How Yoga Changed My Competitive Life Forever

Deborah Dunham

Deborah Dunham

As I lay face down on my sweaty mat exhausted from two-thirds of the 90 minute class, our teacher instructed us to squat down on our toes, balance all of our weight on our palms, swing both legs over to the right and place them on our right elbow. I looked over at Miss Gumby Girl next to me who seemed like she came out of her mother’s womb striking this pose and thought, “Whatever, b–ch. I could out-run you any day.”

That was my mentality when I first started yoga a little over a year ago.

I was highly competitive in all things athletic, but for some reason, yoga was my arch nemesis. You see, as much of a runner and triathlete that I was, a yogi I was not. I could run 26.2 miles and qualify for the prestigious Boston Marathon, complete half-ironman races and place second in my age group, and yet, I couldn’t touch my toes. Nor could I come close to a wheel, lotus or boat pose. And a standing split? Please.

Excelling at a sport had always been a fixation. But in reality, the pursuit of perfection was the enemy. I was constantly challenging myself to newer and bigger goals, faster times, longer distances, just to see if I could do it and out-do others. Which is why yoga caught me so off-guard.

Not sure which inflexible appendage went where on most of the poses, I struggled at first because I was determined to conquer yoga. I wanted to look like Gumby Girl. I wanted to not feel ridiculous when doing a half-pigeon that looked more like a stuffed bird rolled over on its side. I wanted to be a yogi!

The only problem was, I sucked.

It was then that I made a commitment (and probably the only New Year’s resolution I’ve ever kept): yoga, three times a week for three months.

During that time, my love-hate affair continued, but I kept strolling into class and setting up my bright green mat in the back corner where hopefully no one would notice me. Hell, if Lady Gaga can do this, so can I.

The studio I joined taught Baptiste-style yoga — a challenging practice in a heated 90-degree room. Sure, there would be days when I’d have mild breakthroughs (like finally getting into triangle pose without bending my front knee). But then other days, our instructor would fire off commands so rapidly that I was always one (or five) steps behind.

“Wait,” I wanted to say. “You want my left arm to go where and my right arm wound around it while perched on one foot AND looking relaxed? Are you insane?” I would become angry. “Why don’t you get the hell out here Mr. Yoga Teacher and try this,” I would say to my not-so-yogic self. I despised the feelings of inadequacy that were coming up.

And then it got worse.

One day, in particular, I was feeling a wee-bit confident and decided to attempt a headstand. I was tired of being the legs-up-the-wall girl while everyone else around me was balancing on the crowns of their heads. “You can do this,” I said to myself. “Just suck it up.” And for a fleeting moment, I did. But then I panicked, lost my balance and came down with a loud thud that felt like it shook the entire room. Feeling defeated once again, I rolled up my mat and exited the studio hoping no one would talk to me.

Physical challenges aside, the mental ones were just as tough. As any yogi knows, the crux of this practice is keeping a clear mind during class. “Don’t think, just do,” my teacher often said. But, despite trying to calm the chatter, my mind never shut up. “I’m hungry. What’s for dinner tonight? How much longer do I need to lay here? Why does my hip hurt? That guy next to me smells. Why does he have to breathe on me? I wish the teacher would stop talking. I need to paint my toenails. Maybe a light blue.”

A couple of months in, I was reading a story from Baron Baptiste, founder of Baptiste Power Yoga. Another student, not so different than me, was having trouble accepting the fact that there were many poses she could not master. She questioned herself and her abilities and wanted to give up. Then another student told her, “It’s okay to show up and suck until you can show up and shine.”

The little hairs on my tired arms stood up. That was an epiphany for me. It was okay to suck.

I felt such a huge sense of relief rush through my non-flexible, non-coordinated body. Was it really acceptable to not be good at something? To not be better than others? Of course! Now I felt ridiculous for ever thinking that I could perfect frog pose, lizard pose or dancer’s pose in a matter of weeks or months. Who knows, maybe I never would. But now it didn’t matter.

It’s often been said that one thing can change your life. Well, that one sentence changed mine.

I have since learned to stop judging myself, to stop comparing myself and to stop competing with others quite so much. Being given permission to be imperfect felt so freeing. Yes, of course I knew I was flawed on so many levels going into yoga (I’m not that egotistical), but having all of those weaknesses exposed so vividly on the mat was terrifying. Up until then, I had kept my insecurities, my fears and my scars to myself. But something happens when you start moving from pose to pose, vinyasa to vinyasa. All of the self-doubts, hurt, anger and past become unraveled, and you can’t simply sweep them under your mat. They are staring you in the sweaty face and challenging you to stare back at them.

I think all of the years I spent trying to be better than others was really just an attempt to cover up my own insecurities and the notion that I wasn’t good enough. Is there a bigger fear? I don’t know. What I do know is feeling like you aren’t “all that” can make you try even harder to be “all that”. In a society where there is often so much pressure – particularly among women – to appear like you’re the ideal female with the highly-successful career, angelic kids, perfect marriage, fabulous body and spotless house is exhausting.

Going to yoga has now become a break from all that fakeness. Because here’s the thing: No matter what façade you bring into it, the reality of what’s underneath is going to come out.

Imperfections? We all have them. In fact, the more I saw other people’s flawed selves exposed along with mine, the less I felt competitive towards them. Seeing someone else’s “realness” versus their carefully-coiffed image made me want to be his or her new friend. Like the guy who fell asleep during Savasana one day and let out a rip-roaring snore. Now that was a good one. Then there was the girl who lost her balance during side plank and let out a hearty “F*ck”. And the couple who came to class one morning after eating one too many beans (or other atrociously gaseous food) the night before. Not sure which one of them it was (because their mats were both right next to mine), they are forever and affectionately ingrained in my mind as “The Farters”.

Funny? Yes. But, real? Indeed.

So over a year later, I am still rolling out my mat and sweating it out three times a week. I want to explore more and more of my perfectly imperfect self. I want to have more playful, ungraceful moments and learn from them. I want to find out what else I can’t do so I can find out what more I can do. In short, I want to suck more.

Namaste.

This is a post written by Deborah Dunham and has been reposted with permission. You can find the original post here. Deborah is a professional writer who researches and writes about issues that matter most to women including health and wellness, positive change, lifestyle trends, environmental and societal issues and, of course, really cool people.

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