I was recently interviewed about it on a PBS radio show (http://media.scpr.org/audio/upload/2012/03/05/Competitive_yoga.mp3 ) with many callers expressing opinions. It is commonly the case that many yogis are upset and voice that the “purity” of Yoga is being compromised by competition—which they assert should never be part of Yoga. Or they assert that competition isn’t “spiritual”, isn’t in accord with the eight limbs, or that it strengthens ego. Whether or not the eight limbs is the definition of Yoga, or if competition, or ego, can or should be eliminated from the fabric of life could easily be debated. But instead of going there, I’m taking a different tact. Is a Yoga competition really serving our best interests and can proficiency in Yoga practice be measured by judges? It can be argued that national and international competitions will bring greater authenticity, relevance and acceptance to asana practice, but is this the right way to get it? Does Yoga even need it? Here are five reasons championships are probably not the right path:
1. How do you measure who is doing the best Yoga?
When you see someone doing a beautiful or graceful pose, especially if it’s pushing the limits of movement and flexibility, it’s easy to assert they are an advanced student, or they are “very good” at Yoga. But what cannot be measured, or cannot easily be measured, is whether the way they are doing that pose is really good for the long term well being of their body. Is, for example, standing on their hands and putting both feet on their head, or wrapping both legs behind their back (full disclosure: I did these and more for years, back in the day) really the measure of “good” Yoga, and is it serving the long term well being of that body? Are these extreme or performance poses what others should aspire to and emulate in their practice. Are extreme poses good for the lifetime health of the spine, disks, and joints? Much more often than not, the answer is no. Is the person doing the best pretzel poses really the winner? At White Lotus we assert that advancing in Yoga, developing proficiency in Yoga, is learning how to use the asanas, techniques, and practices to better serve the ones body for a lifetime. Learning to listen to internal feedback, to learn to make subtle energy flow, bone and nerve adjustments, to learn to discern the effects of the poses, and to become adept at self balancing and self healing is truly the essence of advancing in Yoga.
2. Yoga is for every body.
It is said there are hundreds of thousands of asanas. I suggest that is a metaphor showing that Yoga is for any and every body. I’ve seen bedridden and wheel chair confined practitioners doing, or should I say “using”, Yoga beautifully. Sure, certain body types can do many more poses, and super models, men and women, can look gorgeous in poses, but this can miss the essence. Any body, at any age or stage can get great benefit from practice. There is no need to compete.
3. Yoga is not a sport. Yoga is not a performance art.
Yoga isn’t really in the same category as sports, dance, or even gymnastics. There is a large performance component to sports. And of course, a large competitive component. Even dance is expressing a theme, form, or metaphor. Whereas the purpose of Yoga is health, well being, self healing, self transformation, awakening and re-awakening. The “winners” are all those who learn to use the tools of Yoga effectively for themselves.
If the winners in Yoga are the those who can do the most difficult positions and moves of flexibility and strength in a graceful and beautiful manner, then circus acrobats have already won. I’ve seen acrobats, in the Cirque du Soleil for example, do the most unbelievable Yoga-like poses with strength, grace and beauty.
4. There is no perfect pose.
There are endless adjustments, modifications and tunings of asanas. The essential reason for this is not “so someone can do the pose” but rather so the pose can do them. In other words the pose should be adjusted to serve the person instead of adjusting the person to fit into the pose.
5. Everybody wins.
The real beauty of Yoga is that everyone can win. There is competition in nearly every arena of life. We’re constantly conditioned to favor winners and shun losers. But in a class of twenty, or one hundred, Yoga students, who is the winner? Everyone! Everyone can be a winner at the same time in Yoga. This possibility is too rare in life to diminish. And, again, can you even say who is doing the best, most proficient practice? May be the stiff, injured, or elderly person in class is the one using the poses in the most subtle and refined manner.
These competitions may be here to stay, but will competitions and championships bring the right kind of attention and motivation to the art and science that is Yoga?