yoga vs. sports

Let me perch on my little soap box for just a moment to clarify that yoga never was and is still not a sport. By definition, a sport is "a competitive physical activity," but the entire expression of yoga practice rejects that premise. Widely known and accepted basics of yoga are that it is non-competitive and that the practitioner learns to connect more deeply with his or her body and mind. Through yoga asana practice, we discover things about ourselves; our strengths and weaknesses manifest on our mat and we work toward learning more about strengthening our bodies and sharpening our minds. Besides obviously not rivaling our neighboring yogis, we're not even meant to fight ourselves! In my humble opinion, our culture already struggles with this concept and could use more competition-free activities.

There has been a lot of controversy swirling around competitive yoga lately, as national bonified yoga competitions are popping up everywhere. If you haven't heard about it, since early 2012, groups have even been lobbying for yoga to be included in the 2016 Olympic games:
"Each Olympic-class yogi would have three minutes to do seven poses, five of which are mandatory (standing head-to-knee pose, standing bow-pulling pose, bow pose, rabbit pose, and stretching pose). The final two poses are yogi's choice. The judges would rate the contestants on their strength, flexibility, timing, and breathing."
- Article from The Week.com
Photo credit: Andy Jacobsohn - Avanna Brown in Eka Pada Sirsasana (Foot-behind-the-Head Pose)
Ayanna Brown - National Yoga Asana Championship.
Namely, Rajashree Choudhury (wife of Bikram Choudhury, founder of the competitive Bikram Yoga form of hot yoga) is one of the biggest supporters of the movement. She says that,"the competitions can be a way to interest people in yoga who might be put off by the spiritual aspect, by showing them the athletic aspect." Okay...so people would not be put off by viewing terrifying and widely unattainable contortions? Certain yoga poses take years to work toward; strength, flexibility and balance cannot be forced, so wouldn't emphasizing a "perfect yoga posture" in an Olympic event be dangerous for admiring fans?

Step into most yoga studios today and you will often hear encouraging little reminders to "focus on your own practice" or to "leave your ego at the door." The atmosphere of calm that many yoga studios strive to achieve is what makes yoga stand apart from any other physical activity. Many fear that this new type of competition would pervert western yoga into an ego-driven fad full of elite athletes. In the United States, yoga is already a booming business offering a variety of yoga styles that appeal to many different types of people. It's great that it's becoming so accessible and comfortable, but if western yoga keeps heading down this path, where will it end up?

I am most certainly not championing purist, perfect or elitist yoga in any way and I'm not trying to discourage anyone who solely enjoys yoga for the physical aspect. The mental and spiritual journey that one might discover through yoga is personal and (just as with physical postures) it should not be forced. The bottom line here is that regardless of one's personal goals and interests, yoga is meant to be non-competitive. Alienating those roots will change yoga practice into something it's not: a sport. How can that core value be ignored to justify induction into the Olympic games? Is this really a good way to expose yoga to the masses or is would it be doing more harm than good?

Personally, if yoga does end up in the Olympics in 2016, I won't be watching it. I'd rather be on my own mat or teaching yoga with goals of acceptance, self-awareness and modesty. What do you think about all of this? If you'd like to continue this dialogue, please feel free to comment below. I'd love to hear what others think, yogis or not!

Namaste!