Yoga, Gold Stars, and a Culture of Achievement

Hi. My name is Rachel and I’m a recovering overachiever. An all-too-willing victim of the Western culture of achievement, I strive for too much, too fast. I want it all, and will chase it relentlessly–even when I don’t know what “it” is. All I know is that there’s a part of me that wants to win and if I go bigger, better, faster, I will get the gold star. Then, I will be happy.

Right?

ACHIEVEMENT HANGOVER

The reality is that there’s rarely a gold star. When I mindlessly chase the elusive “it,” I wind up exhausted and feeling defeated and I’m not even sure why. (Hamster on a wheel, anyone?) I’m left with an achievement hangover.

I came to yoga in a frenzy about 10 years ago as a way to change my body. I figured if I could only get my body “right,” everything else in my life would fall into place. (That’s how it works, right?) So I came to my mat–and kept coming back–as a way to control my body. I focused on the physical. I compared myself to other students. I struggled through punishing classes because I thought I should. I chased the elusive posture.

I obsessed about doing yoga the “right” way. I wanted to “do the full expression of the pose” (whatever THAT means) and I wanted to make progress in every session (because progress is always a step forward, right?). I wanted the teacher to praise me for my excellent utthita trikonasana. I wanted praise for my revolved side angle. Gold stars, remember?

It didn’t matter much what my body said about the process. My body was my adversary–getting in the way of doing my best yoga. I blamed my body for not being like the bendy yogis I watched out of the side of my eyes during class. I berated myself for being stiff and sore or for my arms not being able to reach where they were “supposed to go.” (News flash: I have anatomically short arms. I know this now.)

Sooner or later, I would get frustrated with my lack of “progress” and give up. Sometimes I would quit altogether. Sometimes I would drift away, “forgetting” my yoga clothes at home. My single-minded focus pushed me away from my mat rather than toward it. If I couldn’t do perfect yoga, why bother?

IT’S CALLED A PRACTICE FOR A REASON

Yoga is a practice and I was missing the point back when I got started. I thought that doing yoga was sequential: “Today, I am a beginner. Tomorrow, I will be an intermediate yogi. Next week, I will bend myself into a pretzel.”

That’s not how yoga works. (That’s how you get injured. Or wind up defeated and quitting.)

Yoga is different everyday because your body is different everyday. There’s no clear path. Seasoned yogis know we’re all beginners, regardless of how long we have been practicing. Talk about a wake-up call to counter my need to achieve yoga.

ONE WORD, TWO MEANINGS

The word “practice” is both a noun and a verb. Dictionary.com defines them this way:

noun. repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it.

verb. carry out or perform an activity habitually or regularly.

When I first came to my mat, I thought of yoga only as a noun. My focus was on being good at yoga. Now, I approach my practice as an action in and of itself. The magic happens when I come to my mat everyday with an open mind, knowing that today’s body will be what it is. The achievement is in the showing up without preconceived expectations.

COME FOR THE PHYSICAL PRACTICE, STAY FOR THE QUIET MIND

The practice of showing up to my mat has changed yoga for me. Today, I am called to my mat by a gentle, intuitive style of yoga. I started doing yoga for the physical practice and have stayed for the peace of mind that yoga gives me.

I’m still driven to achieve gold stars, but now I give them to myself–for showing up and for being gentle with myself. I have a planner filled with stickers to mark the days I honor each of my various practices. Some of them are stars. Old habits die hard.

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