Do we Really Need a Yoga Champ?

yoga trophy
Photo by dgrinbergs

According to the wife of Bikram Choudry, Rajashree Choudry, competition and yoga go hand in hand. To support this she has created two non-profit organizations that sponsor and stage yoga competitions in the U.S. and abroad.  The most recent of these was in October at a Bikram studio on the Lower East Side, The New York Regional Yoga Championship.

The competition hosted 34 contestants and Mrs. Choudry as one of the three judges.  The Choudry’s have high hopes that these regional competitions are small steps on the path to making yoga an Olympic event, an aspiration that is shunned by many in the yoga community.  The Olympic “dream” is still a long way off.  In order to be considered, the sport has to have active federations in 50 countries, at the moment competitive yoga is only standardized in 15.

There are many critics of the idea of making yoga into an Olympic sport.  Many yogis disagree with taking an ancient and spiritual science and placing it under the guise of sport in general, but there are also the critics who believe that the Choudry’s aim has underlying tones of marketing their “brand” of yoga.  Though they are quick to point out the many differences between the Bikram style and the requirements for the competition, the overlapping factors are hard to overlook.  Like the fact that five of the seven required postures are taken directly from the Bikram sequence.

Ultimately, the notion of yoga as a competitive sport is inflating the Western view of yoga as a purely physical practice. Though the administrators of these yoga competitions tout that the more publicity and exposure the practice receives the more it will attract those who really need it, even the participants in the competitions see the inconsistency. Bikram instructor in New York City, Luke Strandquist, who placed third among the men, though he had no issue with the idea of competitive yoga, recognized its inconsistency.  “As a teacher, it’s the opposite of what I’m always telling my students: that you’re here to practice your yoga, and it doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing.”

So you want to show off your asana, no big deal, right?  But, if your aim is to promote and grow a yoga community, I believe that these competitions are sorely missing the mark.  Yoga is a word that in the West has become synonymous with asana, but in reality encompasses vast styles and approaches to practice all of which are meant to lead the practitioner into deeper realms of inner experience.  The thought of comparing yourself and your physical progress in asana to others does not, in my mind, equate with the experience of uncovering the depths of knowing for which yoga is a guide.  If anything, these competitions promote a distorted idea of the practice and further exacerbate the imbalances that many people have when the come to their mat.

If you want to show off your asana, more power to you.  My only request is that you please, please take the word yoga out of the title, and maybe promote asana competitions instead.  What do you think?

Comments 10

  1. i am not agree with it..we can do it ourself by watching TV programs..
    vernon getzler
    Workout Routines

  2. This is very sad for someone to do this to yoga and the yoga community. Yoga is not a competitive sport. The only reason the Birkrams want to do this is to make more money for themselves. I hope people will boycott Birkram yoga.

  3. HI- I was the instructor you quoted- Luke. I would like to set the record . Those were my words but they were not printed in thier entirety. In addition to what you quoted I went on to talk alot about how important it has been in my practice to see and be inspired by others. Even more so when you are facing limitations or are just having a hard day. AND if you would have done your research you would have also noted that the competitons held ARE called yoga ASANA competitions, and there is a very clear distinction between what is happening in an asana competion and in a personal practice. As a competetor I can only speak from my point of view- but all I felt that day was love and support and encouragement from the NY community- the real^competition was with myself. I was there to show my most beggining students that ANYTHING is possible as long as you keep trying, and that even someone like me who has overcome bad knees, depression, and addiction can aspire to be better- not just at asana but at being a better human being. One last thing, as far as Bikram and his wife are concerned, I have spent quite a bit of time with them both and trust me- they do not need any more money. They are doing fine. SO if you think that they would do this to further thier brand of yoga and not the better health and well being of ALL people on the planet than you are sadly mistaken and I suggest you meet and spend a little time with them. I am a practitioner of many styles of yoga and have not found one that has not been beneficial to me in some tangible way. Bikram yoga is a wonderful practice that I have seen help SO many people again and again and again. While not the only path to choose- it sure is a great one! I wish there was not this need to create dissention and drive wedges between the different schools, styles, and rythyms in the greater yoga community. I wish love light and peace for you- All the best Luke Strandquist

  4. Thanks so much for your input, Luke. I think that your statement adds a lot to think about in this ongoing contemplation on competitive asana. I do most of my writing based on other people’s research, so I an grateful for you adding your first hand experience to the discussion.

  5. I completely agree with Kelly. Competition has its place, but you will never be able to convince me that it has to do with anything but the ego. In a country where competition is everything, hasn’t it been nice so far to have a spiritual practice that accepts us all as we are, flaws and all? Do you really need an event that labels certain people as being better than others in order you to motivate you to be a better yogi? I am a better yogi when I observe my teachers live compassionately, not when I see them doing difficult asana.

  6. Also, for yogis with disabilities, telling them that “anything is possible as long as you keep trying” is inaccurate and can be harmful.

  7. A few comments for Luke: I’ve heard the “the real competition is with myself” line before on this issue, which if really true then why not just compete with yourself in your own personal practice? And I would think there are more skillful ways of inspiring your students than showing off advanced flashy poses. Because while this can be inspiring it can also be intimidating, especially to beginning students. Also Bikram has been the #1 person to drive wedges between the different schools through his copyrighting and litigation, so if you are wishing for more openness and cooperation then why would you support and practice Bikram yoga??

    In my personal and professional experience in yoga I’ve found that invoking competition often creates injury, inflates one’s ego, and leads away from the original intention of yoga. Competition relies upon judgment and criticism which are not helpful in the practice of yoga.

    You are a yoga champion every time you step on your mat and do the pose that is best for your body. Yoga just isn’t about looking better than the yogi/ni next to you.

  8. The thought of competitive yoga saddens me. The very idea distorts the basic precepts of yoga, does it not? Further, the idea that people who claim to be yogis would be promoting such a thing is baffling.

  9. At first glance, competition in Yoga does seem strange to me. I think in competition that the goal is to stay ahead of one’s competitors. Not only does the individual want to excel, but also to be better than everyone else in the end. But in Yoga I have always understand that a common goal is to advance everyone’s knowledge, experience, and “Ability to Sit Still for a While”, even if others become better than we are.

    Maybe I am too limited in my view? Do Olympic competitors generally want everyone to do well, and only secondarily care whether they themselves finish first? Do the ideals of competition and advancement for an athlete at that level surpass the individual glory? Have all Olympic events which involve an aesthetic caused this same type of debate when they were first introduced?

  10. In each of my sessions with the learned and the beginner, one of my very first statements is, “There is no competition. You are a unique individual and this is not a practice of comparison. Be gentle with and encouraging of yourself always”. Yoga is the very antithesis of competition. Please, can we leave some things sacred?

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