I was always an A student. If there was a contest, I had to win it. Racked with insecurity and a crippling lack of self-worth, I determined that if someone was going to be the best, it would be me: the best student, the best girlfriend, the best friend, the best daughter, the best worker. The fittest, the thinnest, the nicest, the most accommodating. Even if it killed me. Which, a couple of times, it nearly did.
Trying to be the best is exhausting.
When I came to the yoga mat, worn out by years of trying to be perfect, I fell in love: The teacher told me to keep my attention on my own mat, and to ignore the other students. She said that unlike so many other physical practices, yoga was not a competition. We weren’t there to see who could twist the deepest or perform the best handstand. Touching your toes is not like hitting a home run, she explained.
When I came to the yoga mat, worn out by years of trying to be perfect, I fell in love.
Finally, I thought, this was a place where I didn’t need to be the best. I could just be. I sighed with relief.
That lasted for about thirty seconds. And then I saw the girl next to me execute a seamless jump-back to chaturanga, complete with a handstand. Which she held, seemingly hanging from an invisible hook in the ceiling.
In her tiny shorts and bra top. Did I mention her body looked flawless, as if carved by gods?
Oh, yeah. Competition on. I wanted to be that girl.
For years, I went to two hot yoga classes a day. I obsessed over my alignment, and not because I wanted it to be technically correct—I wanted it to be beautiful. I wanted to look perfect in my poses. If I happened to go to classes with mirrors (I strongly advise against this as it takes away from feeling the pose) and I saw my hips in warrior I, I thought they looked giant compared to the waif’s next to me. And my limbs were positively gangly, like a grotesque praying mantis. Even after years of practice, I still wobbled in balance poses: My tree pose seemed to live in constant hurricane conditions.
I was missing the point of yoga, the lesson that I’d started to understand during my first yoga experience: It doesn’t matter what I look like. What matters is “How do I feel?”
When we try to be like other people and ignore our own truths—the truth of our bodies, minds, and circumstances—chances are we’ll end up feeling pretty shitty. And I did: My body was sore, tired, and sick. Wanting to be the perfect yoga girl, I had also become a vegan, which sucked for me. My body began rebelling in every way possible, and I was constantly sick.
And I still felt like a soft praying mantis: no hard yoga body for me. My body just wasn’t made that way.
I still couldn’t execute inversions like a sexy acrobat, and I definitely was not the best at anything asana-related. Unless the award was for “falling asleep in savasana.” I was the best at that.
So I gave up trying to be the perfect yoga girl—though not on yoga itself. I gave up trying to be the best, realizing that the effort was futile. There was too much competition, and I was too tired trying to be perfect.
When I gave up, I learned a lot.
I learned that my yoga practice is the best one for me. On some days, it’s the same hard and fast hot yoga class that I used to enjoy. On others, it’s a funky neuro-sculpting class, with tons of restorative. Sometimes yoga looks like deciding to take a nap rather than going to class.
I learned that my yoga practice is the best one for me.
And I feel great.
I don’t follow a diet just because a yoga teacher or article told me that I have to in order to “be a good yogi”—I eat the best diet for me, full of healthy, nourishing foods that make sense for my age, body, and lifestyle. A diet approved by dieticians, nutritionists, and doctors, with actual training in the field.
And I feel great.
Through this practice, my life no longer revolves around proving that I’m perfect. Instead, it’s the best life for me, full of varied interests and hobbies and people. It took a while to get there, and the road was full of detours and wrong turns and some scary dead ends. But I learned a lot, and now looking back, it was the best road for me.
After more than twelve years, I continue to revisit that first yoga lesson. It will probably be something I consider every day for the rest of my life: My practice is my own, on or off the mat.
I may never be able to hold my inversions for more than a second or two, and that's okay. My body may never look like those I see in yoga magazine ads, and that’s okay too. I may never have the “perfect practice,” but I do my best.
Gentle reminder? Just do your best. Your life is your own, and it will and should never look like another's.
As my first teacher told me, we find peace and contentment when we stay on our own mats. Instead of comparing ourselves to others, we do our best, both in life and in the studio, when we keep our eyes focused on our own drishtis—moving forward in our own practices, and on our own paths.