of denim and asceticism


My father came to stay with me in DC a couple years back, long after I left neuroscience and just after I had left the yoga studios. He looked around at my life. It appeared to be full-time play-time. He sat me down and told me seriously: this cannot last.

I had laughed, not because I thought he was wrong, but because he was teaching me the nature of impermanence, which made me happy. We are all in a state of becoming. Like spring flowers, the beauty of the present moment is in the knowing it will not last.

Full-time play-time pulled me very quickly and unexpectedly into asceticism. Immersed in my studies of ancient yogic philosophy and the roots of Buddhism, I pulled away from modern technology and social media, running my life and my business with just a few minutes of daily text/email access. I suddenly had all the time in the world, and got busy with it. I taught myself to play the guitar, took up drawing, went for 2-3 hour hikes every day, cooked all my meals, and, of course, spent 4-5 hours a day on my yoga mat, which is where I integrated all that I was living and learning.

It was easy for me to go days without speaking with anyone, and even easier to feel utterly blissful. I lived the inner life, learning to witness thoughts as they emerged, identifying and reshaping mental habits, until I was able to choose when to think and when to listen to inner silence. I learned to live intensely in the moment, to see beauty as children see beauty, to sleep when I was sleepy and eat when I was hungry. My first thoughts of the day were: I am alive, let’s go! And I went to bed each night in contentment, not thinking of whether or not another day would come again, knowing that I would live fully if and when I woke. I had no alarms, no deadlines, no supervisor, no coworkers, no real obligations other than teaching.

Society and politics and fashion moved on without me, of course.

When I was young, we would take summers in Calcutta, immersing ourselves in the fervor of family, food, and fans to keep away the tangible burden of the heat. Returning to school for Labor Day was always jarring. I missed the inception of Survivor, and the release of Legally Blonde, and countless summertime songs. I’d walk the school hallways like a stranger every September, a swirling speck in the cultural current of Long Island, adrift in what was once home. It happened so much that the not-belonging became my belonging.

I missed a lot of movies and memes over the course of two years in DC without tech, plus five years (and counting) without wifi. I am always surprised by weather storms. News comes to me as I roam the streets alone, immersed in the moment, a speck in the cultural current of our Capitol. In those years, it never occurred to me to bring my phone with me when I left the house. When my wanderings got me lost, I simply kept on wandering, always finding some well worn way back home. And though I was disconnected, I was living just down the street from the White House, and saw real-time trending.

A couple years ago, I noticed the girls starting to carry large cardboard packages of La Croix. I never asked anyone what it was but from the shape of the packaging presumed soda-like contents. I was slightly alarmed by the sudden appearance of food-delivery robots, not because robots were roaming the streets but because humans could no longer be bothered with tipping the delivery guy. I saw that anyone standing to wait for anything at all did it with an s-shaped curve in their spines, lordosis in the lumbar and chin to chest, to facilitate smart-phone scrolling.

I noticed protestors in front of embassies, and the sudden increase in helicopter traffic. But these were the things I saw on my way to the woods, and on the way back. In between, I wandered the trails, became familiar with the habits of deer, the moods of the creek. I saw a turtle in the creek once, and a tiny hummingbird in the spring flowers. I never missed a sunset.

The longer I spent in without technology, the more connected I felt to my tangible surroundings, the less I worried about circumstances far away from me. My attention span lengthened, and I saw the way other people were distracted, always, distracted, barely getting through their tangible lives, pulled by the important people who were saying and doing important things elsewhere. It was like living a single life among a world of double lives.

I am slowly, purposefully, coming back into that double life again. It feels like an awakening.

I reinstated facebook, reconnected with friends, and googled how to post an Instagram “story.” My parents text me less now that the internet provides them evidence that I am alive and well enough to post on social media; they suggest that I only share photos of myself wearing full length pants and long sleeve shirts, though I’ve always lived and loved short shorts and tiny tanks. And I get why my posts matter—I want to share yoga in a world of people who have constant access to pornography and need nothing more than reconnecting to a wholly healthy body and mind. So I desperately try to be as un-sexy as possible while staying true to myself, which is only one of the unexpected existential struggles that have come along with my reentry into normal, modern life.

Actually, clothing and appearances have been the number one existential struggle.

I grew up in New York, following fashion bloggers, and am very much my mother’s daughter, which means shopping and jewelry. But at the inception of my solitary sabbatical, I stopped caring about my appearances. I had read an article comparing the beauty habits of men versus women, and came away with the astounding realization that men have far more time and money in their lives because they do not care to get weekly manicures, monthly waxes, etc. It occurred to me too, that less time and energy on appearances would lend more time and money for delving into my inner self. So I learned how to love the look of my unpolished, self-trimmed nails. I stopped buying and wearing makeup, sold a lot of my clothing, and kept just what was black, white, gray, and good for yoga.

The first visible sign of my reentry into normalcy was that I pulled on a pair of jeans. It felt good. I remembered when I had bought them, a decade earlier, when I was an undergrad at Duke and cared about designers and cuts and washes. Back then, I had collected an impressive array of various designer jeans, size 26, each of which still fit. I started wearing them again, feeling good about the effort it took to button pants rather than shimmy into leggings.

Ignorance is bliss.

When I went back to campus for the first time since graduation a couple months ago, I was perplexed by the current undergraduate girls. Why were they wearing jeans all the way up to their navels? And when I came back to DC, and started going out with friends, I noticed: their jeans were all the way up to their navels too. I wanted to ask: isn’t that terribly uncomfortable? Do I need to do that too? Is it obvious that I haven’t bought denim in a decade? And though I pride myself on independence, I recruited a girlfriend for my first post-sabbatical shopping trip. We went to March for our Lives and then we went to shop for my (social) life. For the first time in many years, I tried on clothes in a dressing room. And for the first time ever, I enjoyed it.

Denim has changed, by the way. It’s this thin stretchy thing now, so the high waists don’t matter too much because even the button and zipper will stretch out with your belly… so much so that I’m a size 25 now. It feels like getting extra credit for wearing leggings. I even have a pair with store-made rips in the knees, which feels super cool, because it gives the impression that I could be the kind of person who asks Alexa to play Taylor Swift Reputation, instead of the kind of person who is upside down for an hour a day and never checks her phone and cares more about neuroscience and ancient philosophy than anything else in the material world.

And again, I feel belonging in not-belonging, laughter with the certainty that nothing lasts.

But I’m a little better dressed these days.