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Seeking Perfection In Your Yoga Poses Can Backfire. Here’s Why

If yoga is about honoring where we are at, then why do so many of us contort into the most extreme expression of a shape? 

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“You aren’t yourself,” my husband said one night, after putting our toddler to bed at the end of yet another routine-riddled day of our repetitive, pandemic lifestyle.

“What do you mean?” I asked, feeling blindsided by his observation. I knew it wasn’t coming from a place of judgment, yet it still made me feel like I wasn’t showing up fully in every way for my family.

“You don’t even want to have fun anymore. You put so much pressure on yourself,” he replied. In that moment, I realized that all of my time to myself was spent on self-improvement. I was focused almost relentlessly with heightened awareness in order to better the world I live in. Everything—from meditation, movement, my diet, my work, my therapy, even my favorite hobbies: reading books and baking—was geared toward being of benefit to the collective. Even things I was doing for “self-care,’ like having a bedtime ritual and journaling, made me feel stressed out and less-than. My life looked good from an outside perspective, but on the inside I was crumbling from the pressure. And I wasn’t alone.

Doing more is seen as “better”—even in yoga

Women have been trained to believe that the more collapsed we are, the more desirable, ideal, and acceptable we become. We take it upon ourselves to do and be all of the things. We make all of the necessary changes to serve the rest of the world. Women are largely the driving force behind social justice and climate activism movements. We run households and businesses at the same time, we constantly tweak our lifestyles, appearances, and practices to be what everyone else wants/needs us to be. We even see this in yoga.

When my husband commented on the visible level of stress I was placing on myself to do everything, all at once, perfectly, a memory of a random yoga class I’d taken two years earlier popped into my head.

A teacher whom I’d previously considered to be a mentor was using phrases like “full expression,” and “perfect alignment,” in relationship to the yoga poses they were calling out at a rapid-fire pace. I lifted my head and looked around the room. There, in neat rows on their mats were women straining to reach the deepest, most collapsed version of Trikonasana (Triangle Pose).

The teacher’s language made me realize that yoga asana was yet another place where we try to mold and shape ourselves into an ideal. The women in the class were ignoring an entire ancient practice because their Triangle Pose wasn’t deep enough. If yoga is about honoring where we are at, then why do so many of us contort into the most extreme expression of a shape?

See also: 3 Ways to Modify Parivrtta Trikonasana

Women seek perfection both on and off the mat

Back in the present moment, in the middle of a pandemic, I found myself in a metaphorical version of that collapsed Trikonasana. I was floundering, trying to manage being a childcare provider, teacher, wife, and full-time employee all at once. Like women everywhere, I was looking at the structure of my life—of the very fabric of our global society—and lifting my head up and to say, “Really? This? You expect me to contort myself to fit this now? OK, I can try, I guess…”

But, it doesn’t have to be this way. Women don’t have to stretch ourselves thin, reaching for an unreachable posture that looks pretty from the outside, while it’s all sorts of misaligned on the inside.

The sanskrit word vinyasa means “to place in a special way.” There is precision, delicacy, mindfulness, and care in how each posture is expressed within each individual body. But we buy into the idea that we have to contort into the “ideal” in order to be doing this life thing “right.” Even when I speak out against this concept, there is a nagging thought—an awareness lurking in the shadowy space right below the surface of the truth I speak. It tells me that what I preach to other women is not true for me. Deep down, I’m guilty of still wanting to embody the unattainable. I suspect other women are, too.

Quashing that voice would be like standing up in the middle of class and telling a teacher that they are wrong to be teaching Trikonasana so generally, flamboyantly, ignorantly, and arrogantly. So many of us stay silent on our mat—just like I did in that particular yoga class—and adjust for how it feels best in our body when the teacher looks away.

Stop chasing the ideal

The more yogic and responsible—and yes, harder—thing to do is to stand up and call out whoever is telling you to do something that feels terrible but looks “right.” There is no such thing as a prescribed full expression of a pose or of a life. Wherever you are and whatever feels right to you in your body, mind, and soul is perfect.

As a feminist and a yogi, I know that everything is connected. It’s all intersectional. What we do and say and how we practice our yoga and show up to the mat and the world matters immensely. When we reshape our inner world, we sign a sacred contract to reshape the world outside of our skin, as well. Let’s stop collapsing all over ourselves and start standing in our power. 

I have started to let go of my need to constantly work on myself. It’s challenging, especially since I feel like it’s up to me to save the world, single-handedly. Showing up for myself doesn’t mean self-flagellation. It means honoring where I am at and seeking out things that are fun, instead of trying to keep it together and stay productive 100 percent of the time.

The full expression of me doesn’t have to be revered, or even shown, to the rest of the world for it to make a difference. I’m practicing vinyasa by placing myself and my needs in a special way—a way that allows me to truly relax and be present in the world.

See also: 

Should Yoga and Politics Mix?

Why Saying That You “Found” Yoga Is Problematic

I Began to Truly Live Yoga When I Stopped Doing This One Thing