Few months ago a fellow yoga teacher posted on Facebook an article about whether or not yoga should be considered as a sport that triggered my interest. For most of us the mere idea of talking yoga and sport, let alone yoga as a competitive sport, seems outrageous. The steady breathe, the journey for emotional and maybe even spiritual wellbeing and inner peace that we associate with yoga (or at least, our yoga teacher would like us to associate with the practise) just seem almost completely at odds with what we may think of as (competitive) sports.
But how do we classify what is a sport in a first place?
In dictionaries “sports” is defined both as “An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.” and as ”a physical activity (such as hunting, fishing, running, swimming, etc.) that is done for enjoyment.”
In short, sports may or may not be competitive in nature. All it requires is that there is some sort of physical effort. We know that the physical aspect of yoga, asana or posture, is only one of the 8 limbs of yoga as defined by Patanjali. But isn’t fair to say that is the physical practise that many people see as synonymous to “yoga”? To push further, asana practise can be very physically challenging, and the words “effort and ease” are mentioned in the Yoga Sutras: Sthira sukham asanam, yoga posture is an expression between effort and ease.
“There is no way that sutra can be interpreted that it is ok to have yoga as a competitive sport!” you might be thinking at this point. But even the officials in India, the homeland of yoga, have not been sure where (or how) to place yoga. In September 2015 yoga was recognised as a sport in the Country, only to be derecognised 14 months later, in the late 2016 with the Indian Sports ministry stating, “…Yoga has various dimensions/arms in which competitions are not possible.”
Definitions aside, it is also interesting to ask…
…Who would consider yoga as a sport?
Quite a few people actually, I discovered when doing research for this piece. The International Federation of Yoga Sports website tells that yoga competitions have existed in India for some 2000 years, and competitions with a focus on asana have existed since up to 200 years. The current form of yoga asana competitions on an local, national and international level have existed since 1989, when The First World Yoga Cup and World Yoga Championship was held in 1989 in Uruguay and The First International Yoga Asanas Championship in India.
Especially in the USA the popularity of these competitions has grown over the years but “yoga as a sport” is a rising phenomenon with several organisations holding national and international competitions and regulating their rules. The biggest one of these entities, The International Federation of Yoga Sports, acts as a governing body for subdivisions in 32 countries.
“Yoga is about catching the stillness, even in competition”
Joseph Encinia, the president of USA Yoga, said these words during an interview for the US online magazine Racked last year. In most yoga competitions the participants have to perform a certain number of pre-defined asana and hold them for a certain period of time (in USA Yoga competitions at least 3 seconds.) The postures are of often some sort of variation on a forward bend, a backbend, a stretch, and a twist, either chosen from a list of options or a yogi’s choice. Some organisations also test their competitors on the history of yoga, but the execution of asana to a certain pre-set standards is always present. In the Racked interview Encinia explained how “If a yogi’s alignment is off, we’ll hold it against them, but we’re also watching for balance and control of the breath.”
Balance and breath are mentioned, that makes these competitions a bit more “yogic”, right?
Well, maybe not so much. For starters, whose definition of alignment are we talking about? There are dozens of schools of yoga out there these days, some emphasising the anatomical alignment as the paramount of any asana, some much less so and some that barely even mention alignment in their classes. Furthermore, even if you go to two different classes of the same school of yoga, you still might hear things that not 100% identical. And lets not forget that we all have different bodies with different proportions, and I for one think that to get the most out of yoga, it is best taught in a small, if not 1 to 1 setting, where you can pay attention to everybody individually.
This, together with the perceived lack of spirituality, emotional benefits and relaxation associated with yoga, are among the biggest critical comments against yoga as a competitive sport. Of course yoga teachers and studio owners need to make a living, and for that we need students to come to class. Yet, the absence of the “need to perform” feeling, and lack of comparison to others is something that many of us hold sacred and at the heart of yoga. There are also many other ways that can inspire and motivate us with our practise, and as to catching people’s interest in yoga, are these competitions really representative in any way of the science and art of yoga, thousands of years old?
Each to their own and as yoga continues to grow in popularity, it is always interesting to hear what attracted people to come to class in a first place and what image of the practise they might have before they step on the mat for the first time. I am going to continue my exploration on all things under the umbrella of yoga this Friday in a form of a documentary screening at a friend’s new yoga studio. I might write more around this topic in the future but in the mean time, let me know what you think about the following:
Is yoga a sport, and would you like to see (or participate) in an asana competition?
The pictures are in this post are not mine. The 3 YISF pictures are stills from competition videos available on YouTube.