Yoga as an Olympic Sport?
"We would accomplish many more things if we did not think of them as impossible." ~ Vince Lombardi
YogaWorks’ Facebook page recently posted this: “The great debate: are you FOR or AGAINST yoga as an Olympic Sport?”
A question that has been making the rounds and stimulating a heavily one sided argument against the notion, I dare to approach it rhetorically and ask: “Why are we so afraid of sharing yoga? Your practice is your practice – if one sees yoga as a sport, why are so many others opposed to encouraging this point of view?”
Yoga as an Olympic sport is an interesting topic for me. While it was easy for me to vote ‘for’ it by posting a link to a MindBodyGreen article I wrote about this topic back in June, I found many of the comments on the YogaWorks’ page to be reactive. The majority were of the anti- party and gave reasons that included: yoga as an Olympic sport would go against the philosophy of yoga, yoga is a lifestyle, and yoga is not gymnastics. A couple even referred to the long running regional, national and global Asana championships as Bikram Yoga competitions.
Joseph Encinia, 2011 International Asana Yoga Champion says, “Promoting yoga as a sport will get more people involved… We’re changing the nature of sport, and making sport something that is: more uplifting, that’s about the individual, and that promotes health.”
An extension of my previous article, I’d like to draw on my observations from the YogaWorks conversation, and continue the discussion.
BASIS OF THE DEBATE
For those who practice yoga, we understand it as a very personal practice. A thread that unites the mind, with the body, and spirit, its benefits are numerous and include greater awareness, renewed vitality, and increased levels of focus.
A practice that has existed in India for 5,000 years and engrained into its culture, yoga has influenced Western lifestyles for over 40 years. Hatha Yoga was created in 15th century and is the most popular form of yoga in the Western world. On the flip side, while yoga competitions originated in India some 2000 years ago with the aim to demonstrate the practice’s life enhancing benefits and encourage others to take up the practice through Asana (postures) and Pranayama (breath), the Western world resists such a display.
PHILOSOPHIES of YOGA & OLYMPICS, ALIGNED
One of the oldest holistic health systems, yoga’s aim is to yoke the physical, mental, and spiritual states. The Yoga school of Hindu philosophy draws upon Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras as its foundational text. Made up of 196 verses, it outlines the techniques for achieving concentration through application of a yoga practice. At the heart of the text, Patanjali describes how Yoga constitutes 8 limbs:
Yamas - morals; Niyamas - observances; Asanas - postures, Pranayama -breathing, Pratyahara - control of senses, Dharana - inner awareness, Dhyana - devotion, Samadhi - union with Divine.
While all these 8 limbs are individual and personal, asana is the most exercised, and most exhibitive, limb. Hand in hand with pranayama, postures are a way to showcase control, grace, and ease in movement. Through concentration, will, and mindfulness, asanas display the sport of yoga.
Modern Olympics Movement
In parallel, albeit in the late 19th C, Pierre de Coubertin promoted the Modern Olympics Game Movement. He saw it as a way to draw together sport, culture, and education, with aim of creating a harmonious balance with body, will, and mind.
In much the same vein as the Yoga Sutras, Coubertin’s philosophy of the Olympics is based upon a universal set of values:
Respect – fair play; knowing one’s own limits; and taking care of one’s health and the environment. (Yamas and Niyamas)
Excellence – how to give the best of oneself, on the field of play or in life; taking part; and progressing according to one’s own objectives. (Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara)
Friendship – how, through sport, to understand each other despite any differences. (Yamas and Niyamas)
For a sport to make it to the Olympic Games, it must be competitive. Observing the limb Pratyahara - which means control of senses, and detaching from external sources - yoga encourages healthy competition; a means of intrinsic empowerment through the constant will to better one’s self.
The Games are a way to unite and encourage the world through admirable sportsmanship. Yoga should be given the chance to educate and inspire the world too.
YOGA and GYMNASTICS
It is true that yoga and gymnastics are two completely different sports. Whereas gymnastics focuses on momentum, yoga concentrates on holding a pose for a period of time while cultivating the breath.
Raj Bhavsar, gymnastics bronze medalist at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, defines two huge differences between the sports: in yoga, one is grounded; in gymnastics, athletes must perform mid air skills, and participate on 6 different apparatus. He says, “Yoga belongs up there as a sport. I understand how there could be a correlation between the two given the balance, flexibility, and strength required, but all sports rely on that. I attended a yoga competition over a year ago - seeing the physique of the athletes and watching them perform routines under pressure are what pushed me over the edge that this is a sport 100%. The essence of sport is a dedication to training, showing up to perform, combined with a certain level of mental readiness: I checklisted these three things with yoga.”
In response to the finite career of a gymnast versus the lifelong pursuit of yoga, Bhavsar goes on to say, “For me, yoga is like your morning orange juice. Older athletes are limited in how much they can compete. But with yoga, the more you do, the healthier you become. Yoga is timeless. Anyone can do it, and that’s what’s so beautiful about it.”
USAYOGA and INTERNATIONAL YOGA FEDERATION
In order for yoga to qualify as an Olympic Sport, 75 countries are required to be voted in by the Olympic committee. Currently, over 20 countries run competitions. The group behind running regional and national competitions in America is USAYoga, a non profit organization founded by Rajashree Choudhury, a former yoga champion in India. USA Yoga was formed with the goal of joining with similar organizations in other countries to form an international yoga federation and to qualify Yoga Asana as an Olympic Sport.
“USA Yoga is developing educational programs, rules and regulations so that the necessary competitive skills can be understood and mastered by competitors, coaches, judges, administrators and yoga studio operators. Successful competitors will need to achieve mastery of physical strength, stamina, balance, flexibility, breath and concentration…These competitions are open to competitors from any yoga school or style and all are encouraged to participate. To borrow an ancient phrase, ‘the paths are many, the sport is one.’”
Federations have been set up around the world including Yoga Sports Association Australia (YSAA), Canadian Yoga Federation (CANYoga), and Chilean Sports Federation of Yoga.
The International Yoga Sports Federation (IYSF, iysf.org) seeks to be the international governing body; this past June it presented its 9th Annual International Yoga Asana Championship in the US. The 2012 female winner, Gloria Suen from Singapore, trained for months and was coached to deliver a 3 minute presentation of 7 Hatha Yoga Asanas.
“Winning the international championship was a great honor. However, the gold medal was really icing on the cake. I began practicing yoga about 4.5 years ago, and participating in the yoga championship has provided me a goal and platform for changing my body, my postures, and my mind. During my tour this year, I hope to inspire more people to take part in the championship. I started doing yoga at age 31, and just turned 36. It's never too late to start!”
I couldn’t have written a more inspiring testimonial than that.
So what do YOU think?