Ever start thinking you’re an utter failure at life, only to open Facebook and see that popular guy from high school having a public war with his third ex-wife about which one is the bigger drug addict? Ever start feeling that you’re finally comfortable in your own skin, only to notice a woman rocking gym clothes and a sports car, obviously wildly successful at everything she does?
As much as we hate to admit it, we’re creatures of comparison by nature. Just as you can’t tell how long a piece of wood is without a tape measure to compare it to, you need some sort of standard by which to judge your life, your situation, your very self. It’s normal. Not always healthy, but normal.
So here you come to yoga class, and you start again with the comparisons. “I’m not as flexible as she is.” “He’s so much stronger than I am.” “I can’t do that the same way she does, so I’m not ‘good’ at yoga.” “I’m going to get higher than he is in that pose, and that will make me more advanced.”
Comparison can be healthy, if used correctly, but consider this: In yoga, as in many aspects of our lives, comparison is dangerous.
One Size (Rarely) Fits All
Yoga is designed as an individual pursuit. In order to build relationships within our community, and to keep it affordable and feasible, yoga is generally taught in the form of group classes.
But a group class is not a “one-size-fits-all” proposition. When you enter a class for the first time, you’re likely walking in next to two people who have practiced for 10 years each, another who has practiced daily with the same teacher for six months, and three more who are there for their third or fourth class. If you look around, you may not be able to tell who is who.
Add that to the fact that you’re being taught in a way that you may not be used to. As opposed to standing up front and demonstrating each pose, the teacher often uses words to describe what you should do. If you’re a visual learner, you may be tempted to copy the students around you.
The Trouble With Copying
Each student has individual strengths and weaknesses. Where some bodies are naturally flexible (even hyper-flexible), they may not be strong. Others might be very strong but have trouble with balance. Some are flexible in some areas, tight in others, and have better balance on one side or another. Some clients have to make adjustments due to medical issues, and others are building toward specific goals.
When you’re looking left and right from your mat, you never know who is doing each pose as instructed, who is having trouble, and who is doing a more advanced version because they’ve had more instruction (or are showing off — hey, it happens to the best of us). Many students have been individually instructed to adjust certain poses to fit their bodies.
So what should you do?
Focus On Yourself!
Yoga is one of the few times you’ll hear someone say — often — that you should be completely and utterly self-involved. Focus on how your body feels. It’s all about you. Close your eyes if you need to. Listen to your instructor’s voice, and tune everyone else out.
This is easier said than done.
In a world where competition is king, and where we measure success by looking left and right, focusing on our own progress (or sometimes even lack of progress) can seem impossible. We’ve compiled a few tips to help keep you focused on the important part of your yoga practice — you:
- Create a bubble. Imagine that you’re in your own little world, just the space on and around your mat. Focus all your energy, attention and focus on that space. Not left. Not right. Not ahead, not behind. Inside your bubble is all that counts. Of course, there’s one exception:
- Focus on drishti. Find a spot on the wall, or sometimes the floor, that isn’t moving. Draw your gaze, your breath, and your focus toward that point. Let yourself develop tunnel vision for that one point in space. Everything outside of that spot can become blurry and indistinct.
- Your breath is your anchor. Each inhale and exhale, every breath, is the foundation of your yoga practice. For as much of the class as possible, tune in to each and every breath. Let that calm you, center you, and take your attention away from others in the class.
- Honor your body, listen to your teacher. Your body is the first indicator of what you should do. The second is the words of the teacher. Try hard not to copy movements that you see.
- If all else fails, close your eyes. When it’s safe to do so, close your eyes and experience your practice without seeing. This helps you resist the temptation to look around you at others. Yoga with eyes closed can be a magical experience.
- Forgive yourself. If none of these tips work, and you still find yourself lost during class, know you can always ask a question, take a break, or do the parts that you can. It’s a sign of maturity in a yoga practice when a student is comfortable taking a break or speaking up. This is not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign that you understand and respect your body.
Comparison That Works
So if we naturally tend to compare, and yet we can’t compare ourselves to each other (or to those darn Instagram models who set themselves up into yoga poses in their undies), then what can we compare?
We can compare ourselves to ourselves. Do you feel better after yoga practice? Is your balance improving? Are you better able to handle stressful situations, do you have a longer fuse, or do you notice more strength in your arms? Are you more calm, self-assured or happy?
The best comparison we can make is to notice how the time, effort and commitment we devote to a yoga practice changes our lives and the lives of those around us.