Trick or Treat: What Halloween Costumes Teach Us About the Self

Note: I talk about research studies a fair amount in this post, something I haven’t done before. I likely will be moving in more of that direction going forward; I link either to primary sources or well-written summaries that link to primary sources. These aren’t necessarily the cutting-edge studies, but examples to my point. Nerdy yogis, enjoy!

Halloween has never been my favorite holiday. I do love candy, but the idea of dressing up has never really appealed to me. That might be in part because I wear costumes so often daily. I don’t know if you’re like me, gentle reader, but there’s a work Dylan, yoga Dylan, friend Dylan, family Dylan, etc. I try to be as authentic as I can, but there are still different sides that come out. When I’m by myself, I’m chill; quiet, gentle, calm, content. My creativity comes out in bursts, but I’m pretty content just doing my thing. When I’m around other people, I often feel a need to perform. It can be hard to not feel like I have to be “on” when I’m around my friends, around my partner, around coworkers, around biological family, when I’m teaching, etc. Yet all of these parts are still me.

In “Radical Dharma”, Rev. angel Kyodo-Williams talks about her multiple identities and moving in between worlds when growing up. In between those spaces was a part of her that IS consistently still there. I found this very relatable. Being brown and queer in the US makes me more aware of it, but I think it’s a pretty universal experience to feel like one is different things to different people. It’s a necessary part of social functioning, but how do we move between environments without becoming a chameleon? How do you remember the person who’s looking back in the mirror at you when you see yourself underneath a costume? Because let me tell you from experience, looking in the mirror and not recognizing who’s looking back at you is scarier than any haunted house I’ve been to. 

I think that yoga practice (at least, modern postural yoga) can teach us a lot about this. And I think that Halloween costumes are a great metaphor for all the ways many of us overidentify with the world around us and confuse who we are for things outside of ourselves. We move our bodies into different shapes, we call those shape names, and then stuff shows up. There are physical benefits and risks, and many of the postures have a mythology about them; whether you participate in that is up to you. But something we know from motor learning is that moving your body into the same ways consistently over time can show us a lot, and we begin to make new neural connections. Whether movements actually cause different emotions and psychological states is an area of debate; some studies consistently find psychological effects of certain movements, but others point out that any somatic experience is always within the context of the culture of the people in it. Given that the population I teach is generally full of other Westerners, I’m not sure it always matters. Nevertheless, it does raise a point that these things aren’t to be generalized, and as Amy Matthews points out, telling someone what to feel can be harmful. That is to say, there’s a reason you will never hear me say something like “half pigeon makes you feel a lot of emotions” during class but you might hear me say something like “some students feel X during Y posture, and if you do, this may be why.” I’m one of those strange people who loves revolving half moon, though I hear others tell me they find it frustrating. 

What this means apart from talking about neural connections is that we can learn a lot about our bodies doing the postures as well as our reactions to our experiences, but the postures aren’t the point. I don’t care if you can fly for 5 minutes stacked on your hands and caw til the cows come home, you are a human, you are you, you aren’t a crow. The real question is if you’re paying attention to what’s going on. More so than being focused on the shape your body moves into, can you take a step back from your senses, from your habits, from all the repetitive loops in your mind and be a witness to what is going on? What we see between thoughts, the quiet space, that’s kind of like seeing yourself under the Halloween costume, and that’s where we show up.

Spooky, isn’t it?