Posted on April 17 2019
“What on earth are you doing?” my yoga teacher asked me in class last week as he caught me trying to peer around and look at my own shoulders in downward dog.
“Nothing,” I said as I tried to wriggle out of it. He brought me down to my knees and asked me kindly to explain myself. The truth is I was paranoid that I was doing it wrong. During a weekend workshop in Paris with Chuck Miller, we had explored the shoulders in downward dog. We had looked at them in micro detail and worked towards straightening the arms so that you spread the load of the weight. We were learning to lift the forearms up and away from the floor, lifting the inner arm up and firming out, and get the outer arm moving down and firming in. It was pretty complex work, but I tried my darn hardest to grasp the concept and then to apply it to my practice.
During an exercise with a partner, it was pointed out to me that I had large dimples in my shoulders. I instantly took this that I was doing it wrong. I then set about trying to correct it, in every downward dog.
When I learn lots of new information about Ashtanga yoga, I take it away, digest it, and then try to apply it to my own practice. The problem is that I will try to overdo it. I have a perfectionist streak which is amplified by an inner fear of 'doing it wrong.' This leads to me mentally trying too hard. Putting too much emphasis on doing it right. Trying too hard to be perfect. This is what my teacher really caught me doing.
In yoga, we try to burn away our Samskara’s -- our bad habits or behavioral patterns -- which no longer serve us. But in order to burn them away, first, we must see them clearly. We can’t change something that we can’t even see. Yoga can be seen as a mirror, in which we start to see our own reflection. It enables us to see how we do things or why we do them a certain way. Only then can we try to change them for the better.
So one of my Samskara’s is seeking perfection, born out of a fear of doing it wrong, desperate for others not to look down on me. I not only do this in my everyday life, but I bring it to the mat with me. Often the behavior that we display on the mat is exactly the same as the behavior we display elsewhere (we just may not be aware of it yet). “Same person, same body, same behavior," as Chuck Miller puts it.
After class, my teacher had a little word in my ear. He very gently pointed out to me what it was that I was doing: “Seeking perfection in your practice is only really reinforcing your Samskara’s. It is maintaining those patterns that you apply to your life. Yoga is supposed to be diminishing that very process, but you have to recognize that and you have to let it go. It doesn’t matter if you're right – in fact, there is no right or wrong. Its good to try to apply what you have learned, but the only thing you will gain by trying to look over your shoulder in downward dog is a crooked neck and a dodgy shoulder. Not what you are trying to achieve!” He was so right.
Sometimes we need someone else to point out these things to us! In the mail that week I received a printed out article from my teacher. It was explaining how when you open the shoulders and create space, these dimples appear. So, in fact, the very thing that I thought was a sign of doing it wrong, was actually an effect of doing it right. “The man in Paris was obviously paying you a compliment,” the note read. Unnecessary worrying on my part.
So busy worrying about perfection that I missed the point. So the moral of this story is that you have to learn to look at what behaviors you have towards yourself. Do you beat yourself up for being wrong? Do you compare yourself to others? Are you better than them or worse than them?
This behavior will indicate to you your own Samskara’s and will then hopefully give you something to work on.
Whatever it is that you notice in your practice you need to increase the opposite of it. Do you need to be kinder to yourself? Do you need to relax more? Do you need to learn humility? Do you need more self-confidence? Do you need to be less uptight? Do you need to not fear to be wrong and be happy where you are?
Yoga is balance. It works at creating a balance not only in your body but also in your mind to get you back to being who you really are. So for me right now – perfect doesn’t make practice!
Ashtanga Yoga Devon - UK Distributor for Yoga Paws