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An 8.5 from the Russian Judge–Yoga Petitions to be Olympic Sport

Been to your local yoga studio lately?  You’ll probably find lots of blankets, mats and incense burning.  Perhaps a statue of Patanjali, considered the founder of yoga, sits in a corner.  But more befitting an ice skating rink or a boxing ring, you now might find a sign-up for a local competition.

Yoga--A Sport?

That’s right–yoga is lobbying to be the next Olympic sport, hopefully in time for the 2016 games.

According to, yoga is:

A school of Hindu philosophy advocating and prescribing a course of physical and mental disciplines for attaining liberation from the material world and union of the self with the Supreme Being or ultimate principle.

Literally, the word “Yoga” came from the Sanskrit word “yuj” which means “to unite or integrate.”

Not one word implies competition.  Compare this with the definition of Summer Olympics ratings grabber, “gymnastics:”

the practice art, or competitive sport of gymnastic exercises

Or how about that Winter Games powerhouse, curling:

a game played on ice in which two teams of four players each compete in sliding large stones toward a mark in the center of a circle

If you’re wondering how a sport becomes worthy of the Olympics, we look to the Official Website of the Olympic Movement:

To make it onto the Olympic programme, a sport first has to be recognised: it must be administered by an International Federation which ensures that the sport’s activities follow the Olympic Charter. If it is widely practised around the world and meets a number of criteria established by the IOC session, a recognised sport may be added to the Olympic programme on the recommendation of the IOC’s Olympic Programme Commission.

The Spirit of Olympic Competition

The IOC can also taketh away, thus leading to the gold medal voids left by tug-of-war and lacrosse.  Again, these both have competition built in to the sports themselves.

Take a yoga class and you hear words like, “be in the moment,” “it’s YOUR practice,” and “keep your mind quiet.”  In fact, stress and competition are often discouraged.

Yoga is 5000 years old but a 2001 TIME magazine cover story effectively “outed” many who silently unrolled sticky mats on a regular basis and lauded the activity’s benefits.  Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor took classes in the gym of the Supreme Court. Sting is very public about his practice as is Gwyneth Paltrow.

According to WebMD, the benefits of yoga include increased flexibility, strength, better posture, increased lung capacity, and lower blood pressure.  A 2004 study by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine of the National Institutes of Health found that yoga can alleviate fatigue from multiple sclerosis.  But like with any activity, yoga can cause injury too, if you do it wrong.  Pain and discomfort from over stretching is a common complaint.

Gwen Lawrence, owner of Power Yoga for Sports, focuses on athletes and their specific sports needs.  She is the Yoga Coach for the New York Giants and works with the New York Yankees including star third-baseman Alex Rodriguez.  These athletes are fierce competitors in their sports.  However, when it comes to yoga, it’s all about focus. “It is their absolute job to tune in and pay attention to imbalances, pain, and stress to avoid some possible injuries in the future,” says Lawrence. “Their body is their tool and it is no joke when they are working out that they stay present, [and] to aid their breathing techniques.”

Lawrence is not a fan of adding yoga to the roster of Olympic sports. “I can only believe that an Olympic version of yoga would be rooted in long hours of training, beating down, testing and pushing your body beyond its limitations not for the sake of yourself but for the goal of gold,” she says. “Yoga is about improving YOUR own body and mind and taking ego out of the equation.  So it is enormously contradictory to make it competitive.”

Gwen Lawrence Teaches Yoga to New York Giants

USAYoga seeks to be the governing body for the sport and is lobbying the International Olympic Committee.  In its mission statement, the organization hopes to inspire yoga participants “to improve their practices and encourage many newcomers to take up the practice of yoga and the sport of Yoga Asana.”

Yoga competitors are described as those who “will need to achieve mastery of physical strength, stamina, balance, flexibility, breath and concentration.”  There is no mention of the whole spiritual element that is part of the original Hindu philosophy.

Yoga practitioners aren’t buying in either. Julie Bauch, a New York finance professional, practices at least four times per week, meditates daily, and studies various spiritual philosophies.  She turned to yoga four years ago when faced with a debilitating illness. “I was weakened physically, emotionally and intellectually and I believed it could help me to heal myself,” she says.  “It did, in many ways.”

But the idea of yogis on a medal stand? “It’s perfectly alright to practice yoga solely for physical benefit, however using yoga as a sport doesn’t make it a sport,” she says.

People take yoga for different reasons, but the elements of yoga that tend to always be present in varying degrees are: exercise, breathing, and meditation.  There are several types of yoga, but the variety most practiced in the West is Hatha yoga, or the yoga of postures.  If you’ve seen Iyengar, Integral, Astanga, Kripalu or Jiva Mukti on your gym schedules, these are all styles of Hatha.

The second place winner of the 2008 Asana New York regional championship, Courtney Mace

Yoga competition is thought to be about 100 years old.  The Pondicherry Yoga Association started in 1975 in India.  However, its past leader, Dr. Ananda Balayogi Bhavanani who now heads the International Centre for Yoga Education and Research, is unhappy about the current state of affairs:

“many things have changed over the years, and though I support yoga sport for the children and youth, I may not say the same for the adult competitions… unless the theoretical aspect is taken into consideration, it will be only another gymnastic competition.”

Perhaps the IOC just needs to revisit requirements for gymnastics.  These uber-flexible folks could compete there.  Just call it something else.

I do practice yoga.  I wouldn’t say I’m a yoga fanatic.  I go when I can and aim for once a week.  I have my own mat but I don’t read Rumi or listen to sitar music in my car.  Perhaps even my judgement of yoga as a sport is a bit antithetical to yoga being a practice of acceptance.  But at the end of a yoga class, I look forward to moment when the instructor always says, “Namaste,” which means: “the spirit in me bows to the spirit in you.”  It doesn’t mean:  “I could kick your butt in downward dog!”

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1 Mike { 01.28.10 at 12:57 pm }

You are missing the point. It is not Yoga as a sport, it is Yoga Asana as a sport, the physical aspect of yoga, which is used by most Athletes today to improve their sport of choice, but you sire a lumping these athletes with incense burners and hippies. I say good day to you, and your judgmental blog.

2 Umang Dawn { 01.31.10 at 1:56 am }

Yoga must should be Included in Olympic Games, as it is an Complete science and gives 100 Exercise to Physical & Mental body.