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.
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.
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.