Yoga is not a Competition – How to Embrace it

One of the great things about yoga, often said by yoga teachers is that yoga is non competitive. That sounds lovely doesn’t it.  Yoga is a place where you can just be and be accepted for what you are and accept yourself where you are.

We live in a competitive world, we are taught we need to compete to survive and to thrive, from school grades to getting that perfect job. Without some competitiveness would we even get out of bed? Often we don’t compete with others but have our own standards and desires which we work hard to reach.

“When I get this toy, job, car, man, woman, money, you name it….. then I will be happy,”  is often a mantra that keeps us moving in a direction until we get there, and then we find we want something else. It would be great if we could set this aside and go to yoga class and enjoy being where we are here and now. To be here and now is to accept things as they are right now. The conditioning of the mind can be strong though and the mind loves to make simple things complicated.

Yoga teaches us to be more present. Many people love yoga for it’s non-competiveness and yet many people, myself included struggle with their competitive nature. I have found this is actually the hardest thing I have ever had to teach anyone. I think ultimately it can’t be learnt it has to be discovered.

I can tell you that

  • yoga is not a competition
  • the girl next to you has been practicing for 10 years and is a teacher
  • we all have different bodies, that everyone has different strengths and weakness
  • your body is a result of everything you have done with it up until this moment, and is unique and beautiful
  • when you can do this or that asana you won’t suddenly become enlightened
  • a person who is more flexible or more strong isn’t necessarily the better yogi
  •  yoga isn’t about the asana (yoga position), the asana is just a tool to bring you into the present moment.

You might agree with me or you might think, it’s okay for you, you can touch your toes, do lotus or whatever your pose of frustration happens to be.

And yes let’s say you are right and I can do blah blah, I have come to realise that there will always be someone more flexible than me. It doesn’t matter if I spend the rest of my life doing yoga and I hope I will, there will always be something I can’t do. Indeed as I age I might not be able to do some of the things I do now. This is true for almost anything by the way, there can only be one world best at anything.  Is this never ending escalator annoying then, you get to the top and find your at the bottom again.  Actually I think it’s a relief to know there is nowhere to go but here, it helps me to surrender.

Having said all this. I love to work on asanas.  When I first stared my journey with ashtanga yoga there was so much I could not do. My mind loves a challenge and I love to work on something that I can’t do.  I know that with dedication, eventually it will become possible and sometimes it helps motivate me to complete my daily practice.  Is this competitive? Maybe, but yoga also teaches me to be where I am, to surrender to it, to unravel it each day and notice it as it is.  It forces me to work with this body in this moment no matter what I think it should be, it shows me what it is, right now.

When a bird sings it doesn't sing for the advancement of music.In fact if you find yourself noticing your competitive nature in yoga don’t be too hard on yourself. Yoga is a safe place to notice these things about ourselves and it is perfectly natural that you should feel some level of ambition within yourself.  Notice it, don’t feed it, that’s the trick.  Don’t judge it as good or bad.  Accept it as it is, just a passing thought.

Those of us who practice yoga are so lucky.  We are fortunate to have the time and health, to move our bodies to breathe and be part of a wider community that embraces these things as much as we do.  It is such a privilege each and every time we step on our mats regardless of whether you can touch your toes, I hope you enjoy the journey because the only destination is right here.

Do you feel competitive with yourself or others in yoga?  Does yoga offer you a rare opportunity to not compete? What has this journey taught you?

About Helen Aldred

Helen Aldred practices and teaches ashtanga yoga in Liverpool. She loves to share and discuss yoga, as well as health and wellbeing. Follow her on twitter and join Ashtanga yoga Liverpool’s Facebook community .

Comments

  1. ….and then there is always going to be some less competitive than you goddammit !

    • I was just reading around some other yoga aspects (lines of energy, playing the edge) and I happened upon this long article mentioning competition and comparison(half way down this last page of article) http://www.whitelotus.org/articles/selftransformation/07.html

      This article too (a short book!) I found super helpful and interesting (more lines of energy, playing the edge)
      movingintostillness.com/store_new.htm
      This guy, who is very animated if you watch a YouTube of him, favours freestyle spontaneous yoga, so quite opposite to ashtanga in a way

      Helen, I was listening to Alan watts on mp3 when I read your article! I’ve been listening to him a bit recently.
      If you like him my final and ultimate ever recommend for a read (basically all about what is really going on) is to google : prometheus rising pdf
      It’s a practical book with some interesting thought experiments that should shake anyone’s world view

      • Hi Steve, I too am listening to Alan Watts at the moment which is where the quote came from. What an interesting man! Eric Schiffman’s Moving into Stillness is a great book for anyone to read regardless of the style of yoga practiced. I read it about 5 years ago and absolutely loved it. Is the book Prometheus Rising the book by Robert Anton Wilson? I read this book as a teenager and loved it. I like how you say it has interesting thought experiments which will transform anyone’s world view – as all good books should. As you can see I love to read, thanks for mentioning these great books as I am sure others will find them interesting.

  2. This is a great post! When I practise yoga, I love how it gives you the opportunity to focus fully on your own body and feel and learn where you are tense/weak and gradually improve. I’m only interested in myself and how I’m developing and I don’t like the change in atmosphere when I sense that other people are comparing themselves with you or watching others and wishing they could do whatever pose they are doing well. I always feel the competitiveness kills the serene yoga mood and is the opposite of what yoga is all about! I really enjoy reading your blog, Helen!

  3. When I was younger I hated competitive sports (always the last to be picked!) I still get quite nervey if someone accidentally throws a ball in my direction in the park, fearing that I’ll kick/throw it in completely the wrong direction! So the non-comptetitiveness of yoga was a real draw. But I have to say, now that I feel pride in achieving asanas I have worked on, sometimes that little competitive voice pops up, which is strange – surely I should be a better yogi for practising longer, but sometimes the reverse seems to be true! But there it is. Usually I am able to laugh at myself and move on, but sometimes I do get annoyed with myself for being childish on the mat. As you say, its more about observing the thoughts than judging them and its nice to know that I’m not alone in experiencing this. We’re only human after all!

  4. Hey everyone, thanks so much for commenting.

    Steve – always 😉

    Amilia, how lovely to hear from you and I am so glad you are enjoying the blog. I know what you mean, I think people can really loose focus when they start comparing themselves. In classes like that I think you have to hold your own focus and hope that helps everyone else regain there’s. So happy to hear you have continued your yoga journey since leaving Liverpool.

    Claire, so great to hear that you found that in yoga. A lot of people have a difficult relationship with fitness for the reasons you mention. I think you do have a point that it gets harder as you get more advanced. I find it weird when people compliment my practice. Unfortunately for some the more advanced the practice the bigger the ego, which is obviously not the point! Like you say we are human and it’s best to observe ourselves and others without judgement. In this way gradually the chatter in our minds becomes less, one breath at a time.

    Thanks again for your comments, it’s great to hear of other people’s experiences!

  5. I absolutely love this blog post! It encompasses the trials and tribulations of what many of us have experienced at some point in an ‘awkward, self-conscious, I’m better than you’ class. In my experience I enjoy a good bit of self-competitiveness, setting small goals and working my way towards them at my own pace. I have been in classes with a vast range of yogis; from beginners to advanced, where competition between students just doesn’t exist, but at the same time examining each other, supporting one individual who makes that move that he/she has been trying for weeks, does exist. The feelings towards each other were of immense pride and camaraderie, and those positive class experiences (from both past and present teachers) will stay with me forever. Thanks again for the great post 🙂

  6. Helen, this is a lovely article, such as Yoga non competitive 🙂

  7. Jules Castellain says:

    Lovely post Helen. I agree with Katy – and also enjoy a bit of self competitiveness – it poses no harm really does it, as long as it doesn’t go too far where we risk injuring ourselves just to get that bit further in an asana/practice. I’ve also had the privilege of being in classes where nobody is competitive and ego is also pretty much non existent…..but I’ve also been in many classes…especially now and with the popularity of hot yoga, where competition is huge and ego is huger! I used to find it worrying that people were doing yoga without knowing at all what yoga is exactly (and see it more as a fitness thing, etc) and that a good yogi was determined by how flexible somebody was or whether they could do hanumanasana! I’ve since learned that its not for me to worry about this as it is not something I can control, but what I can do is just ensure that I tell my students when I teach, not to worry about anybody else and just to focus on themselves in the present moment.

  8. Hi Katy, Lucia and Jules, thanks so much for your comments. I am glad you enjoyed the post. I agree some amount of self competitiveness and group encouragement can be useful so long as we don’t forget to work at being more present. Katy, I thought you would like this after are lovely discussion after class on Thursday. Jules, hope your tattoo feels better :-).

  9. Thank you Helen for a great blog…

    Competition in yoga sound a bit like “not – yoga practice” for me.
    It looks like “competition” is not consistent with The Eight Limbs of Yoga practice – Ahimsa – A principle of non-violence.
    Comparing yourself to somebody else is like a slap in your own face. This is building hate and jealousy in your heart. In that case you won’t grow.
    As Helen said, we all are unique and exceptional.
    You won’t find a person on this planet who speaks like you, has the same tone of voice as you, walks like you, we are similar but not the same. We all do yoga in a different way.
    What is easy for me is not necessary easy for you but I can ask you: how you did it? That will be a better solution.
    Doing yoga on a mat and comparing yourself to another person or teacher is not like practicing yoga at all because you don’t mind your own business.
    We try to move our “outside life” to a yoga mat… and after a while we learn the lesson that “yoga won’t give it to you”. You can push, and press your knee to the ground or bend your back hard and it is pretty much possible you will end up with a big injury. Sorry.
    In the other hand we are stuck with a bad, not satisfying but well paid job; a bad relationship, or something else.
    Some people dream of putting their leg behind the head… right.

    The question is why on earth YOU need to put your leg behind your head? Why would you want to do that? What for? To feel better than others? To be cool? Or because you have a great job (which you might hate), a great car (which cost you a fortune), a perfect partner (he is not so perfect after all those years, hm?… ;)) and now you want your leg behind your head. Now!
    Yeah… when it comes to simple, very slow exercises for core stability, we cannot do it! It’s too slow, so where we are rushing to so much?

    Are you able to do the same repetition every day for 10, 15, 20 years, only to improve your flexibility… without feeling any kind of spirituality in it? I won’t be bothered.

    Being able to put your leg behind the head won’t make you happy, what will make you happy is …. a journey…
    Then you set your mind for a practice in your own space every day, and putting your leg behind the head won’t be a goal anymore.
    That journey is priceless because you can discover yourself.

    No cash, the best-paying job, a nice car, a perfect partner does not fill inner emptiness, which can be filled only by self-knowledge.

    If we think that yoga is like a gym or we try to compare ourselves to others, we will end up hurting ourselves.

    The pain is real. I have been there. I am recovering from a back injury. I have learned a lesson. I believe it’s a life lesson for me. I started to listen to my body. Through Ashtanga yoga I connected with this spiritual path which I couldn’t find dancing, praying, or going to church every Sunday.

    I think… “competition” is one of our layers which we have to get rid of to become more ourselves ;-).

    and … I found this…

    “… excited students would bring in photos of contortionists and other extremely bendy people to show Jois and his grandson, Sharath, Jois would always take time to look deeply at the image. Then his furrowed brow would clear and he would say, “That not yoga. That only bending. Yoga means self-knowledge.” — Kino MacGregor, The Power of Ashtanga Yoga

  10. Thanks for taking the time to share your experiences, you have certainly learnt a lot and it is wonderful to see you grow both on and off the mat.

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