Today is Halloween, a day when many of us choose to don costumes, whether scary or silly or sexy, and adopt an altered identity. For one night, we are allowed to consciously mask ourselves and present a different, and oftentimes unexpected, face to the world. This physical masking is deliberate and visual, a practice that changes the external image of the body while also opening space for a shift in the perception, and display, of the internal self. When experienced playfully, masking can help to inspire the crossing of boundaries, the tipping of social hierarchies, and corporeal renewal. In his analysis of the carnivalesque, theorist Mikhail Bakhtin recognizes the significance of the mask, asserting that it is “connected with the joy of change and reincarnation, with gay relativity and with the merry negation of uniformity and similarity; it rejects conformity to oneself” (1984, p. 40). For Bakhtin, the use of masking during the collective expression of carnival helps to subvert dominant norms and collapse social divides. Within the carnivalesque, the mask is a tool for revitalization, liberation, and transgression.
Far from the raucous celebration of the carnivalesque, I encountered the idea of masking in my yoga class last week. The yoga studio that I attend regularly is a tiny space located on a lively neighborhood corner in Washington, DC, perched above a sandwich shop and next to a used bookstore. It’s a tranquil spot, and the students are encouraged to leave their busy, harried lives at the door. Last week, during a vigorous vinyasa class, our instructor advised us to strip away not only our daily stress, but the layers of our daily masks as well. Suggesting that yoga offers freedom from the burdens of social expectations and interactions, she described our individual yoga practices as the time when we can be, and express, our true selves. As we flowed from one posture to the next, she consistently urged us to “take off your masks and be comfortable with your body as it is in this moment.”
Unlike the liberating carnivalesque mask of Bakhtin, our daily masks often serve to erect protective, aspirational, and conforming identities that become manifest in, and through, the body. For many yoga practitioners, including my instructor, the physical practice of yoga provides an active release of those masks, a means to the excavation of the true self through moving meditation. The yoga mat, and by extension the yoga studio, becomes a place where masks are unnecessary, where each individual body can announce its unique physicality and engage in expressive movement driven by the moment.
During my own yoga practice last week, I sought to dissolve the masks that I had placed upon myself throughout the day, week, and even the past year. Some of these masks were constraining, while others were empowering. As I attempted to tap into my unmasked self, I realized that the task was impossible. For me and only me, as the experience differs for each person, the layers of my multiple masks peeled away to reveal a lingering yogic mask. To fit within the norms of current American yoga culture, I find myself adopting the mask of yogi whenever I practice at a studio as part of a yoga community. My yogic mask is gendered—my performance of femininity is heightened during my yoga practice as I attempt to move with the grace and poise expected of female bodies. My mask is also classed—contemporary American yoga is a practice primarily aimed at the middle and upper class body, and I notice myself wearing yoga clothes and buying equipment that superficially mark me as a member of the “right” yogic class. And finally, my mask is stubbornly attached to the display of physical ability—the practice of yoga heralds non-judgment and non-violence (to others and to the self), but my yogic self expects a consistent and advanced corporeal performance, even when I know that my body would benefit from a slower, more restorative practice. As much as I consciously try to remove this mask, it remains an embedded part of my yogic identity.
Rather than allow this yogic mask to be a constraining force that limits my practice, I need to transform it into a means of finding the emancipatory and celebratory potential of yoga. By reclaiming the Bakhtinian mask of the carnivalesque and choosing it as my personal yogic mask, I can harness the possibilities of renewal, transcendence, and bliss that a regular yoga practice offers. The tranquil collectivity of the yoga studio may not directly equate to the hedonistic excesses of Bakhtin’s notion of the carnival, but group practice can indeed produce similar feelings of solidarity and liberation. Rather than shedding its various masks, perhaps the yogic body can discover its unfettered self by embracing the mask of the carnivalesque, a means to experiencing the joy and delight of a simple and freeing physical practice.
Bakhtin, M. (1984). Rabelais and his world (H. Iswolsky, Trans.). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.