Yoga for Recovering Perfectionists


“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life –

– Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Earlier this week a new friend invited me to attend yoga class with her. Believe me; no one was more surprised than I was when I said yes.

Yoga is not something I’ve ever pictured myself doing. I would venture to say that if I received this same invitation as recently as a few months ago, I would have said no, automatically and with great emphasis. I would not have even entertained any other possible response. Likely the no would have been accompanied with a snort of indignation, the implication being that anyone who knew me at all would not even have considered asking such a thing of me.

Even now, after the event, I’m still surprised at how readily I agreed. I could easily have turned down the offer – I certainly have enough reasons (excuses!) to do so, and typically they pour out of my mouth like a broken spigot: I’m too old, I’m too fat, I have a bad knee-hip-ankle-attitude (take your pick!), I’m not flexible. Underneath those excuses, of course, there lies another level of resistance, unspoken but even more insidious. I’ll look stupid. Everyone will be better than me. I won’t last five minutes. I’ll be embarrassed, humiliated, mocked.

Wow. When I write it down, it just seems silly. I mean – isn’t that a lot of pressure for one yoga class? This was an invitation for an hour of exercise, not for an Olympic qualification trial. How does my brain so easily turn the most innocent of scenarios into a measure of my human worth?

That is the trap of perfectionism. Perfectionism tells me if I can’t do it like a master, then don’t do it all. Perfectionism points out my flaws and deficits, and compares the worst version of me to the best version of everyone else. Worst of all, it robs me of the opportunity to fail.

The opportunity to fail. You wouldn’t think that would be a problem, but it is. If I’m not failing, I’m not trying anything new, and if I never experience anything new, I can’t grow. I end up entrenched in my own beliefs, life, and routine. It’s a “safe” life, one with very few risks, conflicts, or challenges.

It is also oh-so-very boring.

As I already mentioned, this was a new friend, so she didn’t know about my history of self-deprecating refusals when asked to try anything new. I had a moment’s hesitation, but found myself saying yes before my brain could talk me out of it.

I’m not entirely sure why I said yes. I think, perhaps, I finally realized I’m tired of missing out on things.

Guess what? I loved it.

I have never enjoyed going to the gym, or attending exercise classes. Aerobics? Blech. Spinning? Just shoot me now, thank you very much. Swimming laps? Yeah, what a great way to take the fun out of being in a swimming pool. Yes, a big part of my brain was prepared to hate yoga. Imagine my surprise when this class turned out to be different.
I was amazed to learn how much I could do – could even do well. Of course, there were moves I couldn’t do at all, and others that I had to modify. I realized that I have terrible balance. However, I chose not to focus on what I could or couldn’t do. I made every effort to stay in the moment, paid attention to my breathing, and did my best. When it was over, I felt…wonderful! I think it was the first time I have ever concluded an hour of exercise with the thought, “I can’t wait to do that again!”  

I’m not saying one class has fundamentally changed my personality, magically transforming me into a devil-may-care risk junkie. You won’t find me signing up for base jumping or jetting off to climb Everest. Yet I do find myself eager to make more small changes in my life. I’m ready to say yes where once I’d have shouted NO – even if it’s only for sixty minutes at a time.

Baby steps, folks, baby steps!