The significance of straight A’s and perfect asanas

090217_CB_yogaEXI first heard about yoga competitions a year or two ago, watching a TV news reporter interview three competitors, a female champ, plus a boy and girl. The kids, in particular, were fascinating to watch. Their lithe bodies moved smoothly into advanced asanas. Both seemed reserved and introspective, as if yoga were an oasis for them, a better fit than soccer or skateboarding.

Still, the whole idea of a yoga competition bothered me. If we turn asana into a competitive sport, what  happens to the larger meaning of yoga?

Even as a regular student in a regular class, it’s easy to feel ambitious or even secretly competitive. To strive to perfect your poses. To desire approval from the teacher. To assess your ability among your classmates’. So to formalize and encourage physical perfection seems counterproductive, to say the least. But competitions are apparently popular and ongoing. See this Slate article and today’s Yoga Dork post for intriguing discussions about the annual international Bikram yoga competition.

The Marrow of Zen

The desire to be perfect (or at least “best in show”) is written in our genes. But we can go off-track and mistake a superficial ideal for the real deal. I am reminded of a chapter in Shunryu Suzuki‘s iconic Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, my all-time favorite book on Zen Buddhism. (I categorize it with the incomparable primer on grammar and usage, Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.)Zen_Mind,_Beginner's_Mind

In the chapter “The Marrow of Zen,” Suzuki describes four types of horses, excellent, good, poor, and bad—and the typical goal to be the best. He explains that striving to be the best is the usual understanding, but not the right one. Instead, he writes:

“In your very imperfections you will find the basis for your firm, way-seeking mind. Those who can sit perfectly physically usually take more time to obtain the true way of Zen, the actual feeling of Zen, the marrow of Zen. But those who find great difficulties in practicing Zen will find more meaning in it.”

In other words, ease (or success) might actually be a disadvantage, while difficulty (or failure) might actually be an advantage. Good is not always good, while bad is not always bad.

When I first started practicing yoga, forward bends were my oasis. It was easy to catch my toes and to reach head to floor in prasarita padottanasana (wide-legged forward bend). Two years ago, I overstretched my hamstrings at their origin (sitting bones) due to intense asana work. Suddenly, forward bends were my challenge. I was dismayed but my teacher predicted that I would learn more about the asanas from my injury than I ever did from my full poses. I wouldn’t wish for more injuries, but in a way she was right. Difficulty is humbling and requires patience, perseverance, and a creative, open-minded attitude.

Straight A’s and smarts

In school, do you think straight-A students are smartest? The answer is mixed: some are, some aren’t. That’s the trouble with external indicators. They can err about the underlying quality.

Just as straight A’s aren’t necessarily proof of smarts, perfect asanas aren’t necessarily proof of real yoga. Some with perfect asana skills are also true yogis, who manifest the philosophical and ethical teachings, while others are strictly acrobats.

A 4.0 GPA or an asana championship is a nice achievement, but just a single factor. The ultimate test of smarts or yoga is a longitudinal, multifactorial study.

Image: Slate Magazine

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