“If you are depressed you are living in the past.
If you are anxious you are living in the future.
If you are at peace you are living in the present.”
– Lao Tzu
Hello, my name is Marsha, and I am a recovering perfectionist. Somewhere between striving for straight A’s and drilling scales on the piano, my joy for learning became a twisted drive for praise and perfection.
Perfect daughter. Perfect sister. Perfect student. Perfectly anxious all the time.
Fear of failing after being praised for being “so smart”, but also questioned as to why I only got a 103 on an 100-point test when there was a 5-point bonus question.
Learning to see my body as a thing to be judged and ridiculed when relatives repeatedly compared me with a cousin in a game of Who’s Fatter This Visit?
Fear of displeasing my parents and bringing unrelenting judgment from elders. Never Chinese or Thai enough. Too loud, too athletic, too boyish, too opinionated.
Fear consumed my curiosity and joy. To combat my fears, I chose to battle the judgments and expectations with perfection. Somehow, I thought trying to be perfect would free me from the judgments of others, to find peace within. Instead, perfection trapped me between the depression of the past, all the mistakes I could not change, and the anxiety of the future, where failure could happen at any moment. By college, the disease of perfection progressed to self-loathing. Who could love someone so flawed? Why should I even try if the possibility to fail exists? Nothing I do is ever good enough. This must mean I’m not good enough.
I was about 4 years out of college, struggling in a stressful job, drowning in an unhealthy relationship, when I realized something had to change. With this realization, I carried all my anxieties, sadness, doubts, and fears into the hot room the first time I walked into the hot yoga studio down the street.
My face felt like it was going to melt off in the humidity. Nothing would be left of me but a puddle of sweat and a yoga mat. As the class began and I attempted to move my body with the teacher’s instruction, the heat began to strip away what I carried into the room, leaving behind only what was necessary. To survive the heat, the bright lights, and the glaring reflection of myself in the mirrors, I had to put down my baggage and dig into strength I didn’t realize I already had.
After final savasana, the cool air rushed over my rosy-pink face as I walked out into the air-conditioned lobby. Despite looking like I had just fallen into a pool with my yoga clothes on, I felt light, clean, and unburdened by the baggage I had carried into the room just 90 minutes before.
In that moment I knew I had to make a choice to change: do I keep choosing perfection or do I choose a new path and let the illusion of perfection go?
I came back the next day. And the next. And the next, for 60 consecutive classes. The heat melted the walls I had built up around my heart. The structure of the class built a bridge between my mind and my body, giving me a chance to observe myself without judgment. In a room full of mirrors, there is no hiding. I came to appreciate the connection with myself through my own reflection, to check in and show myself compassion – arguably one of the hardest things I learned how to do.
After each class, I left the hot room a kinder, more patient person. I found a deeper well of empathy for others and the ability to listen with intention. I discovered how to make space for my own self-care, how to be fully present for others.
Over time, the priority in my yoga practice has shifted from finding depth in a posture to a mental practice of courage, determination, strength, patience, and awareness. I now approach the postures with curiosity, how my body feels journeying into and out of the asana, being fully present in the moment instead of anticipating how deep I could bend. In the same way outside the hot room, I shifted my life from trying to be perfect and now choose to approach life with awareness and curiosity for what each day brings. I’m much more interested in living than being.
The courage I found to walk into the hot room each day became the courage I used to leave an unhealthy relationship and punishing job.
The determination and strength I cultivated by getting into certain postures again and again after falling out drove my decision to move back in with my parents as a necessary step to applying for graduate school and switching careers. I knew I could persist and make it happen someway, somehow.
The awareness of my breath gave me the awareness to recognize my old perfectionistic behaviors during stressful times and stopped me from repeating old patterns of behavior.
Most importantly, however, my practice taught me how to love and accept myself exactly As I Am.
As I continue my practice, I am often reminded that it is a yoga practice and not a yoga perfect. Life isn’t perfect because it is so much more. I use to say that yoga changed my life, but I’ve come to realize that I changed my life.
Yoga gave me the path. I walk it.
About the Author: Marsha Ungchusri is a Chinese-Thai-Texan-American currently living in the DMV area. Grocery shopping is her shoe shopping. When she isn’t practicing yoga, you can find her experimenting in her kitchen, refining recipes and flavor combination to feed the people she loves. You can find her cooking adventures @princesshungry and bite-sized reflections of her yoga practice @marsha.fierce.