Self-esteem is a topic you hear about most often in self-help books, human potential seminars, and in reference to teenage girls. In yoga class, it arises in the context of "self-reverence", "acceptance of what is", and "self-love". Yoga takes self-esteem to its boundary....Yoga itself is the process of recognizing that you are nothing more than a total, utter miracle, one of a kind, remarkable human being full of mystery, individual charm, and distinct attributes, no matter what kind of package you arrived in.
In 2001, back in New York City, I began hosting my teacher, Dr. Douglas Brooks, a Hindu Tantric scholar who comes from a long and obscure lineage of householders in South India. During his visits he would blow our minds, revealing the secrets of the Universe and connecting the yoga we were doing on the mats to a much large matrix of vibration and Divine play.
I wanted to entertain him during the off hours, and try to somehow match the magnitude of his teachings, so I had the brilliant idea to take him to the Hayden Planetarium. Off we went. Tom Hanks narrated the presentation, and as we panned away from Earth, he managed to drill home the fact that we really are just a speck in the grand scheme.
He wrapped up the show with displaying the birth of a star. The star, he said, has so much magnetism that it attracts all this power until it can't stand it anymore and it just bursts with a staggering blast, sending chunks of matter every which way. As these chunks meet up and take form, they become the "dust" which makes up the planets, the plants, and other lifeforms.
And so he concluded, "We too are made up of star dust."
Douglas, myself and the others yogis sat there as the sky faded to blue again - heads back, eyes bugged, and jaws on the floor as people began filing out of the hall. Mission accomplished I thought. We blew him away.
Just then a women in front of us turned to her boyfriend and said in a classic NY accent, "Well, that's just great! We're made up of DIRT!"
We looked at each other as though someone had taken a chainsaw to our hearts.
How typical of humans, to see only the ways in which having this body is a problem. How typical that we see ourselves as dirt, not made up of stardust.
Enter the dance of radical self-esteem through the vision of yoga.
There is a very precious teaching in yoga called The Three Malas. In this case mala being a "cloak" or a "veil" rather than mala like the bead. These veils are like coverings which conceal our true nature, like a film that settles on the mirror of our hearts, obscuring clarity. Like a floor which collects dust bunnies, or tarnish on silver that dulls its shine, the malas collect on our consciousness. Yet, the silver is still shiny underneath, the mirror at its essence is still reflective, and the floor can be "swiffered".
Yoga is the swiffer for your heart.
Dust bunnies are going to accumulate just by the very nature of you being alive. Every time we forget how miraculous we actually are, more dust bunnies arrive. Life is just that way, we forget. And shit happens. We get hurt.
We say that the Malas are God-given, for every time we forget our greatness, we get to delight in re-remembering again. You are supposed to forget. And each time you remember, you grow, you expand, you become even more of yourself.
The three Malas are:
This is the cloak of uber low self-esteem, insecurity, a deep feeling of separateness, and a complete pre-occupation with self. Too much subject. This is the person who looks in the mirror, sees the zit on her face and assumes that everyone must be disgusted by it too. This is the anorexic who looks in the mirror, and thinks she is fat, when she actually is emaciated.
When this mala has gone really bad we become so pre-occupied with ourselves that we rarely consider the consequences of our actions and how those might affect others. So we end up doing bad things like cheating, lying, betraying and withholding. By the time we come out of our bubble it is only because we have completely trashed our life and the lives of those closest to us and are forced to wake up.
The good news about this Mala is that when you wake up, you get to look at the root of the problem which is your insecurity and low self worth, and then....remember that you are a good person at heart. Being transparent about feeling unworthy is the ONLY way to accept our insecurities and then release them so we can grow.
This is the cloak of worrying what everyone else thinks of you. Too much object. It's how when we date someone new, for the first few months, we are really dating their "representative", and they are dating ours. To show our real self would be to reveal the one who burps, farts, has melt downs, gets stressed out, and has a dark side.
When this mala has gone bad, we see the guy with the suit and tie who everyone respects and praises in the neighborhood doing the pedophile thing undergound. It's the cheating spouse who can't seem to make it to therapy to work out their issues but really wants you to know what a good person they actually are.
The good news about this Mala is that when you "snap out of it", you realize once again that being vulnerable, and sharing the authentic version of yourself, may repel some, but it usually will attract many more. Most people want to hang out with someone who is genuine and comfortable in their own skin - foibles and all.
This is the cloak of helplessness - when we feel we have no agency or power to act. Typically I have seen this come about as a result of the other two malas operating. It's how we go into denial as the world is falling apart around us, and do not step up to deal with the consequences or circumstances in front of us. It is the head-in-the-sand approach to life.
The good news about this mala is that when we finally lift our weary heads out of the ditch, and allow ourselves (and the mess all around us) to be seen, accepted as normal, and forgiven, we can rebuild with baby steps.
Yoga is ultimately about expanding the person we already are. To do this, we have to look at the veils that hold us back from this expansion. So you'll often hear me asking my closest friends and students to please tell me if they see me going down the "mala rabbit hole". In turn, when I see a friend (one who is open to feedback) going down, I will often just make a joke of it and say, "Do we need to do a de-malafication here?" The Malas, though usually painful, are really gifts that allow us to re-frame our experience and beliefs about ourselves, so having a sense of humor, and "normalizing" these cloaks is the best strategy.
The result? Radical Self-Esteem.