Saturday, August 10, 2013

Looking at Ourselves

"Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” – Albert Einstein

Yoga in America is an interesting phenomenon. I started doing yoga as a way to find some semblance of peace in my life. I was 19 years old at the time. But now yoga in America happens in gyms and on commercials for decidedly unhealthy products, including McDonald’s. It has become Westernized and commercialized. There is, of course, a lot to say about what this means for us and for yoga, but I want to focus on one particular aspect today. And it starts with law school.

I loved law school. Loved it. I loved it so much I went back to get my Master’s of Law. But I was lucky in law school. I was lucky because a) I went to a great school that did not focus on competition amongst students, and b) I was too na├»ve to even notice the competition that did exist. For anyone who is not a lawyer, or who has not seen, The Paper Chase (sadly, Legally Blonde is a not-too-realistic example of law school), law school is about competition. Grades are almost always on a curve, and students are told it matters a lot where you graduate in your class. It is extremely important to some students that they get on the journals and help publish articles written by law professors attempting to get tenure.

But the point is that everyone is compared to everyone else. There is no question this happens outside of law school as well. I once heard that at Julliard School of Music, you cannot leave your instrument lying around because someone could come and break it. I have no idea if that is true, but the point is that competition is everywhere.

And now it is in yoga spaces. For years, there has been discussion in the yoga blogosphere about the people (usually women) who are on the cover of yoga magazines, particularly Yoga Journal. They are always thin, extremely bendy, and white. If you look here, the Yoga Journal cover gallery, that was not actually true until around the year 2000, when yoga began to take the United States by storm. Prior to that, more men were on the cover, they were older, and they were not always in asanas.

And now people tell me they are afraid to go to yoga classes because they don’t want other people to see them. When people do make it to class, they compare themselves to others. I do not know anyone who has not done it. It is a natural part of life. But how does it serve us? We are all unique and come to our mats with our own struggles and our own abilities.

But the point of yoga is to turn inward. And the best professionals do their work well because of their own inner talents and drive, not because they are competing with others. It does no one any good for surgeons to compete. We, as the recipients of their services, do best when they are all incredibly good at what they do.

Some people argue that competition makes us all better. We strive to be like others and along the way become better at what we are trying to accomplish. I used to buy into that belief. I really thought that if I compared myself to people I admired, I would only get better. But that is not how the world works.

The underlying message of competition and comparison is, “I’m not good enough. I have to be better.” That underlying notion causes dis-ease, not a sense of empowerment and betterment. We all have our own unique gifts to offer the world. Some people may be able to do a handstand, and some may be able to write a novel, and some may be able to build a bridge. All of these are noble endeavors that make the world a better place. As Einstein points out in the quote above, we all must find our own path and passion. And that is how our genius will shine.

I am often dismayed at the modern yoga situation. But perhaps the most dismaying part about it is that instead of taking us out of the world in which everyone competes, it brings us deeper into it.

As I continue to read book after book about the power of the mind to heal the body, I keep coming back to the same sentiment, whether it is from Louise Hay or medical doctors – we have to accept ourselves as we are before the healing process can begin. At its core, this is the point of a yoga practice. This is the work we strive to accomplish.

This very personal practice that is yoga can be the antidote to so much of our dis-ease causing beliefs about ourselves. How do you stay in that mindset instead of getting caught up in what others are doing in classes?


© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.

The post, Looking at Ourselves, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.


  1. Great post Rebecca, I certainly hope you can heed your own words :-). I've been told I'm the gold standard in child custody work, but I can't do do certain kinds of child custody evaluations nor can I do much in a yoga class. I can't play golf like my same aged peers. But, as Popeye used to say, "I am what I am" so I have learned to accept what I'm good at, what I might be very good at, and what I'm not so good at, and enjoy the journey along the way. I wish the same for you.