The Myth of Perfect Ayurveda
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a recovering perfectionist. And quite honestly, my dedication to excellence served me well for a lot of years. But more recently, I have come to realize the degree to which it has also stood in my way. Interestingly, my relationship with Ayurveda tells the story of a dramatic shift in consciousness that, on the surface, may look like I’ve become a giant slacker. But deep down, I think it reflects something quite beautiful taking shape in my life.
I was first introduced to Ayurveda when I was in my early twenties while traveling in India and studying meditation and yoga. I was completely captivated. My father was a highly respected surgeon in the United States, so I had grown up feeling rather familiar with the world of Western medicine. But here was a tradition that celebrated each individual’s uniqueness, that didn’t recommend the same treatment for everyone with the same symptomology, that operated from the perspective that we could prioritize supporting and maintaining optimal health as opposed to reacting to and treating disease.
Even more strikingly, Ayurveda seemed to really honor the natural rhythms of nature and the cycles of life, which resonated with me deeply. I wanted to know more. While in India, I devoured Deepak Chopra’s book, Perfect Health, and when I returned to the US, I found an Ayurvedic practitioner and dove headlong into my first experience with panchakarma.
A number of years later, and somewhat to my own astonishment, it occurred to me that I could study and practice the art and science of Ayurveda myself. So I enrolled in an immersive program to become an Ayurvedic practitioner.
The Stumbling Block
As my knowledge of Ayurveda deepened, I began to orient myself around an ideal of optimal health (or perfect balance), against which I measured everything else. As a result, I became highly adept at identifying the imbalances, the flaws, the things that weren’t working well—both within my own body-mind ecology, and in that of my clients.
Truthfully, I had always operated this way, but now, as an Ayurvedic practitioner, I really embraced seeing things in black-and-white terms: good vs. bad, right vs. wrong, healthy vs. diseased, balanced vs. imbalanced. (This is a very pitta thing to do, by the way.) I dwelled in a rather harsh and unforgiving reality, and yet I was largely unaware of this at the time.
Enter Parenthood: The Great Magnifier
Partway through my Ayurvedic training, I learned that I was pregnant. This, of course, motivated me to try even harder to do everything as perfectly as I possibly could. And when my son was born in the fall of 2009, I found myself striving—really efforting—to follow everything I had learned about Ayurveda meticulously well. In an attempt to care for both my system and my baby’s, I wanted to do everything the right way.
Now, let me be clear. There was nothing inherently wrong with my desire to tend to my son’s health in this way, nor my own (the two were intimately intertwined, after all). But I was so attached to achieving a perfect outcome that I was actually creating a lot of additional stress. I was so hyperfocused on the ideal, and on all of the places where I was falling short of it, that there was very little space to celebrate any of the things that I was doing well (and there were quite a lot of them).
Not surprisingly, a number of imbalances were beginning to show up in my system. My digestion suffered. My mind was less clear. And somehow, I felt less capable as a human being. I had begun to have mysterious aches and pains that seemed to have no identifiable cause.
It seems rather obvious to me now that the root cause of all of my symptoms likely had a lot to do with the level of tension that I was holding in my body (concerned that I might not be doing it all flawlessly) and the sheer strain of trying to hold it all together, while I worshiped a rather ridiculous notion of how things should be. In truth, I had been living this way for my entire life, so the effects were cumulative. Becoming a parent had simply amplified things enough that I had started to feel the effects.
Looking back on this time in my life, I have so much compassion for myself. It’s the most natural thing in the world to want to give our children the best foot forward in life, to want to set them up for success. And who doesn’t want to preserve their own health as much as possible? It’s how we hold our intentions that matters—that can quite literally be the difference between taking small, appropriate steps in a positive direction and suffering relentless self-judgment (or even shame) for all the ways that we might be “failing.”
Perfectionism Is a Double-Edged Sword
These are patterns I see quite often in my work as a Women’s Empowerment Coach. All of my clients have a strong sense of purpose and a burning desire to be of service in the world. They tend to hold themselves to incredibly high standards—in every aspect of their lives. Many of them are also juggling (and trying to balance) their work life with their commitment to their families. And honestly, for most of these women, their pursuit of excellence has been an incredible strength.
The gift in being a perfectionist is that it usually comes with a profound capacity to sense what’s possible, to connect with a vision for the highest potential outcome in any situation—and often, to sense viscerally when things are even slightly misaligned. But when that vision becomes the defining expectation for where we should be now—the level of health we should be experiencing, how successful our businesses should be, how our marriages should feel, how our children should perform at school or in a sport—then the gift becomes an obstacle.
Ultimately, our attachment to living the ideal leaves us feeling like we’re failing. All. The. Time.
This was my experience for many, many years. I was constantly falling short of my own expectations, and it cost me greatly. I truly came to focus on my flaws, and on every flaw around me. I became fixated on mending everything that was broken—both within and outside of myself. In the process, I completely failed to see the many gifts that I had always possessed, the skills and capacities that I had cultivated along the way, and the countless blessings in my life.
Taming the Perfectionist Within
What follows are some useful suggestions to help calm your inner perfectionist.
- Healthy Pitta tablets. Pitta and perfectionism go hand in hand. Healthy Pitta tablets can help to reduce excess pitta so that you can begin to relax your standards and focus more on what you’re doing well (along with a host of other benefits). Take 1–2 tablets in the morning on an empty stomach.
- Tranquil Mind tablets. Particularly beneficial for vata and pitta, this formula helps calm, soothe, and settle a critical mind without diminishing one’s capacity to focus. Take 1–2 Tranquil Mind tablets once or twice daily.
- Brahmi. Brahmi, whose name means, “the energy of universal consciousness,” is a powerful tonic for pitta and a potent rejuvenative for the mind. Take 1–2 Brahmi tablets once or twice daily, or steep ½ teaspoon Brahmi powder in hot water up to three times per day to make a calming yet tasty infusion.
- Meditation. Meditation helps us to witness things more clearly, supporting more intentional responses to both ourselves and our life circumstances. If you do not have an established practice, try So-Hum Meditation.
- Pranayama. Prana, the vital breath, is the subtle essence of the life force that animates each of us. The practice of pranayama (yogic breathing exercises) has a powerful impact on the mind. Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing) is especially effective at digesting and eliminating stagnation and ama (toxins), clearing tension and stress, while supporting fluidity, vitality, and neuroplasticity throughout the subtle energy channels of the mind and body. It is a wonderful addition to any daily routine.
- Practice Yoga. Yoga moves prana in the body, dissipates tension, clears stagnation, and encourages fluidity in the physical, mental, and emotional spheres. Ayurveda offers a nuanced approach to yoga that specifically helps to balance whichever doshas need the most attention in your system. You can take our Ayurvedic Profile™ quiz to determine your current state of balance at any time. That said, with a history of perfectionism, pitta-pacifying yoga routines are often very supportive.
- Give Yourself an Oil Massage. The ancient art of abhyanga calms the mind and the nervous system while offering numerous physical benefits. In fact, the Sanskrit word for oil, sneha, also means love—an ideal antidote to perfectionism. In the morning, before a shower or bath, massage about ¼–½ cup warm organic oil into the skin. For further instructions and for support choosing the best oil for your constitution and current state of balance, please see our resource on Ayurvedic Self-Massage.
- An Ayurvedic Guide to Stress Management. Perfectionism inevitably causes stress in the body, and this practical guide is chock-full of useful strategies for countering (and preventing) its impact.
Reframing Our Relationship with Ayurveda
Ayurveda is such a beautiful art and science. When I discovered it, I could sense the truth in it, and when I sense truth, I tend to embrace it somewhat emphatically. Unfortunately, overzealousness tends to go hand in hand with all-or-nothing, black-and-white ways of thinking.
After all, if there is a right way to do everything, then there must also be a wrong way.
For decades, this way of thinking caused me to judge every single misstep harshly. But the path to optimal health has nothing to do with how proficiently we judge our individual choices; it has everything to do with the collective impact of many choices over time. The journey is really about taking one, single—and often small—step at a time, while allowing ourselves the space to slip up on occasion.
In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu said: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The trouble is, we tend to forget that there’s a second, a third, and a thousandth step, too—that, in fact, we have to take each and every step on the path. Once our initial excitement has waned, most of us expect to skip over the vast majority of the journey and somehow magically arrive at our destination.
I believe that Ayurveda serves us best when we are willing to progress slowly and steadily, taking the time to develop and embody competency at each stage. We must ask ourselves how Ayurveda can support us in improving our health rather than achieving perfection. Then, with each improvement, we were poised and eager to take another step, and then another, and another.
For me, what began as a complex list of dos and don’ts, how-tos, shoulds, and how-NOT-tos (rules for every occasion) has become something quite different.
I am guided now by a profound curiosity and a willingness to notice. I notice how my desires change as the seasons wax and wane. I notice how the expansive and somewhat frenetic nature of summer impacts my mind and body. I notice how I can feel my entire nervous system dialing down as I walk through the woods after the first snowfall in the autumn. I notice how I want different foods in the spring and summer months than I do in the fall and winter. I notice how my body speaks to me in subtle ways every single day.
Perhaps most importantly, I’ve chosen to be more gentle with myself when my choices aren’t perfect. I’ve tried to embrace and celebrate my humanness, trusting that when my routines are a little (or a lot) out of sync with the ideal, that I’m meeting a very real and human need and that I can take pleasure in the experience—not because the ideal isn’t worthy of guiding me, but because I’m human and I know that being human is sometimes messy.
I don’t do everything perfectly. Far from it. And I can still be very harsh with myself when I seem to be making choices that dishonor my body’s natural intelligence. But I have lowered my expectations of myself tremendously.
In many ways, I am a giant slacker when compared to the perfectionist I once was. In fact, she would struggle to understand what exactly there is to celebrate about lower expectations. But it’s been amazingly freeing. I am so much more relaxed, more content; I’m happier.
I am very much still on a healing journey, but I can feel the degree to which my stress level has quieted. My mind is softer, and I no longer see things in such black-and-white terms (at least not as often). The most incredible thing is that this shift in orientation has allowed me to make real progress toward what I most want, in a much healthier, saner way.
Ayurveda teaches us that everything is medicine, and everything is poison; it’s the context that tells us which. If this is true, then there is no “perfect” or “right” way to do anything.
If I could offer one simple reframe to the eager student of Ayurveda that I was ten years ago, it would be this:
Let go of having to get it all right. Eating an improper food combination or doing something that will aggravate a dosha isn’t evidence that your dedication to health is subpar.
What if Ayurveda is simply a map—a map to help us navigate the very unique and personal terrain of learning to be our best? Having a map doesn’t guarantee that we won’t take a wrong turn or feel disoriented at times—especially if we are exploring new territory. But the map is always there, as a reference point and a guide, as a friend and an ally. In my opinion, there is no such thing as a “perfect” Ayurvedic lifestyle. There is only the exploration. And there is only your way of being in it.
Quite frankly, each small step we take toward a more aligned way of doing things is real progress and is worth celebrating. And one thing is certain: the journey will be far more health-promoting if you choose to celebrate your wins. So I suggest that you focus on what you’re doing well and honor every bit of progress you make. Here’s to the health, happiness, and joy that comes when we release ourselves from the pressure of having to do it all perfectly!