Ashtanga Blog

Mysore diaries: Comparison is the killer of joy

How not to turn our yoga practice into yet another way of proving our worth to others and ourselves.

Portrait of Tania Kemou in Mysore, India

Our whole culture is built around comparison and competition. We are being taught from a very young age that being good is not good enough, that we have to be better than our neighbour, friend, classmate, colleague.

Comparison is so embedded in our minds that this is the way most of us approach yoga practice, at least at the beginning. How many times have you heard someone say: “I don’t want to try yoga because I’m not good enough at it”? Of course the “good enough” is meant in comparison to others. And even when we do try, how many times do we look around to see how everyone else “performs”? 

Ashtanga Yoga, perhaps more than any other style attracts highly competitive people because of the discipline and the mental strength it requires. Ashtanga practitioners more often than not tend to be A type personalities who always strive to do better and outperform others. 

As much as this does not seem to be a huge problem at the beginning it is a behaviour that can rob us of the entire joy of practicing. Here in Mysore this tends to be more prevalent. Some of the world’s most senior practitioners come here and it is so easy to get caught into competitive thought patterns and end up feeling that you are inadequate. I have even heard people say they feel they do not belong here because their asana practice is not good enough.

What makes asana practice “good” in the first place? Is it the number of asanas one masters? Is it the perfection of the shape, the depth of the stretch, the number of series one practices? Is it the ease in one’s practice and absence of struggle? Is it the quality and evenness of the breath? 

The truth is there will always be someone whom you consider to be better than you.

It might sound counter intuitive but even the practitioners we admire the most struggle with something. Struggle, difficulty, is part of human nature because we are hardwired to always reach for something bigger. So, as long as this goal that we have in mind is not reached there is struggle and constant effort. And if you are the average Ashtangi as soon as one asana goal is reached you are already on your way to achieving the next one. 

This is endless. And it can make asana practice look and feel like a very long to do list, where we are anxiously ticking boxes while at the same time observing everyone else in the room and keeping track of their achievements and struggles, measuring and “grading” ourselves. One can burn out in the process, ending up frustrated and more anxious than before they started practicing.

But we have a choice here. We can keep on grading ourselves and others or we can abandon this whole notion of achievement for a minute and take the time to look inside and ask ourselves why it is that we do this practice. 

Who do we want to become? Which parts of us do we want to better? Which wolf do we want to feed? The tireless overachiever or the compassionate human being? 

Yoga practice is perhaps the only tool we can use to maintain our sanity in a society that always expects us to be better, younger, smarter, richer, stronger.
Yoga takes us on journey inside ourselves, allowing us to reconcile all the different voices and heal all the parts that have been broken along the way. It allows us to see the beauty in others along with their struggle, see the commonness instead of separation and even rewire our brain to be less competitive and more accepting. 

We can dare to come to practice without thinking that we have to perform. We can choose to keep our eyes on our own mat, forget about our “rank” and just practice for the sake of our physical and mental health. 

We don’t need to turn our practice into yet another way of proving our worth to others and ourselves. Breakthroughs will still come and we will still make progress.

I once read somewhere that the most advanced yogi is the one who always enjoys their practice no matter how good or valid it is compared to others.

We can choose to be that yogi.