Commentary: Is Yoga A Competition or Personal Journey?

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Southtown Yoga Loft session. Photo courtesy of Raven Red Photgraphy.

Southtown Yoga Loft session. Photo courtesy of Raven Red Photography

While I am both thrilled and fascinated by the multitude and variety of conferences and events that San Antonio is playing host to, I am not impressed at the idea of bringing a yoga competition to this city we call home. Today, The USA Yoga Federation (USA Yoga) is hosting the second of three days of its National USA Yoga Asana Championship at the Aztec Theatre. I support yoga as a physical practice that aids in benefitting the mind, body and spirit, but I personally do not support it as an ambitious sport or spectacle.

[Read More: San Antonio’s Sochi: Yoga Asanas Take Center Stage at National Competition]

Southtown Yoga Loft session. Photo courtesy of Raven Red Photgraphy.

Southtown Yoga Loft session. Photo courtesy of Raven Red Photography

 

Yoga isn’t something to be judged, critiqued or praised. I say we leave that to the body-builders and beauty pageant contestants where egos thrive and pride pops out of bikini tops (and bottoms). Isn’t that what competitions are about? To determine who is the best of the best?

In fact, I believe it’s the complete opposite of all of this. Yoga is not about competition at all. Not about competing with others, or with oneself. We should all practice yoga to journey inside of ourselves, not look for metals or awards that simply convey our physical competencies. Mahatma Gandhi said, “It is health that is the real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver.”

As a yoga studio owner, I have a sincere passion for yoga. My aim is to share that with every single person who steps foot in our space and each one of our teachers shares in that same passion, that same goal. I’ve chosen purposely to not have mirrors in the studio because quite frankly, we spend all day judging ourselves and others. When we judge ourselves, we create stories in our minds that have a surefire tendency to manifest into reality.

The yoga studio should be a sacred space where individuals on different paths can all meet to practice and breathe through all the crap that fills our lives. One can really be by oneself, even if just for one hour. It is for every BODY.

Yoga is a term we are beginning to feel more comfortable with and a physical form of exercise we are seeing more and more of. It’s popping up in college classrooms, corporate break-rooms, neighborhood corner studios and quiet, candle-lit bedrooms.

What makes this practice unique? Just that. It’s a practice, something that is most effective when done routinely just like brushing our teeth. It’s a practice that, yes, without a doubt enhances and improves our physical well-being; but somewhere along the way, beyond the downward dogs and party poses (see: arm balances), something magical also happens if you’re lucky enough to catch it.

What is that magic and where does it exist?

Southtown Yoga Loft session. Photo courtesy of Raven Red Photgraphy.

Southtown Yoga Loft session. Photo courtesy of Raven Red Photography

It’s discovering who we really are as individuals. Beyond the clothes we wear, the brands we buy. Beyond the titles we possess and the roles we play day in and day out. The magic lies in slowly beginning to shine light on who we are and what our purpose is.

During my classes at Southtown Yoga Loft, I often use the analogy of an onion. The yoga practice serves as a tool to help us peel back the layers of our life that have caused turmoil, guilt, heartache, loss, anxiety, and more, until we get to the absolute core of our true, authentic spirit.
 As my own yoga practice developed, so did my craving to learn more about its philosophy and foundations.

Why is it that we move our bodies the way we do? Where does that mind-body connection come in? There had to be more to it.
On a much deeper level of yoga, beneath the stretches and melodic sounds of breath in a room full of students, there lies a garland of guidelines or rules to adhere to should one look to grow their level of understanding and knowledge of the practice. You can think of these as yoga’s 10 Commandments. These are known as the Eight Limbs of Yoga and when studied and practiced with attention and intention, they can really have a positive influence on your yoga practice and your life. After all, what we learn on the mat should be applied to real life outside our blissful, euphoric physical practice.

Within these Eight Limbs, we learn about non-harming to yourself and others; truthfulness; non-stealing; devoting yourself to your partner; cleanliness of home, cleanliness of mind; and more.

With this newly found vision, one is able to see a bit more clearly, taking time to observe and evaluate situations, and most importantly, let go of the small shit.

That is what ends up building up inside of us over time and causes stress and diseases of the physical body and of the mind. This is why we should practice yoga daily: to wring out our bodies, purifying them slowly, slowly.

Better indeed is knowledge than mechanical practice. Better than knowledge is meditation. But better still is surrender of attachment to results, because there follows immediate peace. — Bhagavad Gita

Yoga is for the weak, the strong, the student who is learning what it means to chant ‘Om’ and the student who puts his leg behind his head. That’s what makes it beautiful. It is my hope that yoga does not make it as an Olympic sport for this reason. It’s simply a show – void of its magic.

*Featured/top image: Southtown Yoga Loft session. Photo courtesy of Raven Red Photography.

*Originally published on  March 15.

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38 thoughts on “Commentary: Is Yoga A Competition or Personal Journey?

  1. I had a different take on this, actually, quite the opposite. My PhD is in Philosophy and Religion. I used a feminist-methodology in my thesis. In Post-Colonialist and Feminist analysis they talk about projecting an idealized image onto the “other.” Since Rajashree is a native of India, and yoga competition is a norm in India, I think all this outrage about competition is an example of projection.

    http://ainsliefaust.com/1/post/2014/03/bending-over-backwards-for-someone.html

  2. I began yoga and meditation almost 40 years ago. Today, I’m a yoga teacher who has practiced all eight limbs of yoga, to differing degrees, depending on the time in my life and what I most need. I’ve also spent a decent amount of time at ashrams in the U.S. and India.

    Yoga is a personal practice, and what’s right for one person is not necessarily what’s right for the next. I see competitive yoga, as it’s being done by the USA Yoga Federation of which I’m a part, as a beautiful way to share the myriad of health, physical, emotional and spiritual benefits of yoga. To watch the competitors is breathtaking and inspiring. We all (me included) tend to limit ourselves, and fear is one of our biggest hindrances.

    If you check out my blog post, you’ll see that the competition IS about much more than “pretzels.” Yoga can be life transforming, and it WAS for several of the top ranked competitors.

    http://thenamastecounsel.com/yoga-pretzels/

  3. Well, yoga is from India and they’ve been competing there for many…many……many…………. years.Soooooo………………..

  4. I invite you to come watch the event today to learn what is really happening …I think you will be quite surprised.

  5. While yoga is beneficial to ones heath, it can be detrimental if you execute a pose incorrectly. Yoga competition celebrates postures executed with proper alignment. And yes you can judge a great postures that has health benefits. For example, if you do a triangle pose incorrectly constantly, you’d possiblY hurt yourself, what’s the benefit there? Competitors execute poses that, not only look good, but are done properly. That’s how they are judge!

  6. I happen to disagree with this article. I’ve been practicing yoga and meditation for roughly 12 years now, and has participated in the National Yoga Asana Championships for the last 2 years. I do not see the same moral conflict as the writer of this article. What I do see, is that I myself was truly inspired to take my practice further after watching the competitions in 2012. I was amazed at what the body was able to do, what postures were supposed to look like, and how the demonstrator had such control and peace. I have competed twice at the national level and each time I viewed it as a competition within myself. I wanted to improve my postures from last year, I wanted my alignment to be more correct, and my nerves more under my control.
    Yoga as a sport, changes the way we should look at spots. It’s not competitive in the respect that “I’m gonna beat these people!” But rather “I’m going to do my best for me, and hopefully this attitude and demonstration will inspire someone one else to simply try yoga”. Nothing tests your ability to stay in the present moment as getting on a stage to show the world where you are in your personal practice.
    I also think it is frivolous to say yoga sport is the only type of yoga competition there is. As a yoga studio owner, I would imagine your goal is to have people attend your studio over the studio across town. That is another form of competition, unless of course, you are teaching free yoga on the street. I think the yoga community could do without such competitive sentiments as “your yoga” is more right than “my yoga”. Yoga is yoga. Yoga is the union of the body and mind, whether you are on a stage or in the comfort of your own studio. All yoga is beautiful, and all yoga is right.

  7. While it may seem counter intuitive at first, it’s a championship not a competition, and you have the opportunity to champion your love and expression of hatha yoga in front of an audience. So many postures are about conquering fear or just learning what it is that you are afraid of, and on the stage that is the ultimate goal, “What can I learn to let go of?” The object is yourself not simply the posture. Every champion you see on the stage can execute the postures with grace and mindfulness within their own practice, and once you step on the stage you have the opportunity to challenge yourself. How aware can you be with the lights on you? And just see what happens.

    This has been my first season in the yoga championships and I am doing this for myself and for other people like me. As a two time cancer survivor I want to share with the whole world just what saved my life. I truly believe yoga is the reason I am alive today. When you take a moment, think about why you have those gorgeous photos for your yoga studio? Why do you have photos in this editorial? To share the yoga. Most likely you didn’t have someone sneak into your practice with a camera and start taking photos. You wanted photos taken and why shouldn’t you? The goal is to spread yoga around the world and we are such a visual society, and who knows, one photo might inspire someone to meditate, to maybe begin a yoga practice. To me that isn’t any more or less enlightening than getting on stage and demonstrating hatha yoga.

    I hope that yoga asana championships continue to grow stronger throughout the world. I cannot wait to step on the stage again and while balancing in Standing Head To Knee think my mantra , “I love this yoga.”

  8. I have to disagree. This is where the western idea of both competition and yoga are misunderstood, giving yoga competitions a bad reputation.
    The true competition is within the individual, not among others. As a competitor, I know from experience it is not “look what I can do better than”, but more of a way to show what both the mind and body are capable of. It’s the battle of the mind that is the true competition: do you give up when you are tired? Do you practice on days you’d rather stay in bed? Do you allow the pressure to break you? If you fall, do you let that affect you? Do you allow others to define you as a ‘winner’ or ‘loser’?
    The article says yoga is a ‘physical exercise’ cropping up everywhere. That is western. Yoga is much more than that and Bikram yoga is hatha yoga in India. If you’re going to shame yoga competition, albeit it’s presence in India for hundreds of years, you should reconsider your definition of yoga. You say yourself yoga is non-judging. And so what exactly is this article’s purpose?

  9. Kristal, have you ever attended, observed, or participated in a yoga asana competition?

    Would you write a restaurant review before dining there, a book review without reading it?

    You say at the top of this piece that you’ve created your own yoga studio with the intention of providing an escape from our tendency to “spend all day judging ourselves and others.” But isn’t your disdain for yoga asana competition and its participants a snap judgment in its purest form?

    Maxims like “don’t knock it till you try it” and “don’t judge a book by its cover” strike me as appropriate replies to what you’ve written above. Of course we all tend to steer clear of people, foods, concepts, etc that are unfamiliar to us. It’s an instinctive reaction. But in modern life this old defense mechanism rarely justifies our uneducated opinions. In most cases it merely hampers us from broadening our range of experience and getting a taste of all the great diversity that this world has to offer. Usually these strange things turn out to be quite lovely once we’ve opened our minds and softened our hearts toward them.

    I’ve found many times over in my life that things I had a negative gut-reaction toward when first encountering/hearing of them turned out to be delightful when I let go of my preconceived notions and gave them a try. If I’d let resistance to new and strange things be my guide throughout life, I’d never have sipped green juice, ridden a roller coaster, kissed my Brazilian bride, read the Gita, tasted Ethiopian food, or even practiced yoga.

    At last year’s Florida regional asana championship in St. Augustine all the great benefits and magic of hatha yoga were, contrary to your theory, on full display when one particular competitor took the stage. A young girl whom most would consider quite obese came out in her leotard, bowed to the judges and began her routine. She grabbed her foot and kicked her leg out parallel to the floor and held it calmly with both knees locked out and steady, her big belly resting heavily on her thigh. Then she did a beautiful standing bow. Then she went to the floor and displayed her best bow, curled forward into her best rabbit, flattened out into her best stretching pose, demonstrating to the audience the flexibility of her spine and the strength and the lengthening of her muscles beneath the extra layers that she carried. And, moreover, with this simple 3-minute physical display she told an incredible and inspiring life story. We learned about someone brave enough to embrace change, willing to put in the hard work of a daily hatha yoga practice to improve herself, courageous and self-assured enough to take the stage alongside all the stereotypically skinny, bendy bodies that we usually see up there. Raw emotion took over everyone in that audience that day. I fought back tears without success, looked over at my wife openly crying. It was one of the most inspiring and joyfully emotional moments I’ve ever witnessed, and I will never forget its magic. She did not win any medals that day, but I imagine she walked away from the stage with a sense of fulfillment and pride, and I know all who were in attendance left that auditorium as better yogis, better people. Perhaps my description of that experience can’t really do it justice, but it was magical, I assure you.

    So why not take it easy on the “we don’t like yer kind ’round here”, the “this town ain’t big enough for the both of us” stuff you’re preaching above? Why not be welcoming to those who share your love and passion for yoga and who wish to share it with any and all others? Yoga’s fun, it feels good, it’s beautiful to watch. Why shouldn’t it be put on display for the good people of San Antonio to enjoy? The kids, the Seniors, and the top 10 men and women from around the U.S. all take the stage today. Can I buy you a ticket?

  10. Dear Kristal,

    While I agree with you that yoga is a personal journey, telling others that this form of yoga is not right is an opinion and is not necessarily every individual’s truth. As someone who participated in this year’s yoga championship, I would like to say that for me, the experience has been nothing but incredible. It has deepened my practice and my own self-journey in ways I could not have imagined. In these last few months of practicing my yoga as I trained for the championship, I have felt myself grow stronger, both mentally and physically. I have witnessed an increase in focus, as I discover more about myself and my practice. I have benefitted in mind, body, and spirit, both inside the yoga room, and out. Being up on that stage this weekend was no different: rather, it was an intensification of what I had been experiencing in my yoga all along.
    Just as you aim to share your yoga with others, performing in the championship for me was just that. It is not about winning or displaying a spectacle. In those three mintues I was on that stage, I learned a great deal about my mind and my body. Yet most of all, while I was up on that stage I was not only journeying deeper inside myself, but I was sharing my yoga with the world.
    If you do not wish to participate in a yoga championship, then by all means don’t, but please don’t try to take it away from people like me, who value you it and benefit from it. I am so happy to be doing these championships, so grateful for its effects on my practice and my life, and I look forward to doing it for years to come.

  11. I also have experienced yoga as a personal journey and primarily it is that. It is very much so for competitive yogis also, many of whom are also kind, supportive teachers of yoga and espouse that view of yogic practice. They have taken their personal practices to another level. There are some hypocritical aspects to your commentary: you say that yoga should not be spectacle and yet your photos accompanying the article are spectacle; you say it is not yogic to critique or judge and yet that is precisely what your piece does in a most unyogic manner. Namaste!

  12. I have been involved with Yoga Asana Sport as a competitor, coach and judge since the first competition ever in 2003. Rajashree Choudhury- President and 5 time yoga asana Champion brought this yoga asana sport to the US to provide healthy sport to the to youth, adult and now first time ever senior division. To say that yoga sport competition is an oxymoron can be looked at quite the opposite. Yoga asana Championships have been happening in India and Asia for decades. It provides a platform of inspiration, it promotes healthy lifestyle. It brings the complete best in each and very individual. The 3 minutes each yoga athlete has, provides a wonderful and powerful to share WHO they are. Yes, we judge the execution of the postures, however in yoga there is breath, stillness, control of the emotions. It is a competition against ONESELF and not ONE ANOTHER. It is a demonstration of their best. And by doing so encourages others to do so. This Yoga platform is a community coming together to celebrate health, yoga and joy for hatha yoga. Namaste.

  13. As a member and athlete for USA Yoga and one who has experienced the growth and union that yoga allows through competition, I find your article disrespectful to those seeking their journey as an individual. I experienced the competition through different times and challenges in life, including raising three children. Each time I have found that engaging in yoga asana for sport has uplifted and deepened my understanding to my body’s abilities, and I’m not just speaking of literal depth per pose. I say this because I have experienced it.
    What an impact yoga as an Olympic sport would have on the world. More yoga awareness to all the world could change the world. It would be a dream to see yoga as an Olympic sport.

  14. First of all, let me thank you for expressing your point of view, as it seems you’ve put a lot of thought into what you wanted to say. I love that you wrote this article because it allows us to have a dialogue on the topic, so I hope you left some room for yourself to be open to the understanding of another viewpoint.
    I’m wondering if you took the time to visit the competition or speak to any of the competitors? When we live in an ever increasingly dualistic society, can it be possible to truly embrace the idea of “union”, by not alienating one another in the yoga community, and by being conscious of the ways in which we try to confine or label yoga to suit our individual understanding of it. The fact that we are yogis should provide common ground enough to connect us.
    I am both a Bikram Yoga and Vinyasa Yoga instructor, practicing for 12 years and teaching for nearly 8 years. I am also a yoga competitor. As you put it, “Yoga is not about competition at all.” This is also true for me. Yoga is not ABOUT competition. However, each yogi’s path to self-realization is unique, and my preparation for competition, as well as my other practices, are always a personal journey within myself. I’m sure that each person on that stage can tell you the same, as I know of some incredible uplifting stories. I can also tell you that when I am on stage during competition, going through each of the 7 asanas, the aspect of moving meditation is clear to me, and my state of presence and awareness is highly acute in the moment.
    I ask this next question not to be confrontational, but in kindness and for the potential for your own introspection: Isn’t your judgement of the asana competition itself, and your sense of pridefulness regarding the way in which you run your studio a bit hypocritical if “yoga isn’t to be judged, critiqued, or praised”?
    If you’d ever like to discuss this more, please feel free to reach out to me, or any one of us.

  15. If you spend any time in the “real” world outside of this yoga practice we all love and dedicate ourselves to, you’ll find many stale opinions about yoga being nothing more than aggressive stretching, not a sport at all, wimpy, purely meditative, and other falsehoods. Any arena in which we can express ourselves should be encouraged. Just because you play basketball at the YMCA doesn’t mean you have to try out for the L.A. Lakers. And just because you practice yoga doesn’t mean you have to compete or demonstrate to crowds. I was impressed and inspired by my fellow competitors this weekend, all of whom are more talented and experienced than I. I’m not jealous or resentful of them. If we want yoga to be taken seriously by outsiders, we must demonstrate the power, grace and concentration that we have all EARNED through our blood, sweat and tears (many, many tears). If you are not or will never be capable of competing, it does not matter; the benefits of yoga will make anyone feel like a champion in their own life. Would you deny dancers an opportunity to compete? Martial artists? There’s room for all types of practice and beliefs. If you don’t like it, don’t buy a ticket.

  16. Krystal, Was it fate that we met today? You taught a beautiful class this morning and I thank you for the conversation afterwards. When I invited you to come to the Asana Championship you told me you wrote an article about it but you were not going to be there. I incorrectly assumed it was something you had first hand knowledge of. I am sorry you feel that way. Ben’s analogy about reviewing a restaurant without having tried the food is spot on. Championships are part of the yoga tradition in India.
    You are a lovely person and have a wonderful studio, perhaps someday you might consider taking a step out of your comfort zone. Till then I respectfully agree to disagree. Thank you for opening the discussion. See you on the mat somewhere……

  17. I acknowledge and honor each one of these personal opinions with an open heart and mind. I’ll admit, I’m happy this sparked a ubiquitous conversation of individual beliefs. I have close friends who practice different styles of yoga, the last of my intentions would be to offend or disrespect any one of them. I agree with Robert, there’s plenty of room for all types. We all have the right to voice what we feel… it doesn’t make one right or wrong. Ask anyone who truly knows me and they will tell you candidly, I have indeed stepped outside my comfort zone (I wouldn’t never tried Bikram Yoga or attempted to open a yoga studio). I love. That is all. For those who call me and our studio arrogant and proud based on this composition, consider this an open invitation to come down and visit – you will see for yourself that is not the nature of who I am or what our studio is about. To the gentleman who offered me a ticket to the competition, thank you. I decided to spend the afternoon practicing balance – some much needed qt with my little one at home. Namaste.

  18. Yoga competitions are a physical manifestation of the development of ones’ own personal yoga journey. To get on stage and demonstrate what you have accomplished through your own yoga experience is both a gift and an inspiration to others no matter what part of the journey that person is at the moment. The best part about a yoga competition is that you don’t have to demonstrate if you don’t want to. And if you choose not to display your practice on stage for others to witness, that is okay – no one will judge you. If that is, indeed, your stance on it – why not just sit back and enjoy the beauty that is yoga in the form of demonstration? Why knock those who are willing to put themselves and their practice out there for the sake of demonstration? The judging aspect of the competition is merely a way to make it exciting and enticing for human kind, because that is what we (as human beings) do in most forms of physical activity. If you do decide to come witness the demonstrations of yoga athletes on stage, you’ll find that at a yoga competition most of the athletes demonstrate a very high level of SPORTSMANSHIP as they are (for the most part) on a yoga journey that has taught them the discipline of non-attachment to results. Just have fun with it. Remember that your disdain for a yoga competition makes you the judgmental one, creating anxiety and displeasure within yourself.

  19. Yoga competitions are SO AWESOME!!!! I get so inspired! Seeing these incredible human specimens doing OM Poses, Handstand SCORPIONS, FULL STANDING BOW. I just think its incredible what we can do. I love Yoga Asana and the amazing potential of the human body. I have even been moved to tears with some of the demonstrations. I can’t understand how a YOGI wouldn’t be into this. But to each their own.

  20. Should yogis never demonstrate the physical manifestations, the asanas, of their practice?

    Daily yoga asana practice has transformed my life. It is my prayer that my participation in the asana championship inspires others to also practice. It was an incredible challenge to prepare my mind and body to make the statement in public “this is my asana practice and it is a reflection of the stillness and peace in my heart.” My intent was for my offering to be as perfect as my current practice allows.

  21. The 2014 yoga competition was inspirational. It allowed me to express my practice as it is today in a forum like nothing I’ve ever experienced. This was my first time competing and I have to say one of the best times of my life. I didn’t understand the concept of “yoga competition” either until I experienced it myself. Sharing time and space with so many like minded individuals, all who are at different skill levels, from such diverse backgrounds and with very individual goals provided perspectives that catapulted my understanding and excitement about the sport and possibilities of my own practice. In talking with other competitors, one summed it up best. It’s not about where you place against others, its a mile marker in your individual path. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in such a wonderful event.

  22. I’m curious if someone could make a similar correlation to yoga photography. It, like the competition, has the aim to showcase yoga to a larger audience. It can also glamorize what for some is a very internal, spiritual exercise. Just a little devil’s advocacy.

  23. Competition for me is not unlike my regular yoga class only amplified. You have the students / competitors , gather together to do their asana to the best of their ability and share it with fellow student, friends, family, and any one else that is interested or curious. There is a team of amazing gifted teachers / judges, that have a great understanding of yoga and the body, with years and years of experience watching you as you move threw your postures. The corrections and accolades comes in the form of a number instead of words. It’s a simple and effective way to look at your postures that can be improved on. The stage is just a obstacle in your mind body connection. At the end their is a amazing group of all ages to share the experience with. With so many paths inwards it’s not so much the one you take but that you are one that works for you.

    • Its simple…you said it yourself in the second paragraph…”Yoga isn’t something to be judged, critiqued or praised.” I believe its all Yoga and what you just did in this article was judge it, critique it, and probably should praise it because it does so much for so many people. Observe it and see the good it brings. Its actually very cool and inspiring. I will take one positive message from your article and that is that Yoga is a personal journey and no better way to display that for some people then by demonstrating in front of their peers. Thank You:)

  24. It appears most of the comments protesting your article are from the competitors themselves. Yet they are outsiders, not from San Antonio, saying “Look at me! Listen to me!” Inspiration and camaraderie within your community shine in other comments here and elsewhere on social media, people who love their own practice, and Southtown Yoga Loft, and you Kristal. Keen and thoughtful article.

  25. Really it’s Great article,
    I had never head of a “yoga competition”. It seems so oxymoron-ish! i also share this one with my best buddy’s.

    thanks for sharing… 🙂

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