It’s difficult not to compare oneself to others, even (or is it especially?) in yoga class. I know that goes against one of the tenets of yoga - that it shouldn’t matter if my downward dog looks better or worse than my neighbor’s. It shouldn’t matter if my arms start to shake in plank after my neighbor’s do, or that my neighbor spends more time resting in child’s pose than doing anything else. But I am secretly gloating inside when I notice that I am doing better than my neighbor on the mat, even though I know in my heart that yoga is not a competition. And yet, still my eyes wander to others, to see how I compare, until I realize that their eyes must also wander to me, and that they are judging me and comparing themselves to me, and finding themselves superior. Why this realization always surprises me, I can’t really explain.
Deep down, even the most confident of women (and, men, too, perhaps) have some kind of body image issue. I’m obviously not alone in this annoying and ridiculous self-talk, especially after disfiguring cancer surgery. I struggled with negative body image even before my surgery. But in class this week, our instructor said, in the middle of a difficult posture, “I’ve noticed that this pose is much easier for those with long arms. I have stubby T-Rex arms.” Many people laughed, of course. She paused a moment, and then added in a steady voice, without a hint of sarcasm, “But I notice that I do have arms.” The laughter stopped and the reminder that we are lucky to be capable of taking part in a yoga class hung in the air. I know that what she meant was to show us that it is possible to stop the cycle of negative words that even she was experiencing. It was very timely for me, as I’d been lamenting my own losses lately and dwelling in the land of self-pity more than necessary. But it’s not just about body image or ability.
She went on to talk about the yogic concept of santosa: contentment with the way things are. This is different from gratitude, which is the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness. She asked us, if we would pause for a moment each day this month to consider santosa, and to be mindful of it, as we contemplate thanksgiving (with a small t and also with a capital T) this month. Instead of being grateful for what we have, what if we were content? I think I am pretty good at being grateful, but I am still learning to practice contentment. We are powerless to change much in this life, but we are utterly capable of changing our own perspective about anything at all.
Sometimes I think of the phrase contrast aids perception, but in my mind I often confuse it with contrast aids perspective. So often we forget that contentment and gratitude, as well as unhappiness and desire, originate from within. But contrasting ourselves with others often leads to unhappiness and desire rather than contentment, unless and until we begin to look to others as teachers. I often find myself reading true adventure-disaster tales, and I think I start reading these books because I wanted to know what happened. Now I think I read them because I want to learn something about the nature of the human spirit: how did this person survive this experience? what was it that he or she found within that elicited the courage to continue? We’ve all survived something, be it cancer, the death of a loved one, or simply Monday morning. What is it that gave you the courage to keep going? And how can we find and practice contentment in that?