The Perils of Perfection

For the first time in months, I woke up at 5am, started the teapot, brushed my teeth, put on my tights, and hurried out the door with tea in hand. As I drove to the Shala, I lowered the windows and remembered how much I love this time of day- the smell of the air and the stillness. It’s the time just before the sun begins to climb into the sky; when the day is filled with so much potential. Then, why had I avoided this all these months?

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This week I attempted an experiment prompted by my EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) Coach saying “Do you really not have the energy to do more or do you just think you won’t have the energy?” I wasn’t really sure. I tried to think back to a time where I had collapsed from exhaustion and it had only happened once. The one time it happened, the (clinically diagnosed) exhaustion wasn’t because of physical exertion. It was mostly due to emotional stress. At the time, I was a single mom with a baby. I was nursing round the clock, while working a demanding fifty to sixty hour corporate job. At this point in my life, I didn’t really know  how much physical energy I had, and it’s important for me to know because it translates to how many yoga classes I can teach and how many hours I can practice a week.

The experiment was simple. I created a training schedule double what I was used to and I had to stick to it no matter what. Loosely, that translated to four (before dawn) Ashtanga practices, two Crossfit WODs, and ten lessons taught in a week. I’m leaving out paperwork and virtual consultations because they aren’t necessarily physical. Almost immediately after I set the schedule, I started to feel sick-  fever, sore throat, headache, stuffy nose, the whole shebang! If there is anything I’ve learned in the over three decades on this planet, is that I’m exceptional at manifesting illnesses. I have never been able to ‘fake’ being sick to get out school or work and not actually gotten sick. So, I held myself accountable and stuck to the schedule anyway. Maybe I’m stubborn or completely insane, but I did it. And you know what happened? I didn’t die. More importantly, I discovered some incredible truths about myself.

The last day of the experiment was my Ashtanga practice at the Shala. I realized almost as soon as I took the first steps into the practice room, I hadn’t been avoiding my practice, I’d been avoiding going to the Shala. I’d rationalized that driving there and back was adding unnecessary mileage to my days, which were already spent driving back and forth between clients, schools, and studios. What I realized, as I rolled out my ravaged teal mat onto the warm wooden floor, was that I was uncomfortable. I tell my students all the time that the hardest part is showing up on your mat, but until then I hadn’t actually felt it. I pushed on. I mean, I was there. What else was I going to do? Slip out the back?

About midway through the standing postures, a phrase echoed in my mind, “these are the perils of perfection.” That’s why I’d avoided the Shala! I was afraid, not that I wouldn’t have the energy, but that I wouldn’t have the energy to be perfect. It was a revelation that made me feel inspired and gross at the same time. I was afraid that I’d be judged now that I’d really put myself out there- with school programs, classes, a Facebook page, an Instagram, and a blog for God’s sake! Now that I’ve said, ‘I am a yoga teacher and therefore claim some kind of authority on the subject’. I was scared that by being in some way imperfect someone would call me out as a fraud. What if I didn’t have an opportunity to defend myself and say something like, “I can’t do a textbook navasana because I have a tailbone that sticks out like a tail!”

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I am blessed with a child and therefore have a mirror of my own shortcomings. As a fellow perfectionist, she will build an entire lego castle and then kick the whole thing to the ground if she can’t place that final piece in the perfect place. I used to, but no longer, buy Ikea furniture and would attempt to build it myself. Inevitably, I’d come to a place in the process where a screw wouldn’t sit exactly flush against the wood and I would destroy everything I’d built and throw it in the trash.

Voltaire once said “Perfection is the enemy of progress.” Although logically, I know this to be true, sometimes I get so caught up in the process that I don’t see the ‘forrest for the trees’. For instance, I sat down to blog last Friday. I wanted to write a piece about the origins of yoga and the taboo nature of cross training (I will write this piece. Just hang tight). So, I sit down to write, and around sentence two, I get all hung up on Krishnamacharya, his life story, and how he developed his practice. In the two hours I’d reserved for writing a post, I’d written two sentences, read ten articles, and ordered a book (The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace). This type of perfectionism can be seen as procrastination, but it’s different in it’s intention. I can absolutely drown in research trying to get any one thing ‘right’.

Perfection

The solution, I guess, is to recognize the perfectionism as soon as possible and then act differently. Easier said than done, right? I’ve also been meditating a bunch, trying to practice with joy, accepting my shortcomings as best I can, and enrolling in activities that are completely out of my comfort zone and expertise.

How does perfectionism manifest in your life? What are you scared to try because you fear not being able to do it perfectly? What joy are you missing out on because of this fear? I’d love to know.

 

 

 

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What You Most Avoid

The yoga pose that you avoid the most, you need the most.  – Unknown

In the constant scientific experiment that is my life, I absolutely believe this quote to be true. For me, it meant switching from a slow Hatha practice to the quick moving Ashtanga style. I am a person that generally moves slowly. Ballet called to me as a child, and then I became fanatical about Martha Graham’s dark shapes, which seemed to glide like honey. Then, of course, I met my life’s calling in yoga. When I was first introduced to the practice, Ashtanga seemed too quick and masculine for me. It wasn’t until I heard a senior yoga teacher say, “the practice you most avoid, is probably the practice you most need.” That changed everything.

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This is one of my favorite sutras in the Yoga Sutra’s of Patanjali (as translated by Sri Swami Satchidananda):

“The practice of concentration on a single subject (or use of one technique) is the best way to prevent the obstacles and their accompaniments.”

I find great truth in this sutra as it pertains to meditation, practice, and really any goal. When I committed to practicing solely Ashtanga for the next two years, I did it as a yogic vow.

Now, Ashtanga as a spiritual practice has completely transformed me. There is hope and love in my heart every day and I could not be more grateful. That being said, I did experience some moments of detachment, which is good at times, but not so great at others. To be unattached in moments that are challenging can allow you to think of level-headed solutions, but there were times when I wished I would have defended myself more. It’s as if I didn’t have the ‘heart’ to fight. This got me thinking a lot about my heart…

All you need is love

I also thought a lot about what practice I might be avoiding, so I decided to run. Generally, I despise aerobic activity; while at the same time, I subscribe to Runner’s World and have an enviable collection of running sneakers. What can I say? I’m a riddle at the end of a maze.

I started running about once or twice a week with some regularity. It seemed to improve my stamina and patience in my yoga practice.

“Expanding your exercise horizons beyond yoga is a good idea… It’s good to challenge the body in new ways. Most traditional yoga styles don’t raise the heart rate high or long enough to develop true heart-saving cardio-respiratory fitness.” – Walt Thompson, Ph.D. (RW, January 2008)

Still, I wasn’t convinced running had really improved my ability to function at a higher level overall. For some months, I’d been researching interval training, specifically HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training). My primary focus was to create a class for my students and myself around the principles of HIIT. I have to say, it’s quite the learning curve when you’ve never actually done a workout. Sitting in bed pouring over James Driver’s research in HIIT, High Intensity Interval Training Explained, was not getting me very far. I shelved the idea for some time. If I was honest, it was probably because I had no real interest in causing myself that much pain, regardless of the gains.

Then, in a moment of possible insanity, I reached out to I AM Crossfit. For the uninitiated, Crossfit is arguably the reigning champ of the HIIT scene. I told the head trainer that I wanted to learn more about his athletes and how they train, and was willing to go through an entire workout myself. A couple days later, I suited up for Crossfit 101. Eight newbies, including me, paced the ‘box’, which is what the company calls the black warehouses filled with such torture devises as kettle bells and conditioning ropes. We giggled as most nervous people do while awaiting impending doom.

Yoga at IAM

In years past, the warm up itself would have been my full day’s workout. So, you can imagine my surprise when we were told there was a whole chalkboard left of drills to do. We ran, jumped on boxes, squatted, and swung kettle bells. About halfway through, I had an existential crisis. My mind chimed in, “you know you have extremely low blood pressure. You’re vision is getting blurry, which probably means you should sit down before your head slams against the floor.” I credit my meditation practice for allowing me to watch this thought and allow it to pass each time it entered my mind. And it entered my mind quite a bit for the last twenty minutes of the workout.

Focus and Effort

I survived and more importantly there was a mental shift. I became a champion of my own values, and felt I had the ‘heart’ to fight for those beliefs. Now, I’m wondering what if we, as yogis, added this type of training to our practice? I know I’m venturing into the taboo for most yoga purists, but isn’t yoga all about attaining optimal health, so we can meditate comfortably and attain samadhi? Shouldn’t we include the latest in fitness research to attain that level of health? I’d love to hear your thoughts.