Yoga and competition is oxymoron to some, celebration to others. It is an unusual partnering where, more than other sports competitions, the notions of aparigraha and ahimsa appear at constant odds.
I am following a friend of mine who is a keen competitor in yoga. What? Yes lah, yoga competitions are as old as yoga itself (about 2,000 years).
The original yoga competitions were not just about the asanas (poses). There was Pranayama, Pratyhara, Meditation, Santosha, Maitri, Karuna, Jnana, all the yoga angas. Every day, a yoga competition is held somewhere in India (so says the International Yoga Sports Federation – IYSF). And as a competitive sport, it has a very low cost to set up – you need a space, some time, not even a mat. And someone to enforce the standards.
Like all competitions, they start with a desire to do good – lift the standard, spread the word. Inevitably, and probably because of it, the ego kicks in. And so are the Days of our Lives…
Yoga sports competition is global and there are now multiple federations vying for the title of ‘world’ federation (just like the MMA).
IYSF was set up in 1898 in Montevideo, Uruguay with HQ being the Yoga Federation of India. Really interested in this start, but no one is talking. Affiliations in Asia, USA, South America and Europe. The first president was MS Vishwanath disciple and nephew of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (impressive yogi pedigree).
Another wannabe global federation is the Asian Yoga Federation (AYF) set up in 1990 – with affiliations in Hongkong, Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Singapore, Vietnam, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
Father of World Yoga Championships and International Yoga Sports Movement: Dharmachari Swami Maitreyananda (aka Fernando Estévez-Griego) who organised 30 world yoga championships, 40 International Yoga Championships and 40 International Yoga Asanas Championships. Maitreyananda is considered the major creator of artistic and rhythmic yoga, much of what we see now in our vinyasa and flow yoga type classes.
In July this year, the 7th annual AYF Championship was held at Kallang, Singapore. My friend competed, didn’t place, but learnt a lot about how to compete in yoga. He didn’t practice yoga for a month after the event, he couldn’t face it.
One event caught my eye, though, Asian Professional Yogasana – open only to Yoga teachers. All ages, wear tight brightly coloured clothing (true quote). 15 seconds in each pose. Watched people in the competition poses. Crossed it off my list for this lifetime.
It seems to me that when the ego and its unnatural habit energies of greed and envy activate, competition becomes a sharp instrument of destruction.
Yoga sports federations have their fair share of scandals, even yoga is not immune to these. Quite the reverse, if there is a scandal it is of such a scale and scope that had it happened in any sport (except soccer) an overhaul would be immediate.
Rajashree Choudhury is the head of the USA Yoga (IYF affiliation). She was married to Bikram, the man who founded that famous hot yoga. She was as instrumental in its success as a franchise as he was. They made a mint over the years, and often worked together on teacher trainings.
Was married being the operative phrase. In 2016, she divorced him amidst a flurry of lawsuits and public condemnation of his behaviour as a sleazy yogi. Bikram lost the right to his named yoga, all assets belonging to the Bikram corporation given to the advisor, a woman, investigating the allegations of sexual misconduct who was sacked for providing evidence of the obvious (see previous comment around sleazy). The saga continues: debt collectors turning up to Bikram mansions, finding them empty, all the famous cars gone, bank accounts strangely empty, too. Rajashree suffers voice loss on what has happened. And yet is considered fit enough to take the role of President of USA Yoga. In a publicly listed company, she would be struck off the list, never to be placed on any boards ever again.
Ego seems to be OK for those in power in yoga, it would appear. And not strangely, competition is always close by.
Bettering oneself through yoga is a subjective journey, but probably best travelled without swords, such are the sharp edges of competition to our soul. Yoga competitions do discredit its original purpose, placing yoga in the realm of gladiatorial arenas – not a safe setting for personal evolution. It would seem more in line with the 8 limbs to pick up the tools of acceptance and compassion than that of comparison for your spiritual travels.
Competition: The activity or condition of striving to gain or win something by defeating or establishing superiority over others – Oxford Dictionary.