I’ve always been a competitive person. In high school I played for the softball and tennis teams. Now, I take part in races and half marathons to chase that same thrill of victory or agony of defeat. It fires me up and feeds my inner beast. Good, healthy competition inspires greatness like nothing else, but competitive yoga? Not so much.
Over the past ten years in the United States, yoga has become more of a sport than a spiritual practice. There are even two internationally recognized organizations, trying to make this whole thing official.
The IYSF (Yoga Sports Federation) boasts the long-term goal of including yoga competition in the Olympic Games, while the mission of the USAYF (USA Yoga Federation) is to encourage all yoga newcomers to engage in the competitive sport of yoga asana as well. ("Asana" refers to the poses of yoga.)
While these groups and others like them strive to legitimize their yoga competition sports as true yoga, there is significant confusion surrounding the creation of such competitions.
While most of us think of competitive yoga as something that’s been in development since the Lululemon pants craze, these organizations are claiming that yoga has pretty much always been a competitive sport. The USAYF website says, “Yoga asana competitions originated in India hundreds of years ago,” while the IYSF states, “Yoga competitions originated in India some 2000 years ago.” On the other hand, The International Federation of Yoga sports says that “competition has been around for 200 years.”
Just like the children’s game of telephone, the real history has clearly been lost somewhere and there isn’t an authority that can get this timeline straight.
Furthermore, these organizations certainly aren’t representative of many members of the yoga community who think making this practice into a competitive sport is in opposition to its original philosophy.
Yoga isn’t a race. It’s not about winning. In fact, competition is actually the antithesis of yoga. Renowned teacher Alanna Kaivalya of The Kaivalya Yoga Method explained it best to me when she said, “Yoga is not a race for enlightenment. If asana is not used as a spiritual practice, it is simply acrobatic.”
Richard Rosen, owner of the Piedmont Yoga Studio, told The New York Times: “Unfortunately, yoga has been conflated with asana, which is a huge misapprehension. If the people who are winning asana competitions are suddenly seen as more yogic than others, that’s a really bad comparison to make”.
If the fact that yoga has become the thing to do draws more people to it, that’s great! If the fact that it changes your physical body means you go to yoga class three times a week as part of a fitness regimen, good for you. But, most of us are missing the point here.
Yoga means union (oneness).Union of spirit with the source (god). “God” means whatever you may call that higher existence. While Yoga is not a religion, it uses different techniques to help you achieve a spiritual connection.
You know that person you always see at yoga class who does each pose so perfectly? That woman who the instructor always complements by name or asks her to demonstrate? They are not winning at yoga! They're not better at yoga than other people. Poses are only part of the practice.
Yoga is broken down in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (a yoga bible of sorts). There are 8 stages (limbs) to help you achieve enlightenment. They are the yamas (the moral guidelines for practicing yogis) niyamas (observances or self discipline) asana (meditative posture) pranayama (breath control) pratyahara (withdrawal of senses) dharana (concentration -- the ability to focus on one thing) dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (union with the divine).
The yoga sutras of Patanjali can be quoted as saying, “We should remember that each of the eight limbs is equal to the others and necessary.” This means that you can’t pick and choose which one will give you enlightenment, but it’s probably not having your butt stick up perfectly in downward dog.
Asana is a small part of a yoga practice. A super fun small part that works! Used spiritually it helps to clear the energetic body and prepare it for union of the spirit.
Over the last century asana and pranayama have become more popular and largely associated with what yoga is because it’s easier to address the physical body than it is to address the spirit.
If this is a spiritual practice then the focus should be on healing yourself from the inside out, not the outside in.
What isn’t yoga? That person who is showing off their perfect headstand, who has, well, let the competition go to their head, performing for others and rivalry. Anything that involves feeding the ego disrupts union, and rivalry is a form of separation, AKA not yoga!
If you look up #yogachallenge on Instagram you will find over 850,000 pictures. I even took part in a few yoga challenges over the last year and can speak from experience when I say that it did not feel like a yoga practice when I was doing it. I became more concerned with how many people would like my picture and how many followers I could get than I did with growing my spiritual practice.
These type of challenges on Instagram could also be physically dangerous, which is in direct opposition to one of the yamas (moral guidelines) called Ahimsa (not to injure). The potential for injury is much greater alone in a room trying to take a yoga selfie than in a classroom where the teacher is looking out for your safety.
Yoga is an individual spiritual practice with the goal of enlightenment. It is not a competition for superiority and there is no authorized winner. These challenges shouldn’t be called yoga. Call it a “flexibility meet” or “contortion contest” because without proper spiritual setup, these poses are just backbends and handstands.
The bottom line is that enlightenment is its own grand prize, it brings victory over ego and calm over chaos. When you achieve this balance, you won’t need a trophy.