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An Acute Case of Imposter Syndrome

Updated: Mar 9, 2022

When you are content to simply be yourself and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you – Lao Tzu

Take a pause to take that statement in, enough time to feel it in your body or for the mind to chew it over.

I have been studying Yoga for relieving burnout, stress, fatigue and trauma and I came across this quote in the course manual. My body responded by getting fidgety and too warm. Those are familiar sensations or me when I hear or read something that I need to know! Truth can impact us in many ways and the body does not lie when a truth comes to wake us up.

I had been feeling out of sorts for a while. I felt edgy, itchy, tearful and mentally scattered with a dull ache in my gut. Only in my own practice and while teaching did I feel close to present and at ease, although there was still something niggling me. I read the Lao Tzu quote a couple of weeks ago and my unsurprising truth made itself known as the heat flushed across my back. Yep, I put my hands up Master Tzu, you caught me in an episode of chronic self-doubt. My self-doubt manifested as Imposter Syndrome tinged with an underlying bout of competitionitus.

I am feeling sheepish as I write because I thought I had released this sucker of a Samskara (patterns which shape our lives) ages ago. Oh, how relieved I used to feel believing that I was free of the compulsion to compete with my fellow humans, women in particular. This is because after a rather windy path I am doing the work which is right for me. You know when you are doing something you absolutely love which could be anything from Yoga to pottery to deep sea diving and it feels so GOOD, you really feel that you belong. Do you have something like that? I hope so.

The ego is a tricky thing though. Infact, ego is one of the five Kleshas (obstacles we need to work with on the Yoga path). The ego basically wants to keep a human safe by scanning for real or perceived dangers, then interpreting how one must respond to protect themselves from said threats. Unfortunately, we humans can end up with some unhelpful protection methods, such as fiercely competing with other people while worrying that we are not good enough, falsely making us imposters in the places where we ought to feel like we belong.

So what brought about my self-diagnosed case of Imposter Syndrome and Competitionitus? Well, being a woman yoga practitioner in the 21st century provides a minefield of competition related triggers. Can you think of any? The world is so different from the world of the first yoga people thousands of years ago. We have this thing called psychosocial stress which is all of the lifestyle stressors of the modern world, from working long hours and financial stress to being over stimulated by screens, conflicts and disagreements stoked by mainstream media, the pressure to tend to a perfect body, plus an out of wack relationship to the seasons and elements. Trying to keep all of this in check sent me toward insidious dis-ease because I starting to believe that I was not doing a good enough job of being a modern yoga teacher. My main Competitionitus trigger has been social media and the headspace that these platforms start to take up; thinking what to post to reinforce my brand, how to look super yogafied, how to stay on top of the algorithm. Yep, competing with AI is a whole new level of stress that humans do not need and can be damaged by. Dr. Loren Cardain’s statement rings true:

“We are stone agers living in the space age.”

I was seeing too many photos of women yoga teachers looking svelte and perfect, in very challenging flashy yoga poses. After around ten years of practice I cannot do any hand balances without a serious amount of wobbling and feeling slightly nauseous from being upside down. That’s if I even manage to get upside down in the first place! Deep down I know, believe and feel that doing flashy balances is not the point of a yoga practice, but when you see tons of images of flashy balances, it is easy to forget and feel as if one should not be teaching yoga. Seeing these images, my ego was getting jealous and beating up on me. I wanted some of what the hand balance women were getting. But what are they getting? They are having an experience during their Yoga practice which is as valid as being in a Child’s Pose or Mountain Pose for the majority of one’s time on their mat. It is ALL welcome and all needed and all very personal as to how an individual wants to play in their yoga practice. It is only the obstacle of the ego that interprets that something very special or aspirational is happening in the more demanding yoga shapes. It is a relief to remember that. Bless that ego wanting a piece of the aspirational yoga pie!

Patriarchy set women against women long ago, even before women were encouraged to grass up their neighbours for supposed Witchcraft in the middle ages. I hate feeling like I need to compete with women, particularly in what should be the nurturing and neutral yoga space.

The path to recovery from the psychosocial stress of patriarchy and modern life needs to be met with patience and compassion, healing and integrity. We all have societal conditioning that we could do with untangling from, particularly the beliefs that trigger worries about not being good enough or imposters in the places where we want to show up with freedom and ease instead of anxiety. The System in which modern humans generally live breeds competition into us. From the moment we step into the school system we are met with: room for improvement/ must do better/ try harder written in red pen on our writings and drawings. I never want to bring an invisible red pen into the Yoga spaces I hold because Yoga has need for stressor of competition. The red pen in school becomes the driver for the need to compete in our work, relationships and teaching gigs. It gets exhausting.

Yoga (which means Union) does not only happen on the mat. Union arises when we have the willingness to notice our own patterns which keep us locked in the mental patterns that cause us to suffer. Union arises when we notice the impact that these patterns have upon our bodies and our whole experience of being alive. We can take one small action at a time to help us to recognise and get free from the clutches of the kind of societal conditioning which is not good for us. Of course, some social conditioning is needed, such as knowing where to go to the bathroom! However, being conditioned to constantly strive and compete is not so helpful. The ego is programmed to keep us circling around in this conditioning, potentially repeating thoughts and behaviours that may harm us-in my case, the relapse of: I am not good enough and I need to fight to survive.

How can we recognise and move away from imposter syndrome in the yoga world?

Experiment with how it feel to purposely not do a ‘peak pose’ in your practice. Notice what this brings up for you in the mind and body…

Incorporate Ahimsa (non-violence) into your daily life, not just while you are on the yoga mat. A non-violent /non-competitive approach to life is a revolutionary act.

Consider when was the first time you had to compete but did not want to. Can you recall what it felt like in your body?

Enjoy your practice and respect yourself. None of us are imposters in our own Yoga practice. X

Sarah Wheeler yoga teacher

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