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I’ve worn my hair many different colors in the past 30 years: turquoise, jet black, lemon yellow. I toured as a backup dancer with Cyndi Lauper, and we wore our hair tomato red and hot pink to go with our combat boots and petticoats. Even after I became a yoga teacher, I kept a bit of blue in my ponytail. In New York’s East Village, where I’ve lived most of my life, one’s entire body is a potential canvas for artistic expression. But at some point over the years, coloring my hair became not about looking different, but about looking the same: the same as I used to, the same as everyone.
The journey to self-acceptance begins at the roots. All of my friends my age colored their hair except one, who defiantly wore her gray hair messy and wild. Those coarse strands looked so witchy to me! One day, while in Hong Kong on a teaching trip, I looked in the magnifying mirror of my hotel bathroom and saw a line of gray in my hair, despite a recent salon visit. In a semipanic, I wondered if I could get a quickie dye job. Frustrated that my efforts to keep my appearance up weren’t working, I began feeling judgmental toward myself and everyone else, my thoughts a tornado of criticism and negative vibes.
But instead of asking when the hotel beauty salon opened, I started asking myself deeper questions. I’ve learned through yoga to consciously investigate my experiences with curiosity and compassion, as a path toward transforming habits into clear choices. I wondered, Why should I feel bad about myself for being myself? Is my happiness so delicate that it depends on the color of my hair? Do I really care what other people think about how I look? I tried to contemplate these questions without engaging in any story line, so that I could get to the roots of my self-destructive mind-set.
I realized that I’d been attached to looking younger than I am, a state that is not only impossible to achieve, but also presents a moving target. Like other forms of conditional happiness (chocolate, shopping, sex), the desire to maintain a certain look puts us spinning on a hamster wheel of confused, desperate, and repetitive activity. Suddenly the idea of coloring my hair felt claustrophobic, like the way I think of duhkha (the Sanskrit word for “suffering”): as a sense of isolation and tightness. When I saw that I was creating my own suffering with my attachment to a look, I decided to let my hair go gray. I like the time and money I save not going to the salon every three weeks. I like the energy I save not thinking about my hair. I think about yogic notions of satya (truthfulness) and santosha (contentment) and realize that I still have some letting go to do: of my resentment that society is ageist, that older men are powerful while older women are invisible.
Going gray was letting go of a way of thinking that had become a burden. Yoga is about letting go of whatever prevents us from being our most authentic self. Just like the experience of yoga, feeling good about going gray has been a loosening of the obstacles to healthy, bowing energy. And besides, how long could I pretend to be someone different from who I am, while teaching others to feel comfortable with themselves?
About our author
Cyndi Lee is the founder of Om Yoga.