As yoga continues to grow more “mainstream,” teachers and practitioners struggle to uphold the practice as a path to self-realization and fulfillment. The plethora of approaches and styles definitely poses a challenge to the deeper, more spiritual side of yoga. And as the student demographic expands, the practice is becoming more susceptible to the pitfalls of modernization. Now as the India vies for a shot at Olympic mania in 2020, some yoga teachers and practitioners are hoping to add yoga to the Olympian line up in a controversial move that will take the practice of yoga out of self-exploration and into the territory of sport.
President of the International Yoga Sport Federation, the Yoga Confederation of India, and a Deputy Program Advisor of the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, Gopal Ji says that yogis have been competing since ancient times, and some Indian schools teach competitive yoga today. In addition, the World-Wide Yoga Championship, which began in 1989, encourages aspiring yogis and yoginis to compete for the World-Wide Yoga Cup in the categories of athletic, artistic and rhythmic yoga.
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Mr. Gopal wonders, “If rhythmic gymnastics can be included [in the Olympics], why not yoga?”
Well, this begs the question, have many found lasting inner peace and enlightenment from the practice of rhythmic gymnastics? Are there sacred though currently undiscovered texts by great rhythmic gymnasts dating back several millennia that convey the depth of this practice? Maybe, but I’ve never heard of them. Gymnastics is a sport, and at the Olympic level, it is a sport of highly trained, refined competitors that are groomed for competition, sponsorship and the glory of winning. This just doesn’t sound like the yoga I’ve been exploring and studying for over a decade. Many traditional yogis, both Indian and western in origin, are taking issue with this idea of competitive yoga. As the ancient and sacred practice of yoga is being rediscovered by many, it seems that the aspect of competition is counter to the goals of the practice as a whole.
As a yoga teacher and student, I often walk into a class full of athletes looking for a real workout and run up against a good deal of resistance when I ask them to slow down, breathe, and stay present. Asana as a tool to inner exploration is a foreign concept to many students today who are practicing to gain more physical strength or flexibility and to just “relax.” So do we provide a sweat filled, athletic experience, or do we hold true to the authentic practice and encourage the unfolding of the deeper self? Are we training athletes or guiding spiritual transformation? It is interesting to note that when asked why she pursues the practice of yoga, yoga competitor15-year-old Adyta Nigam responded, “[to] perfect my health status and get a chance to travel around the world.” I’ve only read the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika a few times, but I don’t recall either one of those definitions of yoga in those texts.
Conversely, we all know how challenging asana can be. In the higher levels of asana practice there is a large amount of skill required to layer all of the components of strength, flexibility, balance, and focus to perform postures akin to contortionism. The practice is rigorous for those seeking to master advanced asanas. Should we reward this time with a medal or a cup? I would say, ask a yogi. Pose this question of sport to one who strives to attain mayurasana or titibhasana. Ask the practitioner who wakes at 5 a.m. to practice and meditate before the business of the day begins. Thousands of us do it, behind closed doors, without recognition or the desire for it. We practice to uncover truth in ourselves, to discover the awareness that lies beneath all of the worldly distraction, and then maybe later we go to the gym and shoot some hoops. But our yoga is not our competition, it’s our practice of refinement, our cultivation of authenticity. How would you give a medal for that?