Saturday, 4 April 2009

Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better: Yoga And Competition

By Vedran

Your main point of reference in hatha yoga practice is yourself, your body and your mind. But what when the competitor in you leaps forth? How do we balance out our desire to excell with the need to be better than others just for the sake of being superior to someone?

You are on your sticky mat, flowing through your practice, floating through some postures, strugglig a bit with others, just your regular drill. Then your attention turns to the person in front of you, effortlessly lifting up into a handstand or seemingly levitating in her/ his jump-backs and jump-throughs. You feel a pinch of jealousy bubbling inside of you and you put some extra effort in whichever posture you are doing. Then you see the same person struggling in a backbend while you lift off like a yogic god. Self-contentment and a feeling of superiority washes through you while you notice how perfect your ujjayi is in your immaculate backbend.

We have all been there - either feeling inferior because someone else's practice (as far as yoga practice can be "mine" or "yours" or belonging to anyone) looks like Cirque Du Soleil compared with what you are doing, or thinking what you´re doing is better or more correct or advanced than what a fellow practicioner is doing. There are even "Yoga Olympics" being held, where people compete with each other at fields of contortion, flow, grace and what not. When it is a "yoga competition", is it yoga at all anymore, or not? Oh well, who can tell?

Ashtangis might be especially prone to this mode of competitive attitude, as Ashtanga Vinyasa is physically powerful and invites to a certain degree of athleticism. What better chance to sport some good ole testosterone rush and flex some prana driven muscle? Then again, a major part of our training as Ashtangis is exactly not getting carried away by the physical aspect of it all. Knowing the physical vigour of Ashtanga yoga, it is clear that this is one of the most challenging parts of the practice - giving your all, doing your best while doing the hatha practice and still not slipping into

What all of the teachers I have practiced with and under have conveyed to me is that yoga is a non-competitive practice. Because your body is just your own, like a fingerprint, with its very own and unique strengths, weaknesses, wisdom and fields to develop on, it is hard to see how you can compete. Could you compare fingerprints and then judge whether mine looks better than yours? During all my years of practice, I have always seen people generally less flexible or strong than me do one asana or several in a way I really admired. Or if we push it into a more comparative mode - better than me. I remember a guy that attended the same class as me for a couple of years that had the most spectacular utthita parsvakonasana (extended side-angle posture). His muscles were quite stiff all over and he himself probably wouldn´t have called himself an advanced practicioner. But he mastered the sequence he practiced and his utthita parsvakonasana was a thing of beauty. So, would I than be called a better practicioner because I can put my legs behind my head? Or he because of his Yoga Journal-esque utthita parsvakonasana? I doubt that. Because it´s not about what you do but how you do it. Nowehere in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras is it stated that enlightenment and mastery is achieved by being the best contortionist. It is about your inner attitude, about observances and how you apply your practice off the mat when you relate to the world and your fellow living creatures. You can be the most obnoxious and rudest individual in the world and still be capable of performing the most impressive asana sequences. Do the sequences and your mastery of the postures make you a yogi? Naw..... Being a decent, honest person that respects the world and its living creatures is as much a yoga practice as your endevours on the mat. Maybe even more?

I remember seeing David Swenson demonstrating the Ashtanga yoga primary series. Before launching into a beautiful, flowing and strong (oh god, so strong!) practice, he said that a physacally stiff person who doesn´t go so deeply into the postures but does them with good breath, concentration, reverence and respect has a stronger practice than the one who is ever so bendy but with scattered attention and constricted breath. The lesson?

Attitude IS everything.

Don't Compete - Create!

The attitude of competition comes from an idea that there isn´t enough beauty, power, strength, affluence etc. for everyone. If you think that someone else's acquirement of the world's physical and spiritual goods can lead to your lack of the same, you will feel the need to compete. And the truth is that there most definitely is more than enough for everyone.
The same applies to yoga practice. As stated earlier, the practice you do is going to reflect your body, your muscles, your skeleton, your internal states. As this is any yogi's starting point, competing is absurd. Your life (or lives, who knows?) has formed you and this is the work you need to do. Comparing this to anyone else leads to futile efforts and spiritual blindness.

Your work is to (re)create yourself, both as a physical being and as a spiritual and sensual entity. This process of creation is through grounding yourself in wherever you are in terms of your own self and your training, being true to the tradition and developing yourself from there. Your work is yours alone. Trying to "take someone on" on your yoga mat is both arrogant and unconstructive, as you attempt doing another person's work. Which you, naturally, cannot do because you are not them. Aren't you a lucky camper now?

Of course, we could set some standards to go by in terms of what constitutes an anatomically perfect asana, or how perfect breathing techniques are done and so on. But then, the practice turns into gymnastics and ceases to be yoga. Yoga is a practice of personal improvement and your own road to becoming a better person, so that you can enrich the world you live in by enriching yourself. You don't improve yourself or the world by trying to make someone else's work seem smaller or less relevant.
Your job is to do your very best and this is a big enough task. You are supposed to excell, but you excell for your own sake and you go on from there. There is enough good stuff ("Love Shack" by the B52's starts in the background) for all of us out there and you have no business making other yogis' practice seem worth less than yours. The only thing you acomplish is diminishing what you yourself are doing.

Plunge Into Santosha

Santosha, the principle of contentment, is one of my favourite nyamas (I shouldn´t have favourites, I know, I know...). Practicing santosha is not settling for second best. It is being grounded in the moment and in wherever you are and recognizing its worth so that you can go on and make it better (or stay where you are if that pleases you). It is the art of appreciation. And you know what they say: "Don't hate - appreciate!". Real contentment is knowing that you are never stuck. It is knowing that good things are going to get better and that the not so great things are going to get better as well. Santosha is loving what you have got and knowing that the power to do anything with everything you want to do anything with is all in your hands.

Where does competing belong in a perspective like this, my dear yogi? Well, it doesn´t. The practice we do is the same practice no matter what we do, as long as we follow a correct method and as long as what we do is done with reverence, respect and lightness of mind and spirit. If you judge your practice or anyone else's, if you compare them and deprecate yourself because the other person is steadier on their head, cut it out now. Being a competitive yogi is like skipping your practice - it weakens you.

What it boils down to is this: In yoga, there is no competition. When you start competing, you stop doing yoga and start doing gymnastics. Which is okay, just as long as you know that your yoga has gone bye bye. Give yourself a break if you don't quite like your forward bends or inversions or whatever. Start liking them, no matter what they look like. And leave other people and their practice alone. Get inspired looking at others, share their energy and share yours with them. Do not put labels.

Roll out your mat now. Enjoy it, dammit! ;-))