

This night, she thoughtfully re-wrote that ending aloud for the crowd, leaving an image of those last few moments enjoyed on the naked mile to close the story for us.

“Wow. She’s so…yoga.” I commented to a friend sitting next to me.

She looked at me flabbergasted. Wait. Why did I find her approach harkening back to my days in teacher training at Pavones? I couldn’t even articulate it myself. I realized it was time for a refresher course on one more of the million reasons why I love exploring this thing called yoga.

Because what is yoga if it doesn’t help you define yourself in a mindset of loving kindness?

Not letting the same old rhetoric creep in, like a railroad chugging down the line, again and again, through the same valleys and tunnels of identity and occasional flat-chested shame.

It was a particularly poignant reminder for me this week. I am anxiously waiting to run 26.2 miles next weekend in the New York City marathon. After two years of training, it’s all coming down to this Sunday. A year ago, I was just settling into my new cast after breaking my leg coming down a slide. But I am striving not to think of myself as “someone who broke her leg” or “a marathon runner.” What will the marathon runner do come Monday when the thrill, rush and work of those 26.2 miles is through?

It’s worth reminding myself: we can choose not to define who we are. We choose which lines of a story are our last.

We can choose which lines resonate. Which sing and which fade away.

Each moment that we embody a posture, a look, an attitude, we are telling ourselves: this is you. The tall one. The professional. The studious. The sad. The happy. Good at math. A gifted storyteller. Lazy. Funny.

Our modern devices propel us deeper into these trenches of self-thought. As if our phones and computers could quantify us like code just by asking what we’re doing right now. Who we are today. A constant exercise in the extremities of pith, not only condensing thought to 140 characters, but condensing biographies, whole lives to short sentences too. Writer. Teacher. Journalist. Travel-lover. The hundred million ways we define ourselves.

Yoga teacher. Separate from the yoga student. Marathon Runner. Exclusive to the crowd of non-runners over there.

Hearing this woman’s story, I was reminded to take a few moments with my breath. Going to that quiet place inside. Down and in. Where trees whisper. Birds sing. And I sit, for a moment, without the “who am I?”

Soham. Hamsa:

“I am all there is.”

“All there is is me.”

Surrounded by the universe. Not detached or compartmentalized.

Not learning or producing or posting.

Just being. Even if only for one moment. One breath.


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