It happens. Coming into Down Dog in a crowded class, there is always the temptation to check out the people to the right and to the left before making a mental comparison: they are both so much thinner! Later on in class, the question pops up in tree pose: why do I fall out of the pose? She doesn’t! And so it goes. By the end of class, the yogini who falls into the competition trap is upset, frazzled, and ready to quit: What’s the point? I’ll never be as good/as thin/as cute/as bendy as the rest of the class….
Everyone knows that yoga is not meant to be a competition, but it can be difficult to remember that while on the mat. The yoga community is as varied as the general population, which means that one shares classes with dancers, professional athletes, and lifelong yoga practitioners as well as with newcomers, overweight practitioners, and those recovering from injuries. In other words, there will always be people in class who excel and people who don’t. When one is at the “top” of the class, the mind tends towards arrogance; when one is at the “bottom”, the mind drifts towards despair. How does one work through these states and move past competition?
One of the gifts of asana practice is the ability to watch what the mind does and to consider what that demonstrates about one’s current state of spirituality. What happens on the mat is a reflection of what happens in the rest of one’s life, and asana practice provides a sometimes stark light on one’s current state of equanimity, or lack thereof. If one’s mind is hypercritical on the mat, it is probably judgmental in other areas of one’s life. If there is egotism in class, there is likely to be vanity regarding other things as well. Thus, recognizing that there is a competition going on in one’s head is the first step in learning how to live more skillfully; identifying the nature of the comparison gives the yogi more information to work with.
Once a pattern is identified, there are a few ways to work with it. The first is to meet it with kindness and awareness by naming it: I am being judgmental. I am being arrogant. Once the thought is named, it can be gently dismissed. Turn the focus back to the breath and the body: what is my alignment? Where is my foot? Am I using my ujjayi breath? Asana and movement are wonderful ways to get “out of one’s head”, so to speak. Move the mind back into the present moment. Feel the deliciousness of each pose, and work towards more connection with one’s body.
Another way to work with a pattern is to take a contrary action to use as a focus for the asana practice. For example, replace each condemnatory thought with one of love and respect. When in an arrogant frame of mind, offer the asana practice up as a prayer for someone else or for the greater good of the world. Above all, honor the impulse to practice yoga and keep in mind that these states are not permanent; today’s ebullience will become tomorrow’s depression, and vice versa.
The traditional yoga greeting of “Namaste” is in itself an excellent lesson on the nature of competition. The greeting means that the one offering it is honoring the divinity in the person receiving it. In other words, both are holy and worthy of love and respect. When the mind becomes competitive, the wise yogi recognizes the impulse as an unskillful act and proceeds accordingly, without further depreciation or pride. In this way, even the less attractive parts of the mind become methods of spiritual growth.