Competition in Heated Yoga Can Lead to Injury

“Most types of exercise are competitive. Yoga, although noncompetitive, is nevertheless challenging. The challenge is to one’s own willpower. It is a competition between one’s self and one’s body” (B.K.S. Iyengar).*

Yoga is not a competitive sport.  OK, some may argue that yes, it is – there are yoga championships.  And absolutely we can be inspired by people among us who have honed their practice with hard work and dedication.  However, at its core, yoga is about union of the body, mind and spirit.  It’s about discovering one’s Self.  It’s about learning to be aware of one’s own pace and being true to that.  It’s about personal evolution.

I’ve found that there’s an atmosphere of competition at some yoga studios.  It tends to be in heated power yoga classes.  Maybe competition is inevitable for such an active style.  It draws a certain clientele.  Many people go mainly for the physical benefits – the workout.  And truthfully, so do I.  The heat and constant flow of poses stoke the internal fire.  The instructors encourage you to push through discomfort and challenge yourself (and unfortunately some don’t remind you that child’s pose is always an option).  You feel and see results, fast.  But I believe that unchecked, the competitive urge that sometimes arises can cause problems.

I find the heat sometimes fires me up mentally and emotionally, as well as physically (i.e., over-stimulates pitta dosha).  Don’t get me wrong, I love it!  The endorphin rush (I think that’s what it is … almost euphoric, a clearer seeing, a natural high) when I emerge from class is unique to that style.  I seem to gain strength more quickly and challenge myself to a new level.  It’s good for my growth.  But I’ve sensed a lot of competition, sometimes to the practitioners’ detriment.  It’s concerning.  Years ago I pushed to keep up with everyone else and also had a tendency to compete.  I felt an adrenaline rush and at the same time was struggling.  That same adrenaline rush has transformed into me sometimes getting irritated, and other times just being concerned that people competing will get hurt or encourage novices to “muscle through” like I did in the beginning.  No matter how much I practice, I will always be learning.  The irritation I feel may be telling me something deeper is going on inside my mind … but I’m happy to at least be aware of it.

Competition is part of heated power yoga, whether it should be or not.  Maybe it’s a personality thing; maybe it’s the pitta stimulation I mentioned.  Whatever it is, I think it’s something for both practitioners and teachers of this style to be aware of.  There’s not a lot of elaboration in the verbal cues of many all-levels classes.  The pace is fast.  New practitioners often follow classmates and sometimes push themselves unnecessarily or simply do the poses wrong.  And how would they know unless they learned otherwise elsewhere?  Other experienced practitioners seem to show off, deviating from the teacher’s cues and performing extremely advanced poses in their underwear Image.**  There’s a strong focus on the physical body, which can make less experienced or “out of shape” yogis feel uncomfortable or threatened.  So there’s an air of competition and pushing yourself, which may be tied to the style but can be used productively if harnessed.  One should only challenge or compete with oneself in yoga.  And it begins with learning the poses with care, and being true to your current ability (which can change day to day).  It begins with compassion and awareness.

A good place to start is learning how to correctly perform a vinyasa.  This mini-sequence (chaturanga dandasanaupward dogdownward dog) is repeated throughout a heated power yoga class.  Many times I’ve seen people flopping down onto their bellies when cued to chaturanga.  Rather than even attempting to hover in chaturanga (low plank/low pushup), they do a half-assed flat back position then quickly crunch down onto the floor.  As they collapse, I can almost hear their bones crying.  And they may think they’re just keeping up, doing it right; but they aren’t gaining any strength this way and could easily hurt themselves.  A great way to get used to chaturanga is to first bend the knees in your pushup position.  Start in modified plank pose, Image*** keeping the wrists directly under the shoulders, shoulders away from the ears, belly tight, crown of head lengthening (spine long).  Coming down slowly, with the elbows right next to the ribs, you begin to build strength.  Keeping the knees bent, maintain the push up for increasing amounts of time.  Practice this outside of class to master it.  Soon you will be able to straighten the legs, press back through the heels, and maintain chaturanga, getting the full benefits of the pose.

I also always see mistakes in upward dog, creating the potential for injury.  People tend to come into it quickly, often out of a weak chaturanga, with shoulders hunched up by the ears.  The shoulders should be away from the ears, rolling down the back.  Arms are straight, wrists below shoulders and elbows.  Hands are firm, palms completely pressing into the mat.  Neck is long, spine is long, the jaw releases, the tops of the feet press against the floor.  The rest of the legs are suspended in air, the belly and chest get a nice stretch, and the heart opens.  Rather than coming into upward dog without being comfortable with all these cues, beginners should start with cobra, a more basic backbend.  As you build abdominal and back strength, you create a strong foundation for upward dog.  Perhaps teachers should always cue it, since more advanced practitioners will know to do upward dog if they’re ready.  It’s not difficult to cue both.  Performing the vinyasa wrong over time can cause serious back and shoulder problems.  Here’s a detailed article about correctly performing upward dog and chaturanga.

Downward dog is probably the most recognizable yoga pose.  It utilizes all the major muscle groups of the body and increases strength and flexibility, among many other benefits.  We usually come right into downward dog with straight legs, but try improving your pose by keeping the knees bent.  Start on hands and knees, hands slightly forward of shoulders, hips directly over ankles.  Palms and fingers press into the mat with middle fingers pointing forward.  Turn your toes under and lift your tailbone toward the sky, keeping the knees bent.  Lengthen the spine, the head hanging naturally between the upper arms, neck long.  Maintaining the bent knees, press the tailbone up, pull the belly in, and press the hands into the floor while lengthening the spine.  Imagine the inner arms lifting, the shoulder blades widening and drawing toward the tailbone.  Getting comfortable with this modification makes the main actions of the pose more apparent.  When you are ready to straighten your legs, you can more easily maintain the lift of the tailbone.  If you ever feel your alignment waning, try bending your knees to get it back and then re-straighten your legs.  When you do straighten your legs, don’t lock the knees or force your heels down to the floor.  Once you have the feeling of the pose in your body, and you become familiar with the alignment, you will be able to easily come into downward dog during a vinyasa.

Of course I would never say something to the newbies whose shoulders are hunched in upward dog – that would be rude.  Unless I’m leading my own class, I keep to myself.  But I worry that these people will hurt themselves.  And they may not receive the true benefits of the practice.  Also, I understand and admire advanced practitioners’ efforts, but I wonder if a little more compassion for the beginner who may be nervous and looking to them for guidance might help everyone?  Perhaps practicing the more advanced poses when warmed up and at an appropriate time (i.e., not before class begins or during savasana) or at home would be beneficial for us all.

Whether flying up into advanced poses while others are just walking in, or muscling through the practice at a pace inappropriate to our experience or flexibility, we run the risk of serious injury – not to mention we aren’t really “getting it.”  It’s not about showing off, competing, or pushing ourselves beyond our limits.  Plus, we’re annoying our fellow yogis.  How can one relax when a neighbor repeatedly crashes out of headstand or handstand during everyone else’s savasana?  I admit, maybe the same pitta force driving the competition is what causes me to look at others when I should be focusing on my own practice!  I write it here with love, though, and a true concern for new practitioners and maintaining the art of yoga.

If you’ve practiced this style, did you feel this way?  Any thoughts on how to improve this trend (or whether that’s even necessary)?  I’d love to hear others’ opinions.  Thank you for reading!

* B.K.S. Iyengar, Yoga: The Path to Holistic Health (Google eBook), Penguin, January 16, 2014 – Health & Fitness – 432 pages

** Photograph from youaretalkingtoomuch.com

*** Photograph from YogaOutlet.com

4 Comments

  1. The real competition in yoga is to maintain a daily practice for your whole life. Most of the people you mention above will either burn out, get injured, or move on to the next fad when yoga loses it’s novelty.

    • Yes, exactly. Yoga practiced consistently and with care is so beneficial! I hope people focused on competing with others or not properly learning the poses realize it before these things happen. Thanks for your thoughts!

  2. Competition usually makes sense where quality or skill is tangible. Since Yoga is not not just a physical exercise (which is visible) but also a form of your inner enlightenment. Can’t measure the second aspect.

    • Yes, it’s more of a feeling, right? You know yourself and can sense inner growth. You can look back at an earlier time when your inner self was less developed and know that you’ve grown. If there’s any competition at all, it’s with yourself, though I am not sure “competition” is the correct word to describe it. Thank you for your comment!

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