When I boarded the plane to take my yoga teacher training in India nine years ago, I was pressing pause on a life that had stopped feeling right to me. I’d been working in my fancy corporate job on Bay Street (Canada’s Wall Street) for nearly a decade. I had social status. I was earning a really good living. Essentially, I was living the business-world dream. To outsiders, I looked incredibly put together—almost perfect. On (corporate) paper, my life was perfect.
In reality, I felt disconnected. My day-to-day life—the work I was doing, my romantic relationship, some of my friendships, my pastimes, how I dressed, how I spoke, what I talked about, how I behaved—no longer felt like it belonged to me. So much felt off.
Looking back, I can see that I was immersed in what I call performing—that is, changing my behavior because I lived in fear of the negative consequences of being my authentic self. As a Brown woman born in Canada to Punjabi immigrant parents, I’d received confusing messages my whole life about how I needed to show up in order to fit in, succeed, and get ahead—whether it was from my family, my Canadian peers, or from society on a whole. As a result, I had started living as someone I simply wasn’t. Living like this had helped me become outwardly successful, but inside I was exhausted and spiritually vacant.
In my early 30s, I started waking up to the fact that I needed to change my life, but I didn’t know where to begin, or what my life could look like. I began an intense period of soul-searching. Really, I was in search of my authentic self. One of the first major steps I took was to temporarily remove myself from the corporate world by taking a 3-month sabbatical. With the goal of deepening my yoga and mindfulness practice (and, frankly, spending a truckload of time alone!), I headed to my motherland, India, to complete a 2-month yoga teacher training program.
Arriving at the yoga ashram in Kerala, India by myself, the contrast to my life back home was stark—I was immediately stripped of everything that had defined my identity. We were all given the same uniform to wear every day, and what we shared about ourselves after that was up to us. There were no labels or titles. Unlike in the world I came from, nobody asked me about where I had gone to school or what I did for a living, they just wanted to know which country I was from. With my outward markers of status packed away (no fancy clothes, no bling!), I was just one of hundreds in the room, wearing the same yellow tee-shirt and white pants as everyone else.
For the first time in my life, nobody knew who I was, and nobody had any expectations about how I was going to behave—I was free to be anybody. Faced with this situation I asked myself: who am I going to be? I was so used to carefully and meticulously curating my image that doing so had become my default setting. The question of who to be was complicated for me, and felt really scary, because, in truth, I simply didn’t know who I was.
At the ashram, I spent nearly 8 hours a day meditating alongside my fellow yogis, engaged in a range of mindfulness experiences. Forced into an environment of deep self-reflection and vulnerability, I decided to go with it—to be the version of me that was the most raw, open-hearted, loving, kind, and present.
When people asked me about myself, I deliberately talked about my values instead of my education or work background. When people asked me how I was feeling, I openly shared that I was feeling really vulnerable in this experience, rather than automatically pumping out an, “I’m doing amazing!” paired with a performing smile. Most importantly, I emoted freely. This showed up as a combination of sobbing like a baby because of joy, sadness, or fear, laughing my head off, ranting to express my rage, and expressing anything else that I felt.
As someone who had worked very hard to overcome my experiences with childhood bullying and social alienation, I was struck when at the ashram I started making friends quickly—and the people I attracted were genuinely good-hearted and kind people who wanted to connect with the real me. The fact that good people wanted to befriend me in my most raw and vulnerable state validated that I was worthy of love and attention even without the markers of success that I’d relied on for my self-worth.
The warmth, love, and self-acceptance I felt not only helped to draw out core attributes of my authentic self, but also affirmed things about me that I now hold to be my self-truths—that I’m a wonderful person at my core, that I’m caring and compassionate, that I’m both fun and funny, and that I can develop loving relationships with a wide range of people. In short, my ashram experience helped to kick-start my journey towards self-love and embracing my authentic self.
Arriving back home after this experience, everything around me was the same. I sat at the same desk at the same job, I spent time with the same friends, and the same clothes hung in my closet. But I was different. I now knew that it was going to be ok to change my life—and that I no longer needed the things I’d held onto so tightly out of fear. I could let go.
Of course, things didn’t change overnight. But this glimpse of my true, authentic self, and how it felt to live it out, set the wheels in motion for a sea change in my life. I learned from this experience that sometimes you need to take a big, bold step or take yourself out of your current situation in order to identify the change you need.
I also learned that when you awaken to your authentic self, you won’t want to go back.
What big, bold step can you take to help you explore the change you need in your life?
If you went somewhere where no one knew you, and you could reveal your authentic self freely, who would you be? What would you share? How would you behave?