I attended my first yoga class in months last night. I’ve been trying to put more of an emphasis on stretching and flexibility, partially because I feel like those are deficiencies in my overall fitness and partially to help with injury prevention. As a result, I thought I would try to get back into the habit of doing yoga. (Plus, I can’t deny, I love the totally blissed-out sensation I get after a good session of yoga.)
Predictably, I had some trouble with some of the poses, especially anything that required flexibility through the hips. Evidently spending hours doing repetitive motions like running and cycling will do that to a person? Who’da thunk it.
Anyway, in the past, I would have just tried to power through my body’s limitations anyway. I would see all of these other people serenely folding themselves into human origami, and I’d think, No way am I going to be the worst at yoga in this room. (Because yoga is all about being the best, amirite?) So I’d push myself a bit further than my body was capable of going, only to feel the inevitable ping of a strained muscle, and I’d spend the next two weeks babying the body part I’d hurt in my rush to show everyone that I was just as much of a serene piece of human origami as anyone else in the room.
Curiously, though, during last night’s class, I noticed that I would have some trouble with some of the poses, and instead of forcing myself to do them anyway, I cut myself some slack. When the instructor demonstrated modifications to make the pose more difficult, I’d try them, and if I couldn’t hold it, I’d let it go and return to the easier modification. I only looked at the other people in the class a couple of times, just to make sure I was doing things properly. Rather than comparing myself to all of the more experienced people around me, I focused on my own body and what I was feeling and experiencing in that moment.
You know how yoga instructors talk about honoring your body? Well, that’s what I did, and I have to say, it was outstanding. Sure, I wasn’t the most flexible person in the room. In fact, I was probably one of the least flexible people. I fell a couple of times. I couldn’t get my heels to touch the ground during downward dog and I had to rest my foot on my calf during tree, but I never once felt like a failure. Instead I understood that I was new to all of this and that as a result, things were going to be a bit more challenging. The only thing that mattered was that I was there and I was trying.
I realized afterward that my eyes were trained firmly on my own yoga mat, both literally and metaphorically.
I borrow the concept of “eyes on your own mat” from the Eating the Food group on Facebook, which is a closed group I’m part of that helps people who are recovering from restrictive ways of eating. I don’t really have a history of restriction or disordered eating but I find a lot of what the participants discuss to be very useful in my own life, and one of those concepts is “eyes on your own plate.” The idea is simple: focus only on what you are eating and don’t get all caught up in what other people are eating. You know, you do you, focus on your own journey, etc. etc.
For someone like me, who has a competitive streak as wide as the Grand Canyon, it can be useful to remember that not everything has to be a competition. In fact, there are a lot of things where competition can actually be harmful. Yoga is an obvious one, as evidently I’m not the only one whose competitive spirit has led to injury. (This article identifies triathletes and marathoners as people who are particularly prone, as one instructor says we are “really good at hiding their competitiveness. They are used to being under pressure and appearing calm.” A true thing, I have to say.)
People who have eating disorders also seem to have an element of “hypercompetitiveness,” as one researcher put it, which explains why “eyes on your own plate” is so useful for members of the Eating the Food group. I’ve been reading a ton about female athletes and eating disorders and I have to say, it is absolutely not at all surprising to me that so many female athletes have eating disorders, because the disorder becomes yet another avenue for the competitive drive that pushes them to succeed in their sport.
But this extends beyond the world of fitness and nutrition. In the past, when I was much less secure in myself, I used to feel quite competitive with other girls and women, mainly as a way of carving out a feeling of self-worth. I thought that if I could point out all of the other ways in which other women and girls sucked, I could make myself seem better by comparison.
The ironic thing is that when I did the work necessary to build self-worth that was based on something more concrete than platitudes and wishful thinking, it became so much easier to see all of the wonderful qualities possessed by other people. Once I let go of that need to build myself up by tearing other women down, I was rewarded with deep friendships that have changed my life for the better.
Another realm in which I have found that my competitiveness does me no favors is in the world of writing. Fellow writers, you understand this, how it can be so easy to become incredibly jealous of anyone with even a hint of success. This is something I still struggle with, that painful mix of awe and admiration and envy that arises whenever I see another writer achieving something I want for myself.
But that’s all wasted energy, energy that could be better spent, you know, actually writing and trying to get my work out there and making connections with other writers who are doing the kind of work I admire. Of course, that’s easier said than done, but it’s definitely the ideal to which I aspire.
I’m not saying that competitiveness doesn’t have value, and indeed, if properly harnessed it can be a pretty powerful force. But the key phrase there is “if properly harnessed.” If I use it carefully, it can push me to pursue my ambitions and to work hard and to maybe even achieve some of my goals. But if I let it run rampant, it can destroy everything it comes into contact with.
What about you? Do you consider yourself to be a competitive person? Do you ever feel like you go overboard with it? If so, how do you manage to keep yourself in check so you don’t screw everything up?