There are no winners in yoga.
And that might just be the best thing about it.
Yoga is not what they call a “zero sum game,” a phrase which in game and economic theory means a situation in which one participant’s win is equal to the other participant’s loss. In other words, it’s winner take all.
It pops up in the movie “Arrival,” the gorgeous science fiction movie starring Amy Adams as a linguist who makes contact with strange new aliens. The film is based on the novella “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang.
The phrase is mentioned in passing by her daughter, but like all new words or phrases it gives you insight into what’s going on, both immediately and more fully in time. Without spoiling the excellent twists, the main idea is that the military machine wants contact with the aliens so it can fight them and win – while the linguists want to make contact to learn… they know that the contact is a non zero sum game. And that’s the path that leaves people NOT exploded.
It’s such an important lesson for us to learn. So much of what we do is framed as a zero sum game. Most sports games, of course, are zero sum games. Everybody tries very hard and only one team wins, gaining eternal glory, while the losers mope off to be depressed, their every effort wasted.
But it’s not just the athletes who live life in this philosophy. School teaches you very early on that a 90 is an A, which means you are capable and smart, and an 89 is a B, which means you didn’t quite try hard enough. Kids with all A’s go to straight A breakfasts, kids with B’s or lower watch them go eat doughnuts.
And as all the world can attest these days, our governing system has become more and more zero sum. One party wins, and that means they win their way all the time. There will be no negotiation and compromise. The other party licks its wounds and vows vengeance.
As far as motivators go, this is pretty darned effective. But it’s also based on fear; fear that you are a failure, fear that you will be humiliated. And fear is something you can never succeed in totally conquering. Fear is like the Veil in Doctor Who, chasing you slowly but unceasingly. With so many plagued by anxiety, especially our youth, fear is not something to be trifled with lightly.
Life is not a zero sum game, even though it is easier and simpler to think of it that way. But a mantle full of trophies will not fulfill you. Neither will election wins or report cards, in the end.
Yoga helps you understand that. No one person is class is winning at yoga (even if your more childish instincts tell you that one over there doing wheel pose most certainly is.) We are all in it together, each trying our best and trying not to judge others. The teacher will help everybody get into poses as well as they can, bearing in mind that some have longer legs or arms that make it easier or harder. Students help each other, lending a block or a strap if needed. And no one feels less motivated for the lack of competition.
The opposite motivator for fear is hope. Not hope to smash your opponent, but hope that we can all grow together. Hope can seem idealistic, frail and small, like a seedling. But like a wise man once mentioned, huge trees can come from tiny mustard seeds. And as Jyn Erso says in Star Wars, “rebellions are built on hope.”
If we work together, I believe we can make a rebellion to conquer a society based on fear, based on the zero sum game. We can govern through compromise, we can build ideas into solutions, we can communicate – with heptopod aliens or just with our neighbors. But first we must repeat to ourselves, often and earnestly, that is it is all a “non zero sum game.”