Confessions of a Flexible Perfectionist

February 17, 2015    BY Martha Fenton

Yoga, they say, is about discovering one’s Self. Asana practice is a vehicle not only for exploring the boundaries of the physical body, but also for unlocking quirks of thought and depths of emotion.

Being flexible goes a long way toward achieving the illusion of the perfect pose.

In six years of practice I’ve discovered a few things about myself and they’re not pretty. Like, I’m a perfectionist. I thought I had come to terms with this affliction. But as on the mat, so in life. Part of the problem is that I have one of those ultra-flexible “Gumby bodies” my teacher always refers to disparagingly. Being flexible goes a long way toward achieving the illusion of the perfect pose.

Illusion or not, heads turn when I’m lying with my chest on the floor, legs spread wide, or leisurely grabbing my toe in padangushthasana while others struggle to hold onto belts. Okay, so I’m competitive. I’m sure there’s something in the Yoga Sutra that discourages this, but I know I’m not the only one.

Of course teachers tell students that we should banish all perfectionist propaganda about what a pose must look like. They tell us to work at our own level, that “there is nothing remarkable on the floor,” and to “meet yourself where you are.” (Then they assume a pose that looks like it came off a yoga calendar.)

Being a flexible perfectionist, I try to meet myself in the ultimate pose. I strive to incorporate every instruction the teacher suggests, hyperextending like crazy. When I’ve rotated my right hip as far back as I can in triangle pose (which is pretty darn far) I try to go farther, because the teacher keeps saying to. I realize some people have trouble rotating anything at all, and the ongoing pattern is probably for their benefit. But I’ve been conditioned to follow orders.

It isn’t easy! I have yet to unravel the secret of following twelve different instructions on the intricate placement of groins, femurs, and the “armpit-chest” area, while staying completely relaxed and “continuing to move” in the pose. Once, in a burst of frustration, I asked a teacher to shed some light on this conundrum and was met with an inscrutable smile. The answer: “Play with the paradox.” The inference: You obviously haven’t practiced enough to get it.

I have yet to unravel the secret of following twelve different instructions on the intricate placement of groins, femurs, and the “armpit-chest” area, while staying completely relaxed and “continuing to move” in the pose.

Which leads me to wonder, can a teacher tell when your home practice isn’t up to snuff? Can he see behind the deception when he asks “How many of you are practicing at home?” and every hand in class shoots up? I suspect the sheepish looks give it away.

Home practice is the bane of every serious yoga student who is handicapped by a life. My own is the source of much guilt and angst. I keep a yoga mat permanently unfurled in my office. I have blocks, blankets, belts, and sandbags at the ready. I even have a headstander (which by the way makes an excellent end table for displaying yoga books and magazines). But in reality I’m lucky to fit in one triangle and one dog pose a day. Oh, there have been positive spikes—days and weeks of diligence, undertaken upon my return from a yoga workshop or retreat. It never lasts.

Between meditation, pranayama, journal writing, and all the other things I’m supposed to be doing before I can reward myself with a cup of coffee, I would have to get up at four a.m. I know, people do it. Better people than me.

There is no excuse for not practicing; it can lead to feelings of inadequacy, self-recrimination, and pain. Physical pain, the kind you get from injuries. Alas, even those graced with more flexibility than nature intended suffer injuries when they exceed their limits. The first thing to blow on my body was a knee (a lifetime of sitting cross-legged). Then it was a rotator cuff (overenthusiasm for arm balances). And most recently I’ve had trouble with a hamstring attachment (overenthusiasm for showing off). The first two injuries took about a year to heal, and even then it entailed much painful physical therapy and begrudgingly curtailed exertion.

Alas, even those graced with more flexibility than nature intended suffer injuries when they exceed their limits.

My injured hamstring and I have recently celebrated our one-year anniversary. Its lingering twangs and twinges may have something to do with the fact that I have not laid off the seated forward bends to the extent, which would be totally, that I should. Sometimes I flirt with them just to see if I’ve gained any ground in Injuryville. And sometimes I just ram my head down to my knee because I can. Is it worth it? I’ll let you know in six months, which is the minimum amount of time I’ve added to my recovery.

I know I should stop trying to keep up with the Yogi Joneses and refrain from comparing my poses with others’. I should be working with my own issues (like pushing my body too far in every pose). I should be listening to my body and nurturing the injuries I have inflicted upon myself. I should not think less of the people who complain when class is too difficult and are always angling for restorative poses. And I should resist the urge, in shavasana, to think about what I’m going to have for dinner.

The funny thing about yoga is, its subtle benefits somehow seep through the cracks, regardless of how base the nature of the practitioner. Explaining how this works is like holding rain in your hand. All I know is, I may go into class with my brain churning, itching to transfer my natural aggressiveness to the mat, but by the time we’ve reached inversions, that inclination has all but disappeared. In its place is, well, nothing—that much-touted sweet spot of being.

The funny thing about yoga is, its subtle benefits somehow seep through the cracks, regardless of how base the nature of the practitioner. Explaining how this works is like holding rain in your hand.

And then there are the behavioral changes that take place over time. For instance, I don’t go on a rampage anymore when I discover that a blanket has been folded improperly. I’ve stopped opening my eyes during pranayama to see who’s doing it “right” and who isn’t. And when someone unwittingly takes “my” space in the yoga studio I no longer pout about it for the entire class. Even in my car, after an especially deep practice, I have been known to show grace beyond measure to drivers who choose not to signal.

Because, in the end, there’s nothing like the feeling after class, when my brain is wiped clean and I can feel my cells dancing. I drift home oblivious to the petty ego diversions I came in with. I try to imagine the incredible lightness of yoga reverberating throughout my life, making me a better person, despite myself.

Martha Fenton
From New York to Hong Kong to Portland, Maine, Martha’s writing career has taken her around the world. At Ogilvy & Mather, New York she produced award-winning advertising for American Express, Kraft General Foods, Hershey, and other global brands. As creative group head at Dentsu, Young, & Rubicam, Hong Kong she oversaw flagship accounts, Hong Kong Tourist Association and Du Pont.

The next logical move was Portland, Maine, where Martha launched her freelance writing career. Advertising, in... Read more>>

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