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There is an old story that has always fascinated me. It is said that Amish women would deliberately include a mistake in their breathtaking, handmade quilts. One interpretation of these mistakes is that, because only God is perfect, it would be prideful to create a perfect quilt. Another is that the mistake would give the quilt “identity” or make it stand out as its maker’s own work. In fact, neither is true. It turns out that handmade quilts are imperfect simply because it’s really hard to make one without messing up.
Knowing that this story is just that – a story or myth – didn’t weaken its hold on my imagination. Over the years, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in antique and “junk” stores where there can be an abundance of handmade quilts. I love searching them for mistakes and have found that there is more than one way that quilt-makers handle their “goofs.”
In some quilts, you can see that a mistake has been picked out or reworked. While this gives that area of the quilt a slightly worn or messy look, I like to imagine the lessons learned as the artist tried and tried again to get it right. In others, you can see that the artist has chosen to pretend the missed stitch or irregularly cut piece of fabric never happened, simply picking up the regular rhythm at the very next stitch or piece. Hoping no one will notice a little mistake within the quilt’s larger beauty takes a certain level of optimism that makes me smile. Still others (these are my favorites) give their mistake a flourish – giving an oddly shaped piece of fabric extra fancy stitching around the edges or turning a bad stitch into a little star or flower. I love these glimpses of the artist’s willingness to embrace her mistake and incorporate it into the work of art.
Snooping around in piles of old quilts has taught me – in the abstract, at least – a great deal about the nature of mistakes: They are chances to practice and to learn. They are often irrelevant to the beauty and quality of your end result. Not only that, but your mistakes can actually make your final product more distinctly yours – giving it a certain panache that it wouldn’t have had without the error. It took spending almost fifteen years messing around on a yoga mat to bring this lesson to life for me.
Just as it is really, really hard to make a perfect handmade quilt, it is really hard to have a perfect yoga practice. In fact, the mind wanders, the gaze shifts, postures collapse, and the breath gets out of synch with movement much more easily than stitches are skipped or fabric is cut poorly. Even the best practices will be filled with errors. It’s just the nature of the beast.
The good news is that we’re not practicing to be perfect. We’re practicing for the opportunity to practice. By doing so, we give ourselves the opportunity to grow, to change, to get stronger, to become more flexible, to become more focused, to be more in touch with God. As we practice day after day, we will get better. That’s just the nature of practice. But, as we do, the practice simply offers more challenges to keep us in the position of growth – a place that is typically filled with many chances to mess up.
All these years later, I am confident that mistakes on my yoga mat will never be a thing of the past. In fact, I’ve set aside the notion that I will ever achieve a perfect practice. Instead, I’ve realized that what yoga is asking me is to observe how I respond to my inevitable mistakes. Like the quilters whose work I’ve studied, I have choices in how I handle my mistakes.
When I topple out of the standing balance where I’m holding the big toe of my raised leg, I can choose to take a deep breath and try again. Depending on the circumstances, this can be a good choice. More often than not, I will need several tries, which takes some extra time and energy. But each try is worth the time and energy it requires as it affords me the chance to better understand what it takes to find the stability and strength I need to hold the posture for five long breaths.
On another day, I may choose to ignore my fall and simply move on to the next posture. This can also be a good choice. If I fall over on my last breath, it might make more sense to move on. Similarly, this is a good choice if I’m squeezed for time that day. Or if I know ahead of time that I want to spend some extra time and energy on a subsequent posture.
On still other (often light-hearted) days, I may choose to incorporate my fall into the flow of my practice. I have a student who is particularly good at turning his wobbles into “dance moves” on his mat as he finds his way into balance. He’s not the only one smiling broadly when he finally finds stability. Typically the whole class is grinning along with him all while perched on one foot.
The more I pay attention to how I respond to my mistakes on my yoga mat, the more I see the same responses off my mat. Getting comfortable with mistakes has been very liberating. My mistakes have allowed me to learn more from life than I ever would if I hadn’t made them. Embracing my mistakes has allowed me to ease up on myself. Sometimes, my mistakes have brightened my work – on and off the mat – with a good laugh or a little extra-special “flair.” Mistakes are simply a part of the journey. When you really believe this, you can set aside every last hint of aspiration toward perfection and instead grow and change (and laugh) a little bit more.