Yoga is a very individual practice, with people practicing for the benefits of building strength and flexibility, de-stressing, mental clarity, or the amazing feeling afterward, or all of the above. But now a few talented yogis are looking to add one more benefit: winning a medal for your beautifully perfected postures.
Last weekend the USA Yoga Federation hosted the 10th Annual National Yoga Asana Championship in New York City, where more than 140 participants from 33 states were judged on their technical execution, level of difficulty, poise and composure, and grace of movement both into and out of their postures. Founded by Rajashree Choudhury (yes, she's married to Bikram), the Federation has been working for the past ten years to make yoga an Olympic sport.
This idea is so foreign to Westerners because, like the practice, it's rooted in India. Yoga competitions have been going on there for hundreds of years, Choudhury says, and are why she started practicing. "I started when I was 4 years old. Yoga gave me such a foundation of mental stability, understanding of physical health, and balance," she says. Because yoga was so helpful for her at a young age and led her to feel driven to go back to compete, she believes adopting this same culture in the U.S. will help more young Americans practice yoga. "Kids don't do yoga because they don't feel enough pride for it or get excited about it. We’re finding that the competitive aspect brings more kids.”
Tara Stiles, founder and owner of Strala Yoga, which has been touted for its nontraditional, unpretentious, and accessible approach to yoga, in New York City, disagrees. “Yoga isn't about the physical shape of the pose. There is already a sport for that—gymnastics—and it takes more skills than competitive yoga posing.”
Beth Shaw is founder of the largest yoga school in the world, YogaFit, which she says is grounded in a concept of "no competition," so she also takes issue with encouraging this in yoga, but she understands the drive to excel. "Yoga is practiced competitively in gyms and studios across the U.S., and this is simply because, as humans, we are competitive by nature."
Shaw also agrees with Choudhury that competition would bring more people to yoga. "Since we want more people on the planet practicing, this is not necessarily a bad thing. I'd just like to encourage people to let go of the expectation of 'winning' when you practice yoga—everyone is a winner," she says.
RELATED: No competition here—check out Tara Stiles doing yoga in Times Square.
Choudhury says that the yoga competition is very different than what we usually think of as "competition." "You want to do the best of your ability. I think every sportsman can be better in their own practice if they think about competition this way. Yogis know that if you compare yourself with someone, you're doing yourself a disservice," she says.
It may be a while yet until we hear about yoga champions on ESPN winning a gold medal at the Olympic games, but two things are certain: The Yoga Asana Championship attracts the cream of the crop, and they make for an awe-inspiring show (see the photo above of Afton Carraway, the 2011 National Asana Female Championship winner). And whatever drives you to go to yoga class, you should absolutely keep going.