You know your yoga practice is working when your life gets better, not when your yoga gets better.
You know who I’m talking about.
Maybe this was you; maybe this is you—the mala bead wearing, namaste talkin', slightly arrogant, super neurotic, I-never-eat-meat-refined-flour-or-nonorganic-food type.
The person who looks down on anyone who doesn’t do yoga, isn’t vegan, has “negative energy,” or has a corporate job.
I know this person because this person was me.
When I lived in New York City, I would pause when I walked by a McDonald’s and pray for the people inside. I prayed that they would find enlightenment and stop eating such low-quality food made with tortured animals and additives.
Then I would walk off, feeling better than everyone and very satisfied with myself.
You see, yogis don’t overtly judge—we cover it up in spiritual guise.
I practiced yoga religiously, I was a vegetarian, I had mantras memorized, I’d been to India, and could get both feet behind my head. Meanwhile, I was stuck in a codependent relationship, addicted to sugar, and in a constant battle with a core belief that I wasn’t enough.
For me, yoga is a tool for self-awareness. When we are self-aware, we can cultivate compassion.
Compassion for ourselves is where it starts; if we don’t have that, we’re destined to idealize or demonize others. Yoga teaches me to remain grounded in the moments when I want to be reactive.
My yoga practice has forced me to face my inner critic and start to let go of my perfectionist (who believes that I only deserve love if I’m perfect). If I think that I need to be perfect to be worthy of happiness, then I will subconsciously be thrilled when I see others being imperfect (like the folks eating Mc-y-D’s, or someone doing an improper chaturanga), for this gives my flailing self-esteem a fleeting boost.
Back when I used yoga as a whip with which to beat myself, I was drawn to more punitive teachers who made me feel worthless and want to strive for their approval. I wanted to master the inner spiral, and the rooting of the big toe while doing perfect Ujjayi breathing and staring at a drishti.
As I started to get wiser and see that perfectionism is a dead end road, I started making different choices. My practice turned into an opportunity to love and accept myself exactly as I was in that moment (that concept would have made me throw up in my mouth previously).
Today I know this: the purpose of discipline is to create more freedom. If your discipline just leads to more discipline, it ain’t workin’ baby! I knew my sugar addiction was cured not when I stopped eating sugar, but when I could have one or two pieces of chocolate without inhaling the entire bar and then going for another one while drowning in my own shame.
If you are like I was, and you’re imprisoned by a quest to be the perfect yogi, ask yourself this question, “What am I afraid would happen if I let go a little? What am I trying so hard to control?”
I am not suggesting that discipline is bad; in fact, it’s necessary.
As a step toward freedom.
I don’t look back on my years of discipline and think I did the wrong thing; I just see now that I was mistaking the boat for the shore. I know my yoga is working because I’m happier. My relationships are healthy; I don’t have a voice in my head all the time telling me that I’m worthless.
I can’t get my feet behind my head anymore, I don’t do full splits or balance in handstand, and I have a slightly pudgy belly. And I’m happy! Not perfect—I have a lot more to learn and I’m okay with that.
Next time you’re on your mat, ask yourself this question, “Who am I being right now?”
Many years ago I was in a very packed, sweaty, vinyasa flow class filled with overachievers. At one point the teacher said to us, “So you can do all this fancy yoga, but does anyone want to hang out with you?”
This article originally appeared on Hala Khouri's blog. Copyright © by Hala Khouri. Reprinted with permission.