How to Practice Yoga & Mindfulness… The WRONG Way

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A lesson in how to practice yoga and mindfulness, or at least how NOT to…

When I began practicing yoga, I was admittedly slow to embrace the mental and spiritual components. It was only after noticing how the breathing exercises instantly calmed my ever-racing brain that I thought: Huh, maybe there is something to this spiritualty, meditation, intuition fluff that I’ve seen on OWN while procrastinating on Sunday mornings.  

That is not meant as an insult to the practice whatsoever. I used to judge EVERYTHING, especially if my left brain driven mind could not pinpoint a clear cause and effect relationship. Breathing making my anxiety disappear? It didn’t make sense to me. If I didn’t understand it, I feared it. If I feared it, I wanted to feel more powerful than it. If I wanted to feel more powerful than it, I judged it. Did this make me feel better? For about 5 minutes. My ego would inflate, my intuition would be silenced, and my connection with my true self hung on by a thread.

After noticing improvements in my sleep and the experience of self-compassion after a lifetime of self-flagellation for any minor imperfection, I decided to go all in. Slowly my airtight, narrow minded perspective began to open up to the concept of mindfulness. Getting past the inner tape of “wow Paige, you’re really listening to this garbage?” and “you think THIS is going to help you? You’re pathetic” was neither an easy nor instant success. However, I stuck with it. I continued to chip away at the doubt and fear a little bit each day. I’d love to liken it to Michelangelo chipping away at a marble slab as he sculpted David, but I’ll practice a little humility. Besides, Donatello was always my favorite Ninja Turtle so I’ll let my loyalty lie with his namesake instead.

Moving along…

Yoga, mindfulness, and meditation were helping me immensely. I felt like I had found the golden ticket to an anxiety free life. My autoimmune symptoms were drastically reduced. My urge to binge and purge practically disappeared. The concepts of peace and happiness no longer seemed so elusive.

Well, what does a perfectionist do with this newfound avenue to happiness? I proceeded to relentlessly hammer myself with it until any benefits were crushed, right alongside my self-esteem. I began to practice yoga at 6 am every day, and was beside myself if I missed a class. This was in addition to my HIIT workouts 3-4 times per week. I read 4-5 books per month on mediation, spirituality, and the 8 limbs of yoga. I signed up for workshops, emptied what little savings I had into training programs, and made declarations to my friends and family that I was a better person now… as if I had met some personal growth standard and was now “fixed.”

There was some success to be celebrated in this stage. I had gotten past analysis paralysis and finally took action to change my life. BUT I took wayyyyy too far. Sleep was sacrificed to make room for reading, practicing, and writing about my journey. I left no time in my schedule for fun or genuine human connection. Aches and pains were ignored as I refused to take a break during classes despite the invitation to do so by every instructor.  My focus at work began to slip as my newfound interest became an obsession. I undermined every principle which I was studying, rendering the practice itself almost useless.

It’s funny how the universe/God/the Source/whatever you’d like to call it knows the triggers that will finally get you to pump the brakes. I have a high pain tolerance so the aches didn’t get me to slow down. I went to grad school while working a full-time job so the heightened stress level didn’t deter me. I have coped with autoimmunity and struggled with sleep for years so fatigue didn’t cause concern.

What got me to stop and assess my overzealous approach to wellness? It pains me to admit this, but it was vanity.

I was rinsing my hair in the shower and my eyes began to well with tears when I looked down. There was a handful of hair sitting on the drain cover, so much hair that the water was ceasing to drain. I am not a stranger to hair loss since it’s a common symptom of Hashimotos, but this was an alarmingly large amount. I shed a few tears, dried off, and proceeded with my morning routine. Then, when I finished drying my hair, I noticed that I could see my scalp through a noticeably thinner patch of hair on my upper left forehead. I began to frantically move my hands through the hair to try to cover it up, but the hairs left in that spot were short and fragile. My only option was to part my hair on the opposite side and completely cover it up (I’ve now been doing that for 4 months).

My long, dark hair is something I always loved about myself, and there are very few things I can say that about considering I spent most of my life laser focused on perceived imperfections. Subsequently, the threat of losing this physical trait that felt like part of my identity was terrifying. I felt as if my appearance and femininity were under attack. Trust me, I realize that may sound dramatic, but in that moment it was how I felt. I was a mess.

Since perfectionism, control, and a desire to know everything is what drove me to that point, I decided to take a different approach in response to it. This was after a minor emotional meltdown and lots of positive Spotify playlists, obviously. Instead of googling for hours on end while I guzzled herbal tea (note: a change to my standard drink that was part of this journey), I took a time out… in every sense of the word. I canceled my plans that weekend. I cleaned my room so that I had an organized space to relax in. I moved away from any screens, including my phone. I told my parents to do their best to not disturb me unless absolutely necessary. I then took the mother of all naps.

This may sound easy, like “Wow, you took a nap? That’s really groundbreaking (insert eyeroll).” BUT, for me it’s a struggle to turn my brain off. I saw my latest spirituality book sitting on the nightstand and I heard my ego, loud and clear, telling me I was lazy for not squeezing in at least 30 pages before closing my eyes. I heard my phone vibrate and ran every irrational scenario that would justify looking at it through my head. My thoughts drifted to the to-do list for the next day and I wondered which commitment I would inevitably flake on. Then, after a minute of mental torture, I said screw it and just went to sleep.

12 hours later… I felt like a new person. I am sure I was much further into sleep debt than a mere 12 hours, but I felt like I had woken from the dead. And with fresh perspective.

It was time to listen to my body and listen to my intuition. Yoga, mindfulness, and mediation are continuing to help me heal. They have been game changers in every possible way. The issue wasn’t these practices. The issue was my alpha, perfectionist, addictive tendencies. Trading an unhealthy addiction or coping mechanism like binging for a “healthy” addiction like working out multiple times per day, every single day, is not cause for a celebration. Binging on organic apples and intense workouts is not exactly better than binging on donuts and 8 hours of Netflix on the couch. A binge is a binge. Yes, your activities and the food you eat may be healthier, but it’s easy to ignore the mental and emotional issues that you’re not so subtly glossing over.

Despite my newfound love for yoga and mindfulness, I was still living in fear. I was still ashamed of my body. I was still not working through issues in my personal relationships. I still struggled with believing in my self-worth and setting boundaries accordingly.

I took a step back, focused on strengthening my positive mindset instead of my abs, and developed a routine that made time for rest and recovery. I will share more about the particular steps I took to get on a more peaceful path to healing. However, I felt it best to leave this realization to stand on its own. I’ve shared how yoga saved me, but I felt compelled to be fully transparent about that journey. It would be disingenuous to say I got on my mat and my problems faded into the background.

Pausing to listen to your intuition is not a sign of weakness. Honoring your body by respecting its need for rest is not giving up. It’s all about balance, and finding balance after a lifetime of perfectionism is more like learning a recipe from the Joy of Cooking than tossing Easy Mac into the microwave. It takes practice, it takes experience, and it takes humility.

 

“And no one will listen to us until we listen to ourselves.” – Marianne Williamson
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