15. Competitive Yoga

15. Competitive Yoga

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Shaping the New You

Competitive Yoga

Working hard becomes a habit, a serous kind of fun.
You get self-satisfaction from pushing yourself to the limit,
knowing that all the effort is going to pay off.
 ~Mary Lou Retton

In my 40s, I started gaining weight. Not a lot, but the upward creep of the scale was inexorable, pound after pound, year after year. My clothes were tight, but I refused to buy a larger size. I’d gone up a size in my 30s after childbirth, and I wouldn’t do it again.

When I hit my 47th birthday, I weighed just five pounds less than I’d weighed immediately before giving birth to an eight and a half pound baby. I had to start exercising. It was that or stop eating chocolate.

I have never been athletic. I couldn’t even play kickball in grade school, and was the last one in the class chosen for any P.E. team. I’m competitive, but only at card games.

And I hate sweating.

Nevertheless, determined to lose the surplus poundage, I started going to a local fitness club near my home and tried out several classes.

I tripped over my feet during aerobics routines and Zumba.

Kickboxing brought out latent tendencies toward violence—I visualized punching out problem employees at work and recalcitrant family members, or the instructor who was inflicting so much pain on me.

Pilates wasn’t bad, but was only offered once a week—not enough to stop the weight gain.

So I tried yoga. I didn’t think my Type A personality was suited to yoga, but why not give it a shot?

The yoga instructor was an aging hippie who still dressed like it was the 1970s—tie-dyed T-shirts, sweatpants, and a leather headband to hold back her long graying hair.

The first time I went to yoga, my only goal was not to fall over. I stretched muscles I hadn’t known existed. My joints popped when I twisted, and I wobbled when I tried to balance.

And I thought the meditation at the end was silly. Type As like me don’t want to give their light and love away; we tend to keep them close to the vest.

“Namaste,” we said as we bowed to the instructor at the end of class. What did that mean? The bowing was stupid. Why should I bow to a time-warped, style-challenged guru? But I followed form. I’m Catholic; I can do ritual.

The next time I went to yoga, I watched the other participants more than the instructor. I didn’t want to look like a fool. If I was going to do this, I wanted to be good at it. I stuck my butt high in the air on “down dog.” I set my expression strong and fierce on “warrior one.” I couldn’t get my foot up to my thigh on “tree” without hopping, but I could pretzel my arms into “eagle” with the best of them.

I knew my competitive approach to class was not aligned with yoga philosophy, but that conquering spirit kept me coming back. Damn it, I thought, I can learn this stuff.

In each class I picked someone to watch and tried to reach higher and stretch further than that person. My challenge was silent and secret. Over time, my furtive peeks at my classmates told me I was getting better. Well, sure, the gal in the front row could get her head down to her ankles on the “swan dive,” and I was nowhere close, but she’d been doing yoga for 10 years and was still in her 20s. I knew I was as good as the other 40-somethings in the class, and my confidence grew. I was winning this game.

My smugness grew over the next few months as I continued my one-sided competition. “Cobbler’s pose” became as easy as “child’s pose,” my heels nestled close in my crotch while my knees stayed on the floor. I could overlap all four fingers behind my back in “cow’s face,” one hand stretching over my shoulder and the other coming up from my waist. My “tree” grew tall branches and sturdy roots.

One day I realized I was no longer watching my classmates. Instead, I was pushing myself to do better than I had during the last class. Could I stretch a half-inch farther? Could I hold the balance pose a few seconds longer? I was competing with myself. The bowing no longer bothered me; it was just another way to thank the instructor.

For the next several months, I worked zealously on self-improvement. I pushed myself in every class, and I improved even more—muscles stronger, tendons looser, balance more stable. I can’t say that the pounds came off, but I felt good after class.

After about a year of yoga, I noticed my stretching was not even conscious, my poses more confident, and my balance came as much from my head as from squeezing my abs. Relaxation got easier. Maybe my mind was stretching along with my muscles.

“Namaste,” I now say at the end of class, with reverence.

The salutation has many interpretations: “I bow to the divinity in you that is also in me,” “I greet the God within,” or “I honor the love, truth, light and peace in each of us.”

Maybe I have an inkling what it means.

~Theresa Hupp

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