When I lived in Senegal and worked in the Peace Corps, I was always struck by the emphasis people there put on dress. I saw some of the most fantastic displays of style, jewelry, headwear, shoes and scarves (on women and men) that I have ever seen. And color! These people had an amazing sense of color. Vibrant, bold, wild, creative. Designs that would stun you, knock you over and make you smile. Every day in a place like Dakar was like a style show. But, even poor—very poor people—if and when they could, would dress with care and style, especially at a ceremony, marriage or funeral. But for me, being a young guy and a so-called ‘free spirit American, I didn’t think it really mattered what I wore. I wore what I felt like, what other Peace Corps volunteers wore: tie dye or plain white t-shirts, jeans, 50 cent sandals, and baggy pajama like pants. We dressed for comfort and political solidarity, trying to say, hey poor Africans we’re with you. Women dressed a bit better than we guys. But nothing like the Senegalese women.
One day this Senegalese friend of mine who was my French teacher asked me a surprising question. “Why do you Americans dress the way you do? I don’t understand it. You have the money to wear nicer clothes that you have made for you, but you wear the same raggedy things all the time. Why?” I laughed nervously, and try to tell him in my bad French and Wolof that in America young people dress to show how they feel about themselves and not to conform to authority or convention. But he didn’t buy it. “But you live here now. And you’re an authority here. Everybody sees you as a person with money and power. You should dress like that.”
“I don’t care what other people think. I dress for myself.”
“No,” he said. And I’ll never forget the reason he gave. “No, you have to understand we don’t dress for just ourselves, we dress for the people who will see us. We dress to please them.”
I just stood there with a dumb look on my face. It wasn’t the first time, the Senegalese turned my ideas about life completely upside down.
For the Senegalese dressing was not only an act of self-expression, it was also an act of respect and awareness that who we are and what we project affects other people. It also was an act of respect for the family and village people came from.
I tried to dress a bit better but never quite could wear purple and green design ensembles. But when I did dress with more care and color. I always got a lot of compliments as well as jokes about what I used to wear.
I still don’t dress that well. But last week I, too, changed my appearance to write about the effect on others I met and the effect on myself. I wore a very conservative black suit, tie and black shoes. I rode my bike to a café where I go often and people did a doubletake. Women especially seemed to notice me, much more than normal. One woman leaned over and kissed me as a greeting like we were in Europe or something. I’m older so I guess it seemed normal. But the most interesting thing was how I felt. Yes, uncomfortable and hot. But I did like the whole process of dressing. It changed my walk. It changed how I sat. I think I even worked differently at the café.
In Hatha Yoga, there is a lot of emphasis as there is in all Hindu traditions in karma or your actions and their affects on both your future and on others. “What goes around comes around,” as we say here in the west. “You reap what you sew,” as the Bible says. Being conscious of how you project your ideas, feelings, and thoughts are a big deal in India. Karma matters. In the spiritual practice of yoga, when you live in ignorance of how your actions are affecting your future and other people’s futures, you will eventually feel their effect. There is a symbol of this in Hindu mythology: it’s a snake eating its tail. And that’s precisely what you have to do—eat all of your projections you throw out there in the world, swallow every small-minded act, every hateful statement, every greedy deed, every ugly display, every destructive thought.
In a time where it’s going to get very ugly with the election and the economic disaster ahead of us, it might be worth considering what our projections on the world are. We live in a world where actions, thoughts, deeds, and words matter.