“Be gentle. See the same spirit in everything. That is unity in diversity. That is Yoga.” ~ Swami Satchidananda
Overcoming illness, injuries, and anxiety through the healing power of yoga are just some of the reasons why its science has surged in popularity in the West. With roots planted in India some 5,000 years ago, yoga has transcended time and place. It has diversified, been adapted by different cultures and multiple generations as a holistic system for optimum health.
Yoga championships started in India 2,000 years ago, making them a significant part of yoga’s history. Championships played an important role in demonstrating yoga’s life renewing benefits; the concept of competition in India, even today, focuses on internal will and determination.
Rajashree Choudhury, an Indian yoga champion in her youth and founder of the International Yoga Sports Association (IYSF) and USA Yoga (both nonprofit organizations which aim to develop Yoga Asana as an Olympic sport), holds true to this cultural way of thinking,
“When you practice you strive to be better. To get the most means you have to challenge yourself, which means competition. Yoga competition means healthy competition. And if you lose that empowered feeling of the challenge, then you’re not getting more from life. The life is there, but the energy is missing.”
Motivated by the practices of older students, Rajashree won consecutive championship titles. This led to further studies in yoga therapy; by 19 she’d achieved a Bachelor’s degree from the Yoga Training Institute. Dedicated to serving through yoga, she explained, “I would not be involved in yoga if I didn’t do competition.”
Rajashree is inspired to share yoga in the way she grew up with it and has been running international and national championships for over a decade in the West. Today, it’s heartening to know that yoga practitioners turned yoga athletes have not only improved their health, in part due to the motivation of championships, but are traveling the world too, serving the community through yoga. This is what yoga is all about-enhancing a way of life.
Yoga Sutras and Hatha Yoga
“Asanas keep the body healthy and strong and in harmony with nature. Finally the yogi becomes free of body consciousness. He conquers and renders it a fit vehicle for the soul.” ~ BKS Iyengar, Light on Yoga
Early yoga teachings were transmitted by word of mouth, from teacher to student. Around 200 AD, the ancient sage Patanjali brought together all these ideas to create a foundational text for yoga. It lists 196 verses that outline the classical understanding of the mind.
At the heart of this text, Patanjali defines the eight limbs of yoga.
The first two limbs, yamas and niyamas, describe morals and observances, which form the basis of any yoga practice.
The next two limbs, asana and pranayama (postures and breath) are the foundation to Hatha yoga. This is the physical practice with roots in 5-8C A.D. The most popular form of yoga in the West, its technique is based on enlivening every posture with the breath.
The final four limbs dratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi (external non attachment, concentration, meditation, universal spirit) are individual and describe the inner workings of a yogi.
Asana is the stepping stone in rendering the body fit for meditation. The physical body is the necessary vehicle required to start an Asana practice. It too functions as the exhibitive limb.
To reinforce this notion, earlier this year, in a letter with reference to the All Indian National Yoga Championship run by the IYSF, B.K.S Iyengar wrote:
“Out of the eight petals (limbs) of yoga, the only petal that is exhibitive is the yoga-asana-s where as the otherpetals are very individual and personal. As such there is nothing wrong inholding a competition on the qualitative presentation of the yoga-asana-s… Thepresentation must be very natural with innocence and humility rather than prideand arrogance. Then I consider such competitions as healthy. It should becompetition on the artistic level and not on egoistic body cult.”
U.S. native, Joseph Encinia, has participated in yoga championships for seven years; he stands by the words of Hatha yoga pradipika, “Constant practice alone is the secret of success.” Throughout his childhood, Joseph suffered rheumatoid arthritis, endured knee surgery, had a heart attack at 15, and was 50 pounds overweight. Unable to compete in other sports as a child, an introduction to yoga in his teens reinstated his good health. He was fueled with the determination and enthusiasm to better his mind and body. In 2011, Joseph finally claimed the World Champion title, and in paying it forward travels far and wide, helping others move closer towards self realization. Joseph has said,
“To be a yoga champion and to be a good yogi, it takes the same thing: dedication, hard work, and discipline. Seven years ago I was a whole different person; now I am helping to push the evolution of sport. That’s cool to share.”
Yoga Sutras and The Olympic Movement
“Yoga without moral foundation is an impossibility… I believe that moral foundations are what is lacking in most of our lives.” ~ Georg Feuerstein
Yamas and niyamas of the yoga sutras mold the foundation of any yoga practice–without their understanding, a yoga practice cannot flourish.
Yamas include: ahimsa (compassion), satya (truth), asteya (not stealing), brahmacharya (self-restraint), aparigraha (free from hoarding).
Niyamas include: saucha (purity), santosa (contentment), tapas (burning desire), svadhyaya (self study), Iivara pranidhana (celebration of the spiritual).
By participating in a globally recognized, celebrated community event, the observances and moral code of yoga will inevitably be emphasized. Sharing yoga with the world via an Olympic platform will drive positive awareness to it; it will mean encouraging others in their practices, and it will enable yoga to be better understood across the world. So reads the Olympic motto:
The important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.
The founder of the Olympic Games, Pierre de Coubertin, laid down a philosophy of drawing together sport, culture, and education with the aim of creating a harmonious balance between body, will, and mind. This not only aligns with the definition of yoga, to yoke the mind, body and spirit, but speaks to the yamas and niyamas of the yoga sutras. Akin to a rule book for the individual and society to function in harmony, the first two limbs of the yoga sutras align with the universal values set for the Olympic Games:
Respect—fair play, knowing one’s limit, taking care of health and the environment; Excellence—giving one’s best, taking part, progressing according to one’s own objectives; Friendship – understanding one another despite differences.
As Joseph reiterates, introducing yoga to the Olympics
“will change the nature of sports. One day, kids will look up to yogis as their athletic role models. They will understand that the sport of Asana is promoting health & well being, and not violence & aggression.”
Yoga as a Sport
“Yoga is like an ancient river with countless rapids, eddies, loops, tributaries, and backwaters, extending over a vast, colourful terrain of many different habitats. So, when we speak of Yoga, we speak of a multitude of paths and orientations with contrasting theoretical frameworks and occasionally incompatible goals.” ~ Georg Feuerstein, Yoga Journal, 1990
The beauty of yoga is that no matter what style is practiced, the goal is to connect with one’s true nature through stillness. The path taken to achieve this goal, whether as a yoga athlete or by way of a weekly Hatha yoga practice, is the choice one makes to get closer to their own spirit.
Just as yoga evolves over time, so too may the practitioner’s path twist and turn over the course of their practice. To judge one yogi against another, whether they view yoga as a sport or not, isn’t fair. What is fair is a review of the yoga sutras, and/or a reassessment of the judging practitioner’s grasp of the yamas and niyamas. That is, honoring that these morals and observances take on a universal meaning, rather than something isolated and individualized.
Should one see yoga asana as a part of the Olympic Games to better manifest the foundation for yoga, so be it. There’s comfort in the knowing that your practice is your practice. We’re all united in a yogic way of being; yoga doesn’t exclude.
Just as the ancient saying goes, the paths are many, the sport is one, the long running yoga competitions through USA Yoga and IYSF encourage competitors from any yoga school or style to participate. In terms of raising awareness in the West in qualifying yoga asana as a sport in the Olympic Games, Rajashree acknowledges the road ahead with optimism,
“Now is the time as we can see that yoga is a celebration of the way of life… People love sports. Sports bring communities together; sports bring the spirit…Come and watch a yoga competition if you have your doubts.”
Currently, Australia is gearing up for their regional championships, starting in Sydney on Sept 2 (ysaa.com.au). In the US, the PA/NJ regional championships will take place in Philadelphia on Sept 30th (www.usayoga.org).
Marina Chetner is a writer, hot yogi, and passionate world traveler. She writes about all things travel inspired on her eponymous blog, marinachetner.com,and Bikram yoga related on bikramyogamusings.com. At the moment, her favourite asana is Floor Bow because it is such a challenge, she can’t get enough of green juice, and Tokyo is at the top of her travel ‘to do’ list. You can follow her on the aforementioned blogs, or via Twitter: @mchetner.
Editor: Sarah Winner