04 Apr Worrier Pose: Yoga for the Perfectionist
I am not going to lie. I suck at yoga. Years of running have rendered my hamstrings incapable of lengthening and as a result I have not been able to straighten my legs since the 80s. My forward fold ends up looking more like chair pose. The fact that I have stuck with this activity for 4 years, despite my obvious lack of ability, is so unlikely that it leads me to frequently look in the sky to ensure that the moon has not in fact turned blue.
For most of my life I never believed I was a perfectionist. In my mind, perfectionists held themselves to high standards that they invariably met. They were overachievers, excelling at whatever activity they chose to undertake. When it was suggested to me several years ago that I might be a perfectionist, I declared with absolute conviction, “How can I be a perfectionist? I am not good at anything!” Rather than attempt to meet the impossibly high standards I set for myself, I realize now that I simply opted out. Fear of failing, of not being good enough or not knowing everything about a subject had prevented me from starting and/or completing more activities and tasks than I can even begin to count. As a child, I was a figure skater, but fear of the performances led me to quit skating. As an adult, I attempted martial arts, but the belt exams were too much for me and I stopped attending class. Professionally, I was paralyzed by the prospect of writing a dissertation for my doctorate and I never completed my degree. This graveyard of could-have-beens and what-ifs haunts me to this day.
When I started attending yoga classes, I was painfully aware of the fact that I was not able to do the poses “right.” An hour-long class seemed endless; an excruciating exercise in self-consciousness and performance anxiety. I spent the entire class in some version of “worrier pose.” As I attempted each posture, I kept up an eternal dialogue that went something like this: “Ouch. How does she do that? Oh no, is the teacher coming over here? Am I doing this wrong? Ouch. I am never going to be able to do that. I wonder if my leg is the right place? Is my stomach showing? I am too big/old/klutzy to be in this class. What am I doing in here?” This self-deprecating commentary was relentless. Whereas in the past the pressure of being perfect would exhaust me to the point of quitting, I began to open myself up to the experience of yoga beyond the poses. Little by little, as I heard my instructors talk about focusing on the breath and about being present, I began to let go of the requirement that I be perfect. As I continued to attend classes, I focused less on what I looked like and more on my breath and on how I felt internally in each pose in that moment. To my surprise, I felt strong and fit and I relinquished the need to go deeper, to constantly strive to be better or to do everything right; to finally stop berating myself for not having a “yoga body” or lamenting my inability to execute some crazy arm balance. As I became more connected in the community at the studio, I began to observe my fellow students without judgment, accepting them and appreciating them for exactly who they were rather than comparing myself to them. In return, I found this acceptance reflected back at me. With each class, the critical internal dialogue lessened, becoming drowned out by my breath.
Today I look forward to my daily yoga class, where I can finally quiet my mind. It is through yoga that I have found, for the first time in my life (at age 50), some relief from perfectionism. Here is the crazy thing: maybe, just maybe, I have been perfect all along, just as I am.