Competitive Yoga – Is it a ‘do’ or a ‘don’t’?

In light of the yoga Championships recently coming to London for the first time (and talk that it may become an Olympic sport soon too), we ask two professional yogis what their opinions are on competitive yoga…


Julie Monatgu: FOR IT
The idea of competitive yoga may be something of an oxymoron to many people but it is actually a great way to push your fitness boundaries. When anything becomes competitive it encourages people to set goals to work towards and this is especially true of yoga. People do yoga for such a variety of reasons, from the desire to relax to increasing stamina, strength and overall health. However, the possibility always exists that people might become too comfortable in their routine and lack the enthusiasm to develop their skills and fitness. Entering into competitive yoga forces people to break out of the comfort zone and strive towards better health.

Several years ago, I competed in a Bikram Yoga Championship and I found it to be an incredibly positive experience, both for me and my family. In terms of my fitness, it motivated me to push myself to progress and, on a more personal level, I was able to show my kids that there was a fun side to mommy! Their encouragement and support was a real boost throughout the competition and it was great to know they were proud of me afterwards!

As with most things, there are naturally some people who are opposed to yoga as a competitive sport. The argument being that it is a discipline that should focus on acceptance and compassion towards others. It is important to remember that when we talk about yoga as a sport, we are referring to the act of holding physical poses. The meditative and spiritual aspects don’t at any point come into the judging or scoring process. There is also some suggestion that it could create a sense of intimidation and deter those who want to give yoga a go. However, a great many competitive sports are already used by people as a way to relax, such as running and swimming, so why should yoga be any different?

Introducing yoga as an Olympic sport would be a fantastic way to inspire others to try it. Given the absolutely amazing health benefits of this discipline, this would only mean good things for the general health and well-being of those who decided to incorporate it into their lifestyles. Training for competitive yoga is similar to preparing to run a marathon or climb a mountain and the satisfaction afterwards is equally worthwhile!

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Kathleen Fleming: AGAINST IT

“The study of asana is not about mastering a posture. It is about using posture to understand and transform yourself.” Gary Kraftsow

I spent most of my childhood and teenage years playing competitive team sports so I am certainly not against a little bit of healthy competition. I think the life lessons that we can learn from team sports and from winning and losing are important. However, when it comes to yoga I have a very different opinion.

There is nothing wrong with showing mastery of physical yoga postures. It is awesome to see someone moving from crow to headstand or popping up gracefully into a handstand. A flexible and lithe human body is truly amazing. However, in my opinion yoga is not a sport, game or mere physical activity where the aim is to win. Tara Stiles, whose unpretentious and hugely popular Strala Yoga has become a global phenomenon, has been quoted as saying that “Yoga isn’t about the physical shape of the pose. There is already a sport for that—gymnastics—and it takes more skills than competitive yoga posing.” And she has a point. There is already a stage for the bendy and stretchy to show off their incredible physical skills.

Unfortunately in today’s highly-charged, competitive world where the very physical forms of yoga, such as Bikram, have been incredibly popular for their effects on the outer body, many practitioners do not realise that yoga is much more than the physical poses (known as “asanas” in Sanskrit). In fact, yoga is a sacred 5000 year old practice which offers us much more than a workout – it is a system of education for our mind, body and soul. Separating the physical postures from the other limbs of yoga, such as breathing (pranayama) and mediation (dhyana), means that in reality you are doing some seriously great stretches or showy acrobatics rather than practicing yoga.

In addition, non-violence, known as “ahimsa” in Sanskrit, is an important yogic guideline. It refers not only to non-violence towards others but also to non-violence against our self. Yoga is not about pushing or forcing our beautiful bodies in order to achieve the perfect pose. Instead yoga is about honouring our bodies, being kind to our bodies and knowing when to stop rather than pushing to achieve. Generally, a competition where the goal is to win requires most people to push themselves a little harder than they would otherwise. In my opinion, this goes against the belief that yoga is non-violent – no pushing, no forcing.

Many, including Mr Bikram, argue that there is nothing wrong with competitive yoga and that in India, yoga’s spiritual home, such competitions have been happening for decades. However, in India there is a clear focus in a lot of the contests on promoting yoga to young people and often such events are used as a way to encourage children and teenagers to participate in the practice of yoga. Furthermore, unlike the contests arranged here and in the US, many of the Indian contests are not only about performing poses but also incorporate yoga philosophy and theory. It seems to be more about yoga rather than perfecting physical postures.

It is probably true that yoga pose competitions generate publicity for yoga and encourage more people to take up a regular practice. However, when the emphasis is on the body alone, it may also put plenty of people off. When the focus is on a lot of incredibly bendy yogis performing challenging poses, it may perpetuate the idea that yoga is something only for the very flexible rather than being accessible to all. It is possible that a lot of people will end up associating yoga with the physical which sadly will be incredibly limiting on the practice of yoga.

Lastly, for me and many others yoga has always provided a way of removing oneself from the crazy, image-obsessed and competitive world in which we live. Your yoga mat is one place where you don’t feel judged by others, where you don’t judge yourself and where you can just be. Although there is no doubt that challenging poses are awe-inspiring, yoga goes so much deeper than winning a gold medal for that perfect pose.

The IYSF WORLD YOGA SPORTS CHAMPIONSHIP is coming to London May 31st – June 1st. More information here: http://i.yogasportsfederation.org

Image by Richard Avedon for Vogue