We consider the problem of formulating perturbative expansions of the conformation tensor, which is a positive definite tensor representing polymer deformation in viscoelastic flows. The classical approach does not explicitly take into account that the perturbed tensor must remain positive definite – a fact that has important physical implications, e.g. extensions and compressions are represented similarly to within a negative sign, when physically the former are unbounded and the latter are bounded from below. Mathematically, the classical approach assumes that the underlying geometry is Euclidean, and this assumption is not satisfied by the manifold of positive definite tensors. We provide an alternative formulation that retains the conveniences of classical perturbation methods used for generating linear and weakly nonlinear expansions, but also provides a clear physical interpretation and a mathematical basis for analysis. The approach is based on treating a perturbation as a sequence of successively smaller deformations of the polymer. Each deformation is modelled explicitly using geodesics on the manifold of positive definite tensors. Using geodesics, and associated geodesic distances, is the natural way to model perturbations to positive definite tensors because it is consistent with the manifold geometry. Approximations of the geodesics can then be used to reduce the total deformation to a series expansion in the small perturbation limit. We illustrate our approach using direct numerical simulations of the nonlinear evolution of Tollmien–Schlichting waves.