Taking Competition and Stress off the Yoga Mat — Shall We?

Hanna Maria
Mindfully Speaking
Published in
5 min readSep 11, 2020

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There is nowhere to get to.
From ‘being enough’ naturally arises ‘becoming more’ …

Image: Dion Oliveira (me in my studio)

For simplicity sake, I use the term ‘yoga’ to refer to the practice of physical yoga postures, asanas. Of course, the entire practice and philosophy of ‘yoga’ comprises much more, reaching much deeper and further than that.

The sound of ‘stress’ or ‘competition’ and ‘yoga’ don’t seem to harmonize well, right? Yoga is ‘supposed to’ help relax, steady the mind and ease physical discomforts. It’s one of the practices that can support us in our days of too full calendars and to-do lists, where we may lose our centre and awareness of ourselves, or the ground under our feet.

Yet, I can’t help chuckle that instead of yoga being utilized to help balance our busy and stressful lives, in some places it got hijacked instead, moulded to fit into our ‘culture’ of fast living, importance of body shape and the constant need to chase further ‘achievements’, such as mastering that perfect headstand.

In some studios, yoga took off its original ‘dress’, the ‘mindful practice of being with self, mind, spirit and body’ and changed into the outfit of ‘competitive fitness tool’. In that latter appearance it usually aims at body toning, being fit, being seen, being able to do challenging poses and, of course, looking or dressing sexy. This can bring stress and competition, instead of more balance, presence and peace in amidst demanding jobs and lives.

My Story

In my career of teaching and practising yoga and dance, I too had a phase when I marched along the road of ‘performance’ driven yoga, using it as a training-tool. Competitive and achievement-focused conditioning took over, utilizing this otherwise balancing tradition of yoga for the purpose of proving myself to myself, constantly pushing my body to be stronger and fitter.

My body was never where or how I wanted it to be.
Unconsciously I was moving along the fast track of our collective ‘not-enough’ highway. That route, along which it is indicated everywhere that I am not slim enough, not flexible enough, not strong or disciplined enough, that I don’t practice enough, that my clothes aren’t ‘yoga’ enough, … that there is forever somewhere else to get to, something else to ‘gain’, or to achieve.

Wow — how exhausting!

My practice changed that one day, many years ago. I felt stressed and frustrated on my mat. Suddenly I protested against my own practice, thinking “no, this is not right! There must be a place where I’m simply enough as I am, right now.” A place of contentment with who and where I am on my path and practice. Not a place where there’s once again something to ‘get right’.

My yoga mat, and my life now, more and more, became this place — one of respect, love and acceptance of my self. A place beyond pushing, competition, performance, or ‘having to achieve’.

Since then my focus is instead on filling the body out from within, with my awareness and presence (and appreciation); expanding the body from the inside out, rather than ‘just’ putting the outer body shape into certain forms.

And because I naturally find happiness in the physical strengthening of the body, some edge and challenge remains part of my practice. Now, with a knowing that I am OK as I am while I continue to learn more, the dance is between Being and Becoming.

What am I choosing?

I’m not saying that fast-paced yoga and body training doesn’t have a place; of course it has. It just seems a good idea though, to at least become aware that/when I am choosing yoga as a fitness, weight-loss and training tool, remembering that there are many sides to yoga, to living life and relating to one’s body and self.

Important also to remember is that a ‘perfect practice’ of anything, or an ‘impeccable’ ‘crow pose’ (a kind of a hand balance) will not automatically make me more compassionate, a ‘better person’, or ‘more spiritual’ (whatever that really means …).

And when the pace or level of the practice is too demanding for my body, the practice and my body may remain ‘empty’, because there is no time to actually feel and fill out the body when in the poses. I am too busy ‘getting it right’ and moving on to keep up.

Allowing for more balance?

We tend to have such full schedules and are often under pressure and stress. We live fast lives in a generally very competitive society. When I get on my yoga mat, do I really want to continue with performance, speed and achievements? Do we really want to weave stress and competition into the yoga experience — just because we tend do that with everything?

In this often demanding and challenging world we have created, perhaps it’s time to bring more gentleness, compassion and appreciation towards ourselves? Allowing more acceptance of who and where you are, knowing that you are always OK, just as you are, right now.

From that place, in our own time, we always expand in our practice, as also in life. We naturally want to grow, learn more, continue on our path… This happens naturally as long as we continue to return to the practice. There’s really no need to push all the time.

From being (enough) naturally arises becoming (more).

We are OK as we are.
Arriving deeply in that place, again and again, allows for more breathing space. It allows for more safety. In my experience it brings us closer to that which we think we’re looking for.

And, when it comes to that collective stress of outer appearance and body shape … (I had my own personal challenge with that one), I believe that ‘good powerful yoga’ is not defined by the size, shape or fitness-level of my body, nor by the postures I can get myself into; not ever.

We can do all kinds of ‘stuff’ with our amazing bodies … but what does it really mean to me when I can do this or that challenging pose? Does it make me more present? more loving? more ‘yoga’? more ‘conscious’ …?

For me, yoga is rooted in a consciousness that always honours, respects and loves the Self and all other Life around me. It is about meeting my whole Self with deep reverence, presence and compassion.

There is no reason that stress or competition be part of the yoga practice. There is nothing to ‘do’. There is no where to ‘get to’.

Once we can be (present) with ourselves, or bodies, our minds and with spirit animating it all — we are already ‘there’. Just like that.
… and, if it makes us happy, we can add a headstand to it; and why not? It’s fun.

Hanna Maria, Cape Town, South Africa
www.embodiedconnection.co.za

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Hanna Maria
Mindfully Speaking

I love the earth! I like to see a healthier and kinder world that honours all life and I know that any change in the world always starts within, with me ...