by Jay Fields

One of my early teachers said, “You create a lot of energy through your yoga practice–be careful what you bring to your practice because that is what will get amplified in you.”

When I started yoga I brought to my practice a strong desire to be really good at yoga. The best. I wanted the teacher to think I was really good. I wanted to feel better than the other people in the class. I wanted the practice to make me the best version of myself–more aware, happier, dare I say, more enlightened. I didn’t see that what I was bringing to my practice was perfectionism, competition and self-criticism. And man did it get amplified! Without even being aware of it, I was practicing mean girl yoga.

It turns out that as I learned to bring more attention inward and to grow self-awareness it just gave me all the more to criticize. Suddenly I was able to see things about myself–my body, my feelings, my thoughts–on a microscopic level. I saw things about myself I had never seen simply because I had never looked. It was like taking a crash course in myself and finding that there were things about me I really loved–which was wonderful and exciting! But there were also things about me I really hated–which sucked. But only for a moment or two, because once I saw something I didn’t like I would only allow for a few moments to be disgusted or critical before I would file the thing I didn’t like away somewhere waaaaay under the surface. I would then focus on what I did like–how strong I felt, that I could do that pose better than the person next to me, that moment of internal quiet at the end of practice that was so nourishing. Surely I am getting more compassionate and better as a person if I can feel that moment of quiet peace after savasana!

But the reality was that I was a shell of happy, peaceful and positive with a whole shit storm of criticism and self-loathing underneath. I didn’t realize that this mixture of perfectionism, competition and criticism that I brought to my practice was actually creating more distance from myself because I was very conditional about what I allowed in about my own experience. Worse yet, this mixture was fueling righteousness. With my newfound awareness skills I started to see more about the people around me–my boyfriend, my friends, my family, strangers–and I became more critical of them, too. Surely I can “help them” the way I’m helping myself–by pointing out what they are doing wrong or the places where they are “not conscious.” In fact, while traveling with my boyfriend and a couple friend of his on a road trip a few years into my dedicated yoga practice, the other couple actually split off from us after only a few days because they couldn’t stand how righteous and judgmental I was.

I feel compassion toward this younger self now because I really didn’t know better. I actually thought that I was being loving to myself and to others by pointing out what could be better. In my mind–the mind of a perfectionist–if I (or they) could be “better” then I (and they) could get more love. Who wouldn’t want that? I was helping!

To be fair, my first teacher was wonderful and I know she invited us to practice with a sense of curiosity, and that she reminded us often that there was nothing to fix. I simply couldn’t hear it. But having come from a background as an elite gymnast, I was wired to hear opportunities to compete and to perfect. I focused instead on the precision of the alignment cues, the “right” way to do the pose. I also heard the poetry and inspiring quotes about having a peaceful mind and being more in your heart and it sounded so lovely that I just decided I was there. “Yep. Got that.”

It wasn’t until I moved to another state and began practicing with other teachers that I started to wake up to what I was doing because of how reactive I got. If a teacher only focused on the physical pose and on how far you should push yourself in it I would have a strong internal response. “That’s not what this is about!” Or if a teacher told me how I should feel, as in, “Feel how much compassion you have in your heart,” or “Feel how relaxed you are,” I would get pissed. “I don’t have compassion in my heart right now, and I don’t feel relaxed. Don’t tell me how I should feel!” Somewhere in me there was a part that got that I was doing yoga wrong–even if it still expressed itself as righteous judgement that the teacher was teaching yoga the wrong way!

I know I’m not the only one who has experienced that yoga can be the perfect arena for unchecked self-criticism that can morph into righteousness. I also know I’m not the only one who has learned–slowly, slowly–that yoga can be a deeply healing and integrating practice. Through my practice, I’ve experienced what it feels like to actually be there for myself, to have my own back. I’ve experienced offering curiosity and appreciation to myself that can spill out to others. I’ve stayed with myself through emotions that I would have far rather stuffed or run away from. I’ve felt how my own presence offers an internal sense of belonging, mattering and being loved–things that I previously thought only came from being perfect. In that way, I’ve come to better appreciate how imperfect I am.

With that, I can’t say that the mean girl has gone away. If I did I would just be perpetuating the undercurrent of perfectionism that is also still there. What is true is that I am continually humbled (and sometimes frustrated and saddened) by how ingrained perfectionism and criticism is in me, and I try my damnedest to not let me practice amplify these parts of me. What’s also true is that it’s been so very wonderful to get to know the kind girl inside who says, “Oh sweetie, you’re lovely just the way you are.”

What do you know about your mean girl or guy and how she or he shows up in your practice?
What do you know about your kind girl or guy and how she or he shows up in your practice?
The next time you practice, try bringing more curiosity and less criticism–more of a slow hmmmmm and less of a sharp huh as you track your experience.