Any recovering perfectionists out there? I certainly am! I grew up with a compulsion to get everything right. But at a certain point, I realized there was a serious cost to this; my inner peace and well-being. Yoga Philosophy revealed two steps that released my perfectionism and changed my life.
Perfectionism was the driver behind stress and anxiety for me. I wouldn’t be happy with something until it was just so, and I’d often give up on things if I didn’t do them well right off the bat. This limited some of my life experiences. I was afraid to be embarrassed, to look imperfect in front of others, and worst of all – to fail.
I was putting my idea of getting it right, being “perfect”, ahead of happiness, health, and ease.
Yoga Woke Me Up
Then, yoga entered the picture 28 years ago and began to reveal to me how much suffering I created for myself. Through the practice, I became increasingly aware of this perfectionistic tendency and how it affected my thoughts, emotions, and experiences. I woke up.
Practicing poses and slowing down in each one gave me time and space to notice – what’s going on in my head? My first sojourn into the yoga world was through Iyengar style, which focuses a lot on perfecting poses. At least, from my point of view it did: we were constantly observing our alignment and form, and refining it. I soaked it up like a sponge. It was natural to me.
But as I studied yoga philosophy, and branched into many other styles of Hatha yoga, such as Ashtanga, Vinyasa, and Restorative, to name a few, I went deeper than the pose itself. I recognized that the deepest path of yoga is the inner game – my state of mind. And that is a journey of practice and non-attachment, not perfection.
Step One: Practice
Yoga philosophy is founded on these two essential principles. Abhyasa, practice, is the reminder that we’re not trying to get to a state of “perfection”, but we’re returning again and again to what is here, right now, and how I can be fully present, aware, and attentive in this moment.
Practice, on the path of spiritual awakening, involves the continual letting go of thoughts, particularly those that distract, agitate, upset, or steer me away from being who we truly want to be. Ultimately, practice is developing more and more of a state some call Quiet Mind, where the thoughts cease (or at least the volume is turned way down) and we experience the kind of ease and peace that we long for.
I used to think that the idea of a quiet mind was crazy. How can you do anything without any thoughts? Wouldn’t life be boring with the emotions calm? What I discovered as I journeyed deeper into Presence, through consistent practice of returning to this moment and letting go of thoughts, is that it’s tremendously alive. There is far more joy, and I’m much more effective at whatever shows up before me in life. Even my writing flows more naturally and easily.
Why is that? Wiithout the need to become “more perfect” – without comparing myself, judging, or trying to “get” somewhere – everything that is already here and available to me reveals itself. The wisdom that I long for is already within. I see what I have and it is abundant. Striving for more or better takes me away from anything that I can access right now, and shuts down my creative process.
So my first step to releasing perfectionism, which is the foundation of my life today, is to practice, again and again. To keep coming back to my meditation cushion, my yoga mat, or more importantly, to awareness of my thoughts, beliefs, and perceptions and let them go. Over and over and over. My mind doesn’t stop, so my practice is steady, consistent, and not perfect!
Step Two: Non-Attachment
Which brings me to that second yogic principle – Vairagya, non-attachment. We not only practice, but we practice without expectation. We let go of the idea of a goal to get to, or that somewhere else is better than here. Non-attachment teaches us to let go of the results, and just keep on keepin’ on. We release perfectionism.
This was hard for me. I had based my entire self-concept on being smart, clever, picking up things quickly, and perfecting myself. I was very attached to outcomes. As a result, I’d be really disappointed if things didn’t turn out – t times, devastated. My emotions were a roller coaster of highs when I thought I was great, and lows when I felt like a failure. I gripped tightly to that idea of perfection – I thought that then, when I’d be “perfect”, yes then, I’d finally be OK.
But perfection never came. And feeling OK never did, either. Until I developed more non-attachment.
In fact, what perfectionism did was cause me to do violence to myself. It increased my anxiety, never feeling I was enough. From the chapter on Perfectionism in my book, Awakening from Anxiety: “Perfectionism causes anxiety because we become intolerant.” Perfectionism makes completely intolerant of ourselves. We can’t stand anything that falls outside of the idea of perfection, or at least excellence, that we have for ourselves. That idea is based on comparison, what I call “the root of all depression.” No wonder I was suffering.
Vairagya, non-attachment, was a novel concept that gave me the inner freedom I longed for. I let go of needing to be a certain way. I came to accept that I can’t control my circumstances, and certainly couldn’t control what others thought. It became clear to me that I could never know what other people thought about me. All my beliefs about what they might think of me were going on in my head, not theirs!
Non-attachment allowed me to let go of perfection, release my thoughts, and return to this moment as it is. Most of the time, I find that this moment is fulfilling and more than enough.
These two steps, Practice and Non-Attachment, are what I return to as my foundations on the path of Awakening. Life is practice, just as much as rolling my yoga mat out is. It’s not about perfection. When we allow ourselves to return to the present moment, again and again, without attachment to the outcome, we find the freedom to simply be, as we are, and to explore life unshackled from our inner limitations. That’s what brings me joy, well-being, and fulfillment. How about you?