There are No Black Belts in Yoga

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Find a Sense of Non-Competitiveness in Your Practice and Relationships.

I can thank my vicariously observant husband for this insight, and give him full credit for coining the phrase that “There Are No Black Belts in Yoga.” This truism came about while we were discussing the events that took place at an amateur hockey association meeting. I bought an advertising table to promote my yoga for athlete’s classes and was approached by Jiri Fischer, the guest speaker that day. I shared aspects of my program, how we work toward building functional strength and flexibility and a sense of self-acceptance. Athletes need to be competitive in their craft, but on the mat they need to learn to listen to their bodies; and the wisdom that lies therein. He towered over my table and said “How do you stop being competitive? It is all I have known my whole life.” Well, I did not plan for an eloquent response to such an inquiry so I replied “It is a skill developed through self awareness, an ability to let go and the knowledge and belief that we are perfect exactly as we are.” He nodded as if my words were acknowledged but not understood. I later learned about his literally heart breaking story and only then did his question take on so much more relevance. Fischer is a former NHL player who now works in player development, due to medical conditions that preclude him from playing professionally. He is in the prime of his life, a true athlete who can not play the sport that he loves, or it may literally kill him. I thought about how I would feel if I could never do yoga again.

This got me thinking about competitiveness, what it really means and how to develop tools to recognize it as it appears in different aspects of our lives, soften its grip and maybe let it go. When a sense of competition develops in our practice, it is important to remember that it’s merely a carry over from the conditioning that we have received. What are we competing for, what “level” are we aspiring to? The struggle that we fight against serves to drain us, it is when we surrender that we gain energy.

Physiologically speaking during an asana based practice we can observe the students that never rest. The ones that struggle, fight and strain to “achieve” every posture then get frustrated when they fall out. You can read the strain in their faces, their breath and their bodies as they plow through presence in a quest to manifest perfection. I know about this too well, as I was one of them for over four years. It was only when I let go and became the pose, did I realize that it didn’t matter whether I could hold a balance posture for as long as someone else. What really mattered is how I felt, and behaved off the mat and the equanimity of my mind. My beloved teacher says that the true benefit of yoga is how much it bleeds into our lives. Losing my competitiveness on the mat helped me to be kinder in my life, toward myself and all those around me.

Psychologically, competitiveness rears its head as a symptom of insecurity, possibly a sense of elitism and rivalry. In Dictionary.com, it is defined as “Having or displaying a strong desire to be more successful than others.” This is where we can agree that there is no grading system in our practice or lives for that matter. Recall the phrase, “”You can never be too thin or too rich,” and its complimentary nod “Someone out there will always be richer, prettier and more successful that you.” It seems that we are dammed if we do or don’t. Why do we buy into this? Why are we graded on some imaginary scale of successes, IRA values, investments, degrees, titles? Generally, society at large wants us to feel badly if we don’t overachieve in terms of our material worth. This drives our competitive nature as we are afraid of being viewed as “less than.” Work twelve hours a day in the rat race, save a ton of money for retirement and die of a stress induced heart attack before we turn grey? How about overachieving at peacefulness, love and light? Not likely a cover story on Business Week, or many other publications for that matter.

Parents push kids into organized sports year round, splay the trinkets of participation all over their rooms and enforce that winning is everything. What happened to kids playing outside on their own, their games simply born of their imagination and ingenuity? How are we stifling our future generation’s ability to produce new and exciting thoughts? Could this need for structure and competitiveness on parent’s part poison their children’s purity and innocence? Does our need to over plan our lives trickle down to our families and keep them from being present and at peace?

A prickly childhood memory of my neighbor telling me that I would ever be a ballerina flooded my brain as a yoga teacher told me that “It would take me many years to get good at yoga.” He jabbed at me during practice with comments like “Is that as far as your leg goes, really?” “You can’t do a headstand.” No reason, advice or assistance to understand why was offered. Why was he telling me that I was not good enough? Perhaps it was because he could not do many of the postures and wanted to protect the fact that he could not show me how to do it. I did not let him get to me, I was not giving up on myself or yoga, it made me feel too good. I decided not to care when or if I could do something; I just did what I could. We can’t get away from it no matter where we go, so we have to choose not to respond to it. The choice not to react is the key, the tool we use is to tune into your breath.

Another way to look at competitiveness is to think of the experience that it provides you. Challenging and competitive folks can be viewed this way: “They are actually your angel and teacher” as Seane Corn said during a class at a conference. They can challenge us not to react to them, not to let them steal our power. Ahh that is the trick, non-reactiveness is the key to our internal happiness, which is free of competition. Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know the answer or how to do something. Be honest with yourself and others, truthfulness is a foundation of our practice…practice it.

Hindsight and introspection are our best friends! Take some time to step out of your normal patterns of responses, look at yourself as others would see you.

Perhaps competitive people need to prove themselves to achieve acceptance, gain notoriety or approval. Maybe they don’t even realize that they are being this way, we do not need to know why. These external constructs of acceptance serve to alienate us from our core sense of Metta, inner goodness and self-acceptance. Namaste means something much broader than “class is over.”

Finding the light within and nurturing it is the key to non-competitive mindfulness. Meditation is a possible means for exploring the truth that lurks under the layers of debris and chitta. Many find clarity on the mat during the presence inducing strain of a great yoga class. Others simply decide that they don’t need anyone to approve of them, no matter who or what happened to color their sense of self.

Be true and free, live in love and light and know that you are perfect exactly as you are.

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