Op Ed

The Sin of Competitive Yoga

Oh hey. Competitive yoga, you say? Well, that’s a bizarre bastardization of everything yoga is supposed to be about, isn’t it? Well that depends who you ask and, perhaps even more broadly, how you define the terms.

First maybe, a little context, for those who are totally unfamiliar with the idea. When I talk about yoga competition, I’m talking specifically about the Bishnu Charan Ghosh Cup and the events that lead up to it. The structure of the Ghosh Cup is simple. Competitors have three minutes to perform seven asanas (five mandatory and two optional) and are scored on correct form and grace. At this point in its development, the Ghosh Cup has regional and national events all over the world and, at the regional level, a wide variety of levels and ages have representation and are encouraged to participate. As the events get larger, the caliber of performance increases, and at the international level, it really is stunning. The level of discipline and dedication on display is awesome. Every time I watch the internationals, my mind is blown and I can’t wait to get back into the hot room and do some more yoga. It’s incredibly inspiring.

Rajashree in Standing Head to Knee, forehead touching the knee, excellent form.
Excellent form: Both knees locked, wrists staight, toes back, forehead touching the knee.

Yoga competitions occur all over the world, but this is the one I’m most familiar with. It was started by Bikram Choudhury, creator of Bikram Hot Yoga, and his wife Rajashree. As youth in India, they both competed in national events, both winning titles multiple years running. (The myth around Bikram is that B.K.S. Lyengar saw Bikram perform as a youth at one of these competitions and said he could die happy having witnessed asana performed perfectly. I doubt this is true but it is one of the many stories that serve to fuel the legend that surrounds the controversial figure.) From what I understand, Rajashree seeks to attract more people to yoga practice, but especially kids. What do kids love? Athletes. Heroes. People they are inspired by, and people they can aspire to be like. With this in mind, the Yoga Cup (as the Ghosh Cup is also referred to) was born. It is Bikram’s goal that one day yoga asana competition will make it into the Olympics, thus attracting the attention of millions of people the world over. Of course, should such a thing happen, it would likely attract a great many new students to his yoga. He’s nothing if not a savvy business man.

But the big question. Is it wrong? Does it miss the point? Well, I guess that depends on who you are more than anything else. Each of us brings an idea, or many ideas, to thinking about what yoga is (or anything for that matter. But let’s stay on topic!), many of which we may not be aware. What it means. What it does. What it’s supposed to do. The “supposed to” is really the tricky part, and the language surrounding yoga is rarely looked at with a critical eye, especially by its proponents. (Much of the language around yoga and used by yoga teachers, at least in my own limited experience, is rarely analyzed from a critical perspective. As a literary theorist, I have to say that this is the thing I find most irksome about being in a yoga community. That, and the propensity for hugging.) “Supposed to” lays out obligations and often those obligations start to reflect a certain kind of morality. Yoga isn’t the only thing guilty of this, but it’s a pretty easy fit when you start to relate it to things like body types (ie. fat shaming) and diet (ie. “eating clean” [as opposed to eating dirty? Come on!]). Like much moral reasoning, it can be pretty insidious about how it creeps in. Suddenly you’re “bad” at yoga because you don’t practice enough or because you practice the wrong yoga or you practice the wrong way or you like to do it competitively. And even in spite of the injunction made by many many yoga teachers that “all yoga is good yoga” it can be hard to keep this in mind when thinking about things that don’t fit into whatever paradigm of “good,” “correct” or “authentic” you use.

Suddenly you’re “bad” at yoga because you don’t practice enough or because you practice the wrong yoga or you practice the wrong way or you like to do it competitively.

Now, I know that not everyone interprets or values yoga the way I do. And that’s fair enough. But what really chaps my ass is when people say that yoga competition is blasphemy, that it’s against the roots of yoga, that it’s no longer authentic, or better yet, that Westerners (and this is often said by unironic Westerners) do not even practice authentic yoga to begin with. Don’t you just love the privileging of authenticity? That somewhere out there, at some point in time, there existed the “authentic” version of whatever watered down experience we are having today. It’s like a reversal of the idea of the progress of history. Haven’t we already dismantled this in many other contexts? You can substitute “authentic” with “real,” “right,” “true” or, my personal favourite, “pure.” Given that this so-called authentic practice cannot be pinned down in a meaningful way today (or, if we want to get more fully deconstructive, ever) then by what yardstick do we measure the validity of yoga competition? In the film Yoga, Inc., one of the interviewees, Trisha Lamb, says “the purpose of yoga is to develop self-awareness to the point of liberation.” One of my own teachers likes to say that all realization is self-realization, and what I would suggest about yoga competition is that it’s as valid a method or opportunity for realization as anything else. Will I experience Samadhi as a result of being on stage for three minutes? Probably not, but I’m okay with that.

Joseph Encinia in Standing Bow
Joseph Encinia (2011 World Champion)

Many of the proponents, especially in the Bikram world, suggest that it’s not about winning and that the competition is within yourself. This may be true on an ideal level, but even if a competitor’s motivations don’t truly align with that attitude, who am I to judge them? Before I competed for the first time, I had major doubts. Was this something I could do with a clear mind? With an open heart? Why would I do it? To win? To overcome a fear, a perceived limitation? What it came down to, that first time, was seeing whether or not I could get on stage and stand (with grace mind you), on one leg, with the other leg kicked out and my forehead touching the knee of the kicked out leg. Just to see. I was curious. And I fell. But I did it with a shit-eating grin on my face the whole time. And my life changed after that three minutes on stage. I realized that I am infinitely more capable than I had ever dreamed. And really, that’s what I was always seeking in my own yoga practice. A sense of possibility embodied in the here and now.

By dellbot

Shamelessly enjoys ramen noodles. And romangst.

21 replies on “The Sin of Competitive Yoga”

Yeah, mirrors can be a pretty divisive teaching tool. I personally like them because it helps me to connect at another level with what I’m feeling in my body and it gives me multiple angles from which to see my students. It has helped me to correct a number of imbalances in myself and others. That said, I know that some students struggle with it, even with meeting their own eyes in the mirror or they use it to check themselves (or others) out. So it’s a mixed blessing I suppose.

I can see how they can be helpful, but as someone who is naturally competitive and has trouble focusing, taking the mirrors out of picture changed the way I practice yoga in such a huge way.  I think the other thing is it naturally removes the people who need to stare at themselves in the mirror.

Yes, I don’t fully understand it myself. The language surrounding the whole thing needs a bit of an assessment I think. (Popular yoga in general actually.) It’s strange to think of achieving things in a yoga practice, but at the same time if I wasn’t achieving something than I probably wouldn’t keep doing it. Maybe what needs to be looked at is the question of extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation? Which would be interesting to see done without moralizing it.

I read that NYT article, and I thought it exaggerated the problem of yoga and injuries.  It states that emergency room injuries have increased significantly (from 14-20).  Considering how many people practice yoga 20 injuries/ year, isn’t that bad, especially when compared to other sports related injuries.  I do think that competitive attitudes during yoga can be a bad thing because it can undermine the whole “listen to your body” aspect of yoga.  I’m a very competitive person & I do yoga, so it is hard for me not to push myself to the next level when I see other people doing really cool things, but I try to pay attention to what my body is telling me and not go too far.  Keeping my eyes closed or going in the back of the room helps with this too!

For anyone that’s interested, here’s the NYT article:

I’d think you could fill in the blank with just about any sport or physical practice and “competitive attitudes about ________ could lead to more injuries” would always be a true statement.

Frankly, I’m far less worried about advanced students competing for a title in a sanctioned event than novice students feeling competitive with themselves or fellow students in a class setting. The silent “I want to look prettier in this pose than the person next to me” or the “hey teach, show us how to do this pose today because it looks so cool!” is more likely to lead to injury (not to mention contrary to the state of mind that an asana practice really strives to cultivate).

That’s a really interesting point. It’s most often the beginner students that injure themselves (in my experience anyway) and as a teacher I often remind students that the point isn’t the posture, it’s your body and your experience. Unfortunately it sometimes takes a lot of practice for that to sink in and by then a person might be so turned off, or already injured, that they don’t get the chance to internalize that attitude.

Will I experience Samadhi as a result of being on stage for three minutes? Probably not, but I’m okay with that.

I think this is an important point, and it gets at the even more crucial (in my mind) issue: let’s not confuse asana (the physical practice) and yoga. Let’s not call an asana competition a “yoga competition,” because there’s so much more to yoga than asana. You can gain a lot from an asana practice by itself, and you’re not “bad at yoga” if you don’t practice and study the yamas and niyamas. But just because you’re “good” at asana, that doesn’t mean you’re “good at yoga.” (My two cents? There’s no such thing as “good at yoga” or “bad at yoga.” It’s a practice.)

Bikram Choudhury has been so controversial, for so many reasons, for so long, and this very conversation about competition is (for good reason) often sparked by, or at least informed by, his personality and his brand. But I find the conversation somewhat exhausting; maybe I simply had too much of it during teacher training and lost my appetite. I’d love it if these conversations led more people to discover the other aspects of yoga besides asana, rather than always circling back to Bikram in some way.

But, dellbot, this was a thoughtful piece and I enjoyed reading it. And I think the only way to go through life or yoga is with a shit-eating grin on your face, so: well done.

Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I know what you mean about the exhausting aspect of the conversation. Even on a somewhat superficial level I get pretty tired of dealing with the looks/comments I receive for even bringing up the topic or topics related to Bikram, hot yoga, competition etc. So many people take either an aggressive viewpoint or a defensive stance and it can be hard to get past the initial entry points to talking about yoga practice. It absolutely thrills me when students ask for reading suggestions! (Which are not limited to Bikram’s books. If anything I most often send people to read Iyengar, he’s such an incredible writer.)

“It’s just a practice.” And that’s the key point. It’s very problematic for me when it gets tied up with being good or bad at yoga. And though I think that “asana competition” would be a more accurate label than “yoga competition” I do think that a lot more happens in asana practice then conventional wisdom would suggest, though this might be more a product of having a consistent disciplined practice than the asanas themselves. I can’t say for sure! I think too that it’s worth keeping in mind when talking about what is and isn’t yoga that yoga developed in a radically different society/world than what exists today and what is effective now (even, for example, as far as experiencing Samadhi) might be significantly different than what it was then.

It just seems to me that if you are doing Yoga because you like it, and you also like competition, then you should be able to express that.

Also, just because some people like to compete at yoga doesn’t mean that everybody else is suddenly held to those standards.

Also, just because some people like to compete at yoga doesn’t mean that everybody else is suddenly held to those standards.
Depending on where you are in yoga culture, it can feel like that’s exactly what’s happening, though. All the publicity does seem to wind up the competitive urge in a lot of people. When yoga is stressful, there might be something wrong.

I’m no expert, or even a good yogi.

While it’s not at all my cup of tea, I don’t think there’s anything inherently bad about competing in yoga. What I object to is the air of competition being brought into practices that are completely removed from the competitive world. I feel like there would be a great deal of benefit in more studios and instructors coming down harder on any one-upmanship in their midst. I find it’s hit or miss with non-beginner classes. You don’t know whether you’re stepping into an oasis or a world of striving.

I agree that yoga shouldn’t be stressful in the sense that you shouldn’t finish your practice feeling like an asshat or a loser, but I also believe that a challenging environment is an excellent place to learn peace of mind. Life is stressful, you can’t just burn some candles and play some soft music and chill out when you’re in traffic or at work. But if you learn how to deal with stress while you stress than maybe you are better equipped for day to day living.

That said, if going to a particular studio or practicing a particular practice makes a student feel disempowered than there’s probably something not right in those circumstances.

I think at the end of the day yoga is about whatever standards you hold yourself to, but what becomes problematic is when people aren’t even really aware of those standards or what motivates them. Ideally those things become revealed through practice but it I imagine under the wrong teachers it could become very difficult to experience. The blind leading the blind so to speak.

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