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Yoga: For You or For Them?

My yoga teacher busted out an insanely difficult pose during our Sunday morning class. It was the sort of pose that left me dumbfounded and wanting to curl up in a ball on my mat until it was over (this is essentially what I did). I don’t know what it’s called, but I just searched the web for a picture of it (below).

hard headstand

It’s a headstand with outstretched arms (not the usual hands-behind-head style); and just the sight of it terrified me that I was going to do some major damage to my neck and/or my neighbor if I attempted it.  I’m willing to push very close to my edge of comfort in a yoga class — and I find value in doing it — but this was a situation where the risks seemed to outweigh the benefits.  So I sat it out; and while I was doing so and watching a few people in class make it look effortless and beautiful, I thought about intense faith and skill it takes to go upside down in a yoga class….and the equally intense release of ego it takes not to.

The Bhagavad Gita talks about three kinds of yoga: Karma Yoga (the yoga of action), Bhakti Yoga (the yoga of devotion), and Jnana Yoga (the yoga of knowledge).  Despite calls for yoga to become an Olympic sport, as of yet, there is no “Gold Medal Yoga” (the yoga of winning).  But nonetheless, in a world where we’re trained to value sweaty workouts and competitive everything, it’s hard to back down or “play it safe.”  Even in yoga.  And I’ll be the first to admit it, amidst a class of LuluLemoned-out power yogis, I sometimes find it tougher to lie on my back than to stand on my head.  It’s hard to look around and see lots of beautiful people doing lots of beautiful things and not want to do those things too, not just in yoga but in life.

It’s important to me to sort out this inner conflict — this part of myself that I don’t like that sometimes rears its head on the yoga mat, of all places — because I love practicing yoga.  I love it in a very true and pure way…it fills me up and washes away negative thoughts and leaves me feeling a little bit taller and a little bit lighter and a little bit stronger and a whole lot better every single time I practice.  But despite 12 years of practicing and working to evolve to a more enlightened place, I still have moments like I did this weekend — moments where I’m tempted to push beyond the limit of where I’m comfortable or skilled or safe — just because I want to be able to do what the person next to me is doing.  These moments are thankfully more infrequent now than they were when I began practicing, but they’re still there.  To minimize the external and maximize the internal practice of yoga, I’ve used a few simple strategies over the years:

  • Set an Intention: This is generally core to any yoga practice, and it’s worthwhile for a ton of reasons.  I find that when I dedicate my practice to something larger than myself…someone who needs strength and care…or a dream that I’m working toward, it’s much easier for me to stay focused on internal challenges and achievements versus external ones
  • Make Friends with My Mat-Mates: I find that when I meet the people in my class, the environment quickly turns to one of support versus one of one-upping.  At the core, we don’t want to compete against our true friends…we want everyone to win and we’re OK with wherever we land on a given day
  • Banish Pain: In my experience (as a student, not a teacher or a doctor), pain in yoga never equals gain.  If I’m pushing too hard, out of discomfort and into pain, I stop right away.  The ability to stop — to know my limits — is a mental exercise
  • Focus on Breathing: When you’re focused on your breath — really watching it come into and go out of your body, it’s much tougher to focus on anything else (like the pretzel in the front row)
  • Practice at Home: If I see a pose in class that feels intimidating (like the one this weekend), I file it away in my memory and try it when I’m at home with all the time and space in the world.  This forces intrinsic learning, not extrinsic pressure

I’m realize that not everyone experiences this tension between the internal and the external (lucky you, if you’ve moved beyond any sort of social comparison), but I do believe it’s an issue for many….and when yoga is involved, it’s a dangerous one.  I read a great article in Yoga Journal that talks about the risks and benefits of inversions, which are the poses where this often comes up, and it talks about some major injuries that have occurred in people who tried to do too much, too soon.  One of the best pieces of advice the author gives is to “practice alone to cultivate a deeper understanding of your body and its rhythms so you can practice in ways that respond to your needs” (not the needs of anyone else).  I think this is great advice, not just with regard to a yoga practice, but with regard to life.  It’s a great reminder that it’s up to each of us to know ourselves, celebrate our successes, and embrace our challenges, for ourselves and not for our neighbors.

What’s been your experience with practicing for yourself versus to “compete” with others, in yoga or in anything else?  Have you ever leapt too soon?  And how do you strike the right balance between staying safe and pushing yourself to be your best?

P.S. If you read this whole post, you’re probably into yoga.  Check out this amazing video made by Equinox.  Embrace the beauty of this (but don’t dare compare)!

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Es #

    I used to love yoga for years but after months and months of PT because of neck and other joint injuries, I do pilates instead. I just did some balancing poses with my daughter which were fun. Some things that I have taken from yoga are breathing intentionally and body awareness. I agree that some yoga classes are can be competitive and that there is a temptation to force your body into a pose that it is not yet ready to do. Namaste.

    February 4, 2013

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