I like going to yoga classes where no one knows me. Too often I’m in a class where students know I’m a yoga teacher and I feel pressure to practice in a particular way. To be clear, this pressure is totally self-imposed.
I’m sure no one really cares if a nail the handstand or not.
But I feel the pressure anyway so I seek out places to take classes where I can be anonymous.
Well, a few weeks ago I went to a studio where I’ve never been before and took a class with a new-to-teaching and new-to-me teacher. It was one of those crazy unexpected times when I ended up at the only student in the class. Hard to be anonymous when you are the only person there.
A few minutes into our session, the teacher asked me how long I’ve been practicing yoga. When I answered that I’ve been practicing yoga for 18 years, she said, “oh, well that explains why your poses look so perfect! You shouldn’t be in a beginner’s class!” She certainly meant it as a compliment but it felt like the wrong kind of compliment. I really considered what she said and the whole thing reminded me of this story that one of my students shared with me.
He came to his first yoga class at the recommendation of his doctor when he was 68. Around that time, his daughter was teasing him about how inflexible he was as he was getting in and out of her car. He replied, “Just you wait until I finish yoga!” Nearly 5 years later, as he told me this story he smiled as he said, “Well now I know better. I’ll never finish practicing yoga.”
My student is totally right. There is no endpoint, no perfect way to do a pose, no final version of a posture. And because of that, we are never done, never perfect.
It’s because we aren’t aiming for perfection in our postures.
Perfection is chock full of self-criticism and judgment. Perfection comes from moving from the outside.
Of course we have to have some starting point, some common way to talk about the general shape of postures. For example, an inverted v-shape in your body with you hands and feet on the mat and your hips up high in the air is downward facing dog pose. But the general shapes of the poses are only the start, not the goal.
Instead of perfection, we are meant to practice from the inside out.
Precision cares about the placement of the body, not because there is some ideal shape, but because we are cultivating mindfulness of action. Precision is a process. Practicing with precision means we are never done. I really think we put the emphasis on the wrong things when we are aiming for perfection in yoga poses.
My friend Naomi recently wrote an inspiring blog post about rediscovering the joy in her yoga practice.
Many times we have to step away from the outside pressure and judgements about what is a perfect pose to find our joy in practice.
As my unexpected private lesson was wrapping up, the teacher instructed me into shoulder stand. Then she asked me to add lotus position for my legs. I attempted it and managed to get only one leg in place.
She seemed a little disappointed. So I jokingly told her if I kept practicing shoulder stand with lotus legs for another 18 years I would be able to do it. She shook her head and assured me in an eager and super-earnest way that if I tried it everyday, I’d definitely be able to do it in a few weeks.
Or never, I thought, as I ended in savasana with a Mona Lisa smile. I know it really doesn’t matter if I ever get my legs into lotus while I’m in shoulder stand.