Yoga is Olympics-bound. Move over, Savasana experts, and give a round of applause for our competitors from the New York City Yoga Asana Competition of 2012.
Years of training behind them, competitors bow to the judges with Namaste hands and perform their routines: five compulsory poses, and two additional poses of their own choosing, as they compete for the title of champion. Medals are handed out: gold, silver, bronze. Group hugs, tears and congratulations, a group photo for the press. Ah yes, competition is alive and well in the wonderful world of … yoga?
Gymnasts and dancers can do it. Circle de Soleil performers can do it. Youngsters who compete at the Juniors can do it. Adults who train 3-5 hours each day can do it.
If Yoga Asana Competition becomes an Olympic sport, will it – as the U.S. Yoga Federation hopes – inspire people to do yoga?
It seems so unyogic that these yoga athletes are being judged based on straight knees, balance, how perfectly they perform each pose, and on that special quality that catches the judges’ attention. At least they don’t make them smile like gymnasts must at times; a seriousness pervades these performances by skinny women in leotards, and wiry men in shorts, their intercostals rippling and – gulp – impressive.
Rajashree Choudhury, wife of Bikram and winner of many yoga competitions, is the founder of the United States Yoga Federation, which has spearheaded the effort for a yoga Olympics. Choudhury and fans believe that yoga raised to the Olympic level will heighten public awareness of yoga’s benefits for strength, flexibility and discipline, and inspire people to take up yoga.
I don’t believe that will happen. To the serious yoga practitioner, it can be inspiring to see what one might do with rigorous Olympic-style yoga training. But will yogis get injured pursuing that elusive perfect pose?
And what about all the non-yogis watching the yoga Olympics? I believe that the great majority will be more convinced than ever that they can’t do yoga. While yoga “performances” have always been part of the yoga tradition in many Indian yoga schools – a graduation of sorts – the competitive nature of the Olympics runs counter to what yoga is and can be. In yoga, we encourage an atmosphere of non-judgment, non-competitiveness, adaptation, introspection and self-acceptance; this is precisely what makes yoga so empowering, NOT the physical prowess required to hold handstand or Peacock pose.
People watching these competitions won’t know that yoga is a way of life. That it is a roadmap for having a healthy body, but also a non-judgmental mind, a serene Weltanshauung, and a way to find insight or personal transformation. If all they see is the yoga Olympics, viewers won’t know any of this … and I doubt that seeing the physical poses performed so perfectly will help them realize that they should get themselves to a yoga class for their stress, or their aching backs, or their vulnerable hearts and souls. In fact, I think competitive yoga is likely to have the opposite effect, convincing viewers that they can’t – or shouldn’t – do yoga.
Will yoga inspire generations of young yogis? Possibly. But is this the message we want our young yogis to absorb, that they can train, and be judged, and maybe, just maybe, beat out everyone else and win that gold medal? Or that they can train, and be judged, and never be good enough?
Don’t we have enough competitive sports at the Olympics?
Of course competitive sports may inspire people to be more fit, to join a team, to embrace wellness. They can lead to rock star status for the rare super-athlete whose story can inspire … and to plenty of injuries, emotional problems, sacrifice and heartbreak for the many others whose stories we never see.
Or, the ultimate insult to yoga and those hard-training yogis: will people find these routines … um … boring?
Is this what we want them to do to our precious, non-competitive, yoga-meets-you-where-you-are, yoga-for-the-rest-of-us yoga?
I know where I stand on this issue. What about you?