yoga in the news: “my samadhi is better than your samadhi”

photo: james erstin of the ny times

The NY Times asks: “Is the Spirit of Competition in the Soul of Yoga?” in this article. Like all great debates about yoga’s expansion into the western world, this one examines Bikram Choudhury’s strong push to make yoga competitions international events, even to get a bid for Olympic competition in the not-too-distant future.

This attempt is largely reviled by the yoga community. “It perpetuates the idea that yogis are lithe-bodied contortionists,” says Boston based yoga instructor Michael Alba in the article. Other teachers agree, the very idea of competition goes against what they are trying to create in their class: a non-competitive space in which one simply shows up and practices, not comparing oneself to what other yogis are able (or aren’t able) to do. Taking the spiritual, philosophical part of yoga out for mere competition means that yoga is no different than gymnastics, or breakdancing, or tennis, or anything else. In other words, yoga is not yoga when it’s used in this way.

Ever the devil’s advocate, I would be remiss if I didn’t say this: when I first arrived on my yoga mat for my very first “real” class, I came with the intention of taking the hardest, sweatiest, most gut-busting 90 minutes of yoga offered in the Bay Area. As a longtime athlete well-versed in the thrill of competition, this was the only kind of yoga I would participate in for many years. And if it wasn’t for my first yoga teacher (his name: Jaguar, of course) pushing me beyond what I thought were my physical limitations, I never would’ve attempted many of the poses that ultimately led to a higher state of yogic realization, a realization that transcends our human need to compete. Therein lies the double-edged sword. The yoga debate rages on!

Note: even if you are fundamentally against competitive yoga, watch the video. I was deeply inspired by this competitor’s beautiful practice. Maybe just a TAD envious. I’m only human.

Sidenote: a student and I were talking about this controversy and she brought up an excellent point. If asana can be practiced competitively, why can’t the other seven branches of yoga? Imagine an International Dharana Showdown, or a Pranayama Bonanza. Who will outlast to win the Pratyahara Championships by withdrawing their senses the longest? Madness I tell you.

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