It was a desire to be perfect that first brought me to the yoga mat. I thought that surely, this was a path that led to perfection of body and mind. When I first began the study of yogic philosophy and learned of the concept of santosha, contentment, I felt that contentment would be a result of achieving this perfection, the stilling of the vrittis, the ripples, of the mind, the blissful contentment of the yogi on the mountain. And I’d have a perfect body as a result, which was a necessary part of the package. How could I possibly be at peace if I didn’t have the perfect set of thighs?
My desire to be perfect took root early. I remember as a child reading the book Be A Perfect Person in Just Three Days by Stephen Manes. I was seven or eight years old, still short enough that I had to stand on my tip-toes and really reach to get the book off the top shelf at the school library. The story is about a young boy who finds a manual on how to become a perfect person, which consists of instructions to do less and less until eventually the poor boy is just sitting still in a darkened hall drinking weak tea. The point of the story, of course, is that mistakes are an inherent part of being human, and that perfection is a futile pursuit. I was so disappointed. I had eagerly read that book cover to cover because I thought I had found a manual that would actually show me how to be perfect.
It was that desire that caused me to struggle with an eating disorder throughout my adolescence and early twenties. When I first began practicing yoga it seemed the perfect combination of tools to control my mind and my body, which was hellbent on creating curves no matter how hard I tried to force it into straight lines. I didn’t really “like” yoga when I first started practicing. It was something I felt I should do, a map to the treasure I sought; the holy grail of perfection, which was both literally and figuratively quite similar to the story of the little boy who tried to sit perfectly still and drink only weak tea.
I didn’t actually begin to do yoga for the pure joy of it until I met my teacher, Patty Townsend, founder of Embodyoga® — a unique blend of the Body Mind Centering® work from Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, woven with the teachings of Tantric Yoga. I realized when I met my teacher and began practicing in this new way that rather than offering me tools for perfection, yoga was in fact offering me tools for optimization. This is an important distinction, and has made all the difference.
Whereas perfection is the adherence to a set standard, a judgment of how well we fit into a certain defined mold, optimization is inherently unique. The philosophy of the Tantra views us all as unique manifestations of the Shiva Shakti dance that weaves the universe. This is exciting, because it allows for an infinite range of possibilities. As I began to step fully into the recovery process from my eating disorder, rather than just the functional masking of illness I had been living with for several years, it was because I was able to see that the standard of a perfect body wasn’t just unrealistic for me and my genetics, (and thanks to the miracle of Photoshop, it is increasingly unrealistic for anyone’s genetics) it would also remove the uniqueness of my beauty from the range of options that Shakti, the creative force of the universe, expresses.
True love and acceptance of oneself is both the fundamental beginning and the advanced practice of yoga. It is Santosha– the pure acceptance of what is, without implying complacency, woven with Viveka– the discriminating intelligence that we hone through our study of yoga. I must first accept unconditionally who I am in this moment, and from this open, soft place of acceptance, Santosha, I can move out into the world to take action, if through the practice of Viveka– discriminating intelligence- I see that it is appropriate to do so.
This is deep. Opening to the fullness of acceptance is a multilayered process. Think of one thing you wish was different about yourself. It is far more difficult to narrow it down to just one thing than it is to think of anything at all, right? As yoga practitioners we are all very aware of our faults and flaws, whether it is our lack of mindfulness, our inability to hold certain poses or our rush to frustration…I am sure that like me, you have a laundry list of things you would like to change about yourself. But choose just one, close your eyes, and sit with it. Can you fully accept this part of yourself? More than just accepting that you are working on it, can you actually accept this aspect of yourself as a quality of your unique manifestation? That is the difference between the desire to be perfect and the desire to express optimally. If we can’t sit in full acceptance of our individual qualities, if we rush right into the desire to change and improve, then we are stuck holding ourselves up to the standard of perfection, rather than fluidly moving into optimal expression.
In our asana practice we can experience the distinction between the desire for perfection versus that for optimal expression when we come to our edge in a challenging posture. When we push ourselves into what we consider the “perfect” expression of the pose we risk hardening the body and the mind, losing the sensation of the breath, and we risk injury. We miss out on the expression of the pose that feels good because we are so attached to getting into a specific external shape. When the pose feels beautiful on the inside, when it is our optimal expression that allows us to feel the prana, life energy, flowing through the body, then it is beautiful on the outside as well. This is santosha, acceptance, linked with viveka, intelligence, as we learn to hone our practice, working with the alignment priciples from whatever school of yoga we like the best, to transform our body and our mind.
Santosha and viveka are not just about accepting and leaving it alone. We can work our edge, we can transform our body and our mind, but only if we do it from the soft, yielding acceptance, an openness to something bigger than ourselves; to Grace, to Source, ultimately to our true inherent nature of Satchitananda — pure, radiant awareness. Yoga is a transformative practice, and if we can change our desire for perfection to a desire for optimization, then we can experience a bliss that is more than perfect, it is exquisite. As we each move more fully into optimal expression, our actions serve as a catalyst for the shift of the world paradigm, from one of control and manipulation to one of ease and grace.