You’ll hear it said, and you’ll hear it said often: don’t look around, don’t compare your <insert asana name of choice here> to anybody else’s. I heard it every time, but I never listened.
I am inherently a fairly competitive person. I didn’t know I was until only a couple of years ago when a friend mentioned it in a throwaway, observational way, and I laughed uproariously at the absurdity of it. Except, it really wasn’t absurd at all. I was confronted with the sheer force of my need to be just a little bit better than everybody else (I mean, at least a tiny bit) in a yoga class where I was, actually, not ‘better’ than anybody else. There were all sorts of bodies in that class – stronger, bendier, more elastic bodies that did things that my then-stiff and unpliant body couldn’t, but also older, softer, curvier, bigger bodies that I was certain I’d out-bend, out-stretch, and out-balance. Except I didn’t. At the time my practice wasn’t much more than a physical practice and a sporadic one at best, but the bodies in that class had that ‘drishti’ situation down pat, the inward gaze that meant that their eyes weren’t constantly darting around the room causing them to lose balance and keel over in tree pose like I was.
I’ve since learned (and learned also to believe) that thing that we are all often told in class: yoga is a non-competitive practice. I knew this intellectually, or I heard it when it was said, but that’s never how it was for me in actuality. When I wasn’t able to go into upavistha konasana (wide legged seated forward bend) like the others because of my insanely tight hamstrings and hip flexors I recall feeling a hot flush of shame that just rose unbidden in me, like I was a…fraud? Or, worse yet, a little bit pathetic? Our internal dialogues are the worst. We’re told that we are neither competing against other people nor against ourselves because there is no ‘best’, except most of us do both, at least to start. Your teacher will have said, “listen to your body,” to know when to push and when to just let go, but even that simple instruction, to listen, requires that internal chatter to pip down, for one hot second at a minimum.
Every day in yoga is different, because every day your body is different. There are days I’m open and flexible and warm where I can just leap right into it, and days that I’m tight and constricted and it takes me time to open. I’m learning to accept that that’s where my body is today, and even if it’s tight and unyielding, that’s okay. That just is where I am.
When you strip away the terminology, the accoutrement, and the complicated poses … yoga is for everyone. Yoga is for every time. It was for helping me confront my frustration with my first yin yoga class, and with my own personal tendency to try and fit an activity into every second. No discernable practical benefit? No point. Except yin’s benefits crept up on me, after half a class of vexedly looking around and thinking “we’re not fucking doing anything, what a waste of an hour.” Felt pretty silly, I gotta say, when I got off the mat an hour later feeling open, weightless, and a little weepy from the unkinking of bits of me that all my other go-go-go activities didn’t hit. It was for finding out that things unfold when they need to, and to help me locate patience with the breathing exercises, realizing in my own sweet time that they’re not just the time-wasting first segment of a class, but at the core of yoga. Who knew? Not me for sure.
It is now for dropping into my body every time I get on the mat, and realizing every time how much I am not in my body for most of the day. Getting on my mat now helps me find presence, which is still something I struggle with. There are slow-flow classes and there are ones that progress at breakneck speed, each posture bound to the fresh intake of breath. I find humility in both, much needed in a world where so much of our self-worth is bound to external reassurance. But as you drop into postures over and over again it stops being merely about making the shape, but also starting to notice how making those shapes makes you feel. I started to notice how I felt as I twisted in parivrtta trikonasana (twisted triangle pose), feeling my ribcage open and the tendons in my armpit stretch. When I was first able to lift (unsteadily, with no grace) in svarga dvijasana (bird of paradise pose) I felt able to register that success and acknowledge that even though my body would likely, in my opinion, always remain profoundly flawed, I wasn’t looking around to see whose bird of paradise was more stately, or who had lifted with a straight leg.
Highs have included the snuck-up-on-me pleasure of a class in which I found myself in a literal flow state and the heady weightlessness that accompanies that sensation of movement without much thought. That doesn’t happen every day, but when it does I’m most blown away by the fact that there’s always going to be somebody stronger, or more limber than me, but in those moments I don’t look left, or right, or anywhere but at my mat because I’m totally okay with where I am. Sort of. But you know, it’s a process, and that I really am okay with.