Avoiding Comparisons

Avoiding Comparisons

In recent months it has been gratifying to notice that the models featured on Yoga Journal‘s cover and the articles within are no longer exclusively pencil thin.  More sizes and shapes are being shown.  There was even a short article in the November 2016 issue that featured North Carolina-based teacher and Instagram star Jessamyn Stanley which noted that she is “changing the perception of what a yogi looks like.”  Although the magazine itself may be responding to pressure from readers to acknowledge the “real people” who do yoga, their advertisers have not gotten the same message.  The vast majority of people shown in the magazine are still overwhelmingly white, young, female and able to look like they are handling difficult poses with ease.  So they don’t yet get any real points for diversity.

Of course, the magazine wants to demonstrate the most ideal version of the poses on display.  There is something to be said for this approach since anyone using one of these images to experience a pose without the benefit of a live teacher could run the risk of becoming injured if the pose is not executed properly.  Also it’s probably safe to say that the magazine is generally geared toward people who at least have some experience with yoga.  But sometimes this can be a disservice to ordinary practitioners or prospective practitioners who view these images and think they are doing the poses wrong or, worse, that they could not possibly do a pose the way it is shown so why practice yoga at all?  Yoga must be the exclusive province of young, thin girls who look great in tights.  How many times have we as teachers tried to encourage a new participant who is discouraged before they even try?  “I can’t do yoga,” this person laments, “I’m too old and I’m not flexible”.

Please understand that I don’t mean to single out Yoga Journal. In fact, they are hardly the worst offenders.  It is clear that most magazines are equally if not more guilty of displaying images that few can emulate, with or without the product being hyped.  And in defense of Yoga Journal’s approach, they usually provide modifications in their descriptions of poses.  Also there are many articles which describe the philosophy of yoga which extends beyond physical movement, providing a guide for taking the concepts of yoga off the mat and using it to improve your life.  Many of these implore the reader to celebrate what they can do and recognize even small improvements rather than lamenting perceived limitations.  As an example, one article talks about honoring “ourselves for our small accomplishments—even for the simple fact that we have shown up on our mats—rather than berating ourselves for the things we can’t do.”  Another talks about focusing on the potential you have in your practice to learn about yourself.  These are common and important themes that take us beyond touched up photographs to the real world of our everyday lives.

Still we live in a culture that invites comparison and envy.  A concept of youth and beauty is celebrated as ideal that has a tendency to make anyone who doesn’t measure up feel inadequate.  In everyday life this can manifest as resistance to even trying.  What if I can’t actually do what everyone else can do?  Suppose I look really silly?  Will everyone think less of me? Worrying about how we appear to others can keep us from doing what’s best for ourselves.  No matter how many times I tell new attendees in my classes to avoid watching the other participants, everyone still worries about how they look to other people in the class.  The good news is that most of the other participants are so focussed on themselves that they have no interest in watching anyone else.  Because yoga and Pilates are both practices that encourage connecting the mind with the body, anyone who is truly making that effort won’t be able to notice anyone else.   There are simply too many things to pay attention to if one really wants to complete a pose or exercise.

Neither yoga nor Pilates is about comparison or competition or trying to look like some perceived ideal.  They are about making friends with your own body and recognizing it’s miraculous abilities.  Every effort you make toward this goal is an important accomplishment.  It is helpful to remember that everything is temporary.  Things you (or the person next to you in class) can do today will be different tomorrow or the next day or next week or next year.  It is best not to get too attached to any particular way of doing things since it will probably change.  There are days when I can stand on one foot indefinitely and other days when I have to brace myself with even the slightest effort at balancing.  Nothing is permanent.  Some days you may be especially tired or feel particularly sore.  There is still usually some type of movement you can do, so try to experience what’s possible today without worrying about yesterday, tomorrow or anyone else’s expectations.  We’re usually wrong about other people’s perceptions anyway, so worrying about that is just a waste of precious time.  Every moment you devote to comparing yourself to someone else is a moment that’s passing you by, never to be seen again.  Accepting and believing in who and what you are on this day at this moment is all that really matters.

An article on the Chopra Center’s website titled “How to Just Be You During Yoga Practice”  provides some additional ideas for staying in the moment including approaching your practice with an open mind and being curious rather than fearful.  Do the best you can with what you have at the time that you are doing it and it will always be the right thing.

Holiday Help

Every year I find myself wishing we could somehow stretch this holiday season out. For example, wouldn’t it be nice to celebrate Christmas in July? Not only would it be easier to travel, but think of all the party options. We could have barbecues or lakeside swim gatherings.  This is, of course, possible in some locations.  When my dad lived in Florida we New Englanders would visit him at Christmas and marvel at the Christmas decorations on the palm trees. People could sing about dreaming of a white Christmas, but they didn’t have to scrape their cars and drive in it.

For most of us, though, the holiday season can seem to descend upon us like a huge “to do” list where every item needs to be completed in rapid succession.  Not only that, it all needs to be perfect since other people are counting on us. Instead of being a joyful time spent with family and friends, the months of November and December can become a blur of obligations.  Already I can see my own calendar filling up with invitations and commitments. Then along come January and February which should be a time to catch our collective breaths and recover.  Instead, we often find ourselves depressed from the let-down of the abrupt end of all that activity. We are then faced with yet another “to do” list of things that need to be undone (take down that Christmas tree!) or that didn’t get done while we were focused on the holidays.

Buried under all of this activity the actual meaning of the season can get lost.  That is, gratitude (remember the name “Thanksgiving”?) and the opportunity to give and receive in ways we should probably have been doing all year long but may have neglected.  Now seems to be the time to make up for that.

So how can we mitigate some of the stress we impose on ourselves at this time of year?  One thing we can all do is try not to completely abandon our usual routines.  If you have a regular exercise practice, try to find some way to maintain it in some fashion. Maybe the time you can allocate won’t be as long or intense as your usual activity.  But even 10 minutes can help clear your mind, loosen your muscles and diminish some of the tension in your body. The physical activity will not only help calm your stress but also give you the energy you need to attend to all your tasks.  When you can’t make it to a class, try getting up a few minutes earlier and doing some exercising on your own.  Ask your instructor to give you some ideas for a short practice you can do at home.  Or check out some of the many ideas you can find on the internet. You might be surprised to learn how much you can do in a small space.  If you have guests, bring them with you to your class.  Or ask them to join you for a walk.  Sometimes we feel obligated to spend every waking hour with visitors, especially if we have not seen them for a while.  But a 10-minute break might be welcome for a guest who has also been engaged non-stop for the entire visit.

If you are a guest yourself, see if you can find a class in the area you are visiting.  It can be interesting and even fun to try something different.  But avoid making that an additional source of stress.  No matter where you are, there are always places to walk even if you have to drive a bit to get to them.  If the weather is bad, dress appropriately.  Borrow clothing if you haven’t brought the right stuff with you.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way.  Make it a priority just as you would if you were home.  Remember – you count, too!  You can’t give what you don’t have.  If you become overwhelmed or exhausted you won’t be any good to anyone.

During any travelling, make sure to take breaks.  Sometimes we get in a car and just want to get to where we’re going regardless of how long that requires.  That is certainly true for me.  So when I’m driving any distance longer that a couple of hours, I try to plan my timing to allow for stretch breaks – time to get out of the car, breathe some fresh air, and walk around even if it is only a few minutes worth.  If you’re driving with someone else, tell them how much these breaks mean to you.  They might even find that it helps them, too.

Flying presents a different set of challenges. There can be long, anxiety-producing lines when checking in, cancelled or delayed flights or other obstacles in the path of your best laid plans. You can’t control any of these interferences. So getting upset will only make you feel bad. It won’t change the situation.  Try taking just a few minutes to close your eyes and breathe deeply.  This can help to soothe and relax you. You might even find that you become more receptive to whatever is happening in this particular moment.  Once you’re in the plane, get up from your seat periodically. Don’t worry about disturbing the others in your row.  You would get up for them, so why shouldn’t they get up for you? Walk up and down the aisle or do some stretches in the aisle or near the rest room. You can even stretch in your seat.  Try googling “seated stretching” or “stretching on a plane”.  You’ll find lots of ideas for ways to stretch when mobility or space is limited. If you need to change planes (and have enough time), try and walk between gates instead of taking a shuttle or those moving stairs.  It may seem like a long walk, especially if you have to haul your carry-on bags, but think of all the calories you’ll burn!  That Thanksgiving dinner will taste that much better when you know you’ve earned it!

Finally, it’s important to remind yourself that receiving is just as important as giving.  As a gracious recipient, you are honoring the giver and acknowledging their kindness. Your family and friends will most likely be happy to give you the space you need to take care of yourself. This is a gift just as much as any trinket presented to you. If you dismiss this gift or treat it as if it is unimportant to you, you are sending the giver a message that what they are offering is meaningless. You would certainly not want your own gifts to be treated this way.  The Golden Rule is appropriate here. Think about it before you say “No, I don’t need any help”.

Through it all, remember that most of our “to do” list is things we impose on ourselves.  It never hurts to take a moment before committing to something and just think about whether or not it’s a good idea.  Are you adding something else to your plate that really isn’t necessary?  Or is it something you can graciously decline.  Maybe you can suggest an alternative that might lighten your load.  Overloading yourself can even make you resentful which is probably not something you want to feel during the holidays.  Also, remember that perfection is not required.  It’s OK if everything doesn’t get done to your exact specifications. Give yourself the best gift of all:  slow down, take some time to breathe, reflect, relax and enjoy. Everyone around you will be glad you did.