It’s a common thing to hear in a yoga class. There you are in extended side angle pose, with your left fingers grazing the floor and your right arm swept past your right ear, trying to steady your breathing and hold yourself up all at the same time.
“Now for those of you who would like to go a little deeper, you have the option to add a bind here,” says the teacher.
A bind? You look up to see the teacher bring her right arm behind her, reach under her left thigh with her left arm, and clasp her hands behind her back as though it were effortless. All around you students begin to shuffle themselves into the bind, until all of a sudden it feels like you are the only one left who isn’t tied up in knots. So you reach your right arm behind you and lean your torso forward until the fingers of your hands can just barely touch each other behind you. Phew! You let out the breath that you’ve been holding and take a short gasp for air, realizing as you do that all of a sudden your lungs feel a little bit more squished. But it doesn’t matter because you are totally rocking this bind.
“Let go of your expectations and judgments and remember that yoga is not a competition,” you hear the teacher say from somewhere nearby. You’re sure she’s looking at you as she says this. If only you could crane your neck around far enough, you might be able to see her….
Does this sound at all familiar? Most of us have probably experienced some form of this scene, working ourselves a little farther into a pose than we should be just because our ego is pushing us to keep up with everyone else. And so we are constantly reminded that yoga is not a competition and that we should let go of the idea of trying to achieve and just be.
But I disagree. Yoga is a competition.
Think about the animal kingdom, which includes humans: animals are competitive. In order to produce the ideal offspring to maintain a population, males compete for the right to mate with a female (because of course every male thinks they have it going on). We compete for food. Animals both primitive and advanced learn to be competitive so their needs will be met and so they will survive.
Competition is in our nature. Each of us wants to be the best, so we are naturally drawn to compete as a means of comparison. This comparison allows us to better ourselves; after all, how can we know what better is without better than?
Because of this, we sometimes find ourselves in a bind: our natural inclination is to compete, to be the best so that we don’t get left behind. But competition is frowned upon in yoga; just the words “yoga competition” spark anger and outrage among many yogis. The many responses to Yoga Journal’s recent Talent Competition are prime examples—and yet even Sarah Simmons, who blogged about keeping contests off the mat, admitted that she entered the competition too.
So why do we continue to believe that competition within yoga is bad thing, even while we are drawn to compete? After all, the Yamas teach non-violence, non-stealing, and non-possessiveness, but non-competition is not listed among them.
The problem, I think, lies is competitive Asana (physical practice). Yoga is not a physical competition, nor is it a competition with others. You should never push yourself into a pose at the expense of your body just to make it look like someone else’s pose. To try to compete with others based on physical limitations that are sometimes completely unchangeable is just plain silly. Those who are born with right body structures will win; that’s not competition, it’s luck and good genes.
But that doesn’t mean there is no place for competition in yoga.
Where we can all compete is with ourselves, on the inside. We can compete with our egos, trying to keep them from dictating our actions and pushing us too far. We can compete with our habits, trying to break free from the automatic patterns that chain us to our pasts. We battle the negative voices inside our heads, trying to keep us from being free. In the end, we want to emerge victoriously. We want to better ourselves, and in order to become better we must compare to our former selves. We aim to beat ourselves in competition, to become masters of ourselves and be free. In the right forms competition can challenge us and help us to be greater. It can help us to realize the potential that we already have inside of us. We are already great, but sometimes we need to learn it to believe it.
So take your competition inside, and compete with your own mind. As Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras teaches in II.46: sthira-sukha-asanam, or “Practicing yoga with strength and in a relaxed manner gives rise to harmony with the physical body (asana).” We must relax the intensity of our efforts and meditate on the inner journey, because this yoga never ends. We will always be competing with our own egos.
….While trying to crane your neck around to see if the teacher is speaking to you, your balance falters and your legs start to wobble. Quickly, you try to unhook your arms from around you to break your fall but it’s too late, you’ve come crashing down to the ground with a loud thud. A few heads turn in your direction and then quickly turn away; though they are pretending to be tuned inward, you are sure that most of the other students in the class have noticed your collapse.
“Yoga is not a competition,” the teacher repeats softly.
But she is wrong. Yoga is a competition—and your ego just won.
Allison Feenstra teaches yoga and writes on the beautiful Sunshine Coast in B.C. She studied Philosophy in University and enjoys discovering new ways to help people experience the best of life, while trying to answer the big questions of the universe at the same time. You can find her blogging as Satya Yogi (http://satyayogi.wordpress.com/) or catch up with her on Twitter @AllieFeenstra.