Anyone who has ever played a game or sport with me or against me will attest to the next statement. I am a competitor. Always have been. My family is competitive. We used to shoot free throws in our driveway on a full-sized, perfectly-measured basket to decide who had to feed the dogs. When I was 6. I fed the dogs. A lot. But eventually, I became pretty good at shooting free throws and there were actually some days when my much older, basketball playing brothers or my Dad had to feed those dogs! I was a gymnast and competed for many years. I ran track (badly). I was a cheerleader and diver in high school and college. I played tennis for many years as an adult. I’ve played Scrabble and every other board game or card game with my Mom & aunts since I was about 8. I learned to play War (cards) when I was 2. And even though my parents taught my brothers and me to be good losers and to be generous to our opponents, and that doing our best was really the only thing that mattered, we still hate to lose with every cell in our being.
My best friend is not competitive. She played tennis with us for a few years and, while she always played to win and was a very good player, as soon as it was over, win or lose – her mood was the same. She would laugh if she hit a bad shot and truly didn’t mind what the final score was. She was enjoying the moment. For the longest time, I didn’t get it. Part of me thought she was a little crazy for not needing the win. Another part of me was impressed that she could let things go so easily and move on. These are the kinds of people who probably don't get migraines.
Now, I’m not saying that competition is a bad thing. I am an avid Braves fan, and I REALLY want them to win. Like every single game. I yell at the TV and get worked up over decisions I don't agree with and enjoy every single moment. Watching the Olympics brings countries together in a healthy competitive way. Competition can drive us and make us better. But there is a very fine line between healthy competition and competition that makes you into an irrational person . Or, even worse, a jealous person.
So it’s no surprise that when I first came to yoga, I found myself looking around the room and wanting my poses to look “better” or “deeper” or “more perfect” than someone else's poses. It took me a while to understand that competition and yoga just aren't quite compatible. (Don’t get me started on the new yoga competitions popping up – that’s a blog for another day). Yoga is about being okay with where you are today. There is no perfect pose, only one that is perfect for your body in that moment. Slowly but surely, I started to understand this and started to not only really feel my body, but to actually listen to it. Our bodies talk to us all the time – we just don’t always listen. As one of my favorite teachers, Sally, always says, “Be okay with where you are, but open to possibilities.” I love that so much that you may have heard me say it in class. Thank you, Sally!
Not being competitive doesn’t mean being stagnant in your practice. It’s okay to push your edge when your body gives permission and to learn new poses or strive for more flexibility, more balance, more strength, more peace of mind. But it’s the competition with others in your class or even with your own body that will work against you.
So while it took me years to really let go of my competitive nature on my mat, I can honestly say I am no longer competitive during my yoga practice. I stay in my own space, eyes usually closed or a very direct drishti (gaze point), and I enjoy every pose for what is in that moment. I embrace my strengths and accept my non-strengths. I am flexible in some areas, not so much in others. I can do many poses but am physically unable to do others. Maybe yet – maybe ever.
When my doctor told me that I had spondylolysis and spondylolisthesis (two very big words that just means years of gymnastics funked out my lumbar vertebrae), I was very frustrated. And when he told me not to do big backbends ever again, I felt let down by my body. Until I finally realized that doing a big backbend (or ANY pose) does not make me more of a yogi. And blaming my body makes me even less of one! So I let the big backbends go. They don't serve me any longer. In fact, they could actually hurt me, so what would be the point of pushing myself into one? I found new ways to stretch my chest muscles and open my shoulders and hip flexors. I learned to do littler backbends with enough core engagement to protect my low back. But what matters MOST to me now are the poses that serve me today. And I have to say, it’s liberating not competing with others or with my own body. I'm thankful for the poses I can do. And thankful that I used to be able to do those big backbends so that I feel more confident teaching them to those who will benefit from them.
So when your brain tells you someone else is doing it better or when you find yourself judging yourself or your practice with negativity - let it go. Enjoy the journey and don’t anticipate or worry about what may come next. You may NEVER touch your toes. That arm balance may ALWAYS elude you. It may be safest for you to do chaturanga with your knees on the mat for years. Who cares?! One of the goals of yoga is to eventually take what you learn on your mat off your mat and into your everyday life. I’m still working on that part. But I’ve seen it happen on my mat so I’m hopeful. It does take time so try to be patient with yourself. I’ll try to be patient with myself too. Maybe we can encourage and learn from each other, instead of competing with each other.