August 10, 2012

Yoga as an Olympic Sport? ~ Alejandra Campos

The Olympic games are on every newspaper cover in the world these days.

The photo of Coach K doing some yoga before training with the U.S. men’s basketball team and many athletes talking about how yoga help them in their disciplines got me thinking. Maybe it’s a good moment to talk about the idea of making yoga an Olympic sport.

The Olympics is about sports. By definition, sports are related to competition. By definition, yoga is the opposite. At least at first sight.

Around 100 years ago, S. T. Krishnamacharya had a Yogashala (yoga school) in the Jaganmohan Palace, Mysore, India. It’s in that place where the foundations of yoga, as we know it today, were placed. Patabhi Jois, B.K.S. Iyengar, Indra Devi and T.K.V. Desikachar, among others, were students there.

As Iyengar tells in his books, the maharaja (king) of Mysore (who also practiced yoga), constantly asked Krishnamacharya and his students to perform asanas and other demonstrations in front of political guests to stimulate popular interest in yoga.

I don’t know which were the qualities that Krishnamacharya were looking for in his students but I know that he selected the ones with better practice to do this performances in front of the guests. B.K.S. Iyengar (who had really bad health) tells that Krishnamacharya chosen him to perform, only after one of his dearest students suddenly left the shala.

The important thing behind this is that even in that time, yoga had a competition/demonstration component. If we see how yoga is today recognized all over the world, maybe that competition and the “selling-show” wasn’t a negative thing at all.

Beside the polemics of the subject it would be intriguing to see what would happen if yoga turns into a new “sport” for the Olympic association.

If we ask people about it, I imagine the the first reaction would probably be something like, “Yoga is about spiritual expansion, asanas were not “created” to be judged, yoga is not about competition, you can’t see the spiritual state of a person by just looking at their body and so on.”

Yoga today is not too far away from hundred years ago. We have exams to become yoga instructors, among other things. We have to perform different asanas in front of more experienced teachers to show the quality of our practice. We also have different tournaments organized all over the world.

Part of me thinks it’s obvious that yoga is not a sport.

But then, another part of me can’t stop thinking that it’s not a sport just because we have some concepts deeply ingrained in our minds. Those concepts are creating divisions, for example, between sports and other practices. In my experience, the real understanding begins when those limits are broken. Everything is united, as yoga says.

On the other hand, if we keep saying that yoga is not a sport, are we just saying that because behind yoga there is a deep philosophy that is telling us how to create harmony between our body, mind and soul? Or are we saying it is not a sport, because of the morals and ethics involved and also because the final goal of yoga is samadhi—enlightenment—and not just physical control?

We know that every sport requires discipline. Behind that discipline there is usually a big philosophy component. We can see it in the behavior of some athletes. Sometimes it’s not about a competition against opponents, but against themselves. For me, there’s a lot of yoga in that. In that case, there is no arbitrator capable to judge it.

So, what do you think?

The idea of yoga as an Olympic sport has been around for a few years now. Who knows? Maybe in four years all of us will be sitting in front of the T.V. to see how an athlete executes chaturanga, sirsasana or vrischikasana.

I believe that it would be good for the yoga community.

I believe it would be good not just because of the promotional issue, but because just the idea of yoga as a sport makes you wonder about the limits between one and the other, about your own conception of yoga of what yoga is, about why you’re practicing and many other questions that makes the journey through our mental concepts deeper.


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Alejandra Campos is a yoga practitioner/instructor, a writer and -in these moments- a traveler. Moving around different countries following her heart, she is learning a lot about life, languages, fear, hope, joy, trust, love, communication and being yourself. In resume, she’s learning how to live. You can read about her experiences in alecampos.posterous.com or, find her on twitter here.



Editor: Carolyn Gilligan


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PJay Nov 16, 2012 5:47pm

I am, actually. I wish I wasn't, and I practice being non-judgmental, so perhaps some day I can overcome that… unless we change the purpose of Yoga to a competition for judgement and continue to propagate yoga in that direction.

PJay Nov 16, 2012 4:34pm

Interesting evolution you paint.
"We have exams to become yoga instructors, among other things." Weird, I never had an exam becoming a yoga instructor. Rather, I practiced for 12 years and had a mentor guide me, never once requiring an exam. Could you refresh my memory? how long ago did "Yoga Certification" start? how long ago did Yoga start? Big gap of time, eh? Do you think "Yoga Teacher Training Tests" have been around for a while? I think the onset of Yoga Alliance has you fooled into thinking it's a regulated industry. I'm pretty sure Yoga has successfully been handed down from generation to generation without "Yoga alliance required exams"

"We have to perform different asanas in front of more experienced teachers to show the quality of our practice." I couldn't imagine a more judgmental environment. No, I've never "performed" an asana for my instructor, he simply would never allow the judgement.

"We also have different tournaments organized all over the world." Oh, you're Bikram. Ok, I get it. Scratch all that silly stuff I said…

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