Stemming from my recent graduation from Teacher Training, yoga has been a topic of conversation in many of my social circles lately. One thing that keeps coming up is the element of competition in modern yoga practice, why it's important to remove that element, where it stems from, and the realization that nearly everyone who begins practicing goes through a phase where all they want to do is "beat everyone" or "win" at yoga.
In October 2014, on my second day of yoga teacher training, we were led through the full C1 class and I forgot my YogiToes towel. For those of you who may not know, a YogiToes is a very necessary mat-shaped sticky towel that lays over your regular yoga mat. I was slipping and sliding around like a fool, and I could barely hold a Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana). I knew my practice was solid and wanted to bring my "A" game - I was completely embarrassed. What if the instructors think I'm bad at yoga? What if they think I haven't even heard of a YogiToes? What if my fellow teacher trainers don't know I'm a seasoned yogini? These were all the thoughts racing through my head throughout the flow, completely taking me out of the moment (and defeating the purpose of practicing yoga altogether).
Where was all this fear stemming from? My ego. It won that day, but over the past 8 weeks, I've realized that experience was such a blessing. The weeks that followed catapulted my practice into realms I did not know possible, and kicked my ego out of the picture.
In yoga classes, you'll often hear an instructor say, "Try something new. Maybe that means taking a modification when you normally express the full posture. Maybe it means skipping Chaturangas altogether and pushing straight back to Downward-Facing Dog."
My thought-response was always, "Yea right. I'm not taking a modification. I’ve been practicing yoga for years, modifications are for people who are less flexible, new to yoga, or weaker than me." My competitive nature was rooted in gymnastics - from the time I was 4 years old, coaches have engrained me to compete - not just with others, but also against myself.
In teacher training, every posture in the series is fully broken down. You learn proper alignment, modifications, and most importantly, how to practice yoga safely and for the next 100 years. Yep, the next 100 years. That's the approach we’re taught when moving through (and teaching) the flow. So sure, my body can do this now, but is my alignment correct? Are my joints protected? If I continue to move through the postures this way every single day for the next 100 years, am I going to cause myself injury? Will I be able to do yoga when I’m 80, or even 105 years old? I realized that I didn’t like my answers to some of these questions.
My body is extremely flexible, and it has been since I was a child. Doing the splits can be a relaxing pose for me, and several coaches/instructors/chiropractors have compared my spine to that of a rubber band. Awesome for aerial/contortion and possibly getting my Wheel Pose on the cover of a yoga magazine someday, but what does that mean for the safety of my daily yoga practice? I recognized that I was collapsing into my back/neck flexibility in some poses, including Upward-Facing Dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana), which Power Yogis can do up to 100 times per week, in a way that may cause future injury to my body. I was accessing many poses by utilizing my flexibility rather than maintaining proper alignment and building strength. So it may have looked cool, but in reality I was doing myself a disservice in those postures. After observing a handful of classes, I realized I was not the only one.
"Oh, you are SO lucky you're bendy! I could never do the poses that you do!" I hear this quite often, but being overly flexible can also be quite dangerous over time. Don't get me wrong, I am very grateful for my ability to contort. But just like a muscular, athletic male may have to spend years stretching properly to lengthen his hamstrings in order to touch his toes, it took time for me to build the strength to safely take pressure off my joints and actively hold poses like Triangle (Trikonasa) or Crescent Lunge (Anjaneyasana). Every body is different, and what is safe in your body may not be suitable for the person practicing next to you (and vice versa). Comparing and pushing yourself to an unsafe degree for the sake of competition rather than being in tune with your personal growth has no place in the yoga studio, or in life. Remember, you know your body better than any instructor or fellow student.
Just a few weeks into yoga teacher training, my practice was very different than when I began the process. Upward-Facing Dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana), Cobra (Bhujangasana), Triangle (Trikonasa), and Extended Side-Angle (Utthita Parsvakonasa) poses look and feel differently in my body now, among many others. Yoga has truly shown me the difference between what looks dramatic in the body (for performance) and what is safe for your joints (daily practice).
Did you know that keeping your spine completely flat in Downward-Facing Dog is much more important than having your legs straight or heels on the ground? The photo below is proper alignment, and by bending her knees, she's actually building flexibility in her hamstrings so she can one day have the "perfect" full expression. Or maybe she never will, but that doesn't matter as long as she's practicing safely and growing in the process.
So now what? You will certainly see me taking modifications, and offering them to my students. If my elbow is firing after heading straight from the Aerial Studio to a yoga class, I may not take any Chaturangas at all. I may take a supported Bridge Pose (Setu Bandhasana) using a block, or skip it altogether if I’ve done some contortion that week. If my hammies are tight, my knees are completely bent in Seated Forward Fold (Paschimottanasana) so that my back can be flat, and same for Downward-Facing Dog (Ahdo Mukha Svanasana).
The biggest change has been the results! By aligning properly, I have been able to practice once a day (often twice), seven days a week without pain or injury. My arms and stomach are more toned than ever, and I'm also stronger than ever. Just learning to keep my core engaged rather than collapse into my back flexibility has brought the beginnings of a six-pack into the mirror (obviously my love for cookies and wine have prevented it from emerging entirely, but I'm only human). I am proud of the results I have achieved and truly look forward to sharing this knowledge with my students.
Moral of the story: tell your ego to “kick rocks, nerd!” (Note: this pharse is only to be used against your own ego and of course your best friends, not actual nerds – they’re smart and awesome.) Once I got out of my own head, stopped worrying about what my practice looked like, "winning" at yoga, or out-posing anyone else in the room, my practice not only improved, but my body feels and looks better. Imagine that!
Yoga is not about being the best. It is about the union of body-mind-soul, connection, and growth. How can you grow if you're already attached to an idea of what perfection looks like? If you've acheived that, are you "better" than the person next to you? Simply accept where you are, know that it's exactly where you're supposed to be, and the growth will come.
"Don't be intimidated by other people's pretty poses, or gloat in feelings of superiority when those around you are struggling. Just watch the feelings of competition and comparison as they come up, then detach and let them go. Don't feed them by fighting them. Don't get caught up in struggling with them. Don't kick yourself for feeling them. And don't deny them. Just accept, appreciate, relax, breathe, and focus on peace. That's the way to grow out of unhealthy comparison in yoga.. and in life," Baron Baptise, Journey Into Power.