Towards the end of a yoga retreat in India I was facilitating, three apparently unconnected events intertwined to give me a deeper insight into both myself and many of my students.
Firstly, a fellow traveller asked me “How do you travel overseas for nearly a month with just one small piece of cabin baggage?” as she pointed to the three hefty bags she’d brought along for her 10 day yoga break.
Secondly, when I got to my emails, I (politely) turned down an invitation to speak at an ‘empowering women’ themed event in Sydney.
Thirdly, I flicked into Facebook and shared a post that read “Mother Theresa didn’t walk around complaining about her thighs. She did shit.”
What have these three things got in common? Look closely and you’ll discover a powerful illustration of the forces that stop many of us from fulfilling our potential.
Many women are plagued by the voices in their heads telling them they’re not good enough, not thin enough, not smart enough, not important enough. We love yoga because, for 90 whole minutes, we are given permission to let go of those stories and just be who we are. But yoga is not the only thing that women turn to for relief from the internal narrative of self-loathing.
Let’s go back to the woman who marvelled at my economical hand luggage. She opened one of her own bags to reveal two enormous cosmetic bags, hair straighteners, four pairs of shoes and a whole bunch of clothes that she admitted she hadn’t worn during her time away.
“Why can’t you just reduce your luggage and travel light”? I asked. I immediately regretted my direct question as my companion's face contorted into a mask of shame. “I just can’t” she mumbled.
What about that event in Sydney that I politely declined? The event purported to empower professional women – by offering them presentations on hair, make up, styling and weight loss products.
Generations of women have been convinced that their self worth is directly linked to their appearance, which has made them fertile ground for marketers selling everything from shampoo to multivitamins. This belief is so ingrained that many women in the 21st century really believe that getting their hair and make up right is the path to personal empowerment.
I turned down that speaking invitation because I listened to Patanjali’s advice on the path to personal empowerment, not to the manufacturers of cosmetics and protein shakes. In the Yoga Sutras, a 2,000 year old text on yoga, the great sage Patanjali describes the state of yoga as one in which all the old, ingrained patterns of thinking and behaving stop.
Imagine that! Being liberated from the belief that how you look determines how happy, accepted and loved you are! Imagine forgetting everything you think you know about how you should look and behave and just be who you are instead.
I think that if even a fraction of the women who practice yoga transcended some of those patterns of thought around their weight, age and appearance, there’d be a revolution. We’d throw away our hair straighteners, pack light and set out on the adventure of our lives.
As for that Facebook post about Mother Theresa. Even if your career plans don't include ministering to the sick, you’ve got to admit that woman got stuff DONE. Like my friend with the heavy bags, it’s hard to move lightly through the world when you’re shackled by the ball and chain of cosmetic bags and impractical footwear.
Letting go of the fear allows us to let go of the props we use to protect us from those fears. And that’s when we experience true personal empowerment.