Shortly after I turned 40, I traveled to India to study yoga.
I had been practicing hatha yoga for a few years, and I wished to deepen my practice in immersion. I was also looking for an excuse to visit Mother India once again and spend time in a country I have often felt I could happily call home.
As serious yoga students go, I looked the part: I had a beard, my hair was long, I wore a gold earring in one ear, and I had a mantra tattooed on my arm. When I arrived, I met other students with the yoga look and similar commitment and, in their company, I rapidly grew accustomed to the early morning routine at the shala, and fell back easily into the relaxed Indian life I loved so much.
But one morning, drinking chai in the company of these other lean, wiry students with slender muscles, I looked around and all I could see were colorful vegan hippies with the hair, adornments, and loose, flowing clothes to match. And suddenly a wave of discomfort came over me. Although many of these people were now my friends, I had not come here to be a perfect poster child for yoga.
Suddenly, I felt like an imposter, my physical appearance just a prop, utterly unrelated to, and unnecessary for, the essence of the practice. I made a spur-of-the-moment decision. I took out my earring and pocketed it. Then, I made my way to the nearest barber.
I sat in his chair and stared at my reflection in the mirror. Untied, the long locks I’d had for 15 years fell loosely around my shoulders. I took a deep breath, and told the barber, “Cut it. Cut it short please.”
The barber nodded, doing the Indian wobble with his head, and approached my head of hair with comb in hand. But I had sweated since my morning shower, and the dust of the day and a few knots appeared to discourage him.
“Sir,” he said, “there is no washbasin here. Please wash in your home and come.”
For a second I was taken aback, but the next moment felt rather sheepish.
“Of course,” I said, slightly ashamed, and rose hurriedly to leave.
As I walked home, I realized my haircut would have to wait until the next day, but my resolve to do away with the mane was undiminished.
And yet—the next morning, when I awoke, I realized I would not be going back to my hirsute barber, with his comb and the clickety-click of his scissors. It seemed I was not yet ready for this drastic measure.
Many years ago, I grew my hair because I thought it would look cool. And perhaps it did, to some at least. At the time, certain images appealed to me—the samurai with his topknot, long-haired Taoist sages, Tibetans with black braids swinging in their backs. But over time it had become a part of me. Almost like a tattoo. And I realized I had become attached to my hairstyle. Despite the self-awareness I had tried to cultivate, I couldn’t help but acknowledge I was still hung up on something as trivial as my appearance.
The symbolism of the shaved heads of monks was not lost on me. With no hair, everyone becomes the same. You can’t feel different because of the face you offer to the world. My neighbor of just a few days, a feisty little chatterbox of a Mexican girl, told me, in a beautiful Spanish accent, “When you cut your hair, you cut your past.” Perhaps Buddhist monks would agree.
The next day, I confided in my Indian friend R. about this shallowness of heart, this reluctance to do away with the exterior persona I had carried around for so long. He smiled and told me an anecdote.
R. had been practicing yoga daily with the same teacher for almost a year. In the beginning, every day he would randomly choose a place in the shala to put his yoga mat, but quite soon he began putting it in the same place. Over time, as he became one of the veteran students, the spot became unofficially his. But then one day, a newcomer innocently unrolled his mat in R.’s space. For a moment R. was highly perturbed.
“I thought, ‘how can I achieve my normal focus and concentration now?'” he explained. “But then I realized it was a great opportunity. I had become attached to my place.”
So he put his mat elsewhere and found his practice unaffected.
“Afterwards, I even went and thanked the guy,” he told me. “For the prod in the ribs.”
In the end, I did go to the barber, but only for a beard trim. As I sat in the chair for a second time, I couldn’t help thinking of Peter Matthiessen and his 1973 walking pilgrimage deep into the Nepalese Himalayas, recounted in The Snow Leopard. At the time, such an excursion was far more of an adventure than it would be nowadays, and he and his companion, field biologist George Schaller, walked for weeks in one of the most remote areas on earth. Matthiessen writes that some way into the trip, “at my behest, GS crops my hair to the skull. For years, I have worn a wristband of heavy braided cord, first because it was a gift, and latterly as an affectation; this is cut off too.”
I tied my hair anew and fingered my own cord bracelet, also a gift from a friend. For better or for worse, clearly, I was not yet free of affectations.