Breaking the Grip of Perfectionism Through Yoga

In yoga, as in life, it’s easy to get tangled up in the net of perfection. We see someone in the “fullest expression” of a yoga pose, and this becomes our end goal. Anything short of achieving this end goal is viewed as merely a way station to getting there.

But where, exactly, are we getting to? If we really stop and think, is it realistic to assume that once we’re finally able to get our leg over our head into bendy-pretzel pose, then, for real this time, we’ll be complete?

Of course not. Because life will continue on even after we’ve mastered bendy-pretzel pose. We’ll still have bills to pay and dentist appointments. Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield’s book title captures this well: “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry.”

But if we’re not reaching for perfection, what then? How do we approach yoga, and life, without the endless drive to attain some imagined end goal?

Attachment to Form

About a year ago, I was struggling with fear over starting a new business, because I was worried it might take away from my first business, which I still loved and had no intention of closing. My guides gave me a useful tool to help explore this fear and to transform it: the idea of attachment to form.

They explained that everything we perceive in the manifest world (i.e. the things we can perceive through our five senses) is a temporary form–our bodies, our jobs, that rock over there, my business that I was so afraid of ruining. Energy flows through these forms and is temporarily housed in these forms. As physical beings, it’s often easier for us to perceive the forms than it is for us to perceive the energy within them, just in the same way that it’s probably easier for you to feel your skin than your aura.

What this means is that we’re predisposed to thinking that reality consists of the form and the form alone. It’s harder for us to see that, even when the form passes away, the energy still exists, available to enliven another form. And thus, we get really, really attached to particular forms. For example, with my business, I was really attached to a specific form of experiencing the energy that was temporarily housed in my current business, and I was afraid that if that form changed, I’d lose my connection to this energy. In truth, the things that I love about my business can be experienced in a multitude of forms if I am open to that possibility.

When we become overly attached to specific forms, we often blind ourselves to the possibility of experiencing that energy in any other way, but by working on the fear and attachment, we liberate ourselves and see that we can experience that energy over here and over here…and over there, too.

What’s this got to do with yoga?

If we shift our thinking, we can see that physical yoga poses are forms. They are temporary forms in which energy can be experienced. Let’s think of down dog for a moment and pretend that the “ideal” version of the pose looks something like this (image from YogaJournal.com):

Think of this image like the container of the pose. You are not restricted, however, to only experiencing the energy flowing through this pose by achieving a posture that looks exactly like that. If you use the pose as a way to explore energy, perhaps your energy flows into your legs and you notice that you want to bend your knees. Or maybe you want to lift your heels off the mat. Or you want to feel the elongation of your spine but instead you want to drop down and do it on your mat, in child’s pose.

All of these are ways to experience the energy flowing through you in relationship to the container or temporary form of down dog. Your pose might not look anything like the one above and yet you’re experiencing that energy just beautifully, thank you very much.

When we release the belief that the ideal in our mind is the end goal and instead treat it merely as inspiration to explore, we don’t force our body into poses that might be doing more harm than good based on our unique anatomy and physiology. We don’t force ourselves into a variation of a pose simply because we were able to do it yesterday. Or because the person next to us in class is doing it. Or because the photo we saw in Yoga Journal looks so freakin’ cool.

We use the forms of yoga poses to have a conversation with our body, to learn what our energy feels like when it’s flowing this way or that, and it’s hard to hear the conversation when we’re busy shouting over it with our ideas of what the perfect pose looks like and the fear that we’re not doing it right.

Yoga can be a time to practice letting go of our habitual ways of relating to the world, a time to release the fear that if we’re not perfect, we’re unworthy. To experiment with variations of a pose and finding that even when it doesn’t match the ideal in our mind, hey, look at that–the world didn’t explode. We’re still fine.

Or it can be a time to reinforce the habits we exhibit in the world. We can use our practice to force and strive, to struggle and berate ourselves for not being perfect.

We have a choice. And no matter what we chose yesterday or five minutes ago, we have the power to choose differently in each present moment.

If you’re forcing your body into pretzel bend, even though you can feel a tweak in your lower back and you can’t remember the last time you breathed, choose now to pause. Breathe in softness and self-acceptance. Breathe out fear. Breathe in love.

Listen to your body. What’s your spine saying to you in this pose? Your knees? Your heart?

Remember what it feels like for movement to be fun and exploratory. We all did it naturally as kids and we can get it back–one breath, one pose at a time.

#perfectionIsBoring

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The Power of Quitting Cleanly

Back in the day when I was living with roommates, I was looking for a new apartment, and two of my friends and I were considering moving in together. In the early stages of the apartment-hunting process, my intuition was lighting up like a Christmas tree and I realized that, while I loved my friends, I didn’t want to live with Friend A.

Friend A and I sat down and had a heart-to-heart, and I shared with her my feelings and my need to find another living situation. I agreed that I would communicate my decision to Friend B and that I had no issue whatsoever with the two of them moving forward on the roommate plan without me. I had the conversation with Friend B, who shared that she, too, had realized she didn’t want to live with Friend A.

Here’s where things got weird. Friend B never had a conversation with Friend A. She was afraid of hurting her feelings, so she didn’t tell Friend B she didn’t want to live with her; instead, she stopped responding to Friend A’s phone calls about apartment showings and essentially stopped talking to her until Friend A took the hint and found another roommate.

Needless to say, that put a strain on their friendship, and a few months later they were no longer speaking. And I get it: I was really nervous about telling Friend A that I had changed my mind. Really nervous. And there was no guarantee that just because I talked to Friend A openly our friendship would survive.

But here’s the thing: What I have seen repeatedly in my life since this roommate experience is that there is immense power in what I like to call quitting cleanly.

Quitting Cleanly With Yourself

While it’s easy to see how this might be beneficial in our dealings with other people, I want to talk about another layer of quitting cleanly, that of quitting cleanly the intentions, goals, plans or promises that we make to ourselves.

How many times have you heard yourself or someone else running through the list of reasons and excuses why they’re not doing something? There’s obviously a lot of stuff wrapped up in not doing something, and this had me curious as to how much energy we can potentially fritter away when we neglect to quit cleanly–when we let those plans and promises bang around in our psyches, reminding us with every jostle and jolt that there’s something we’re not doing that we said we would.

There are likely many, many layers to this, but one of the connections that feels really interesting to me right now is related to a topic I’ve written about in the past: the concept of allowing things to work. I have seen in my own life and the lives of others this powerful urge to complicate things, to actively prevent things from working, while consciously expressing a desire for those very things to stop sucking and start working.

What is this about? Well, in my own life I have seen this pattern arise: It’s easier to pretend I don’t have the power to change things–to play the victim–than it is to own my power and initiate change. As I wrote about in that previous post, it can feel easier at times to “choose chronic pain over conscious change.” In a similar fashion, it can feel easier to keep putting off doing The Thing than to take a close look at why we’re so resistant to doing The Thing in the first place, and then use what we discover to make a conscious choice of how to respond to that resistance.

And other elements feed into the cycle of distracting ourselves from doing The Thing. We feel guilty that we’re not doing it, and that makes us even less inspired to look at why we’re resistant and less inspired to do The Thing. And we don’t like feeling guilty, so now we’re doing things to distract ourselves from feeling guilt.

At a certain point, The Thing becomes wrapped in so many layers of icky feelings and the stuff we do to try and distract ourselves from the icky feelings that it’s like a giant rubber band ball, and in my experience, that rubber band ball eats up a lot of energy, often under the radar of conscious awareness.

Let’s look at a common example, especially at this time of year: the goal of getting in shape and eating healthier. In my life, whether or not I exercise and what I choose to eat are only partially about the exercise and the food. Those choices are tied to so many other things, like body image, self-worth, ability to receive nourishment, perfectionism, honoring my intuition and truth, my relationship to spirit, and the list goes on.

Therefore, by treating the issue as merely a matter of scheduling time to work out or filling my pantry with healthier choices, I’m not really getting to the heart of the matter, and my efforts at change rely on finite reserves of willpower. When the willpower runs out, the healthy choices start to wither and fade.

Now, this isn’t to say that scheduling time to work out and tossing out the Twinkies aren’t important, but they’re not the whole story, and they can only take you so far. All of us have our own reasons for disconnecting from our bodies, for losing enjoyment of healthy movement, for feeling like food is our main source of comfort, etc. And those reasons get to the heart of the matter.

How does this relate to quitting cleanly? Oftentimes, we use resolutions as a way of armoring against the heart of the matter. They’re like saying to ourselves, “I don’t care why you’re hurting, why you’re craving sugar, why it doesn’t feel good to go to yoga–you’re going anyways!”

We’re rejecting the parts of ourselves that don’t “fit the bill” and match up with who we want to be, but those parts don’t simply go away. Instead, they get cut off from our life flow and banished to the basement, and they become like ghosts, trapped in repetitive loops of thoughts and behaviors. In short, those rejected aspects can be powerful drivers of habits, and generally not the habits we’re trying to cultivate.

How do we change this? By accepting those rejected parts, which I’ve written about extensively here. One of the ways we can foster that self-acceptance is by giving ourselves permission to quit cleanly. If you’re feeling massive resistance to going to yoga, rather than making up a million excuses why you “can’t” go, press the self-compassion button and invite the resistance within you to share its experience. Why does it feel resistant? Is it afraid? Angry? Depressed? Something else entirely? Really open up to hearing what that resistance has to say. Treat your resistance as an invitation to know yourself more fully and to love yourself more fully.

If, after doing this process, you feel inspired to go to yoga, off to yoga you go, but if you just aren’t feeling it, allow yourself to quit cleanly. And make it explicit, even if you’re saying these words only in your mind. “I am feeling really resistant to yoga right now, and that’s okay. I am making the decision to quit cleanly the goal of going to yoga every week this month. I can revisit that plan later if it feels inspiring, but right now I am quitting cleanly.”

Take a deep breath, and let it allllllll out. Allow yourself to feel some lightness, some openness, some release.

You are your inner sovereign. You don’t need to be held hostage by plans and goals or anything else that no longer light you up.

You have the right to make choices.

You have the responsibility to make choices.

With every choice, you take back a little more of your power. You unravel the rubber band ball, and rather than allowing that energy to remain trapped and tangled, you are now able to channel it into more enlivening things, which, funny enough, might end up being that yoga class you felt so resistant to but that you now have the energy and the desire to attend.

You can spend your precious life force walling off how you really feel and what you really want, or use self-acceptance and the power of quitting cleanly to dismantle that wall and reconnect with your power.

When we allow ourselves to feel how we feel, and we honor and invite those feelings to teach us, we’re saying to ourselves, “My feelings matter. I matter.”

And what better way to move into the new year?