“How would I teach a student to not compare themselves to others in class?” Asked Mary in a yoga teacher training session.
Luckily, Mary practiced with her eyes closed for her first couple of months of doing yoga, so she didn’t compare, even though she normally is tempted to compare herself to others – unfavorably.
I suppose, comparison can be almost benign. Perhaps the person next to me in, say, a beautiful unsupported handstand has been practicing for years and years, and what I see is the result of that. I could admire that and take it as an inspiration, a sign that the practice works and I might arrive into an unsupported handstand some day. Assuming that is my aspiration.
Comparison can even be helpful to me right now. Perhaps, the person next to me moves through the flow strongly and mindfully; that can remind me to focus. Practicing next to others can be quite heartwarming and uplifting; that’s one of the reasons I like going to public classes and don’t mind much when they get crowded.
But then again, when Mary brought that up in the teacher training class, somebody mentioned that they had injured themselves by trying to go as deep into the pose as their neighbor. Even if one practices in a mirror-less room or with her eyes closed, there is a comparison with oneself, past or fictional, especially if the teacher gives a cue that the student can’t safely follow.
Both comparisons are not only distracting and dangerous, but also nonsensical. For instance, suppose I can’t touch the floor in the extended side angle today. This may be because my arms are relatively short, or because my adductors tighten up to compensate for too much mobility in the hip joints. Touching the floor is not good for me today. There is no point comparing myself to myself or others, because we all have our own anatomy and imbalances, and those change over time.
To respond to Mary’s question, the teacher could remind the students to focus their gaze softly. Or, perhaps, offer options from the easiest to more complex. Poking fun at our tendency to compare and give a reason not to can be pretty effective, too.
That would help the students to work on balance in strength and flexibility all over: strength where there is excess mobility, flexibility where there is tightness. That’s one of the physical body benefits of the practice after all.
Then suppose one day I do arrive at a really nice extended side angle: hips stable and rotated as intended, hand lightly but definitely on the floor or maybe even bound arms, back straight, chest open, breath even. Hey, who knows, I might even get into a unsupported handstand!
Now I am attached to this accomplishment, just like before that I was averted by lack thereof. This offers a deeper practice of loosening the grip of attachments and aversions, even if just a little bit.
The person next to me in a beautiful unsupported handstand today might have arrived to the yoga mat years and years ago from the place of a great struggle and suffering, and what kept them going could have been the need to loosen the grip of that, even just a little bit. I don’t know. Not knowing, I could try practicing nice thoughts.
Following Mary’s question, we had a discussion about comparing oneself to others and about success and failure in our practice. Devon offered something that she heard from one of her teachers:
To a yogi, success and failure are the same. Both are a reason to practice again tomorrow.
Not just in yoga.