With the Games going on in London at the moment, the question whether yoga should, or shouldn’t be an Olympic sport, has become a topical subject. The non-profit organization USA Yoga strongly advocates for yoga as an Olympic sport. However, I suspect that a lot of yoga practitioners will find this outrageous. “Yoga can’t possibly be a competitive sport, for it’s all about spiritual development!” they may argue.
As there’s a whole lot more to yoga than just physical exercises, I have to agree with those who think that yoga (in its broadest sense) can’t possibly be a competitive sport1. But a contest in perfoming asanas, why not?
Last April, friends of mine invited me to watch the “8th Annual European Yoga Asana Championship Holland” with them. This event was held in my hometown The Hague. Students from different Dutch Bikram Yoga schools took part in this contest. There were female and male participants, with ages ranging from 11 to 62 years. The winners of this contest went to the Bishnu Charan Gosh Cup 2012 (held in June in Los Angeles), to compete for the world title.
Each competitor had to perform a set of asanas (yoga postures) in three minutes. A number of these asanas were compulsory, and two asanas were of own choice. Judges looked for balance, strength, flexibility, well-paced timing and appropriate breathing in postures. The grace with which the asanas were performed was also judged. Furthermore, the judges took the constitution of the competitors into account2. This is only fair, as everybody has his/her own possibilities and limitations. Some people are supple by nature, others not.
Demonstration World Champion 2010
After the contest, Kasper van den Wijngaard (world champion 2010) gave a demonstration. It was very impressive to see him perform. He moved from asana to asana in a (seemingly) effortless flow. But it wasn’t even that that made his performance so impressive. His whole attitude of being completely in the here-and-now was simply amazing!
Below you can see a video of Kasper’s performance.
Kabir Samlal had the same aura of being totally at ease. Being only 11 years old, he was by far the youngest participant. You might think that he must be pushed by his parents, like it happens so often. But people in the audience who knew him, told me that this definitely wasn’t the case. They said Kabir was intrinsically motivated to participate. And now that I’ve seen the calmness and self-confidence with which he performed the asanas, I’m sure he truly was motivated by himself. By the way, Kabir went to Los Angeles to compete in the youth division.
Yoga and compitition: do they go together?
To be honest, I was quite sceptical beforehand. To me, yoga is all about inner development and not about trying to be better than others. But I decided to set aside my prejudices, and I must say that I really was impressed by the courage and sincerity of all the competitors. It would be unjust to say these people are only concerned with the outward appearance of yoga. They showed that perfoming yoga asana’s is an art. Every competitor gave the best of her-/himself. It was most inspiring to see them in action!
Everyone practises yoga according to his/her inclinations and abilities. Some prefer a gentle and meditative way of practising, others are drawn to a more active and vigorous approach. Likewise, there are people who have a strong urge to compete. Maybe it’s best for them to just take part in yoga asana competitions. Many of them will probably get more and more interested in the inner aspects of yoga after a while. The desire for competition will then naturally fade away.
Personally, I have absolutely no ambition to engage in yoga asana contests whatsoever. That said, I have the deepest respect for yogis who choose to take part in contests. It takes a lot of guts to get on stage and perform all those difficult asanas in front of an audience.
I believe everybody has to be free to practise yoga the way that suits them best. So to me, it’s OK if you want to compete in a yoga asana contest. That doesn’t make you any less a yogi.
To paraphrase a Chinese proverb:
“There are many paths to the top of the mountain, but the view is always the same.”
So what about performing yoga asanas as an olympic sport? Well, I guess that would be OK, especially if it would inspire more people to practise yoga.
If USA Yoga accomplishes its goal and yogi-athletes are going to perform at the 2016 Games in Rio, I’ll be watching for sure!
1 It should be noted that in respect of Olympic qualification, USA Yoga explicitly speaks of “yoga asana” and not just “yoga”. See http://www.usayoga.org.
2 See the complete rulebook for reference: http://ghoshcup.com/rulebook.