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What Labels Are We Wearing?

“Yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the self.” — The Bhagavad Gita.

When I first relocated to Richmond from DC, I really struggled with my identity. After moving from the ultra-competitive and fast paced fitness industry, I was unable to find full-time work, so  I worked part time at a doggy daycare, waitressed and worked as admin at a yoga studio while I hustled to get back into fitness full-time. But it just wasn’t happening, and with bills and debt piling up, I knew I had to figure something else out. So, I switched gears professionally and was lucky enough to find a 9-5 gig in development. I was enormously grateful for the job opportunity, but the first 6 months or so, my confidence (and ego) took a huge hit. I was completely starting over, which meant I was beginning at the ground floor, and I was out of my comfort zone. It felt like the last 7 years, all of my training, hustling and experience, had been a waste. I questioned all of my professional decisions, and became timid and anxious at work. I felt like I had given up on myself…and given up on my “dream.”

I continued to teach a few yoga and fitness classes on a weekly basis, to maintain my skills and make some extra income. But the new schedule was an enormous change. I suddenly had free time that I honestly can’t remember having since college. So I started trying new things; I began to cook, to read the books I’d bought ages ago but never had time to read, I tried new fitness classes and new styles of yoga around town. I had more time to spend with my significant other, and to cultivate new friendships. I also felt more grounded and less anxious when I taught my classes. I wasn’t as rushed anymore, or exhausted all the time.

It’s been two years since I made this transition, and looking back now I can clearly see how much I had let my career in fitness and yoga define me. In DC, one of the first questions you are asked is, “what do you do?” I had allowed my response to this simple question to create my self image. Ironically enough, this career path wasn’t serving me. The schedule and instability of my “dream” job weren’t the right fit for my personality and desired lifestyle.

Choosing this new path, and finally allowing myself to be open the new experience actually gave me a lot of clarity and space in my life. I’m working on “doing less” rather than scheduling out every moment of my day. I can feel the shift this change has caused physically, mentally and emotionally. I’m not only significantly happier teaching my one yoga class weekly and occasional workshops, but I feel like I’m able to connect to the participants in a more impactful way. I also feel more inspired in my creative writing that I never had time for, which obviously led to me starting this blog (and thus making myself busier again. I’m still working on the perfect balance!).

I’m certainly not telling anyone to give up their dream and go work for “the man”. But simply to reflect on your identity, and who you would be if what defines you were taken away. Who would you be without your job or with a different job? Without your partner or with a partner? With or without important material possessions? The deeper question being, who is the you without all of those identifiers?

It is possible to work on recognizing the aspects of how we identify ourselves so we can be aware of what they are, and when we feel like one of them is being threatened. The aspects of our identity are a natural part of our humanity, it helps us to understand and categorize one another quickly and easily. But it’s important to be aware that these aspects are labels and not the essence of who we are. Who we are is much greater than being a lawyer or a yoga teacher, a sister or a brother, or a friend or a foe.

5 Steps to Recognize & Create Awareness Around Your Labels:

  • Make a list: Write down all of the labels you currently wear. For example, I’m currently a daughter, fiancée, dog momma, sister, aunt, friend, assistant director of development, yoga teacher, and Richmonder.
  • Notice permanence: For instance, I was single four years ago for about six years. That was a major part of my identity at the time. Now my relationship with my partner is a part of my identity. I will always be a daughter. When I was in acting school I would have said I was an actress. Now I wouldn’t be comfortable saying that since I don’t currently work in theater. I’m new to blogging, and feel tentative putting that down since I’m a novice.  Are there any labels you are in the process of moving into or away from?
  • Reflect on how each label makes you feel: Which labels make you feel pride, embarrassment, anxiety, calm, pain, or joy? Write down the feelings next to each. Notice which are negative for you. Are they necessary? Are they temporary or permanent? Could you change them? Why might these feelings arise?
  • Become aware: Begin to notice when major parts of your identity are challenged. If someone makes a negative comment about your work at the office, or as a mother/father, as a teacher, as a Northerner/Southerner, how do you react? Are you taking it as a personal attack on your identity? Do you question yourself? Or feel diminished? On the flip side, if someone compliments you, do you feel prouder in your identity? Noticing your thoughts, actions and reactions around labels can be an interesting process. It’s also important to become curious about the labels you give to others. We all do it in an instant. Are they fair? What are they stemming from? Is it possible it could be wrong? How could you find out?
  • Meditate: Creating the time to sit quietly, be still, and connect more fully to where you are in the moment is a wonderful opportunity to have little glimpses of the labelless Self. If only for an instant. But dedicating even 3-5 minutes daily for yourself to meditate, in whatever way you choose, can be a reprieve from a media and identity filled life.

The goal is not to be label-less, but rather to have the awareness that labels are just that, labels. They are ever-changing, surface based judgments. They do not define you. They do not define others. Who are we without the labels? The answer isn’t easy, and it’s a lifelong question that’s in a constant state of flux. But if you’ve already started asking the questions, you’re on the right track! I know I still battle with it myself, but I have found that the noticing of the attachment to specific labels creates some space around them, and I do feel freer without some of the attachments I’ve finally let go of!

Cheers! To the ever evolving journey.

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