Competitive Yoga Tries Out for the Olympics

2012 National Yoga Championship
Joseph Carey of Florida at the 2012 National Yoga Championship. Andy Jacobsohn/Getty Images News

If your yoga teacher is anything like mine, she mentions about a dozen times per class that we should not compare ourselves to what others are doing on the mats around us, what we ourselves have been able to do in the past, or what we've seen on the cover of a glossy yoga magazine. You could even say the encouragement to free ourselves from the urge to compete at all times is one of modern yoga's biggest lessons.

It inspires us to look inward, to accept ourselves, and, by listening to our own bodies first and foremost, to avoid injury. How, then, can we explain the idea of a yoga competition? I'm talking about a contest where entrants are judged on their poses, awarded points, and ultimately someone is declared the winner. The short answer is that we can't really reconcile these two different approaches to yoga because they come from diametrically opposed places. They have some things in common, but are ultimately very different beasts.

History of Yoga Competition

Before you write off competitive yoga as some kind of western abomination, you should know that these competitions actually began in India. The Yoga Federation of India held its first annual championship in 1974, though regional yoga competitions were held even earlier. The first International Yoga World Cup was awarded in 1989. Bikram Choudhury, the founder of Bikram yoga, was famously an Indian yoga champion in his teens, as was his wife Rajashree, who won the National Indian Yoga Championship five times.

It is not surprising, then, that many of today's approved competition postures are included in the Bikram series and the majority of competitors in the United States practice Bikram yoga.

Rajashree Choudhury has been instrumental in bringing yoga competitions to the U.S., as a founder and president of the United States Yoga Federation (USA Yoga) and as president of the International Yoga Sports Federation (IYSA).

USA Yoga sponsors regional and national yoga competitions and represents the U.S. in the IYSA, which in turn sponsors the World Yoga Sport Championship each year. 

What Happens at a Yoga Competition

Men and women compete in one of three divisions: adult, youth (11-18), and senior (over 50). Men usually wear Speedo-style shorts, while women wear one-piece swimsuits or leotards. Each person has three minutes to perform seven postures, four compulsory and three optional. The competitors must announce each posture before doing it and are responsible for completing their routines within the allotted time.  Postures must be held for at least five seconds to demonstrate control and points may be deducted for wobbling, poor alignment, lack of breath control, and falling, among other criteria, according to the USA Yoga website. A panel of judges determines the score, with a 10 being the maximum, based on degree of difficulty and predetermined standards of what constitutes a superior pose. Optional poses that are considered "too easy" are not eligible to receive full marks.

The winners of regional contests go on to nationals, where they compete to represent the U.S. on the international level.

Yoga in the Olympics

One of the big motivations to standardize yoga competitions through organizations like USA Yoga and the IASF is that this infrastructure must be in place if yoga has any hope of becoming an Olympic Sport, something for which the IASF is actively lobbying. However, the process for being accepted into the Olympic Games is a long one. The formation of the International Yoga Sports Federation was the first step. As of yet, yoga has not reached the second benchmark, which is to be designated a recognized sport by the International Olympic Committee. Criteria for recognition include demonstration that the sport is widely practiced internationally and that competitions follow the rules of the Olympic charter  And even if a sport does achieve official recognition, it may still languish on the sidelines of Olympic competition. So even though the wheels have been set in motion, it will probably be a number of years until we might see yoga in the Olympics, if ever. On the other hand, national competitions are gaining popularity and publicity, which can only help the campaign.

Something for Everyone

Just because competitive yoga exists, it doesn't negate the non-competitive message of yoga as it is practiced in studios throughout the world. Some of the postures may be the same, but the intent behind them is very different. Yoga has become like many sports or physical activities that have both recreational and professional/elite amateur expressions. Not everyone who enjoys running wants to race, for instance. The same is true for yoga.

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