Yoga and the Release of Perfection

Heather Backbend Asana

I am a reformed perfectionist.  Yoga helped me get there.

I used to worry incessantly about the details.  I would get wrapped up in ensuring the final product or event or…anything, was done to my exacting standards.  At the time, I didn’t understand the impact my perfectionist tendencies were having both on myself and on others in my life.

In regards to myself, insomnia was a constant companion.  In fact, in my quest for perfection in college, I exhausted myself to the point where, one frosty winter morning following my 4 AM – 6 AM on-air shift at our college radio station, I returned to my dorm room and collapsed halfway into my space and halfway into the hallway.  Needless to say, some of the other residents on my floor were wondering what was up with the girl laying on the floor snoring!  I would rehearse dance pieces over and over again, never feeling as though I really put forward a performance that met my personal expectation.  I abused myself with food and my inner monologue, constantly pushing myself further and further until one day in my early 20s, I became so ill, I literally could not walk and instead dragged myself across my apartment floor…which is where my roommate found me and immediately demanded that I go into therapy (note:  I did just that and am forever grateful to my friend who used some tough love in the moment I needed it the most).

As for others, my friends and family watched from the sidelines as I demanded more and more from my body, soul, and mind.  In turn, I demanded more from them as well – although I wasn’t aware of it at the time.  In order to not send me into a fluster, they entertained my exacting standards for everything in life.  I remember setting up for a party I was hosting in my space one summer.  My now-husband had never, up until that point, experienced my need to ensure everything was perfect for the impending arrival of guests and stood in wonder (and, without doubt, some annoyance) at the agitated flurry I was making when re-arranging the way he set up the plates and silverware on the table (note:  I am grateful he chose to stick with me after witnessing my perfectionist edge…he’s been a witness to this journey of letting go).

My need for perfection lessened, but still persisted, with the help of therapy and self-reflection.  I didn’t want to live in the space of demand constantly.  It was becoming more and more exhausting keeping up with the demands I kept putting in front of myself.

There was one place of respite…my yoga mat.  There, anything and everything could happen.  Toppled over in a pose?  No problem…just try again!  Unable to get your leg behind your head?  Meh, who cares?!  Handstands freaking you out?  No need to push myself into something my body and system aren’t ready for.

In short, I was learning the art of the “perfectly-not-perfect.”

My release of perfection has been slow, but yoga has been instrumental in showing me that the perfection I sought was simply an illusion and, more importantly, a distraction.  If I could wrap myself in the cloak of striving for perfection, I could avoid the harder work of changing what made me unhappy.  I could avoid the tough conversations.  I could subvert my anxiety and self-consciousness by distracting myself with the hard work being a perfectionist entails.  I could avoid…myself.

Yoga taught me there isn’t perfection to strive for…only the perfect that already exists NOW.  Being in the NOW means meeting yourself fully and completely, just as you are.  My process of meeting myself has taken time, but I’ve fallen in love with the person I am – because she is “perfectly-not-perfect!”

When I meditate and am fully embodied in the present moment, there is nothing else to consider, nothing else to do, no striving, no working toward something.  There is only what is.  Once we realize that every moment on the mat is this series of “nothing else to consider, nothing else to do, no striving, no working toward something” we are suddenly free to experience everything and realize that the perfect is right here with us RIGHT NOW.

I’ll admit that I get frustrated when I hear people talking about yoga as though it is a series of goals to be accomplished.  As if there is some end game to our practice once we achieve a posture.  In reality, there is beauty in the never-ending process that our practice provides because it has the ability to teach us about our divinity and the perfect that exists in us just as we are – regardless of if we ever do full Hanumanasana (Monkey Pose – splits), or not.  It is the perfection in every moment of getting there…the beauty of BEing in that process…that is really what our practice can be about celebrating.

Celebrate your perfection, just as you are.  Celebrate the perfection in others, just as they are.  There is nothing else we need to do in that regard.  When honouring our perfection in this very moment, we (and those around us) are suddenly free of expectation, free of the to-do list, and free of the disappointment that comes with striving for something that can never be attained (because it never existed in the first place).

You might even fall in love with your “perfectly-not-perfect” self.

Pure Childlike Joy

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This week, I had the opportunity to assist with teaching a kid’s yoga camp.  I am learning so much by watching these little humans take to yoga and their unabashed love for it!

They just…GET it.

I can’t explain it in words here, but I know that somewhere along the way, I lost my ability to dive headfirst into a handstand or not worry about falling over in tree pose.  I had started to lose my ability to smile during my personal home practice, even though I was encouraging others to do it on their mat.  I was beginning to find…not so long ago…that yoga was very…serious…business.

When I went to my yoga teacher training, the chance to rediscover childlike joy when practicing was presented to me.  I took tentative steps at first into the wading pool and eventually found myself doing belly flops off the high dive.  I was going for poses I never tried before, even catching a bruise or two in the process (ever mastered the face-plant when perfecting side crow?  I have!).  But, I was doing it all with this big, silly grin on my face…not caring if I stayed in the pose for five breaths, but rather focusing on the pure joy I was feeling in my practice.

That’s what I’m seeing this week as I practice with the youth from our community.  They see a pose and they go for it…all out.  They have huge smiles on their faces and when they are in Warrior II, they tell us they feel strong.  They aren’t saying that because a teacher told them they would or because they read it somewhere, but because they actually feel it in their muscles, bones, heart and soul.

They are teaching me to unfurrow my brow and pull the corners of my mouth up.  To laugh when I fall out of Warrior III and clap for someone else when they do something amazing.  They are teaching me to trust myself and my instincts and that nothing…nothing…is more important than having fun.

So, for the rest of this week and into all the weeks ahead of us…let’s play.

Play with pure childlike joy…both on and off your mat!

Namaste, Heather

Fear

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“Just one foot in front of the other…that is all you need to do.”

“Dig your heels in…one step at a time.”

“I’m proud of you.”

These are the words that kept me going this past weekend as my husband and I took some time away in the Canadian Rockies in Yoho National Park.  We made plans to spend our Canada Day weekend hiking up to Abbot Pass and staying in Canada’s second oldest mountaineering hut for a couple of nights.

There is something magical about getting into nature…connecting to the big sky, feeling the earth underfoot and finding limits that are unseen within the confines of four walls of your home or hotel room.  We love camping, hiking and exploring and Abbot Pass was the perfect fit.

Now, when hiking, I can go uphill all day long.  I love the feeling of summiting a space, pulling myself against gravity and finding joy in the climb and ascent.  But, as we know, what goes up, must come down…and that downhill descent strikes fear into me like nothing else.  There is something unsettling that occurs when the front part of my body faces forward and I must step down.  When descending Abbot Pass, making your way toward Lake Oesa, you can feel as though you are literally stepping out into open space.

Add to that two days of fresh snowfall, gusting wind and a giant scree slope and you’ve got one terrified Heather on your hands.

That being said, I knew there was no other way down.  I had to face my fear and fully accept that I…could…do…this.  It might take a long time, there might be some tears involved (ahem), but I was going to make it down that mountain.

I slipped, I slid, I lost control, I regained control.  I dug my heels in, I took one step at a time.  I gritted my teeth and took deep breaths.  I allowed myself to cry and yell at myself and also to comfort myself with protection mantras that I repeated over and over in my head.  I relied on the footsteps others carved out in front of me and I listened attentively as my husband guided me…one step at a time…over snow, ice and scree.

When we finally made it down…I took a moment to assess what we had done and discovered that I was proud of myself for conquering my fear of the downhill.

Fear is no small thing.  It has the ability to take over and keep us from a variety of experiences.  Whether it is summiting a mountain or flying in Bakasana, our brains on fear can play games with how we react physically, mentally and emotionally in a variety of situations.  I recently read this amazing post on fear by David Cain on Raptitude.  He talks about how fear can make us perceive all the negative outcomes, while prohibiting us from entertaining the positive ones.  In addition, he notes that the majority of the time, when we actually do take the risk and overcome fear, those negative outcomes don’t actually manifest themselves.  Instead, we find that the outcome has provided us with a learning opportunity, with a chance to see that we CAN do the things we set out to do with little negative reaction.

Abbot Pass taught me a lot about the power of fear in my own life and how powerful that emotional state can be.  Not all fear is bad…we do need it, but knowing when we need it and when we don’t is half the battle.

So go summit that mountain, strike out on that adventure or fly in Bakasana.  It just might turn out better than you ever expected.  I know my experience did!

Namaste,

Heather

ps.  Fun fact about me – I also harbour a massive fear of worms.  As in, the worms that come out on the sidewalk during a rainstorm or the ones you find as you tend your garden.  My husband asked which fear was worse…the downhill or worms.  Worms win.

pps.  Not that they will ever read this, but to the six gentlemen we shared the hut with…you are inspirational.  Thanks for digging in your heels and charting a path to follow.

Letting Go

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“Let go of the things that don’t serve you.”

This is an oft-repeated mantra during yoga classes.  One that I even presented to my classes the other day when I was teaching at the studio.  It is not something that I say lightly however and we should always be thinking about how we can minimize negativity in our lives.

Sometimes letting go means releasing ideas, thoughts, emotions, jobs and friendships.  Sometimes it means letting go of things we once loved so that we can love ourselves a little more in the end.

When we consciously assess our lives and determine what to let go of, we take steps toward realizing the truth of who we really are.  And…our truth changes over time!  What served me as a young twenty-one year old fresh out of college may or may not serve me now given where I am in my life.  It is essential to regularly assess what we hang onto and our motivations for doing so.

And there can be many.

You reason might be emotional.  It could be financial or practical.  At the end of the day, however, does hanging onto that thing, person or emotion serve you in the best way possible?

As we let go, we don’t have to do it all at once.  There are baby steps that can happen along the way to make the transition a little easier.  Sometimes, we need the band-aid ripped off, other times…it is better to move a little slower.

Happy Letting Go.

Namaste,

Heather