By Melinda Chickering
A few months ago, I came across an article in The New York Times about a yoga competition. Yoga competition? Isn’t that an oxymoron? I thought.
So I sent the article to my best friend in the States, who also practices (daily), teaches (sometimes) and writes (weekly) about yoga. She didn’t seem shocked in the slightest at this news of a yoga competition. This made me wonder just how out of touch I have become with my culture of origin, living overseas as I do. She lives in Washington, D.C., where competition is a way of life.
My friend has also visited India, where yoga and competition are widely considered compatible. Indeed, yoga competitions are commonplace in the sub-continent, and yoga is widely practiced there as sport. In yoga competitions, a panel of judges do just that—judge. One competitor’s asana is better than another’s—stronger, more poised, better aligned. The whittling down of yogi egos continues until someone comes out on top—the Best Yogi!—who is crowned the winner.
But is the competitor who wins first place really the Best Yogi? A blog written by one such competitor points out helpfully that these are yoga asana competitions. She enjoys the opportunity to challenge herself and to display the results of her hard work and commitment to yoga. Yoga is much more than practicing a series of asanas, though, isn’t it? The expert display of even the broadest range of asanas does not necessarily represent the heart of the deepest yoga practice.
The practice of yoga is motivated by different priorities for different people. Most of us practice for some blend of physical fitness, physical-spiritual integration, stress relief, personal discipline, and preparation for meditation. Yoga competitions focus on the physical fitness aspect of yoga first and foremost, an aspect of yoga practice that features more or less prominently in the motivations of most yogis.
Rajashree Choudhury is the founder of USA Yoga and wife of Bikram Choudhury, who copyrighted the Bikram sequence of yoga asana. Her aim is to elevate (or denigrate) yoga to the status of an Olympic sport. The yoga asana competitions she supports have gained momentum in the USA over the past decade but enjoy a long tradition over many generations in India. Yoga competitions now take place in about 15 countries around the world.
Learning more about yoga competitions has me reflecting on the idea of competition as it meets my own yoga practice.
As one who came to yoga from dance— and ballet, in particular—rather than sport, I was initially accustomed to comparing my body hypercritically to others’ in wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling mirrors. While not focused on jumping higher, throwing farther or reaching the finish line first, my mindset was competitive, as it was filled with judgment.
Am I stretching deeper or holding my balance longer than the yogi next to me? How do I compare with that girl on the other side of the room? Under the guise of reviewing my proper alignment, I took more than a few opportunities for both smug celebration and harsh self-criticism while checking out the legions of bodies in the mirrors.
Now I practice in a room without mirrors, grateful for the billowing breeze and rice paddy views replacing staid walls with glowering mirrors. More and more, I practice with my eyes closed. That’s because I’m more interested in connecting my body with my mood, my thoughts with my emotions, my movements with the energy that’s flowing both within and without.
Life in Bali, it seems to me, is more process-oriented and less goal-oriented than plenty of other cultures. Our yoga culture around here follows this general feeling as well. Physical fitness increases in the process, but it isn’t the primary goal of most yogis here, I would wager. Most yogis practicing in Bali seem to be motivated by aspirations to deeper self-knowledge, personal integration and inner peace as much as physical fitness. There is more than enough madness surrounding us, and we want to cultivate our cores (spiritual/ physical) to be as whole and centered as possible!
“This present moment is enough,” our yoga teacher repeated today throughout class, suggesting that we repeat it to ourselves as a mantra. I want to believe this even more than I want to balance my crow or equalize my triangle. Today in yoga class I felt tired, but I tried my best to greet this with an attitude of acceptance rather than frustration and judgement. Some days I feel energized and strong, when my chaturanga feels almost weightless. Other days are different, and I need at least eight limbs to get me to the floor without a loud thump.
I’m grateful for a yoga practice that has taken me through some twists and turns, even if few of them would impress the judges.
Melinda has been practicing yoga since 2009 and appreciates the psycho-emotional benefits as much as the physical benefits of her practice.
Contributing Editor for Inspired Bali, Melinda became a journalist and freelance writer in 2002. Living in Indonesia since 2008 has afforded Melinda myriad opportunities to explore her favorite topics in writing—including the nexus of culture, nature and economics as well as that of the head, the heart and the flesh.
You can order Melinda’s book Becoming Home: A Memoir of Birth in Bali at the CreateSpace store (https://www.createspace.com/4946236) or Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/Becoming-Home-Memoir-Birth-Bali/dp/1502342332/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1412042999&sr=1-2&keywords=Becoming+Home).