Before each session begins we offer a week of free sample classes. The purpose of these classes is to introduce people to yoga and to our yoga studio. The classes are very basic since there is usually a mix of people ranging from the very fit to those who have not exercised in years.
In a sample class several years ago a marathon runner chose a spot at the back of the room. A few minutes later a former ballet dancer set up beside him. As part of the class we did the hamstring stretch pictured below. The marathon runner lifted his leg about a foot off the floor. The dancer lifted her leg up, held her foot in her hand, and brought it back over her head to the floor behind her. In essence, she did the splits upside down. The runner looked over at her and then at me in a mild panic as he struggled to raise his leg higher.
Obviously, the runner and the ballet dancer had very different bodies. Both had spent years competing in their chosen activities and their bodies had become as strong and as flexible as the demands of their training required. Both were also very competitive and spent the class watching each other. Because of the differences in their bodies, it was an unequal competition. Some poses were easier for one, some for the other.
Yoga is not competitive, but at times that is hard to remember. In the physical form of yoga that we practice, competition does not work. Most poses require a combination of flexibility and strength. Through lifestyle, injuries, accidents and age, we all develop different areas of tightness and flexibility, weakness and strength. Though the dancer and the runner were the most extreme examples I have seen side by side, in every class there is quite a range. Often I see people sneaking glances at each other, comparing their poses to others. The attitudes range from “I am better than she is” to “I am not good enough.”
However, in yoga classes, there is the choice not to compete. In the end, what is the point? The person with the most flexible hamstrings wins? As far as I have seen, no one receives a new car, gets a million dollars, or is instantly enlightened solely because they are flexible. Instead, the gain is more personal. More flexible hamstrings allow more movement in the hips which over time may relieve an achy lower back. There is also just the simple enjoyment of watching the changes in your body as you continue your yoga practice. It does not matter what everyone else in the room is doing; your challenges and gains are yours and yours alone.
All of us at some time in our lives have been in a competition, whether it is in school, sports or in our job. The playing field may be level or there may be obvious inequities, but any time there is a competition, there are winners and losers and no one wins every contest.
We have a choice in how we view our world. Do we immediately make every situation a competition? If so, is it necessary or does it create anxiety and stress? There is a thrill in winning but losing is not as much fun. In a place like a yoga class where no one can “win” in every pose, is the competition worthwhile or does it lessen the enjoyment?
In many cases how we view the world determines our experience of it. As summer and vacations approach, see if you can simply take pleasure in an activity just for the joy of it with no attachments to the outcome.