"Comparison is the thief of joy." —Theodore Roosevelt. You’ve probably seen that quote floating around the internet or social media somewhere. And while it’s a great quote, I’d like to add a little something to it. Perfectionism is also the thief of joy!
And also, perfectionism has no place in the yoga shala.
But if that's the case, then why do so many students injure themselves in an attempt to “perfect” a pose?
Yoga is meant to be a practice—not a performance. But too often, students feel pressured by social media, studio culture, their upbringing, and other external and internal forces to perform and perfect their yoga practice.
These pressures can lead to burnout, injury, and competitiveness—which is not the original goal of the practice of yoga. It also creates suffering and can stunt our imagination and excitement for the practice as yoga practitioners.
Over my years of practice, I’ve met so many practitioners and teachers who stopped practicing. Some practiced for years, decades even, but eventually gave up the practice. Many have said that they stopped practicing because they got jaded. Some by social media, others by teachers, some by studio culture, some due to injury.
But the yoga practice itself is pure and totally devoid of any of the pressures that students face today in the yoga world.
Unpopular Opinion: Kill the beast of Yoga Perfectionism; Enjoy the Journey Instead
The practice of yoga, as outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, is a journey.
“Now begins the instruction on the practice of yoga.” This is the Sutra 1.1, and to me it means that NOW we are practicing yoga.
Right NOW, wherever you are in the world reading this—whether you’re on your couch reading this on your phone, commuting to work reading this on a bus or a train, wherever you are in the world—the practice of yoga begins NOW.
But in the West, we’ve distilled the eight limbed practice of yoga down to one limb—Asana.
And it’s to our detriment.
And Patanjali never said anything about doing handstands, having flexible hamstrings or open hips, or even jumping back to Chaturanga.
In fact Patanjali didn’t prescribe specific poses.
Things Patanjali Did Say
Yoga citta vritti nirodhah
“Yoga stills the fluctuations of the mind.”
Doctors and psychologists often tell their patients that yoga can help them reduce stress and anxiety. And it’s great advice.
Yoga helps to calm the mind which can help you lead a better life.
Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tan nirodhah
“By practice and detachment these can be stopped.”
Our minds can easily become disturbed by external stressors and internal pressure.
But Patanjali outlines in the Sutra that by practicing the eight limbs of yoga, we can stop these fluctuations and live peacefully.
Sthira sukham asanam
“Asana should be steady, stable, and comfortable”
Each pose should feel easy and steady.
This teaches that we should practice asana in a way that feels relaxed. We should find a balance between effort—steadiness, and ease—comfort.
Finding the balance between holding strong and letting go. The sutra teaches that we can let go of the things that take us away from the practice - like comparison and perfectionism.
Tatra sthitau yatnah abhyasa
"The effort towards steadiness of mind is practice.”
A huge part of the practice of yoga is observing the mind and letting go of distractions.
Putting effort into your practice doesn’t have to mean pushing yourself to perform gymnastic inspired poses.
Instead it's important to embody each pose, breathe, and find ease.
Atah pratyakcetanadhigamah api antarayabhavas ca
“Then, the inner consciousness is revealed, we come to know the true Self, and our obstacles are reduced.”
As you turn inward, more and more will be revealed to you.
And as you discover these truths within yourself, you’ll come to know yourself - your true Self.
You'll experience less and less obstacles and know more peace.
This is the true beauty of the practice. Not fancy poses. Not arm balances. Not jumping back to Chaturanga with grace.
Of course, progressing in the practice of asana is beautiful too - but only when that progress includes inner peace, ease, and inner knowing.
This practice is meant to be joyful. It’s meant to teach us to live up to our full potential.
Yoga is a practice.
It’s a journey that we choose to embark on.
And if we stay the course and practice the eight limbs we will find peace.
We may also strengthen our bodies and be able to practice challenging asana.
But ultimately, the goal is to practice in a way that is steady, and comfortable. So that we can continue practicing for our entire lifetimes.
The next time you find yourself pushing hard in your practice, or comparing yourself to others on social media or on your mat, take a moment to observe your mind and your breath.
Ask your body what it really needs, and it's not yoga perfectionism.
Choose to find ease. If you continue to do this faithfully on and off your mat, you’ll be practicing the way that Patanjali meant for us to practice.
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