July 24, 2012

Yogis & Bears: Competition & Nature.

Photo: Sebastian Schmied

When we are in competition with ourselves, and match our todays against our yesterdays, we derive encouragement from past misfortunes and blemishes. Moreover, the competition with ourselves leaves unimpaired our benevolence toward our fellow [human].
~ Eric Hoffer

I’m competitive.  I’ve admitted it before and now I’ll do it again. I can talk about the problems inherent in competition and how much more competitive it makes us when we live in an individualistic culture. In fact, I frequently do so in my classes. But, even so, I’m competitive. Whatever I do, I want to be good at it.  Actually, I often want to be better than others. I don’t always want to be the best (but sometimes I do). And I feel bad about that.

At the same time, isn’t competition somewhat a part of our animal nature? Every animal that lives in a pack, herd, swarm, flock, murder, clutch, or hive competes for position within the group, and competes with other groups for power or resources. So, it’s reasonable to expect that humans will do so as well. I mean, sure we try to get beyond our animal natures, but at the end of the day, as my daughter used to say, we are all meat.

Our feelings about competition are highly influenced by surrounding cultures. In the yoga community, there seems to be a general feeling among many practitioners that competition isn’t good, that somehow it moves against the underlying ideas of the practice. This is interesting in consideration of the connections between yoga and Buddhism, because even the Buddha sometimes used competition between his Bikkhus to encourage them in their practice and learning/teaching of the dharma.

Photo: Pavan Rao

So, why should we not be competitive in yoga? Part of it, I would say, is because competition between self and others can encourage one to pay more attention to what others are doing than to your own behaviors.  As a favorite yoga instructor once reminded us in class, you should literally “mind your own business,” as in devote your mind to what you are doing, and not to what others are doing. Additionally, to think about yoga as a competition with others tends to put the focus on what we can do with the body, some of which is a factor of our physical body features—not of our effort or practice—and reduces attention to what the physical practice does for the mind.

However, competition can also inspire our practice. Competition with the self (can I go a little further today than I did yesterday?) can encourage us to try a bit harder or stretch a bit deeper. It’s easy enough to stop pushing against the edge when we get into a position in a way we find acceptable if we don’t maintain a bit of self-competitive spirit.

Even comparison with others can be beneficial. Now and then, a yoga teacher will instruct the class I’m in into a pose that I first think is pretty much impossible for anyone who is not that teacher. But, when I take a quick glance around the room and see that others are making their way into some degree of the pose, I get comforted in the realization that it isn’t impossible and inspired to try.

I guess the bottom line may be the middle path (or would that be the middle line?). As with so many other things, perhaps too much competition isn’t so good and too little competition isn’t so helpful, but a middle amount of competitive spirit can be “just right.”  Maybe we can call it the Goldilocks of Competition?

And now, back to the bears.

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