Not fitting in makes you question life and it wakes you up.
Usually, it is not until we see or experience something outside of the norm that we question normalcy in the first place. I have never questioned whether I am a woman or not. I have all the things society considers to be normal for a woman like a vagina and breasts. I have a uterus. I do all the things society sees as normal for women like wearing dresses, make up and birthing a child. My shape is considered womanly. I have never been mistaken for a man. However, if I would have been born transgendered, less curvy, or a tomboy, I would have been compelled to take a deeper dive into what it means to be a woman. It is these very discussions, had by people who don’t fit the “normal” idea of a woman, that made me eventually have to take a look at what it means to be a woman. Their willingness to question made me willing to question, too.
While I have never questioned my womanhood, I have been forced to look at normalcy in other areas of my life. I am Black and it was very obvious from an early age that being Black in Amerca was not as desirable as being White. The closer you were to White, the better. If your hair was silkier, if your skin was lighter, if your nose and lips were thinner, you were beautiful. If your hair was wooly, your skin dark, and your nose and lips were big, you were ugly. Light skinned people were treated differently. I have early memories of going to church and the light skinned girls with the curly hair would be doted on by all the parents. People would rave about how beautiful they were and how “good” their hair was. You know what people would say to me? “You have a pretty face”. Which is a polite way of saying, “the rest of you needs work but at least you have a nice face.” When I turned on the TV, the light skinned people with curly hair like Lisa Bonet, Haley Berry or Al B Sure were the sex symbols. Prince’s muses were always mixed. My childhood was filled with story after story of the dark skinned people in my family getting treated differently then the lighter skinned, of corporate glass ceilings and the good old boy network of fast promotion. It was hard to find black baby dolls and, when you did, they always had silky long hair and their faces looked nothing like me.
From an early age I had to question what it means to belong, what makes one worthy of love, what is beyond the physical and what it means to be beautiful. I had to work on “being a good person” because it was the only thing, in my mind, that I felt I had going for me. That in itself became an identity. “If I can just be a good girl and work hard” people will like me. Which, is a recipe for disaster because as singer Bonnie Rait says,
‘I can’t make you love me.
I can’t make your heart feel something it won’t.
Here in the dark, in these final hours
I will lay down my heart and I’ll feel the power
But you won’t, no you won’t
Cause I can’t make you love me”
Thank goodness for yoga. It helped me to understand that, simply by existing, I am already complete and worthy of love. The fact that I am alive means that I belong.
There is not a time in my life, where being different, did not set me on the road to questioning reality. Believe me, I have not always been thankful for this and I still struggle with it. I do sometimes look in the mirror and battle with my childhood ideas of beauty. I am often saddened by the business of yoga and how it’s consumers still largely only celebrate a certain image that looks nothing like me. However, when I am grounded in my spirit, I see being different as the biggest catalyst for my spiritual growth. It forces me to go beyond my ego’s constructs. Once my idea of what is normal starts to drop, I get closer to a feeling of oneness. I can now focus on what I have in common with humanity instead of what is different.
If you are struggling with being different, maybe you are bigger bodied, gay, Black or you just don’t fit what society sees as acceptable, you can use your different-ness to send your own inner development into the strastosphere. You can use your different-ness to wake up. If you are fluid in your gender or sexuality or you just don’t know where you fit at all, this is an amazing opportunity to understand all perspectives or to bust out of needing to be anything at all and experience more oneness and less seperation.
There is another way as well.To go deeper into that identity. I didn’t choose this route. There is a reason why I don’t talk too much about being a woman and a yogi or being black and a yogi. Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for all of that. I do understand that there are some unique experiences in the world of yoga for those who are female and/or Black. I personally was drawn to looking at who I am outside of all of that. This in itself is not very popular. I have had many people approach me wanting to talk about yoga from a Black perspective. I am well aware that that having a public persona heavily identified with being a Black, female practitioner would open some doors. However, this type of persona does not speak to me. I have also had people wanting to talk to me about my struggles of growing up and traumas. Again, though I know there is a place for that and the stories can be quite healing for others, it is not my place. Do what helps you heal and follow the path that you feel allows you to help others. Do what feels authentic to you. As you can see from this blog post, I do talk about the experience of being Black but I also have another view point. There is a place inside of all of us that is completely free and needs to be nothing. The journey of yoga is the path to that place.
Shanna Small has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga and studying the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois and is the Director of AYS Charlotte, a school for traditional Ashtanga in Charlotte NC. She has written for Yoga International and the Ashtanga Dispatch. Go here for more information on AYS Charlotte. For information on workshops, please e-mail email@example.com.