As yoga practitioners, sometimes we feel like we need to be perfect. I expect that many of us have looked over at someone in class and envied their ability to do sirsasana (headstand), (a standing forward bend with the soles of the feet, pada, stepping on the palms of the hands, hasta), or some variety of chakrasana (wheel pose). But such envy misses the point. Asana can be an ideal vehicle to help us learn self-acceptance. Our practice can teach us this acceptance over time, and we certainly don’t have to be perfect to learn.
Accepting ourselves for who we are and who we are not is one of the greatest challenges of our lives. Can you accept when the architecture of your body does not move easily into adho mukha vrksasana (handstand) or chakrasana, or a comfortable full eka pada rajakapotasana (one leg king pigeon pose)? As you practice, ask yourself: Am I practicing acceptance for where I am at this moment—or am I practicing a desire for perfection?
Our effort to attain perfection in yoga poses is similar to trying to attain perfection in our relationship with food. As an eating psychology and mind-body nutrition coach, I often witness the “I’m not good enough” struggle manifest through overeating and undereating. The push for perfection is often not about food itself. Rather, our relationship with food is often symptomatic of things we feel we lack, desire, or can’t define in our lives. Food becomes a means to soothe or extinguish our inability to access and heal thoughts, feelings, and past memories.
As human beings, we aren’t always able to directly identify the source of our pain or “I’m not enough” feelings, and we often don’t know how to process uncomfortable feelings either. We only know that we feel bad from stress or painful past experiences, and in that moment, food can become an outlet.
As human beings, we aren’t always able to directly identify the source of our pain or “I’m not enough” feelings.
A drive toward perfection in different areas of our lives may sometimes cause us to undereat. Through observing my clients I've realized that undereaters often need and want to control circumstances—either past, present, or future—and use food as a mechanism for that control. Developing a yoga practice, and creating a nourishing relationship to food by steering away from notions of a “perfect” diet, can be very beneficial for them (though nothing is a quick fix).
Another expression of how our eating habits reflect our desire “to be perfect” is overeating. For many of us, the “I’m not good enough” feeling is soothed by overeating. Toxic nutritional beliefs such as “food makes me fat” or “food is the enemy” send a negative message that we are not deserving of nourishment and creates a stress response. These toxic thoughts can influence a cycle of eating too little and then binge eating later in the day because the body has been denied what it needs: nourishment. Overeating to soothe negative emotions is a complex situation (again, there is no quick fix), but slowing down when eating is one strategy that can help people who overeat cultivate a relaxation response around food.
The media’s portrayal of beauty can further encourage feelings of “not enough” by sending us a message that food makes us fat. Food is nourishment and our bodies are wired for the pleasure of satiation, but when we receive distorted images of beauty—which regretfully become part of our mental and emotional landscape—it can exacerbate toxic relationships we have with food.
As society becomes more alert to the stressors of modern life, many of us recognize more and more the need to embrace the practice of yoga. Yoga’s popularity continues to increase, and it’s becoming widely known that asana, pranayama, and meditation all help to alleviate stress. These methods of self-inquiry (or “listening tools,” as I like to call them) can help us uncover inner discomfort, as well as how we hide from our pain. Our yoga practice can help us reconnect to ourselves and heal feelings of unworthiness, which we may pacify through overeating or undereating habits.
With time, we may find that practice does not make difficult or uncertain feelings disappear, rather it makes us more aware of what’s going on within us and around us. We often need to access the pain we already feel in order to fully understand where and how to take care of ourselves. How can we be engaged with our pain, stop punishing ourselves with food, and begin to process our feelings if we often don’t even know what the actual problem is? Our yoga practice can be a beacon that guides us toward self-renewal. It can be a messenger that informs us of the reality of what we feel, and we can use this knowledge to create positive changes in our lives.
With time, we may find that practice does not make difficult or uncertain feelings disappear, rather it makes us more aware of what’s going on within us and around us.
Yoga is known for its ability to bring us into deeper experiences in our hearts, minds, and bodies. Each time we practice an asana, we have the opportunity to view the world differently—whether we’re upside down in an inversion or opening our hearts in a backbend. By developing new perspectives, we can release old habit patterns that don’t serve us anymore. We might also experience that exploring ourselves is so much more gratifying than working toward perfection. When we choose to explore our thoughts, feelings, relationships, and very existence, the possibilities in our lives become endless.
Next time you practice yoga, instead of seeking perfection, try this instead: connect with your breath, slow down, pay attention to your body, and let the exploration of your practice speak to you. And at your next meal, do the same. Before you begin eating, take a deep breath. Set an intention to explore your meal with all of your senses. Perhaps this exploration will satiate you in a way that you’ve never experienced before. Being present to your food and present to your practice of yoga—most of all, present to what you are feeling, moment to moment—will set you on your way toward a true path of self-discovery and healing.