Nu Boyana Studios, Sofia, Bulgaria – Yoga, for me, has always been a private affair – a way to inspect my insides, find the flaws, the bumps and bruises and massage them away. So, when my close friend and teacher asked me to join her this summer to film a week’s worth of yoga classes in Bulgaria for, I said yes, but not without a considerable amount of apprehension. “I’m not a real yogi,” I said, motioning for air quotes with my fingers as I emphasized the word ‘real.’ “Those folks on my computer screen – they are the ‘REAL’ yogi people.”

But my friend assured me I’d be fine.  She told me she wanted her version of ‘real’ people in her classes and that I was one of them. We all strive for authenticity and I think I’m pretty honest about who I am, what I like, how I practice yoga. So, I went for it.

On day one, the hair and makeup part of the process seemed at odds with my own personal practice. It felt like I was putting on a mask, donning a costume. When I was a child, my mother never “did” my hair, because she simply didn’t know how. These days, I can’t even braid my own locks. As a teenager, I wasn’t allowed to wear a lot of makeup and now, with a seemingly non-existent budget for cosmetics, my adult features almost always go mostly naked, save for a little lip gloss and some eyeliner once in a while. So, I normally show up to my yoga classes barefaced, hair unkempt, in clothes I’ve had for years. Sometimes, I spend the minutes before a class sheepishly tugging at loose threads or scrunching my shirt at the seam to cover a small hole.

When I was shuffled into a chair in the makeup room, I felt out of place. I didn’t know what to say when he asked, so I let a man named Emil go wild with my locks. What resulted was a cupcake-looking mass of braided, twisted frizz plastered to the top of my head. I hated it, but felt too out of place to say anything. Without delay, I was summoned to the next chair, where a woman with a kind smile, speaking in harsh Bulgarian came at my face with a pallet of flesh-toned colors that, when applied, seemed to make my cheek bones glow. Secretly, I loved it, but the yogi in me was obviously a bit confused.

It all felt so unnatural. While the other spry, graceful women around me clucked like happy hens, painted their lips with pink and red and reached for the hairspray to affix a loose strand, I shrank under the bright lights surrounding the giant mirror before me.

When my mask and hair helmet were complete, it was off to studio two. Nerves made my muscles shake. Right out of the gate, and on film, we’d be doing arm balances and eventually find our way into grasshopper. “I’m going to fall – on camera!” I said. But my friend assured me that it simply didn’t matter. “Just practice,” she told me.

“Set! … Set!” called the cameramen and then “Action!” from the director, and we were off.  A few sun salutations, a couple downward dogs, some other poses… I simply flowed through them all as naturally as I would have in the studio or on my own mat at home. And then into crow pose, one of my favorites, mostly because I know I can hold it almost forever. And now grasshopper. “She wants us to do what?!” “Where does my foot go? Leg straight out?!” I thought, exasperated, shaking from sheer will to wind myself into the right position.

Sweat was beading off my forehead, a large splotch of makeup was smeared across my mat below me. My cupcake hair was unraveling. But I didn’t care. The fake part of the day had rubbed away and the real part of my yoga practice was still there. I never did get myself into grasshopper and on day two, I definitely toppled over in the middle of a forearm balance, but it didn’t really matter. I was there to practice – there to explore the inside me and find out what the outside me was capable of, because that’s how I do yoga.

And each day, for the rest of the week I thought “Oh right, there’s a camera pointed at me,” but only after we’d already come out of savasna and closed our practice with a heartfelt ‘namaste.”

By Emily Schwing: Yogi, Journalist, Adventurer
IG: @emilyeschwing

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