Light Layers

Light Layers

A few years ago, I KonMari’d my wardrobe and eliminated the need for separate “seasonal” storage. My primary motivation was saving space (I was in my smallest-to-date NYC apartment, where the only space for a dresser was inside my closet, so every square inch counted!), but I also wanted to be more consistently present with all of my belongings. Having things out of sight and out of mind made me feel like I was always on the verge of not having enough; my magpie tendency to collect shiny objects was taking over, and like those cunning birds I realized I had so many duplicates of the things I liked and used most—orange dresses, horizontal-striped baggy tees. Pulling everything out in the open helped me create a better balance between shiny-object occasion garments and the things I needed to wear the rest of the time. Giving more space to the latter, I was able to see, if not wear, the bulk of my clothes year-round, which created a sense of preparedness and stability around the act of getting dressed every day, which naturally made me desire that feeling in other corners of my life. 

Practically speaking, this mindset encouraged me to create what some call a “capsule wardrobe,” something I grew to appreciate even more as I worked on a book that exposed the (literal) mountains of waste and pollution produced by the fashion industry. But I prefer to think of my current wardrobe as simply “layers,” which I add to or take away from depending on the season. For instance, I have a basic tank top in several colors from a great brand (MATE the Label; I use the “sleep tank” for daytime, too, because I prefer the slightly heavier drape of the Tencel). They are the clothing version of my multi-hyphenate life, functioning for teaching and practicing yoga, for daily summertime wear, and as underlayers for my sometimes-itchy wool sweaters in fall and winter (and solo for when my fifth-floor apartment gets to 80+ degrees in the winter thanks to the radiators over which I have no control…remind me why I live here??). While I occasionally get the urge to wear something else, the calm and ease I feel when I fold up those few staples on laundry day and tuck them neatly into my drawer, which isn’t exploding with forgotten garments, always overrides that desire. And knowing that the combinations I create from these layers will always “go” together is an even bigger win. (I recently realized how accustomed I’d grown to a neutral wardrobe after discovering a pair of orange leggings I’d bought on one of those whims; it was only after I’d walked a few blocks from my apartment that I noticed I’d paired them with my new orange jacket . . . Oops. 

As the weather has demanded a switching up of my layers the last few weeks, they emerged as an obvious theme for November. After working on the “core” in September, and the “edges” in October, “layers” feels like the perfect way to encapsulate those concepts—while it’s sometimes easier to perceive ourselves at either of those extreme modes of being, moving in or out, dense or expansive, in reality our existence and attention constantly moves between and consists of many layers. Some folks view these layers as more distinctive and separate from the “core” of our spirit or soul, while others view the layers as complete entities just divided up—as my therapist once put it, seeing the self as an artichoke or an onion. In either case, like a layered wardrobe, being aware of our sheaths can make handling change a little easier. When winter comes, I don’t need to haul bins of sweaters from the back of my closet, or find a place to store them when summer comes; likewise, when I notice it’s time for a change in my work habits or creative practices, I don’t have to undergo an existential makeover to try on something new—the change is just another layer of whom I’ve been, and whom I’ll continue to be in this new season. 

In Ayurveda, layers are essentially what establishes a baseline of health. Our dinacarya, or daily routine, has consistency that we can add to or subtract from as needed, based on an individual condition and/or the seasons. Similarly, our diet consists of mainstays (things like ghee, rice, and dal, called pathya foods) that keep digestion smooth and regular, into which we incorporate seasonal produce and spices. I was reminded of the benefits of these layers when I did my personal seasonal reset a few weeks ago. Like my tank tops, the monodiet of simple foods wasn’t super exciting, but it was exciting to feel more consistent hunger, feel satisfied and energized by my meals rather than indigestion, and feel untethered from the desire-loop of caffeine and snacks (hello, chocolate). While it’s true that heavier foods (like animal products, wheat, etc.) are more “nourishing” in an absolute sense, the lighter layers of rice and dal produced more consistent nutrition and energy in my system—a la wearing several thin garments for warmth instead of being immobilized and sweaty under a big bulky sweater and puffer jacket. 

More important than the layers themselves, though, is the relationship we have with a layered experience of life. The yogic and Ayurvedic teachings are emphatic about impermanence—that a healthy system is one that changes over time. I can’t wear only tank tops, or eat only rice and dal, for my whole life, but having them there makes me more open to and excited for the ways that they’ll be transformed as the seasons turn. One of my teachers has been framing this process as seasons of cleansing and nourishment, which we can see happening at the level of the sun cycle (daily), moon cycle (monthly), and earth cycle (seasonally). In this sense, the rhythmic actions of peeling back and adding on is what maintains and stabilizes the container of our system—which is really what a layered life has helped me appreciate. That my-self is not what’s on or even inside of me, but that “I” am merely a vessel in which transformation can take place, a temporary home for energy and matter that, like the timeless and versatile pieces of our wardrobe, never go out of style, serving us from one season to the next—and even from one life to the next.  

As I’ll be exploring in my classes and on Instagram this month, the sages have given us many models with which to understand and experience ourselves as layered beings. From the chakras to the koshas, we’ll dive into these models in an embodied way and in a way that honors the parts of ourselves that are separate from our physical bodies. 

In vata season especially (fall and winter in the northern hemisphere), those more ethereal layers are easier to engage with. And while we want to provide some balance to those gunas and elements with heavy, grounding substances and practices, I’ve found especially this year that it’s necessary to lean into the dominant qualities in any system rather than squash them entirely with “balance.” Vata wouldn’t be vata if you pumped it full of kapha. In other words, we don’t have to be afraid of, and can even benefit from, the inherent lightness of vata season. After all, we don’t get access to it at other times of the year—like warm sweaters and squashes—and it’s important to let this layer of spirit have its time to shine. We give the body the density it needs but not too much (vata doesn’t like extremes anyway). And if we lean into the natural cravings for rest, reflection, and directing our attention inward, our physical bodies won’t need as much fuel anyway—we’re essentially on “sleep mode,” and if Hamlet was right, when we allow ourselves “to sleep, perchance to dream . . . what dreams may come.” Our dreams might even have a better chance of taking shape after a few months of incubation in the dark depths of winter, once the season of earth and birth returns.

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