Despite what you might see at some studios, yoga is not a competitive sport. First, it’s not a sport at all; it’s a system for finding connection. Some access this connection through the poses, others through meditation or chanting. Some, I’d argue, achieve union through exercise. What is the runner’s high but a taste of samadhi, the awareness that we are all one? By using body and breath to stay present even in intense situations–hanging by an arm from a climbing wall, running the third lap of a mile race on the track, standing at the free-throw line–we silent the fluctuations of our minds. While we might get to this connection through sports, competition isn’t the point.
Yet competition is everywhere. We find it in the yoga studio, where it can be tough not to compare your poses with others, and in the meditation room, where we pride ourselves on sitting more still than our fidgety neighbors. We even find it in home practice, when we stubbornly try to muscle ourselves into a pose that’s not right for the body’s needs on that day. As we gain facility with pratyahara, the turning inward that allows us to move into focused and meditative states, we begin noticing less what’s happening on adjacent mats and more what’s happening with our own bodies, breath, and minds. And our attitude toward competition begins to change.
Pascual, a triathlete from Mexico who has competed at the international level, told me his competitive drive has shifted majorly since he deepened his yoga practice. At first, yoga was a tool for improving his performance, but as the teachings sunk in, he found himself less and less interested in cutthroat competition. Instead, he appreciates training for training’s sake. In this way, he’s following the directive Krishna gives Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, emphasizing action without attachment to outcome: “Act for the action’s sake . . . Self-possessed, resolute, act without any thought of results, open to success or failure. This equanimity is yoga.” (This is from Stephen Mitchell’s lovely translation; T. S. Eliot later struck a similar note in Four Quartets: “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”)
Our English word competition comes from the Latin for “striving together.” When I find myself feeling competitive, I like to remember this definition, and the precept of aparigraha, nongrasping. By working together toward a shared end–goading each other to the finish line as fast as possible, elevating each other’s games with skillful serves and rallies, pushing the limits of what we think we can do–we move toward the connection yoga offers, and we revel in the work.