I was recently sent this link to some pictures from the 2012 New York Regional, and the National Yoga Asana Championship held earlier in March in the USA. The pictures show people doing advanced yoga asana (poses) and to some the poses and the concept of the competition may have more in common with gymnastics than yoga. (And this may be a competition thing or an American thing, but they all appear to be wearing leotards or exceedingly tiny briefs. You can see more pictures here – worth a look, some of the competitors are amazing.)
So, how does a yoga competition work? According to the captions on one of the websites, the competitors were judged on “poses’ level and difficulty, poise and composure, and grace of movement.” The Telegraph of India notes that: “Competitors complete seven postures in three minutes, and the total 80-point score takes into account technical precision, physical presentation and timing, among other aspects.” The winners will go on to compete in the Bishnu Charan Ghosh Cup, the international championship held in Los Angeles in June.
In this more indepth article on competitions and yoga in the Taiwan News and this article in HoumaToday, (the articles start off similar, but then are different – both NY Times based articles I think) some salient points are made, including the fact that in India, yoga asana competitions existed before the West got interested in yoga. We can’t dismiss yoga competitions as an ego-centric made-up Western concept therefore, and certainly can be humbled by the amazing physical abilities of the competitors. But, is it yoga?
The competition in America was organised by USA Yoga (aka United States Yoga Federation). This organisation was set up by Rajashree Choudhury, wife of Bikram Choudhury, (he of hot yoga and copyright battles fame) and she herself used to compete at yoga in India as a child (see the above article links for interview with her.) Her long term goal is to promote yoga asana as an Olympic sport. According to the articles, to be considered for the Olympics, yoga asana must be widely practiced by men and women in 75 countries and would have to be voted in by the International Olympic Committee. Competitions now exist in 15 countries, but an official rulebook has yet to be created.
My heart sinks a bit at the thought of yoga in the Olympics. My instinct is to say that yoga is not a sport, and even yoga asana is not a sport – it’s more like a branch of gymnastics. But then, I read articles about yoga competitions, I think about it, and I wonder, ‘Well, if someone sees these yoga competitors and is inspired to take up yoga, that’s great! Just like if someone was inspired by an Olympic swimmer or sprinter to then begin swimming or jogging.’ Does it matter if that person never looks into the history of yoga, the eight limbs, the meditation etc? Part of me says ‘no, it’s ok just to do the asana, there’s still benefits’, but another part of me says ‘yes, they should know there’s more than just the asana’.
Whilst asanas are a part of yoga, they are only one part. They are one of the eight limbs outlined by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras. And, as the author of Yoga Body emphasises, many of the yoga asana that we know and love (including the sun salutation sequence) are only about 100 years old or less, so they don’t have the long history that meditation has, for example. Holding yoga asana competitions will probably mean that the general public equate yoga to physical postures even more than they currently do now – will people wonder why we spend time on pranayama and meditation in yoga classes?
The slightly confused nature of this post probably reflects my slightly confused position on yoga competitions. I can’t seem to get past thinking yoga isn’t about an ego-driven, ‘my body’s amazing, I’m-the-best’ attitude. Whilst so-and-so could become the winner, meaning they were physically the best, have they achieved the ultimate aim of yoga, the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind? Nobody can judge that!