Lessons From the Mat: is Comparison a Help or a Hindrance?

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past 19 years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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Disclaimer: I have been practicing yoga 1-2 times a week for years — regularly enough that I see its benefits but infrequently enough to yearn for the calm that comes from the practice.

I stared in the mirror during the start of the Eagle pose — hooking one arm across the other, then hooking the leg behind the other leg. Settling in, spine straight, eyes fixated on the dimple at the lower part of my neck, thinking about my breath.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone teetering and smugly pressed myself lower another inch. I next checked in with another who had his left toes fully hooked behind his left calf and wondered why that was so elusive to me still. I was agitating why I can only do that with one foot, not the other and I promptly fell out of the pose altogether.

Feelings of superiority, jealousy, and anxiety are not compatible with the practice of yoga, and any experience where flow is desired. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi describes flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

So when you are examining yourself or another’s practice, does it help or does it always take you out of the flow? As I reflected back on my practice that day, I thought about how comparison affects other professional and personal endeavors. I came up with some insights on how comparison can help without the ego rearing its ugly head.

  1. Focus on a goal that is challenging but doable. Look for people that are demonstrating this as a testament to the possibility rather than a judgment.
  2. Listen to the teacher. The job of a coach or a mentor is to describe what is happening in the moment and offer cues, reminders, or suggestions to grow skill development. Often times, instructors explicitly tell folks not to look around at other people. However, there are a handful of people where I have come to trust their skill set as role models for comparison.
  3. Settle in to sustain concentration and focused attention. The comparison may help adjust your strategy, position, or stance but it continues to be your creation.
  4. Let the moment go when it’s over. Fixating on what you were unable to do or glorifying your past accomplishments takes you out of what is happening now.

How does this lesson apply to you? What are the limitations?


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