two and a half years ago my days as a high intensity athlete became numbered due to injury, so i decide to try out yoga. for two and a half years i have been an on-again, off-again yogi. for two and a half years i have vacillated between loving yoga, and hating yoga. and after two and a half years, and a particularly challenging class this week, i have decided to discuss some of the reasons that i, and many athletes, hate (yet still can’t give up) yoga.
in yoga we are told to pursue progress not perfection. as athletes we are measured against perfection
as an athlete, this concept of “pursuing progress not perfection,” is counterintuitive to everything we have trained.
perhaps, as children, progress was preached; but the more advanced we become in our athletic careers, the more our goals turn toward perfection. while a coach will be pleased to see improvement in an athlete; the truth is that if their improvement maxes out at a level that is inferior to the level of their teammate, the will not get playing time.
as a professional, collegiate, and (these days) high-school athlete, every move made in sport is recorded. statistics exist for THE SOLE PURPOSE of measuring our degree of perfection. for our whole lives we have been measured, compared, celebrated, and reprimanded based on our statistical data. we strive for perfection on the court/field/track/pool/etc… because if we don’t, our competitors will, and we will lose.
as a lifetime athlete i want to work hard and outperform the others, because i strive to get as close to perfection in sport as i possibly can. which brings me to my next frustration in yoga…
yoga is not a platform for competition. as athletes competition is all we know
being an athlete is innate in my being; and consequently, so is competition. i grew up competing, and feeding off of the adrenaline that comes from out-performing others in sport. every athlete can relate to that rush of competitive emotion because it is who we are. it sticks with us for a lifetime.
i remember the first time a boy ever beat me in a foot race. i was in 5th grade and we were being tested for the Presidential Youth Fitness Program. he and i both received our presidential honors; but i had lost the run to him, and i was baffled. it was the first time i distinctly recall losing anything athletically, and i didn’t like it. from that point on, it became my mission to outperform him in every recess competition. if we were playing soccer, my mission was to steal the ball from him. if the boys were playing football and excluding the girls, i would force myself onto the team, and prove that i was as good (or better) than they were.
it’s appalling that those specific moments from a million years ago are still present in my memory. even more distinct are the memories from recent years. every athlete can recall a play they made that saved the big game. they can replay it as if it were yesterday. likewise every athlete can recall a specific play in a specific game on a specific day, when they let their teammates down. we can’t let go of these moments; because, for better or for worse, we are competitors.
insert that competitive athlete into a yoga studio and imagine the frustration. there are always yogis in the studio who gracefully transition between poses and are completely consumed in their practice and their inner peace. i admire those yogis and i don’t feel the need to compete with them.
however, there are also always those yogis whose goal seems to be to show everyone in the studio that they are “advanced” by transitioning into the next position before everyone else so they can be seen. their arrogance fills the air as everyone surrounding them attempts to focus on themselves, while being distracted by this yogi.
i am good at yoga. certainly not the best, and certainly not the worst. i have never been a full-time member of a studio, and i often times go months without attending a class. i know where i stand. therefore i don’t need to prove myself to others. but when i happen to attend a class with one of the arrogant yogis, i get competitive. i want to outperform her (whether or not i am actually capable of doing so), and then i want to challenge her to ANY other form of physical activity outside of the studio where i am confident i will be the victor.
as athletes, we are competitive. there is no switch. it is always on.
you don’t need to be athletic to be good at yoga, you need to be skinny
i realize this is a hugely controversial statement as i type it, so let me explain. i absolutely believe that the highest caliber of yogis are exceptionally athletic. i also believe that anyone, of any shape and size, can perform yoga and benefit from it greatly.
however, it is an undeniable fact that the skinny yogis have a benefit in the studio. the skinnier someone is, the less mass they have to move around, to wrap around, to contort around. two women of equal flexibility will not be equal in their poses if one is naturally bulkier than the other. it’s a matter of physics and circumference.
look at any of the top yogis in the world, and you will see that they are exceptionally skinny.
yes, yes, i know. it’s not about competition. we aren’t supposed to compare ourselves. but we, as athletes, do. hence the reason why this is one of my frustrations.
i am tall and slender. i have an athletic build, a very low BMI, and i am 100% content with my body. i would estimate that i outweigh the average advanced female yogi of my same height by 20+ pounds of muscle. with the exception of the highest performing percentage of those girls, most of them are skinny, and not athletic.
the yoga studio is where they excel; and even though i know they are at a benefit, it is still frustrating to show up and watch them kick my ass every class.
i have muscle, the majority of us athletes do. and we aren’t used to being out performed by the skinny girl who is unathletic. and we certainly wouldn’t be if they joined us in our gym.
yoga should feel like a refuge, but for athletes it feels like a challenge
athletes tend to be performance-driven, adrenaline-seeking folk. we like to move and we like to move fast. when suddenly we are told to slow down and take a deep breath in fitness, we have to re-evaluate our approach. our muscle-bound bodies are not meant to move the way the muscles-less bodies in the studio are. yet there are mirrors all around us for everyone to see how we are progressing, so we must step up to the challenge. we musn’t show our weakness.
we have always pushed our bodies more than the average person, and that is no exception in the studio. however yoga is unfamiliar to us, and if we get caught up in the challenge we may push ourselves too far. we may ignore our body pains, as we tend to do.
“fight through it.”
“tough it out.”
“pain is weakness leaving the body.”
these phrases we may have learned from our coaches, yelling at us while running our last set of stairs. however in yoga, if it hurts, and we push through to meet the challenge, we could be doing serious harm to our bodies.
i have gotten to the point with yoga where i have moments of refuge, but ultimately i can’t turn my brain off. i can’t stop competing with my neighbor. and i must strive to be the best.
these frustrations i have with yoga, are admittedly not great qualities i am expressing of myself; but they are real to myself, and to most athletes. and while it may not benefit us in the studio to be competitive, this, and other qualities, are the reason why us athletes have found success on the court, and in life.
surprisingly, i keep going back.
a friend once told me that yoga provided him with the closest thing he had ever found to that “incredibly lost in the mountains” sensation, without actually being in the mountains. he and i both find solace in the mountains, so the words were meaningful to me.
in spite of all of these frustrations with yoga, i can’t walk away completely, greatly because of that feeling. what’s interesting is that i don’t get that feeling in the middle of the class.
during a class, i get frustrated. i get caught up in my head, competitive, stuck on my athlete ego, etc.. it maxes me out mentally, physically, and emotionally. i exert all that i have into a class, and i am exhausted.
and then class ends. i roll up my mat, change my clothes and walk outside. without even realizing what is happening, my exhaustion shuts off my brain, my frustrations dissipated, the cool outside air hits my face, my body relaxes, and i feel content.
in that moment, i am perfectly lost in the mountains. i can understand the inner peace of yoga. i once again remember why i can’t walk away.
and it becomes worth it.