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Why do you need to compete in yoga?

Have you ever seen someone doing something and say to yourself “I can never do that” or “this is too hard for me”? Or, have you ever say “I’m so jealous. I wish I can do that”?

Comparing myself to others in a yoga class or gym has always been something I both hate and appreciate. I know, as a yoga teacher and a practitioner, I am not supposed to preach competition and comparison. In the traditional sense, yoga is all about meditation, looking inward, and cutting off the external stimulus. I agree that, a lot of times, I like doing yoga just to be with myself, flow with my breaths, and getting to know my strengths and limitations, and I hate myself for constantly looking at other people and distracting me from doing my own things. However, on contrary to the tradition, I also love my sense of competition for pushing me toward something I never dared trying before.

One instance that I still can remember very clearly was last year at a studio in Bangkok. Knowing my own pitfall of comparing to others, I normally choose to be in the front-middle of the room. At that point, I have been practicing daily for over two years, and I normally had been chosen to demonstrate poses in the class because I have been a regular at the studio. Enrollment in a yoga teacher training with Bri also boosted my ego for an illegitimate reason. However, on one fine day, a new-face guy showed up in the class (good-looking also), and made me feel very inferior for the entire class. What he did was “just” jump up to handstand in every vinyasa – that’s all (in Meryl Streep’s Devil Wears Prada tone). I felt pity for myself, but, on top of that, since then, I have been quite determined to get myself up to handstand.

Now, it’s been 4 months of near-daily practice. I can proudly say that I still cannot get the similar consistency of my entry into handstand as him (the guy jump up to handstand without fail every time – it was an amazing feast for the eyes. On the other hand, what I can also proudly present is that I can hold some handstand and I can make some shape with it – not consistently but I can. On a good day, I can now get a few seconds of holds for every 2-3 jumps. I can also get to some leg variations after a few tries. On a bad day, I may need to do a few rounds of warm-up jumps before I can get anywhere with my handstand practice. The main thing is that I have improved quite a lot from that point.

There are two morals from this story – or rather my journey in the yoga and handstand practice overall: 1) There is no real “cannot” until you have tried hard enough, and 2) Competition and comparison can be healthy – even in yoga.

I have met a lot of people who told me:

I cannot do yoga – I’m too stiff.

I cannot do whatever you are doing.

What I wanted to ask (if I care enough to do so) are:

Will being able to do these stuffs be beneficial for you?

Do you want to be able to do it?

Do you think you have put sufficient effort to get there? Or did you just try once or twice and decided that you cannot do it?

My starting point with yoga was abysmal and completely pathetic. I couldn’t even touch my toes! I cannot hold a half push up. My arms went numb during and after a class, and I got a cramp on my abs when I tried to do core work. I couldn’t hold a boat or low boat. I was a 90+ kg who hardly exercise for 20+ years. I don’t think many people have worse starting points than I did. The only reason I managed to get through was, aside from not wanting to lose to an old auntie, I realized that this is important for me and my health and that after a week of putting in the effort, I started to see improvements. After a few months, I could do a shoulder stand, and in a year, I could hold a headstand. I’m sure people with a more athletic background can achieve similar results much faster.

The point is, unless you give it a try, everything is impossible. Unless you put enough effort, “difficult thing” will remain pretty much out-of-reach. But, with practice and perseverance, you will see results or at least a positive trajectory toward it.

I guess I am not a very conventional yoga teacher after all by saying a healthy competition would be good for practicing yoga – or any form of exercise really. Competition and comparison with your neighbor (mat or IG wise) or your past self (yesterday, last week, last month, last year) are good ways to keep yourself motivated. I am motivated by challenges and love getting inspiration for my poses and sequences from scrolling IG. I also love looking back at my old photos just to see how my shape (not my belly size) in different poses have changed over time.

The key to keep yourself sane and intact to keep the comparison and competition healthy is to make sure that you don’t look down at yourself for way too long. A short glimpse of inferiority can motivate or act as negative reinforcement, but lingering on will be depressing. Another thing to keep in mind is to be a well-informed competitor. Know your pose, your body, and what are the steps to reach your goal / or competitive state. This will help you to practice safely and ensure improvement. Lastly, be a friendly participant – ask for tips and tricks to practice. I asked for advice from my friends all the time, and I’m more than happy to share my practice as well.

As a last note – let’s healthily compete, compare yourself to your earlier self, and celebrate success and improvement, even if it is tiny. Cheers!

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