“can’t you just…”

Last week, one of my clients was telling me about her past experience with a yoga teacher. “She was young, thin, her body could do everything, and she was just trying to push my body into different positions, like, ‘can’t you just do this,’ and it wasn’t working at all…”

In that moment, not only was my client unable to do what her teacher was asking, she was also being treated as though she should easily be able to do it– leaving her feeling as though there was something wrong with her body.

Many (not all, but many) folks become personal trainers, yoga teachers, or fitness instructors because they have a natural facility for what they’re teaching. They find that moving their bodies is easy and fun– there’s little struggle for them. This means that when confronted with a client or student who can’t move their bodies easily, they often just don’t know what to do. Anytime you hear the words “can’t you just,” you can be sure that there’s a lack of empathy, understanding or experience at play. If the person “could just,” they already would be doing it.

Anytime you hear the words, “can’t you just,” you can be sure that there’s a lack of empathy, understanding, or experience in play.

On the one hand, I can relate to those able-bodied yoga teachers and movement professionals because of privilege in my own body. I have a certain amount of natural mobility and strength, and I found that yoga especially came really naturally to me. In my earliest days as a teacher, I learned quickly that lots of folks “couldn’t just” do what I could– and I sought out solutions and training to better understand how to help them.

I’ve also had the helpful experience of occasionally feeling like a bit of an outsider. There are certain things my body just doesn’t do well, and my proportions aren’t ideal for certain poses (which has caused at least one yoga teacher to “can’t you just” me). When it comes to other physical activities, I can be a slow learner. New patterns take me more time than some other folks. This has given me a lot of empathy and understanding for folks who need extra time, or a different explanation or demonstration.

If you find yourself working with a coach, teacher or other professional who asks “can’t you just,” remember this: it’s not you, it’s them. Each of us has a unique body, nervous system, and learning needs, among other variables– and this person may not be able to understand yours.

My recommendation in this situation? If at all possible, see if you can find someone else to work with who is able to explore different possibilities with you. If this is someone you must work with, you can kindly but unapologetically let them know that this isn’t something you’re “just” able to do– and that you’ll need some different options.

they handed me a french horn: (it’s not too late to be who you wish you had been)

“There is an inner wholeness that presses its still unfilled claims upon us.”

Emma Jung

My one and only childhood encounter with musical instruction happened at the age of 9. My classmates and I were filed into a small room where a visibly irritated and tired teacher handed each of us a musical instrument.

When they handed me the French horn, I felt a sense of deflation in my body. It was bulky, large, unglamorous. I had no interest in or connection to a French horn. I didn’t even know what it might sound like (and I could never make it sound like anything other than a strained cow myself). I couldn’t imagine a less appealing instrument. I never warmed to it and abandoned my musical career as quickly as I was allowed.

I remembered this today as I was driving home from the studio, listening to a neo-classical violin song, and having the kind of lovely full-body listening experience where I really felt the music in my body. I wondered if I would have been drawn to the violin as a child if I’d heard how haunting and evocative it can be; if I’d been given the opportunity to explore what I was really drawn to. What creative impulses die before they can ever be really born, simply for lack of opportunity? What happens to those parts of ourselves that we aren’t allowed to nurture?

While I wasn’t truly passionate about any instrument, my younger self did have an unfulfilled creative longing to participate in gymnastics. I watched my friends in their leotards showing off their athletic feats with envy ( I envied the leotards as much as the athleticism, I’m sure– even then, I appreciated how the right outfit created a sense of specialness, belonging, of “I wear this to do this.” ). It wasn’t a financial possibility for our family, so I didn’t even ask– I put it aside as something that wasn’t meant for me.

I’d forgotten all about those years until I started practicing yoga. Prior to that, I’d been sedentary for over a decade and would have told you I had no interest in anything athletic whatsoever. But the part of me who longed to move with grace and strength hadn’t died– she was simply waiting for the chance to be reborn. Once I had the chance, I easily learned to arm balance, handstand, and do all kinds of things that young Laura hadn’t had a chance to do. The physical practice of yoga helped me to become a more whole and complete self.

Did life hand you a French horn, when you really longed for a fiddle? If you look back, what can you recall that you always wanted to do, but weren’t able to? Those parts of ourselves are waiting inside, unfulfilled. What parts of you have been denied or suppressed? Who have you always wanted to be? Are you waiting to take up the paintbrush, or travel to Uzbekistan, or tell someone you love them? One of my clients took up ballroom dancing in her 60s. Another is 70, and learning to play songs he’s written himself on the guitar. Yet another inspirational client took up voice lessons in his 80s– when he sang his opera solo in my studio, the room vibrated and I was moved to tears.

So, what is it that calls to you? It might even be something that feels impossible, or terrifying– but that makes your body zing with excitement or possibility. That’s often a sign there’s something there to explore. “If we want to know the next step along the path toward what we are ‘meant to be,'” says Edward C Whitmont, “we can look for the thing that attracts and frightens at the same time.”

This is the deepest kind of self-care– excavating, acknowledging and finding ways to meet our unresolved desires. It’s not frivolous, but life-affirming in a way that you almost have to experience to know. Each of us deserves to become who we really long to be.

It’s Not Exercise, It’s Not a Workout, It’s Training (here’s why):

When I talk about the kind of work that I do, or how I move my body, you might notice that I never refer to my “workouts” or “exercise.” This is a deliberate choice that speaks to the kind of work that I do and the ways in which we can disrupt what Decolonizing Fitness calls “toxic fitness culture.” Let’s take a look.

Etymology of “Workout:”

First, it might be helpful to look at the origin of these terms. The term “workout” was first seen in 1909, where it was used to refer to a “boxing bout for training,” from work (v.) + out(adv.). By 1922, there’s a general sense of  “workout” meaning a “spell of strenuous physical exercise.”

maybe this is what you think of when you hear “workout”– but there are other ways to train, too.

Strenuous physical exercise is only one kind of training, & it’s naturally exclusive. When we think “workout,” most of us imagine a specific type of training. I think of sweat, and movement, and being tired afterward. This is great, for some bodies, some of the time.  Not every body is capable of this type of strenuous physical activity.

Additionally, all bodies need a variety of training. Strength and conditioning are important, but we also need to train mobility, dexterity, speed and agility. Our brains need training, too, as do our nervous systems. We may need to train our ability to rest or recover (yes, that’s really a thing).

The terms “exercise” and “workout” are concepts from the fitness industrial complex.

Our “wellness” culture is a reflection of our larger society. It promotes certain body types (younger, smaller, healthy, strong, able-bodied, cisgendered, heterosexual) as more worthy. It also denies access to services for those who are less worthy, either explicitly (such as health care disparity) or implicitly (via marketing, etc).

We’ve come to associate “exercise” and “working out” with the idea of changing our bodies to be more culturally acceptable: healthier, thinner/smaller, stronger.

  • Healthier bodies are not morally superior to less healthy bodies.
  • Thinner bodies are not inherently better than fatter bodies.
  • Strong bodies are not more worthy than weaker bodies.

But these are commonly held beliefs.

There are many reasons to move your body that have nothing to do with weight loss or shape change.

  • Movement is fun & can feel good.
  • It supports mental health.
  • Maybe you want to feel stronger, more coordinated, or learn a new skill.
  • Some people like to share time with friends & family doing movement (waterskiing, going for a walk, dancing).

As you can imagine, this concept is especially important for folks who are recovering from eating disorders.

We can call “workouts” and “exercise” something else because it can be something else.

an example of a different kind of training

If I told you I was going to exercise or work out today, there’s a cultural implication about morality (exercise is something we “should do”),  weight loss, calorie burn, along with ideas about what that might look like: running, weights, the gym.

“I’m going to train today” has less cultural weight and can mean that I’m training all kinds of things: my body, my mind, my ability to stand on my head or to lift my big toe by itself.

“I’m going to move today” can include all kinds of things, from gardening to painting to a long, contemplative walk.

“Training” and “Movement” are available to everybody.

While not all bodies have equal access to the commonly held concept of “workout” or “exercise,” all bodies are capable of training and moving in their own ways.

For those who struggle with the idea of “exercise” or “working out,”  finding your own ways to move or train can be really liberating.

Words are important, but choice is important too.

I have many clients, friends and mentors who use the terms “workout” and “exercise.” Each of us can mean something different by these terms. If it feels important to you to use these words, then I am 100% in support of that. For my personal practice and my work, this is just one way that I have chosen to un-settle myself (as the descendant of white settlers, I “unsettle” rather than “decolonize”) and to work on my own inherent bias.

6 ways that movement helps support mental health

(There are definitely more, but 6 is a nice number to start with!)

  1. Endorphins. Movement releases “feel-good” hormones like seratonin, endorphins, dopamine & norepinephrine (adrenaline). You really can get a natural high. If you’re moving in synchronicity with other people, socializing, or outdoors, you may get an additional dose of these!
  2. Improves the mind-body connection. Our body has all kinds of wisdom to share with us, but we’re not always able to hear it, or we may have learned to ignore it. Mindful movement teaches us to pay attention to the information our body is sending us so that we can make better choices to support our safety and well-being.
  3. Decoupling activation from stress. It’s not uncommon for folks to have negative associations to the feeling of activation in their body. A faster pulse, shallow breath, elevated body temp can all feel like stress– but they’re also things that happen naturally we practice movement! Learning that feeling “activated” doesn’t have to be negative gives us a greater capacity to handle these feelings in our body when they do arise.
  4. Becoming more comfortable with difficult feelings. Movement– even gentle  yoga– can teach us that it’s possible to experience a difficult emotion (such as frustration with a new movement) or a challenging sensation (think intense stretch or a fatigued muscle on that last set) without needing to immediately numb out, medicate, or flee from a situation.  We get better at working with tough situations.
  5. Work with our body’s natural rhythms. Our nervous system is designed to oscillate naturally between cycles of stress and cycles of ease. Movement allows us to use the energy of our stress response to move naturally into more settled states. It also helps us to get out of the “stuck” energy of old stress/traumatic events so that we can move forward in our lives. In this way, we learn to ride the ups and downs of life with greater ease and confidence– we improve our stress tolerance.
  6. Increased self-confidence. Movement is a natural self-teacher. Through repetition, we improve our ability to practice skills like walking, lifting  weights, catching a ball, and using our bodies in different ways. Becoming a stronger, faster, more coordinated and efficient mover translates directly to a natural sense of self-confidence. We trust our bodies (and ourselves) more.

What other ways have you found that mindful movement supports your own mental health?

why mindful movement matters

Mindfulness gained popularity in the past few decades as a secular way to experience the benefits of meditation. It’s become so common as to almost be cliched. Your employer is encouraging mindfulness as a means to reduce stress (and lower their own costs). Your favorite actors go on regular mindfulness retreats. And now the many folks in the fitness industry are suggesting that their version of mindful movement will be beneficial not just for your body but for your mind and soul. 

let’s define mindfulness

Mindfulness is often defined as, “bringing awareness to the present moment in a non-judgmental way.”  In mindfulness meditation ( simply become aware of things, as they are, without trying to change them. We let go of goals (even the seemingly harmless goal of trying to be more peaceful or relaxed) and allow things to be just as they are. The technique is quite simple, but the practice is not always easy. 

Left to its own devices, our mind likes to dwell in what’s known as “default mode.” We ruminate on the past; fantasize about the future; commentate and color our current experience with narrative. Default mode is what’s operating when our mind is wandering or we’ve “tuned out.” It’s called “default mode” for a great reason— we spend most of our time in this state. 

Mindfulness practice is a deliberate action of turning off default mode and training ourselves to be in a state of present-moment awareness.  We can do this by deliberately bringing awareness to things like sensations, sounds, smells, sights, or even more interior experiences of breath, thought or emotion. 

what makes movement “mindful?”

Movement becomes mindful when we direct our awareness to what our body is experiencing in the moment. That might be something as simple as feeling our feet planted on the ground, or the arm moving through the air. With greater awareness (and this can take more practice and skill), we can notice things like breath, muscular contractions or stretch sensations. We may also notice our more subtle interior physical reactions to the present moment experience , where we register embodied emotional reactions.

In addition to simply practicing awareness of our present-moment experience, mindful movement includes a second step that requires even more sensitivity and skill: we respond with wisdom to the experience as it unfolds in each moment. For example, if I’m training vigorously and notice that I’m no longer able to breathe through my nose, I recognize that it’s time for me to slow down (rather than pushing through). If I am almost done with a set of deadlifts and I develop a sharp knee pain, I stop the set rather than “just finish the set.” Or, if I see a text notification that I know might take me out of my practice (perhaps it might be stressful), then I can make a mindful choice not to read it just then.

Of course, we’re going to make mistakes in this kind of practice, but the really cool thing is that our mindfulness gives us immediate feedback. If I chose to read the text (and I’m paying attention to my response), I can recognize how it’s affecting me. I might make a different choice next time. Or, we may not get feedback right away (perhaps I pushed through that set with the knee pain), but when we do recognize the results of our decision (my knee hurts the next day), we can recall with greater clarity just what we did and why because we were paying deliberate attention.

so wait, it’s not just yoga?

When we think of mindful movement, we often think of slow, deliberate, contemplative practices like yoga, tai chi, or qigong. It’s true that these practices may have mindfulness already built into the structure, but we don’t need to limit ourselves to just this kind of movement. Mindful movement can be any kind of movement– running, kettlebells, dancing. It doesn’t need to be slow (although you may find it easier to pay attention with slower movements at first).

In fact, for people who live with the effects of trauma, anxiety or stress, a deliberately slow or introspective practice like yoga can feel overwhelming. The deliberate attention we’re directed to give to our internal experience can be really uncomfortable or even detrimental. If that sounds like you, then it might be better to explore activities that feel more deliberately physical or muscular, or that appeal to you for any reason.

sympathetic joy: learning to celebrate others’ good fortune

You’re probably familiar with the concepts of lovingkindness (metta), compassion (karuna), and equanimity (upekkha). When we wish, pray or chant, “May all beings be happy and free from suffering,” we have a clear understanding of what is being offered. Even equanimity feels pretty clear: we wish that all beings be unbothered by the ups and downs of life. But what about mudita– often translated as sympathetic joy? This one doesn’t get as much press, and it may be because it’s a little harder to understand– and to practice.

what is sympathetic joy?

First, a little context: these four qualities together are known as the “four immeasurables,” because they are immeasurable in their quality (they’re also called “boundless”) and in the number of sentient beings they encompass. That is, when we pray or wish for others, there is no limit to the amount of love, compassion, equanimity and sympathetic joy we wish for them– and we wish it for all beings everywhere.

Mudita, or sympathetic joy, is the practice of delighting in others’ good fortune. It’s the opposite of envy or jealousy. Theoretically, it’s a natural next step to wishing happiness for others. We want to celebrate the good things that happen to them! Sounds easy, right? In practice, things sometimes get a little muddy.

Pema Chödrön illustrates the problem by suggesting that we imagine our friend walks in eating a delicious piece of chocolate cake on a plate. Do we say, “How wonderful you’ve got this cake!”? No, she says, we’re more likely to say, “Where did you get the cake, and why didn’t you bring me any?”

…why is this so hard for us?

While I firmly believe that all beings have innate goodness, I also understand that each of us sees life through a very self-centered lens. I say that without judgment– literally, we are the center of our own world. We see through our own eyes, we taste with our own senses, we suffer or feel pleasure in our own bodies. To each of us, the world revolves around my body and my mind.

We’re also biologically designed to care for ourselves. This is a basic survival need, but we are also programmed to enjoy things that taste and feel good (sensory pleasures like chocolate cake), or societal status rewards, like a fancy car (which might make us feel like we are an important part of our group, or that we have some illusory control over our circumstances).

Sympathetic joy turns our natural self-centeredness inside out. Because it is not always our spontaneous reaction, it allows us to see just where we have work to do. This opens the door for a more genuine and authentic caring for others.

in finding our own needs met, we can wish the same for others

Many of us have untended emotional or psychological wounds that have left us feeling a sense of lack or fulfillment in our own lives. Perhaps our needs in childhood were not met as they should have been, or we are not getting our basic needs met now. Through no fault of our own, we may find ourselves feeling emotionally impoverished.

An important step toward practicing sympathetic joy can be found in healing our own past hurts and making sure that our needs are met. If we attempt to feel joy for others’ good fortune while we are still experiencing a sense of lack in our own lives, we can find our efforts thwarted by resentment and anger. Think of it this way: if you’re starving, it’s hard to be happy about someone else’s cake, isn’t it?

The good news is that working with sympathetic joy may be the nudge we need to do some deep personal work. If you find yourself pissed off and bitter about your neighbor’s new Mercedes (or partner/job/house/etc) , it might be interesting to explore why that is– through contemplation, journaling, meditation, or with the help of a good therapist.

Finding satisfaction in our own lives may require healing work, or a gratitude practice, or perhaps a drastic change. Interestingly, what often happens at this point is that we can recognize where others may be experiencing a lack of their own. We wish them happiness, and freedom from suffering, as we’ve found for ourselves. Then we really can celebrate the wonderful things that might happen to them– even the chocolate cake.

how do you practice sympathetic joy?

There are lots of ways to practice mudita, but one simple way is in formal meditation (that just means we’re sitting down to meditate, rather than thinking about it in passing). We can start by finding a comfortable seat. For a moment or two, let your mind rest– maybe you feel your body settling into the seat, or notice your breath– without feeling like you need to change anything. Now, call to mind someone that you love. See them in your mind’s eye, and allow yourself to feel any warm emotions that might arise, and recall that you naturally want them to be happy and free from suffering. This should be pretty easy– if not, you might try another loved one instead, perhaps someone with whom you share a less complicated relationship (I find animals work well for me when humans are challenging).

Now, imagine something really awesome happening for that person– maybe they win the lottery, or they’re on a vacation. Let yourself feel joy on their behalf– celebrating for them. Take a moment to really let yourself experience that sympathetic joy, and then let your mind rest again before you repeat this activity with another imagined piece of good fortune.

This is difficult work to sustain, so be patient and work in small doses. Don’t try to stay with it for too long, and rest your mind (perhaps with breath meditation) in between. A few minutes is great. It’s also okay to fake it a little bit at first. Remember that we’re practicing in order to get better at really feeling it, so if you notice that you’re struggling, that’s great! This practice was created for humans just like you and me so that we can become more truly loving. Just as our muscles grow stronger with repetitive training, our empathetic, compassionate and caring connection to others grows deeper and more authentic with practice.

body positivity isn’t always the (best) answer

When I was a freshly-minted new yoga teacher, I had one goal with my students: to help them to recognize that they were enough, perfect, just as they were. I proclaimed radical self-love to anyone who would listen– convinced that if they could just throw out their scale and embrace their own imperfections, they would discover true happiness. At the time, I had just become a certified Curvy Yoga teacher and was excited to make yoga more accessible to more people. While I had great intentions, I was missing one a big piece of the puzzle: my own privilege.

I’m a young(ish), thin, white woman, educated, upper middle class, able-bodied and cisgendered. While I’ve had my own struggles with mental health, body image and disordered eating, the reality is that I’ve never been too far from what our culture centers as “the norm.” For me to declare radical self-love or body positivity was a pretty small step, and didn’t require any real risk. Even when I was in a bigger body, I was still able to fit comfortably in public spaces and purchase clothes at major retailers. I never had to navigate racism or ableism. Wellness spaces (and their marketing) were filled with folks that looked like me, so that even if my social anxiety got in the way, I understood that I was intended to be there and it was safe.

Where the messages of body positivity and “self-love” fall short is that in a culture that values one type of body over another, not all bodies have equal access to safety. Simply based on marketing images alone, to be fat, openly queer, or BIPOC, for example, is to automatically be considered “other.” Worse, this “otherness” means that if you are not thin, white, able-bodied and cisgendered, you may not have equal access to health care. You may earn less than your colleagues. Property ownership may be less of a possibility for you. For those in bigger bodies or living with disabilities, simply navigating the world is more challenging everything from public transportation to the chairs in your doctor’s office may be uncomfortable or completely inaccessible.

As I grow older, I’m also more conscious of the ways in which our seniors are treated differently; often with less inherent respect and dignity. I recognize my own feelings of dismay at wrinkles, gray hair and other signs that my body is aging, and I have more empathy and compassion for the ways in which we work to “stop the signs of aging.” I recall an especially poignant episode of Grace and Frankie in which Grace (Jane Fonda), tired of being treated like a senior citizen, cries out, “I just want to be relevant!”

We all deserve to feel safe, comfortable, and relevant. It’s only natural that some of us will feel compelled to make changes to our bodies in order to meet these basic needs. To ask all humans to love themselves through unconditional body positivity is to deny the reality that many people are desperately trying to navigate a system that is ignoring, discriminating against, shaming, or even killing them.

Rather than offer body positivity, we can encourage body neutrality. Body neutrality allows us to acknowledge our bodies for what they can do for us, rather than for what they look like. We can recognize the functions that our bodies have, even when we aren’t able to appreciate or love them.

Body neutrality allows each individual to have their own experience with their body. It does not deny the inequity of our cultural ideals, nor does it invalidate anyone’s lived experience. It also allows room for self-agency and autonomy, including the idea that each of us may want or need to change our body in order to feel safe or comfortable within our current systems.

When we center an experience of body neutrality, rather than body positivity, we can begin to work toward body liberation. Body liberation seeks to free all bodies from the hierarchal systems that keep all bodies from experiencing true equity and equality. It’s a social justice movement that begins with an understanding and acceptance of ourselves and our complicated relationship with our bodies.

In our next blog, we’ll take a look at ways that you can practice true body neutrality and/or body liberation (and a few of the unconscious ways you may have been upholding systems of oppression in your own relationship to your body).

diversify your joy portfolio

When you think about health and wellness, what comes to mind? Exercise, meditation, massage, eating well? What about just feeling good– are you prioritizing joy and pleasure for yourself? 

Learning to allow ourselves to feel good doesn’t come easy for some of us, especially those of us who have a history of traumatic stress or anxiety, but it’s so important for our well-being and for the greater good. I’ve been listening to The Finding Our Way podcast with Prentis Hemphill. In this episode, she’s interviewing Vanessa Rochelle Lewis, who teaches folks how to “reclaim their ugly.” Vanessa speaks to the importance of feeling good as a means to a healthier society: 

I believe that a lot of us make decisions based off of what we have been socialized to believe as right, as moral, as good, this is the way things should be. And a lot of times ‘the way things should be’ don’t actually serve our joy, or our capacity to be good to ourselves or other people. And so I want people to be able to slow down, to move away from what they’ve been taught and connect to what feels good to them in their heart, what feels gravy for them in their body, and to trust and honor the divinity and the brilliance of their intuition, the brilliance of their desire to feel good..

When we’re looking at what does it mean to feel good, what does it mean to create a world where we’re not interfering with other people’s ability to feel good, we’re going to experience a lot more peace. We’re going to experience the space and the resource to make systemic choices, to make structural choices in our families and our organizations and our lives, to imagine…and to facilitate a world that is less rooted in oppression, less rooted in harm, and more rooted in good, loving compassion. 

I was recently introduced to the idea of “diversifying your joy portfolio.”  The idea is that the greater variety of things we have in our lives that bring us pleasure, the better-resourced we are for those days when things don’t feel so great or life goes a little upside down. In thinking about the things in my life that bring me joy, I came up with five categories to help diversify our joy portfolios:

1. Movement: this could be gardening, joyful movement, play, a sweaty training session at the gym, a walk in the park. How can you use your body in a way that feels pleasurable and fun? 
2. Social Connection: in-person, on the phone, letters, a surprise gift, a coffee date, FaceTime, cuddling or snuggling your furry companions. 
3. Restful/Introspective Activities: a snuggly nap, journaling, meditation restorative yoga, an hour on the couch with your favorite reading material, a relaxing bath. These are activities that are restful for your body/mind or allow you to spend quiet time nurturing that connection.
4. Work/Hobbies/Intellectual Stimulation: Maybe you love Words with Friends, or History Channel bios. Learning a new language or skill. What tickles your brain and feels fun? What gets you in a “zone”? 
5. Sensual Nourishment: cooking or eating a delicious meal, aromatherapy, a massage. Think things that just feel good to your body. 

How can you diversify your joy portfolio?

  • Make a list of your own joy activities. If this feels hard, ask yourself, what brings me pleasure in my day? What feels ‘gravy’ in my body? What do I enjoy doing, even if I haven’t been doing it lately? 
  • Take a look and see in which category your joy activities fall. Are you someone who gravitates toward work? Do you spend a lot of time indulging in sensual nourishment, but not so much time connecting with others? 
  • Find areas where you’re not spending as much time, and come up with two or three joy activities to prioritize in those areas. Then, schedule them into your week and follow through.
  • Whether it’s a scheduled activity or a surprise moment of joy, take an extra two minutes to let it soak in: pause, notice the feeling of pleasure or joy in your body. Imagine it soaking in or spreading through your body. This helps the feeling to stay with us longer. Click here for a guided meditation to practice this!

has perfectionism been your protection?

“I don’t understand why I’m so bad at this,” my client said. “Why can’t I do it?”

“Have you ever done this before?” I asked her. “Why do you think you would be an expert at something you’ve never done before?”

Perfectionism shows up in our movement practice much as it does in the rest of our life. Many of us have incredibly high expectations of ourselves: not only should we be able to do this thing, but we should be the best we can possibly be. Anything less than 100% success is an utter failure– and failure is not an option.

Yet it’s this perfectionism– this need to be the very best– that prevents us from learning, keeps us from enjoying new activities, demands that we only do things at which we already excel. We lack tolerance for the frustration that accompanies learning, and will often quit (or refuse to participate) before we can fail.

Perfectionism can be experienced as ‘the inner critic,’ who sees all that we do, judges us harshly and frequently finds us wanting. Sometimes that critic speaks with the voice of someone we know, or maybe it feels like your inner mean girl who won’t let you ever just live your damn life. Your inner critic can seem like your biggest enemy.

Yet perfectionism can be a protective adaptation. In always being “the best,” we ensured that we were admired, accepted, or even loved. This might have been something that was necessary for parental approval or peer acceptance. In this way, our perfectionism kept us safe. The idea of not being perfect– of failing– is synonymous with rejection. This can be incredibly painful.

When we see perfectionism in this light, as a habit, or a persona that has protected us from harm throughout our lives, our relationship with it may begin to shift. How wonderful that we have this part of us that has wanted to keep us safe! Instead of being angry at our inner critic, we can say, ‘Thank you for caring about me.’ And then perhaps we can begin to choose another way of working with ourselves, knowing that failure does not mean that we are unloved or unworthy.

Learning to fail is a healthy and normal part of the human experience. If we never had the opportunity to learn and grow in this way, then our movement practice is the perfect place to explore how failure is not final, nor is it fatal. Not being “the best” doesn’t have to mean that we’re rejected or uncared-for. Our perfectionism, once our best protector, can step to the side and make room for a more creative and curious way of being in the world.

different bodies look different in yoga poses: a case study in upward-facing dog

Have you been told that there is a right way and a wrong way to do a pose? Maybe you were taught one “proper alignment” or principles that should apply to all bodies. Like so many yoga folks, I used to think that there were rules about how yoga should look– but I couldn’t make my body conform to them. Learning to let go of yoga alignment rules set me free to really enjoy my yoga practice, and to help others to do the same.

Okay, journey back with me in time, many years, to an advanced yoga teacher training program* with an experienced instructor. We were breaking down each asana (pose) to learn the proper alignment for each.

When we came to Urdhva Mukha Svanasana, Upward-facing Dog, I hit a moment of truth. The proportions of my body (more on this in a minute) mean that I cannot experience this shape in the same way that someone with longer arms can. With my arms straight, my hips rest on the floor, and I don’t get a chance to fully extend my spine into a backbend. Because I had been told that in Upward-Facing Dog my hips needed to be off the floor, I was not “doing the pose right.”

There I was, attempting to make my Up Dog look like someone else’s, and failing, naturally, because my body can only do what my body can do. One of my fellow teachers turned to me and said, “Can’t you just lift your hips?”

As a matter of fact, I could not “just lift my hips.” If I did, the pose became more like a push-up; my spine was no longer doing a backbend.* She and the others stood there, stymied, at a loss to understand how my body could not do the proper alignment for this pose.

Upward-Facing Dog looks different in different bodies. With longer arms and a shorter torso, the hips are off the floor. With shorter arms and a longer torso, the hips rest on the floor.

If we take a look at the two people in the picture above, we can see that the person on the top left has her arms straight in her Up Dog; her hips are several inches above the floor. Now, if she were to change her shoulder position a bit by shrugging her shoulders down and back, her hips would come a little closer to the floor, but we can be reasonably sure they wouldn’t touch.

The person on the bottom right also has straight arms, but her hips are clearly on the floor. If she were to push her hands into the floor, she might be able to lift her hips, but I can tell you from experience that’s a pretty awkward thing to do, and you lose the element of the backbend (spinal extension) in the pose.

If both of these people were to sit side by side in Dandasana (seated staff pose), and place their palms on the floor, we’d have a better look at their arm to torso position. You can see an example in the pictures below.

Dandasana (seated staff pose) is a great place to see how different people’s torso to arm proportion varies.

This is just one of the many ways in which our bodies can differ– and one of the many reasons why our yoga poses can look different, while still being “correct.” Can you see how it might not even be possible for these people to do this pose in the same way? And, looking at the proportion, can you imagine how it might feel different in their spine when they do the pose? Now, imagine these folks were to wrap their arms around themselves for a bind. How might their arm length affect their ability to grab their own hand? What if their torso is wider? Are they doomed to a lower state of enlightenment?

Below, you can see a picture of my own expression of Upward-Facing Dog. I’ve added a block under each hand to artificially lengthen my arms. Because I’m able to lift my torso higher in this way, my spine can extend (backbend) more– and it feels really, really good. I’ve also got my toes tucked under, because I came forward into the pose from Down Dog– but the extra height and stretch under my feet feels nice, too. Why not?

Upward-Facing Dog with hands on blocks gives extra room for the spine to extend.

When we let go of our ideas about how a yoga practice should look, we make space for a greater range of experience. We normalize body variation (because despite what we see online and in clip art, yoga is not just for thin white women). We give greater agency to each student to choose the variation that makes sense for them– and we start by not calling them “modifications,” since there’s no right way to “modify” in the first place.

*I don’t know where all of those teachers are now, but I hope they (like me) went on to learn more about anatomy, body proportions, human variations, and how to see the various parts of a pose!

**Also, any time someone says, “can’t you just…” that’s a big old red flag to me that this person is looking for a simple answer to a complex situation.