"A thought is an arrow shot at the truth; it can hit a point, but not cover the whole target. But the archer is too well satisfied with his success to ask anything farther." ~ Sri Aurobindo, Indian Philosopher
The topic of yoga as an Olympic sport is being discussed a lot more these days especially with London’s 2012 Games less than a month away. While many articles have written against this notion, why is there such resistance when yoga competition has been part of Indian tradition for 2000 years?
Yoga originated in India; its history spans over 5000 years. An important part of the country’s culture, it is one of the oldest holistic health systems that not only heals but exercises the physical, mental, and spiritual states.
Hatha yoga, created in the 15th C, concentrates mainly on asanas (postures) and pranayama (breath) – 2 of yoga’s 8 limbs which are outlined by ancient sage Patanjali in Yoga Sutras. In turn, asanas have been performed in yoga competitions in India for centuries as a way to demonstrate yoga’s life renewing benefits and to inspire others in their practice. NB: India also holds pranayama competitions and philosophical competitions – it is part of their tradition.
It’s been over the past 40 years that yoga has made its mark on the Western world, with Hatha the most popular form; more than 20 million people practice in the US. Despite this tight embrace however, discussing yoga, sport, and competition in the same sentence can have polarizing effects.
Such a difference in outlook may be due to any number of reasons: some argue that spirituality cannot be competitive; others say that their postures shouldn’t be compared to that of a fellow yogi; many ask how ‘breath’ can be judged. Could it be that we’re getting caught up in a definition of “competition”, and not associating it with the same positivity with which it is viewed in Indian culture?
The Indian mentality towards yoga competitions is that the competitor focuses internally. Rajashree Choudhury, founder of the International Yoga Sports Federation (IYSF) and USA Yoga, a non-profit organization formed with the aim to develop Yoga Asana as an (Olympic) sport, highlights the importance of this intrinsic quality:
“When you practice you always strive to be better. You don’t practice for the sake of it; you want to get the most out of it. To get the most means you have to challenge yourself, which means competition. Yoga competition means healthy competition. And, if you lose that empowered feeling (of the challenge), then you’re not looking at getting more from life. The life is there, but the energy is missing.”
She goes on to say that “everyone can practice sports for recreation, or if they want – competition performance.” Just as an amateur tennis players can watch and be inspired by a Wimbledon champion, so can a yogi watch and be inspired by the athleticism and grace of a yoga champion.
Rajashree can speak from experience. A champion in her youth, she recalls not even wanting to take part in her first yoga competition at age 9 - she had always been more interested in track and field but at the urging of her parents, she practiced yoga. When it came time to demonstrate her postures on stage, she gave 100% of her heart and soul, just as she does with everything in her life. She remembers being shocked when proclaimed the winner.
Inspired by the practices of the senior students, she went on to win consecutive annual competitions. Over time, she learned the fundamental goal of yoga: to strive for self acceptance and inner growth. Rajashree has dedicated her whole life to yoga, and knows firsthand that it can change a life. As she declares, “I would not be involved in yoga if I didn’t do competition.”
In a letter to the IYSF in reference to the All Indian National Yoga Championship held in April, 2012, B.K.S. Iyengar – founder of Iyengar yoga and author of the popular book, Light on Yoga, wrote: