Practice DOESN’T make perfect: The pain of perfectionism

By Caroline McCarter

As a yoga therapist, I’ve worked with many clients who suffer from an overbearing perfectionistic voice that makes them falsely believe they can’t take charge of their own well-being. I’ve heard them say,

  • “I don’t trust myself to do it correctly on my own,” or
  • “If I can’t look exactly like [that person over there], then I won’t do it at all,” or even,
  • “I am unable to do this pose, so I can’t do yoga.”

I have even found that many yoga classes push students into an idealized “correct” or “perfect” posture, and teachers may move students to get them into a “better” position.

Although the perfectionist’s voice can help you attain goals and win awards, it can also have negative side-effects. In some of us, perfectionism can lead to obsessive-compulsive behaviors, disordered eating, social anxiety, clinical depression, and more. (And the problem is getting worse.)

Photo by Scott Webb

But in yoga—and especially in yoga therapy—there is no perfect position! We come in all shapes and sizes and bring to the practices varied experience with physical activity, injuries, accidents, memories, trauma…the list of variations is endless! We are all so unique—how could there be an exact perfect way to practice yoga?

A yoga therapist’s goal is to support clients to heal themselves, just as they are, and even to change and enhance their relationships with the physical body and mind.

Working with the mind—sometimes through the body

Although many yoga therapy sessions include some kind of movement (asana), the practice has other important aspects, too. One of these is the philosophy of why we would practice yoga. If yoga was solely about stretching and moving our bodies, we could choose from many other modalities: pilates, dancing, swimming, somatics, etc.…

But yoga is really about working with our thoughts. Over time, we can create compassionate, wise voices in our minds to mediate the internal dialogue. One of the most important ideas in yoga is a concept called ahimsa, which relates to taking care of oneself, others, and the world itself:

Engaging in ahimsa, or non-harmfulness, is about examining our thoughts and behaviors, and moving away from the ones that cause disturbances and toward those that create peace. A quiet yoga practice encourages us to watch our angry thoughts and impulses, refrain from acting on them or identifying with them, and respond with clear headed compassion. In terms of ahimsa, an ongoing practice of yoga leads a person toward greater sensitivity to the sacredness of life.

(This is from my book, Yoga Life: A Workbook of Authentic Practices.)

If you are suffering from an internal dialogue that limits you or causes pain, reach out to a yoga therapist! We are here to help through the healing power of yoga. Even just one private session can aid you in bettering your relationship with your body, mind, and spirit.

Caroline McCarter, C-IAYT, owns a private yoga therapy practice in Austin, Texas, where she creates customized yoga therapy practices for physical, mental, and spiritual issues. In addition to the yoga philosophy workbook mentioned above, she has published a chanting CD.