Friday, January 25, 2013

Yoga & Competition

No matter the company, when I mention that I am a competitor in the Asana Championships the temperature in the surrounding room drops. From yogis who do not compete I have instantly become a viper, waiting to lash out and poison their practice with my egotistical Western ways. From non-yogis, I get confused stares. Sometimes I am lucky and the person asks, "How does that work?" While the question itself is phrased to inform me that I have obviously missed the point of yoga, I am eager to explain. It is far preferable to the judgement that hangs in the air unspoken when people don't ask.

Like yoga itself, yoga competition originated in India (according to the USA Yoga Federation, there have been asana championships in India for 2000 years) and are common (daily, according to the same source). While frequency does not make something right, it does relieve the competition from the burden of being, "Western," a word spit with spite from many yogis mouths. Many have nurtured an opinion that all Western thought is egocentric, while all concepts generated from Indian Gurus are sacred and the path to enlightenment. In the words of my dear friend and teacher, Aura, "Not all things in India are beautiful."* 

With the misinformation out of the way, I challenge you to look not at the words' juxtaposition, but only at competition itself. I believe it is actually this word that makes people's skin crawl. 

Let me use an internet meme to illustrate. 

The word, "competition" is derived from the Latin word, "competere," meaning "to strive in common." You band with other yogis to strive together, to support each other, to rejoice in growth, to bitch about how much your buttocks hurts.

There is a goal, certainly, and some people will come closer to reaching that goal than others. But everyone competing benefits. Winning itself is not the goal, merely to attain the closest proximity to perfection one can. Which, for me, is about like standing on a piece of paper to get to the moon. I do try to stack my little pieces of paper with each competition though. 

If you are questioning why would I do that knowing I will forever be so far from the goal, your focus is in the wrong place. It's not the winning, it's the striving that matters. For three months (6 months this year due to a schedule fluke) I dedicate myself as intensively as I can to my practice. For those months coaches and friends form a 360 degree support net for me. It takes a lot of dedication, a level of dedication I can not commit to year round. The training becomes a bit like a meditation retreat, or a detox program -- sometimes those are part of training. 

This support system is essential because there are so many days you just don't feel strong enough. Sometimes it's emotional, sometimes it's physical, sometimes you just have a case of the fuckits. For the days you just can't bring yourself to do backbends you have a friend willing to be strong for you…or just guilt you into it. You have a coach willing to say when you've gone too far, or when you haven't gone far enough. You allow your postures and mind to be open to intense scrutiny in the interest of becoming a better yogi.

So why not do all the work without a 'competition?' 

The final 3 minute demonstration offers closure at the end of an intense period of change. A culmination of all the emotional, spiritual and physical growth you have worked for. A time for you to acknowledge your hard work and give thanks to your support system, and yourself, for all that work. It is a beautiful release and intensely emotional. So intense, in fact, that I usually end up getting a wee snookered with my support system afterwards. I mean let's be honest, improved, yes, perfect, no. 

* She made this very pertinent remark after we both watched a documentary on pilgrimages in India. A man had left his family to reside with a guru. I was horrified, in that society the man essentially left his family to starve. She was pointing out the beauty of belief.

PS All that being said, much to my surprise, I managed to place this year (don't ask how I pulled that off, I'm in shock myself) and am going to compete in New York in a month. I am snowboarding in MT next week but will post all my adventures as they happen when I get back. I get to train with Mary Jarvis and a bunch of yogis I have total ga-ga eyes for, like Allan and Gianna and Zeb. I'm calling that week of training, "MJ and the All-Stars (+Kate)!" If they're cool with it, I'm going to blog about my experience with them. 


  1. Ooooh that's so awesome Kate! (The training part, and the placing part too.) Can't wait to read about your experience :) Congratulations!

    1. Thanks, Simm! The experience has been a succession of more and more awesomness! I am clearing my next post with the powers that be (anyone who gets mentioned in a post gets veto power of that post to make sure I don't accidentally upset anyone) and will post once it's cleared. Wish I could post details, but I feel like that might be too personal for some of the very modest yogis I have had the privilege of practicing with. Suffice it to say that I am humbled and honored to have such a powerful support system cheering me on.

  2. I participated in my first competition this year, and it was about so much more than winning. I had struggled with going and participating for months. I wasn't attracted to the idea of being judged about my practice. However, that Friday morning I was on my way and still unsure of even belonging in the competition. The entire weekend was amazing. I stayed in the hotel across the street from the studio that was hosting the competition, and would walk across in the mornings (after getting out of the Jacuzzi of course). The classes were hard, but the people were kind. By Saturday night, I was exhausted and inspired.
    Sunday morning @745 I took a class from one of my old teachers that had flew in from Texas for the competition. We showered, and made our way to the auditorium. I expected to see people huddled into their own groups, from their own studios. That was just not the case at all. After working so hard together all weekend, everyone was helping everyone. I hugged strangers, watched their routines for them, calmed them, made them laugh, and many of them did the exact same for me. While practicing my routine on the stage, I must have looked a bit nervous because the gentleman who was practicing next to me reached over and hugged me without saying a word. It helped, I had needed that. He ended up placing first. Such a nice guy.
    I went on the stage around 4pm, there were three people after me. It wasn't until I was on stage, and in my pigeon posture in particular that I was comfortable in my own skin on that stage. But in that moment it became clear that I was supposed to be exactly where I was.
    The entire experience and response has been amazing, encouraging and inspiring. I have an entirely different outlook on the idea of yoga competition now.

    1. Dalia!!! Congratulations!!! I am so glad to have the privilege of competing with you -- even if not in the same state. Isn't it amazing how different it is than you would think? I have never met a single competitor that judged me or wished ill of my practice. In fact, I always lock my knee when I see competitors on stage fumble, the same way one would tap the imaginary brake in a car. I, like everyone else, genuinely want every person to do well. My heart breaks for each stumble and soars for each aligned posture -- even (maybe especially) the postures that aren't very deep.

      It always amazes me how supportive people are. Hugs, loving words, advice and even hair braiding are part of the pre-stage ritual. Bonding seems to happen on a whole new scale, faster and deeper. The only way I can describe it is intensely loving. As you now know, that doesn't even come close, does it? XOXO