September 6, 2010

Feet to the Fire

It’s hot. Today it’s 105 hellish degrees and the television has a running heat advisory at the bottom of the screen. The electronic highway traffic alert board is a foreboding of crushing pollution from car exhaust.  Please carpool. The town is out of air. The Mayor of nearby Memphis has gone on the morning news to ask people to go their neighbor’s houses to make sure they’re alive.

Meanwhile, walking past me is a fit looking man in spandex on foot beside a four year old girl on a tiny bicycle with training wheels.  Her face is purple and pouring sweat under a plastic helmet.  I hear her say that she can walk the bike up the hill.  Her father responds that she can ride. She puffs manically “I can do I can do it” and then she pleads again that she needs to walk.  Again her father insists she persevere.  Again I hear her say “I can do it Daddy” and moments later as they pass me on the hill I hear her bawling.

Why doesn’t the guy cut the kid some slack to enjoy a little heat prostration sympathy?  Maybe taking the helmet off should be today’s safety tip since her feet are inches off the ground anyway.  I wonder why he’s pushing her in this heat and I wonder about her trying to please him. I also remember another day of 105 degrees and a yoga teacher screaming “100 percent”.

About 25 years ago while visiting my grandparents in Miami Beach I found a storefront that modestly stated “Yoga College of India” on the dingy window. I walked in to explore and decided to take a class. I was shocked when I entered the yoga room to find I’d walked into a sauna. I’d never heard of yoga in a sauna before but here were old folks in bikinis and Speedos, standing on towels instead of yoga mats and there was a mirror and some random not too athletic looking people and it was too intriguing to walk away from so I stayed. Fifteen minutes into it I felt my heart beating out of my skin and I was dizzy and weak. Breathing was a job. I wanted to leave. My instincts were “FIRE!  RUN!!!” but I wasn’t leaving till one of those old folks tipped over. My parents raised me better than that. The instructor, clearly aware of the possible anarchy kept demanding “100 percent!” as he pushed us harder into the poses.  I forced my screams under every five minutes till it was over. I left in a daze nauseous and shaking.  Well that was stupid, I thought. That was like taunting a heart attack! So why did I go back the next day? And why is that 100 percent so important?

I grew up in a family where accomplishment was mandatory. Everyone was a competitive athlete except me.  I hid in my room trying to be invisible.  Although like many of us I was accused of being an underachiever, I was stealthily imbued with a work ethic that later showed up in adulthood. I went back to that airless yoga room one more time to determine that it was a stupid because it made me sick, not because I was a quitter or less capable than the group.

I think of the tiny biker pushing herself to the breaking point to please her father. While I was resistant to being told what to do as a kid, she is willing to do what she needs to do to please her father. These are two different personalities but we both come to the same place which knows how to compete. In order to achieve our potential we first learn to overcome adversity.  It makes sense to be your best but it’s often about winning. I felt like I’d beat the heat in that class and the little girl was winning love. It seems that our survival instinct guides us toward that 100 percent. But sometimes stretching 100 percent makes you weaker, not stronger.

Our economy is based on competition and our lives are dependent on the economy so we are forced to be competitive.  Competition is also about acceptance; you like what I offer. The flip side of that is fear. Have I let you or myself down and have I failed to provide what is expected.  We’re afraid of being unable to hold on to self respect, to love, to the winnings that make us seem valuable and provide a comfortable life. Times like these are ripe for reflection and it is certainly topical in the yoga community.

The yoga business has exploded in the last 20 years. Competition has fostered grasping and combativeness among studios, teachers and students.  The yoga business should be an example of yoga teachings but often it isn’t. Insecurity creates negativity or sloppiness like any other business.

Definitions of competition include; “interaction in which fitness of one is lowered by the presence of another”, “it arises when two or more parties strive for a goal that cannot be shared” and “a notion of individuals or firms striving for a greater share of the market”. It sounds like war. While we yoga teachers are offering others a method of managing their lives, how are we managing our own in this environment?

The philosophical underpinnings of yoga embrace the practice of non-violence, truthfulness, freedom from greed, coveting and overdoing. Using these tenants in business is possible and there are plenty of examples of that. Competition can co-exist with compassion for us as well as others. Competition is useful in getting us going but a disease when it’s an end in itself. Sometimes we don’t recognize that it’s not always about 100 percent.

As a kid if I asked my parents if someone they knew was rich the response was, “they’re comfortable”. I had the impression that this meant they had what they needed and that it pleased my parents. As individuals we may be wired to compete but we are also invested in living with others.  When everyone is comfortable there is less cause for competition. Then opportunity arises to direct competitive energy into creative energy. Competition ignites a fire. Desire steps in to let us dream forth our endless potential.    Desire is the topic of part two.

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