There are three words in Yoga philosophy that I like to call the Triple A's of Identity: Atman, Ahamkara and Asmita. All three of these words come up when we're posing the eternal question, "Who am I?"
First let's dig them out of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras and define them:
Atman: This is the Sanskrit word for the true self, the inner self, or what some people call the soul. Yogis believe it to be the most real and enduring part of us.
Ahamkara: The literal translation is the "I maker," that which gives the sense of a separate existence. It is your own distinct entity, appearing, thinking and acting in the world. It is somewhat close to the Western concept of "ego," and to live in this world, we need to have some sense of our self that is part of a healthy ego. However, the ahamkara is distinct from atman.
Asmita: This word has a more negative connotation than ahamkara, and it literally means "the false self," or "the thing other than the real I." Asmita is listed as one of the five obstacles preventing enlightenment and leading to suffering. Asmita is mistaking your ego, your thoughts, your body, your senses, and all other impermanent aspects of yourself for the real you.
I have thought about the Triple A's of Identity all week, due to things coming up in my life related to image and appearance, and how these relate to yoga.
I have a certain teacher I love, though I can rarely attend her classes anymore. I follow her and some of my other teachers on Facebook and Instagram. This week she put up some cool videos of herself doing a beautiful wheel posture from standing, and an impressive handstand. She accompanied these with inspiring words along the lines of perseverance and dedication, basically "show up" and "work hard." I see similar images and words from other teachers on a regular basis. Though I love to practice the physical postures and link them up with life off of the mat, sometimes I feel like backing off of the more difficult postures as end goals. I even feel at times like yoga gets shortchanged as gymnastics with a veneer of self-improvement. (Many of the postures we do are truthfully from a Scandinavian gymnastics system developed in the 19th century and imported to India. More on that later.)
I also noticed another of my teachers posted a different sort of message this week, an article called "Un-cover Girls," featuring two overweight yoga teachers in a photo shoot. These women were interviewed about how yoga helps their body image and self-esteem and how they have something unique to offer as opposed to the slender and flexible looking models we see in most yoga advertising images. These women want to prove that yoga is truly for everyone.
These varied images of other people doing yoga made me a little nervous about a website I am planning to unveil this week. There will be photos of me doing yoga on the site, and I feel conflicted about this. I want to share my practice and be able to market myself as a teacher, but I don't want to send a message that people should admire my practice for how it looks, or that I resemble some sort of ideal yogini, or that an ideal yogini even exists. How do the Triple A's play into this? Well, to market myself as a coach and yoga teacher, I need ahamkara (the I-maker) to work for me, not against me. I don't want to fall into asmita, a sense of false identification with my image and my body. I want to work and serve from a pure place, and to live from my atman.
What helped me make sense of all this was a conversation I had with my father this week--He is suffering from Bell's Palsy, (facial nerve paralysis). I have long-lasting residuals from this same condition, which I experienced while pregnant with Lyme disease. When I talked to my Dad about how hard it is to deal with, I was able to speak from experience. I told him he may be able to find some comfort in meditation, since that was where I found comfort when it first happened to me. He said he doesn't want to scare my little niece when she sees his face; I remember feeling that way, too. I told him that the experience helped me to stop overly identifying with the way I looked. I found comfort in meditation, because it was there that I was able to connect and identify with my inner self, the part of me that is real. I was able to stop identifying completely with my appearance, and start identifying more with the real me. It didn't take away the reality of a changed appearance, or even of the importance of appearance in real life, but it took away the anxiety I was experiencing from overly identifying with my condition. So in terms of my yoga teaching and website, I know that appearance is part of it, but there doesn't need to be any preoccupation with how any of that looks from the outside.
Please don't get me wrong: I know we all have to care about our appearance and take good care of ourselves. I also know the physical practice of yoga is a healthy way to take care of our ego and nurture positive self-esteem. There is nothing wrong with admiring and aspiring to execute beautiful asana. None of this becomes a problem unless it is taken to extremes and we begin to over-identify with how we appear. When we start comparing ourselves to other yoga students or teachers, focusing on our image in a mirrored studio, feeling offended when a teacher tries to help with a pose, thinking about impressing the person on the mat behind ours, that's when we know we've stepped into false identification (asmita). The same is true in our life off the mat; when we get too caught up in our role as an earner or an achiever or a supermom, suffering from either inflated self-esteem or a feeling of not measuring up, we know we are off-balance and could use an ego check.
We can work with the Triple A's of Identity in our yoga practice, not judging ourselves for being ego-driven, but instead just noticing which one of the A's we're experiencing. We can simply observe ourselves as we move through the practice, noticing our thoughts, sensations and reactions. We can do this is in asana, pranayama and meditation. If we are pleased with ourselves in a posture we love, we can note that. If we feel inadequate in a backbend our neighbor excels in, we can note that, too. If our breathing feels smooth, we note it. Witnessing our practice in this non-judgmental way, we start to connect with our internal witness, leading us back to our authentic self. We become aware of what changes and what remains steady, learning to identify with the part of us that endures. In the end this is a comfort to each of us, irrespective of appearance or physical condition.