The One Practice That Taught Me To Shed Labels — And Embrace Freedom
Katina Mountanos - mbg
From the time we are young children, we place labels on ourselves to make sense of the world. We are either skinny or big-boned; cool or unpopular; a musician or an athlete.
And while these labels at times can be helpful to create some form of an identity, they are often extremely limiting. They place us into boxes—or out of them—and continue to follow us well into adulthood.
For a long time, I labeled myself as inflexible. I was a strong runner with an athletic build—not like the tall, lanky women we see gracing the covers of magazines. I completely took myself out of the "yoga" box because I assumed that in order to do it, you needed to have a certain body type.
It also didn’t help that by social media standards, yogis seemed like they could pop into an oddly formed shape anywhere—whether they were on a yoga mat or in an airport. It was intimidating to think that I could barely touch my toes while sitting down, let alone put my foot behind my head on the beach.
But I soon realized that the purpose of yoga was quite the opposite. Because yoga is really a practice of shedding labels, of removing the layers to get to your true self.
I realized that yoga as a practice only really begins on the mat.
As I began going to yoga class regularly, I realized that practice only really begins on the mat.
Asana, or the physical practice that we typically think of when we imagine yoga (beautiful studios and class memberships aside), is really just the first step on our yoga journey. It’s considered preparation for all the deeper aspects of our practice such as pranayama (breath work) or pratyahara (meditation).
Really, though, all of these parts of yoga are meant to prepare us for those tough moments in life—like when we get frustrated with our boss at work or our train is running late.
Because at the end of the day, the majority of us humans don’t have the flexibility—in terms of both our time availability and physical limits—to pop into a yoga pose in the middle of the day when things get rough. We need to be able to access that mindset wherever we are in the world—and it begins by being kind to yourself on the mat, whether you're flexible or not.
I was forced to confront my deeper feelings and emotional roadblocks.
After a couple of years of regular yoga practice, I decided to take the next big step and complete my 200-hour training. I realized that I was seeking to learn more about yoga than a 60-minute class in between work and dinner could give me.
Of course, I thought that at that point I had come to face all of my fears (don’t we all?). I thought that I had resolved my issue with inflexibility. I was growing more flexible by the day, and heck, it didn’t even matter to me anymore—or so I thought.
But oddly enough, before I even entered my teacher training, I spent hours practicing the perfect handstand. I wanted to walk into that room confident that I was a true yogi, that I was capable, that maybe I was even the best.
But yoga has this funny ability to shine a mirror on our deepest issues and make us confront them head-on. And my experience was about continuing to shed those self-induced labels.
During my training, I quickly learned that yoga practice is different for every body—and sometimes even varies by the day. That on some days, you may be strong enough to hold crow pose, and on others, child’s pose is the most you can do.
I had to learn to stop comparing myself to my neighbor and even to myself the day before.
I had to really sit with the labels that kept coming up and negative self-chatter that we all know so well: You’re not good enough, strong enough, flexible enough for this. Maybe you should just quit.
I had to stop defining myself by my outward "successes" and really get in touch with my true self, which if you've tried, is not an easy thing to do.
I released self-limiting beliefs and embraced kinder thoughts.
It is the first experience I’ve had that you can’t just "achieve" and complete. Almost everything in life that I’ve done had an end point. As a runner, you could only complete so many marathons. But with yoga, your teacher training is really just the start of an entirely new world and mindset.
For me, setting an intention to be kind to myself before each practice has helped me continue to shed those labels. Whenever I find myself looking over to my neighbor’s mat or beating myself up for falling out of a pose, I take a breath and come back to my intention. It’s a difficult, continuous practice that we all must work at—but one that overflows into the rest of our lives.
Over time, I’ve also come up with daily rituals that help me reset and continue to dig deeper toward the truest version of myself. While a daily yoga practice is on that list—it’s not the only thing. Taking time to meditate, journal, and even take a 10-minute solo walk (without music blasting into my ears) have all helped me quiet the noise and continue to shed those labels.
Of course, it’s a process. But with each step comes the beauty of finding your most raw, beautiful self—without labels.