Olympic Yoga Competition – Is It too Big a Stretch?

Dec 11th, 2017

I started to notice a buzz on several blogs about Yoga competition as an Olympic sport a few weeks before the opening ceremony of the Beijing Summer Olympics. The familiar topic of asana competitions was also revived recently on the Rishiculture Yahoo Group that I belong to. From the discussions, it’s clear to me that emotions and opinions are strong on both sides, for and against …

Competition itself is not a foreign concept in Yoga. In fact, intellectual debates between masters of various spiritual traditions were a vibrant part of ancient Indian culture. Can we, however, compare ancient competitions with the modern phenomena of competitive sports? Are the two similar or worlds apart? For instance, today’s athlete often possesses an unwavering determination to win at all costs. This is quite apparent in the extremely high levels of training, along with the use and abuse of performance enhancing supplements and drugs in sports today.

Modern sports stars also often seem willing to forego their academic education, and even neglect to engage in many other aspects of an evolving, well-balanced life; all in the name of winning.

As a result of this obsessive drive, even the most basic of human dignities, a humble respect and appreciation for one’s opponent, is often lost. The focus has become solely about the individual or the team, their achievements, and a very public recognition of their success. As such, much of the modern sports culture does seem in conflict with the very core ideals of Yoga: those of selflessness, compassion, dignity, balance, humility and respect.

Modern Yoga Competition

In India today, nearly every state holds some form of Yoga championship; events that have gained much interest since Swami Gitananda established the Pondicherry Yoga Association (“PYA”) and held its first state yoga championships in 1975.

Dr. Ananda Balayogi Bhavanani, the current General Secretary of the PYA, says, however:

“many things have changed over the years, and though I support Yoga sport for the children and youth, I may not say the same for the adult competitions … unless the theoretical aspect is taken into consideration, it will be only another gymnastic competition.”
Demonstrating this ideal, the PYA now uses Yoga competitions to help create a broader interest in the art and science of Yoga in today’s youth. Since 2000, it has organised the annual Swami Gitananda Best Yoga Youth Award Yoga competition, which tests the young competitors not only in the physical asanas, or postures, but also in the theoretical and other elements of Yoga too. The PYA has also introduced Yoga theory aspects into all its Yoga competitions, with the aim of exposing competitors to spiritual aspects of the great science of Yoga in addition to developing their skills in asana.

Yoga Sport Today

Yoga Sport competitions are now seen across the globe. Though some event founders and even some competitors speak publicly about the spiritual and lifestyle aspects of Yoga, it is not so apparent that these elements and the comprehensive attitude of the PYA is being embraced by the majority who run or participate in these events.

The now famous Bikram Choudury began organising his International Yoga Asana Championship in 2003, a spectacle that was highlighted in the controversial 2006 documentary Yoga Inc. Ashley Hooper, a former medal winner, says, “We don’t feel we are competing with each other. We are competing with ourselves.”

Yet the focus of these Yoga competitions remains physical. Competitors are only judged on the “perfection” of the pose, its difficulty, their poise and composure, and the grace of movement both into and out of the position.

Other well-known Yoga competitions include the annual World Yoga Championships, sponsored by the International Yoga Sports Federation, which was first held back in 1989. The European Yoga Alliance organises the annual European Yoga Championships, while regional competitions happen throughout the United States and Canada as well. All of these focus primarily on the performance of asanas.

Is Yoga Headed for Gold?

Yogasiromani Gopalji, executive director of The World Yoga Council, is at the forefront of the push to get Yoga into the Olympics, a movement that has much support as well as much resistance. In a recent BBC interview, he rationalises that “[Yoga sport] has been a traditional sport in India since more than 1,200 years.”

Esak Garcia, winner of the 2005 Bikram’s International Yoga Championship, also supports the elevation of Yoga to the world sporting stage, saying that “once Yoga is in the Olympics, it will legitimise Yoga for many people all over the planet.”

Many people, however, don’t feel that Yoga needs legitimising, and that Yoga in the Olympics is counter to the very meaning and purpose of Yoga. This was all too evident in the flurry of responses to a June posting about the subject on YogaJournal.com’s blog. “Making Yoga an Olympic sport would only increase the already existing over-competiveness”, wrote one blogger. Another echoes the prevailing attitude that “making Yoga competitive takes the essence right out of it.”

Dr Ananda Balayogi Bhavanai, in his abstract entitled “A Brief History and Introduction to Yoga Sport” says,

“To prevent yogasana competitions from falling into the trap of other sports, it is important that those in charge of these competitions stand firm on moral and ethical issues. Competitors should sign a statement that they are vegetarian, non-smoking, non-drinking and non-drug users. They must have a basic knowledge of Yoga theory and marks should be allocated for Yoga deportment and character… Yogasana competitions, when put in this framework, can restore the competitions to their original purpose, which was to produce a healthy mind in a healthy body.”
The International Yoga Federation (“IYF”) has echoed much of this sentiment in their “Yoga Sports Rules and Regulations”, outlining a system whereby competitors are judged on physical and mental performance, as well as given spiritual, social, ecological, cultural and philosophical evaluations. However, the question remains: how can one evaluate another on such a subjective level?

With the wide range of feelings about yoga as a competitive sport, is Yoga right for the Olympics? David Wallechinsky, an author and Olympic expert doesn’t think so. In a recent BBC interview, he said,

“at this point, the Olympics is looking more for the sort of sport where the first to cross the line wins. They are also going more and more for events that play well on television; [events] that are more action oriented. If you had combat Yoga… maybe that would have a better chance of making it into the Olympics.”

That hasn’t deterred the IYF, which has already contacted the Olympic committee and plans to petition to have Yoga included as an Olympic sport. The earliest that could happen is 2020. Coincidently, the Indian Olympic Association has also said that it plans a pitch for New Delhi to host the 2020 Olympics. If it does somehow find its way into this illustrious event, what the Yoga competition will include will most certainly continue to be a topic of much emotional debate.

About the Author Yogacharya is the director of International Yogalayam, and Editor of The Yoga News.

Asana Journal

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