How to Do Yoga Without Feeling Competitive in Class

Yoga has its physical benefits. Yet, it’s best recognized for its calming effect on the mind and body. In fact, a recent study at Duke University School of Medicine found yoga can even be effective in treating depression and anxiety. So, it was no surprise that when I entered a bout of depression, my therapist suggested I start a yoga practice.

At her request, I took three vinyasa classes a week—sometimes even adding a more meditative hatha class. The problem: I was far from relaxed. Every class, instead of focusing on my breathing and leaving my stress at the door, I brought my type A, competitive, and often negative personality with me. For the past 15 years, I’ve been a runner. Achievement was measured in mile times, race times , and even pounds lost. Yoga was hard to wrap my head around. When I couldn’t touch my toes, I felt defeated. When I looked at my neighbors in splits, I felt the urge to stretch farther—and often felt pain the next day. (Next time you feel straddled between pushing yourself and pushing it too far, ask yourself: Are You Too Competitive at the Gym?)

The big mirror at the front of class didn’t help either. Only in the past year have I lost 20 pounds that I’d gained while studying abroad in Dublin over five years ago. (Yes, there is an Abroad Freshman 15. It’s called Guinness.) Even though my body is thinner and more toned than it’s ever been, I’m still quick to judge it in the mirror. “Wow, my arms look big in this shirt.” The harsh thoughts would just come out naturally in the middle of my practice.

As absurd as all of this sounds, these thoughts are not uncommon in today’s society where a competitive nature drives success. (It’s actually the top Surprising Class You Compete In.) Loren Bassett, an instructor at Pure Yoga in New York City says that some yoga classes—especially athletic and vigorous classes like hot yoga—can attract type A personalities who strives for goals and want to master postures. “It’s very natural for them to be competitive, and not just with other people, but with themselves,” Bassett says.

The good news: You can acknowledge your competitive nature, face your insecurities, and use your yoga practice to calm. Below, Bassett provides a step-by-step guide for doing so.

Choose Intentions Over Goals
“The magic happens when you come into a class to learn about yourself and your body, not like you would come to a race.” Yoga isn’t technically a fitness class—it’s more about mindfulness,” says Bassett. So although it’s good to have long term goals, you shouldn’t allow them to bring frustration into your practice. “Notice when goals start getting destructive.” After all, when goals aren’t met, frustration quickly follows. Bassett says many people quit as a result.

It’s more important to have intentions. “Intention is more present focused versus future focused.” For example, if your goal is to do a tripod head stand, your intention may be to get one step closer to the full pose. Your intention keeps you in the present moment, focusing on how your body feels. Your goal may motivate, but it can also push you to go farther than your body should and cause injury. (The intention aspect is one of our 30 Reasons Why We Love Yoga.)

Instead of consciously thinking about attaining my goal of finally touching my feet (running has made it pretty darn hard!), I’ve started focusing on the intention of relaxation. Releasing any tension has improved my yoga practice significantly. (Plus, I’m that much closer to touching my toes.)

Use the Mirror as Instruction
The mirror can be a good thing if you use it correctly, says Bassett. “If you approach it with the right intention of looking at your alignment, then it’s helpful.” But stop there. “If you’re focusing on how the posture looks opposed to how it feels, it can set you back and create a distraction.” Each time you look in the mirror at yourself or others and lose focus, bring yourself back by closing your eyes and taking one deep breath. “I like to feel the breath going in and out,” says Bassett. (Master your form with Essential Yoga Cues to Get More from Your Mat Time.)

Find Inspiration in Other Students
I look at my fellow students for two reasons. One: to check my form. Two: to see how my form compares. I’d lean just a little deeper into my warrior 2 as I compete with my neighbor. Spying on your neighbor, though, completely takes away from your inner experience. “No two bodies are alike so why would I compare myself to the person next to me? Her genetics are different, her background, her lifestyle. There may be some postures you’re never able to do, and it may be because you’re not genetically built to get in that position,” says Bassett.

Even though you don’t want to compare yourself to other yogis, you don’t need to create your own imaginary bubble around your mat. Instead of comparing yourself to someone else, use other people’s collective energy to pull you through your practice. And if there’s someone in class with a negative energy (i.e. the I’m-too-good-for-shavasana girl), keep a safe distance and avoid eye contact.

Take a Break
Unlike other forms of exercise, yoga doesn’t call for you to push yourself in quite the same way. Although you want to reach your full potential in every posture, you’re not giving up when you take a break in child’s pose. “I call it honoring your body. As long as you’re not defeating yourself and saying, I can’t do this, then the break is warranted,” says Bassett. So breathe—that child’s pose is well-earned. (Before you hit the mat, read 10 Things to Know Before Your First Yoga Class.)

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