Comparing & Competing: Not In Your Practice

By: Bryan Kest

Could you imagine how radiation for a cancerous tumor might affect our energy level? What about dealing with the very recent death of a loved one? Could you imagine the limitations or discomfort of being constipated or having a herniated disc? What about neck problems or hamstring issues, a recent surgery, tobacco withdrawals, bad eyesight or hearing, drug addiction, hangover, arthritis, lupus, sprained finger, wrist, ankle or toe? What about PMS, menstruation, menopause or the first trimester of pregnancy? What about hemorrhoids, gout or insomnia? The above conditions are a very minute percentage of the problems and conditions that the people around us could and probably are dealing with that we would not notice by looking at them. Also, the fact that all of us are by-products of completely unique histories, which have affected us uniquely.

In other words, all of our experiences are very different as well as our needs. Understanding this seems to highlight the absurdity of comparing and competing with others. I really cannot think of too many better ways to disrespect ourselves than comparing and competing with others. Wherever we find high levels of competition, we also find high levels of corruption, stress, sickness and injury. We live in highly competitive times in a highly competitive world. We have created catch phrases to mock our competitiveness like “rat race” and “trying to keep up with the Joneses.” What’s ironic is the Joneses are trying to keep up with the Smiths and the Smiths are trying to keep up with the Edelsteins and the Edelsteins are trying to keep up with the Wolinskies and the reason is because the Joneses suffer from the same disease we suffer from, which is they do not believe they are good enough the way they are. So they are always trying to be better, which in our society means acquiring more, which never seems to work because those things can never help us love ourselves and accept ourselves exactly the way we are, which seems to me the only way to any lasting and deep contentment and peace.

I have two separate stories I want to share with you to emphasize the personal nature of this yoga practice. The first story has to do with a highly regarded body builder who happened to be in my class many years back. This guy was close to having biceps bigger than his head. As I had the class in downward facing dog, this guy’s arms started shaking pretty badly. He seemed perplexed as to why he was so quickly fatiguing, and the girl next to him was holding the posture seemingly easily and comfortably. Finally, he had to come out of the pose, as his arms were about to collapse. As he was on his knees resting, he looked totally perplexed as he gazed around the room at everyone else in the pose seemingly fine. What this body builder did not realize was that although he was very strong, possibly stronger than anyone else in the class, his short, tight, overdeveloped muscles were really restricting his range of motion, and he was expending much more energy and effort just to push his joints straight, and therefore fatiguing faster.

The other story is about a hyper flexible young woman who attended my class regularly. She was very proud to always be the most flexible person in the class. This title of most flexible can only be attained by comparing with others, so obviously her deeper understanding of yoga practice was missing. Well, one day in class we were doing a seated forward bend. As this girl was looking around the room, she noticed the girl next to her looked like she was able to go further in the pose than she herself could. Although she could easily touch her head to her legs in the pose, the girl next to her actually had her forehead resting on their big toes. This looked much deeper. At this point the proud, loose girl started desperately trying to get her head to her feet, but she couldn’t, and you could read the frustration all over her face. What her competitive, distracted mind failed to realize was that she actually might have been more flexible than this girl next to her, who looked as if she were going deeper into the pose. It’s just that this girl next to her had short legs and a long torso, which made touching her head to her feet easier. She, on the other hand, had long legs and a short torso; she was never going to do it (without serious injury) even though she actually may have been the more flexible of the two. The point of these stories is to emphasize how the shape of our body has a major effect on how we look in these postures, and no two people on the planet (not even identical twins) have the same shape, let alone the same diet, emotions, genetic lineage, injuries, etc. Understanding this helps one begin to see the absurdity of comparing and competing with others. It is really irrational when it comes to preventing injury and creating wellness.

Comparing and competing does not have to extend beyond our self. We could be comparing or competing with some image or ideal we have in our mind. Maybe we are comparing ourselves with past accomplishments or future goals. Maybe we are living out some program implanted in our mind by our family, friends, society, coaches, teachers or media. Incessantly told in every way how we should look, how we should act and what we should accomplish. All of this possibly being the perpetuation of a great disease or imbalance, a great emptiness that we are stressing out, trying to fill with outer accomplishments at the detriment to our true health, relationships and environment. If we do accomplish our goals or ideals, certainly there may be some satisfaction but usually it is not long at all before it then turns into wanting something else and the cycle begins again. If we don’t accomplish our goal or the goal of our program, well that could perpetuate its own stress, from anger to depression to desperation, etc.
My experience is that we are all uniquely special and the circumstances of our conditions lead us in the direction of finding and cultivating the special gifts and qualities that enable us to positively contribute to humanity in our own unique ways. These circumstances and conditions also lead us toward the experiences that are necessary for our growth and evolution. So in that case, comparing and competing with others or with our own internal program, which is really the same thing may be a huge distraction and detour from the natural process that our conditions are attempting to accomplish so as to facilitate the experiences that will help us grow into our own, rather than something we have been told we need to be or accomplish.

There are not too many things that we are so comparative and competitive about than our aesthetics and physical prowess. So these harmful qualities certainly are likely to arise within one’s yoga practice, whether we are competing with others in the room or we are comparing ourselves with some internal ideal we have. So be on high alert. Watch carefully that we don’t fall into these old mental habits. When we do catch ourselves indulging in these harmful habits, make sure we smile. The smile is so important because we caught ourselves. It is the most important step. Then, stop feeding that habit, mental energy, and unconscious loyalty by simply bringing your attention back to your breathing and your intention of healing by touching yourself gently with love and care, which is why we are involved with this beautiful physical practice. Also, be on high alert that we do not feed these competitive qualities that can manifest as anger, frustration or disappointment by competing with this new ideal we have cultivated of ourselves of being less competitive. Now you know that comparing and competing can be harmful, so our addiction to comparing and competing manifests in the goal or ideal of “not comparing and competing.” Make sure we do not fall into this trap. If you really desire to be less comparative and competitive than you also need to let go of competing with yourself to reach this ideal of not “comparing and competing.”

I have always felt the only way to judge your progress in yoga is in how little you judge your progress in yoga or maybe judge anything.

Welcome to PowerYoga.

The 5 Myths of Alignment in Yoga

By Jonny Kest, National Director of LifePower Yoga

We hear the term “alignment” all the time in yoga class, but what, exactly, does it mean? Here are five misconceptions about alignment that still need straightening out.

Merriam-Webster says that “to align” means ‘to place in a straight line or correct relative positions.’ And it seems like a harmless enough term--indeed, it sounds a lot like what many yoga teachers actually do:they line up the arms and legs and torsos and necks until their students’ postures (asanas) look “correct.”

So what could be wrong with “alignment” as a concept? It’s just a word, after all--no more or less weighted than any used to define the hard-to-capture practice of performing yogic postures for health, well-being, and self transformation. Unfortunately, the way many students—and even some teachers—interpret this concept, it can sometimes wind up doing more harm than good.

Below are the five most common misconceptions about yogic alignment—and some suggestions on how you can reframe the concept for yourself—and make your practice more joyful, effective, sensual and satisfying.

MYTH #1: You were born with perfect symmetrical alignment but through behavior and environmental conditions, you lost it. This is one of the most common misconceptions in yoga: we used to have perfect symmetry, and if we hadn’t injured ourselves, or succumbed to the conveniences and comforts of modern life, perfect alignment and flexibility would come naturally and a more ‘advanced’ yoga practice would be within our grasp. In other words we only have ourselves to blame for any limitations in our yoga practice.

The truth, however, is that we are born asymmetrical: one leg is longer, one arm is stronger; the liver is off to one side, while the heart is skewed toward the other side and the right lung is larger than the left. And, of course, everyone writes with a dominant hand, sees more clearly through a dominant eye, and kicks more forcefully with a dominant foot.  However, we do not go to bed off balance and we do not feel out of alignment just because we brushed our teeth with our right hand and did not switch to our left half way through. 

Certainly, life experiences, mood and behavior affect the tone of your muscles and your physical posture for both good and ill. But winning the genetic lottery of inheritance plays a far bigger role in determining alignment, flexibility, and our capacity for performing the most acrobatic or extreme yoga postures than most practitioners believe. Some children are able to touch their feet to their head behind their backs virtually from birth; others will never be able to.  Some rank beginners wander into a yoga class and pull off a deep backbend pose like upward bow (full wheel) on their first day--while some lifetime yogis simply cannot.

When you realize everybody’s alignment is unique, your yoga practice shifts. You stop seeing the poses as idealized linear shapes that you try to achieve, but as tools for learning and moving towards a deeper level of self-understanding and acceptance. Rather than making corrections, you start making more energetic connections.  You no longer use your body to get into a pose, but instead use the pose to get into your body.

MYTH #2: There is a perfect posture waiting to be mastered.
Throw all this natural misalignment and asymmetry into a yoga pose and it becomes clear that ‘perfection,’ in human form, is an illusion. In every yogi, in every asana, bone eventually comes into contact with bone, and no yoga teacher in the world--no amount of chanting, visualization, or deep breathing--will get you any deeper. At that point, whether or not you’ve achieved an asana worthy of the cover of next month’s issue of the Yoga Journal is determined almost entirely by the shape of your bones, your genetics. 

The best any of us can do is create an individual interpretation of each pose—our own expression of the asana, like a musician’s take on a well-known song. Yo Yo Ma may play “Ode to Joy” in a way few can match—but your nine-year-old niece’s interpretation of the same song might bring tears to your eyes because of her commitment, enthusiasm and generosity of spirit. We can find lots to appreciate in both versions.  

MYTH #3: When you’re not in proper alignment you will ultimately hurt or injure yourself.
When you’re talking about the interrelated parts of a machine, “the term alignment” makes perfect sense. Aligning your tires, for example, prevents accidents, prolongs the life of the tires, and makes your car function better.

Many yoga teachers make the same claim about the human body, however, often using the very same language: Our bodies are like machines, they suggest, they work better and last longer when all the separate pieces are properly aligned.

Well—do they?

In a sense, we’ll never know. Perfect, mechanical alignment doesn’t happen in the body—any body. Bodies are not constructed in straight lines but in curves: blood vessels snake languorously through the body,  and bones and teeth contact one another on surfaces that are invariably convex or concave. Try standing relaxed with your feet together—as in mountain pose and close your eyes.  What do you notice?  Even mountain pose is a balancing posture requiring countless tiny, moment-to-moment adjustments among many opposing asymmetrical forces.

A 1994 study from the New England Journal of Medicine found that 82% of people experiencing no low-back pain actually showed signs of disc bulges and herniations. The point? The vast majority of us go through life quite happily and comfortably ‘misaligned’—as literal embodiments of the Japanese term “wabi sabi’—beautifully imperfect. 

Injuries do occur in yoga classes, mostly in the soft tissue of the knees, ankles, shoulders, and lower back. But it’s unlikely that they result from ‘imperfect’ alignment, which varies widely from one body to another. More likely, these injuries occur because people ignore the signals their bodies are sending them about what is safe and what is not safe for them--and instead try to push themselves to achieve an idealized version of an asana that their body is not ready to perform—and may not ever be.

MYTH #4: When we practice poses with proper alignment, energy flows freely throughout the body.
Many practitioners believe that when you perform a pose with perfect alignment, something semi-magical happens: Energy (prana) effortlessly flows through your torso and extremities. Your nervous system lights up like a Christmas tree.  All obstacles to the flow of energy are entirely removed.

In practice, the opposite is true: you go into a pose in order to create an obstacle to the flow of prana. Stretch a muscle, twist your spine, or bend a joint near its end range, and blood and lymph inevitably have a harder time circulating. All you have to do is spend a few minutes in virtually any pose to prove the point: no matter how perfectly aligned your outer form appears, certain areas of your body eventually become numb.

Come out of the pose, however, and prana gushes into your extremities like water through an unkinked hose.

Think of a yoga posture, then, as a constraint for the flow of prana—a crimp in the energetic hose—and think of a yoga class as a series of challenges for your capacity to remain equanimous even whenobstacles are present. Can you keep breathing, extending your awareness, activating your hands, feet, fingers and toes, even when you start to tire, even when your muscles are shaking a little, even when you really want to come out of the pose? A yoga class is a pranic ‘obstacle course’ which you can eventually learn to negotiate with more and more ease and mastery. Learning the subtle art of keeping calm and balanced even in the face of difficulty is a powerful lesson—and one with profound implications outside the yoga studio as well.

MYTH #5: There are universal principles of alignment that are good for every body.
Don’t let your front knee travel in front of your toes in lunging poses or you’ll hurt your knee! How many times have you heard this? Probably enough so that you carefully avoid it--never realizing that your knee travels in front of your toes in any yoga side lunge pose such as skandasana and both knees travel in front of your toes in a yoga squat.  Whoever came up with this rule clearly never noticed, either.

Another common one: Keep your elbows close to your body in chaturanga  dandasana, yoga push-up or you’ll hurt your shoulders!

For some people, that’s true. But depending on the architecture of the shoulder joint, the elbows-in position can also cause more inflammation and pain than an elbows-out position.

The natural asymmetry and variation of the human body makes it very tough to come up with universal rules that always apply to every body, all the time. Ask five yoga teachers for a detailed description of how to perform triangle pose (trikonasana) and you’ll get five subtly different answers. Inevitably, each responds based on a backlog of experience, which they’ve found to be effective for themselves and perhaps their students as well. But no description will always work perfectly for every-‘body’, no matter how eloquent or perceptive the teacher: It’s why there are a couple dozen different common styles of hatha yoga, and over 5,000 yoga studios in the US alone. Every teacher has insight and inspiration, and every teacher has blind spots.

Those of us who practice and teach yoga are like the blind men in the fable who describe the elephant in a different way depending on which part of the animal they’re touching. None of us are wrong, exactly--indeed, all of us have a firm grasp on some part of the truth. But no single teacher can wrap his or her arms around the whole practice, or perceive the whole truth within each and every student.

In a sense that’s what makes yoga an exciting and dynamic art, and not a finite, fully-graspable science—it’s an expression of an individual in space and time, not a playing out of a set of principles which are inherently limited and predictable.

Concluding Words
In truth, the human body itself is the most effective and perceptive teacher in the yoga room—and the best yoga teachers themselves understand that. Their teaching is as much inside-out as it is outside-in: they guide their students towards the awareness of sensations associated with each asana more often than they stage a pose for students to copy. The most masterful yoga teachers, therefore, aren’t necessarily the ones who can achieve the most impressive-looking yoga poses but the ones who can speak the language of sensation most clearly and vividly: Feel your chest opening towards the floor and notice your hamstrings lengthening in downward dog; sense your upper arms near your ears in warrior one and observe your top hip rotating backward in triangle pose. Approached like this, any inappropriate competitiveness or overreaching dissipates, and a class becomes a simple, joyful and sensual exploration rather than a “posture race.”

Many high-profile master teachers from disciplines like voice, music and movement long ago recognized the effectiveness of this kind of teaching—with across-the-board impressive results. In his book The Use and Training of the Human Voice, the late Arthur Lessac compares the phonation of each letter to the playing of an instrument in an orchestra, complete with instructions on the feelings that occur while you ‘play’ each one—and almost nothing about how each is supposed to sound. Similarly, Australian musician Neil Moore, founder of  a method for music instruction called “Simply Music,” doesn’t even start to teach music theory or reading notes at all until a student has been playing for almost a year, instead teaching piano by breaking down songs into easily repeatable physical images and patterns. And teachers of the Feldenkrais Method take a wholly inside-out approach to movement re-education, verbally guiding students through increasingly complex and challenging movements, using precise details on how each movement feels, never telling or showing students what action or physical pattern they are trying to master until they have discovered it entirely for themselves.

It’s a rare but invaluable yoga teacher who can pull this off, but the best ones put you so “in your body” that even a challenging yoga sequence can become as joyful and expressive as a jazz improv: loose but controlled, disciplined but fully in the moment. Students who experience this feeling—either by working with a great teacher or by discovering it on their own—will not only have a juicier time practicing, but will experience tremendous growth as well. It’s the great, paradoxical lesson of yoga, and one that most of us need to learn again and again: that it is only when we let go of our ambition to improve, and silence the insistent voices that urge us towards some illusionary plane of perfection, that real transformation actually occurs.