The concept of yoga as a sport is a controversial one, with outspoken proponents of Bikram yoga pushing for yoga to be recognized at the level of the Olympic Games. The 2011 Illionois Yoga Asana Championships took place recently, with more than 100 participants given three minutes to demonstrate up to seven poses, “judged on strength, flexibility, expression, completion, control, grace, poise and the more ambiguous, ‘heart of the yogi.’”
Event judge Bikram Choudhury’s wife Rajashree Choudhury, five-time inter-school yoga youth champion in India, emphasized the importance of regarding yoga as a sport as it is in India, where “the government encourages children to practice yoga as a way to adopt a healthy lifestyle into adulthood.”
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Choudhury’s point notwithstanding, many US yoga practitioners do not self-identify as athletes, and given the stereotype of yogis in caves (hardly competing with anything other than their own bodies and minds), it may seem a stretch to argue that viewing yoga as a sport is consistent with the spirit and philosophy of classical yoga.
Conceptualizing yoga as competitive does appear to seriously undermine yoga philosophy’s loftier aims as transcribed historically and translated into western contexts. There is also the risk that the external, ambition-driven nature of sport may feed the ego in direct contrast to classical yoga’s attempts at ego transcendence, thereby attenuating pursuit of deeper self-knowledge and spirituality.
While there are thus issues considering yoga as solely a competitive sport (and much would be lost if this was the only manner in which it was offered), the many types of yoga which value spirituality are not likely to be lost anytime soon.
Given the historical basis for yoga as competitive sport as well as introspective, spiritual engagement, perhaps we should celebrate the multiplicity of orientations practiced today as a reflection that we are sustaining the plurality of traditions as they once evolved in the motherland.
Do you think yoga should be a competition or an Olympic sport?