Monday, March 5, 2012

Some neither-here-nor-there thoughts about yoga competition

I just read Grimmly's latest post, in which he offers what I think is a very balanced and well-thought-out response to a recent phenomenon: The U.S. Yoga Championship. Several days ago, Steve over at the Confluence Countdown also wrote a very comprehensive piece on the same issue.

I have a feeling that the knee-jerk (no pun intended) reaction of many in the western yoga world to the very notion of a yoga competition is something along the lines of "What?! Yoga Competition?! Isn't this an oxymoron? Don't we all know that competition, by its very nature, is supposed to be non-yogic?" At this point, we might picture the outraged western yogi doing many rounds of pranayama to still the agitations brought on by such an outrageous notion.

Indeed, even mainstream western media seems to have bought into this yoga-should-never-be-competitive line. For instance, the venerable NYT--which, as we have all seen from its recent endorsement of the yoga-wrecks-your-body-by-improving-your-sex-life-doctrine, is now the indisputable source of all things politically- and yogically-correct in this land--poses this question about the Yoga Championship:

"But how does one master easeful meditation during competition, when being judged and ranked creates the very mind tremors that Patanjali assured yoga could quiet?"
Within the yoga blogosphere, Roseanne over at IAYB has also expressed her reservations about competitive yoga. In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, she says, "The roots of yoga are based in acceptance and non-violence and compassion toward self and others". Roseanne then goes on to point out that in most yoga classes, "what we're trying to do is encourage students not to compete," she said. She also "had some concerns about what yoga pose competitions would be promoting, that people could get hurt if the idea filters down that it's about being able to get into the perfect positions, and "wondered if that emphasis on the perfect pose would put off people who would look at the competitors as attaining a physical level they can't reach." "It can deflate people, it can intimidate people from wanting to try it," she said.

I think that Roseanne's concerns are quite valid. However, I also can't help noticing that at least some of the things she says about competitive yoga--that people might get the idea that it's about achieving the perfect pose, and hurt themselves trying to do the same things, or that people might get "deflated" and intimidated by looking at these postures they can think they can never attain--are also things that detractors of Ashtanga have leveled at Ashtanga. To be sure, the things that Ashtanga detractors say tend to be couched in a somewhat more vague and less pointed language: For instance, one oft-repeated mantra of said detractors is that Ashtanga is only for teenage boys. Besides being somewhat sexist (see Magnolia's recent very well-written post debunking this misconception), this line of thought can also be understood as a backhanded way of telling people not to practice Ashtanga: Since the vast majority of yoga practitioners in the west are not teenage boys, Ashtanga is thus unsuitable for almost all existing yoga practitioners, who would simply not have the strength/stamina/vitality/whatever to withstand the demands that Ashtanga places on the body. 

The interesting thing, of course, is that there is more than one way to understand this mantra: One could just as well say that if Ashtanga yoga was originally designed for teenage boys, then it means that whoever is willing to put in the effort to practice Ashtanga regularly will eventually acquire the vitality and strength of a teenage boy and, in this way, "become" a teenage boy. For rather obvious reasons, I choose to go with this latter interpretation. :-)

But all this is neither here nor there. To get myself back on track, let me just pose a little question here: Could it be that it is really no coincidence that Roseanne's concerns about competitive yoga mirror so closely the sorts of things that many detractors of Ashtanga often say? Although Ashtanga is not overtly competitive, there is an aspect of its physical practice that strongly resembles competition: Demonstration. Many of us are probably familiar with the fact that back in the 30s, Krishnamacharya and his students at the Mysore palace gave many demonstrations, both at the palace and in various parts of India, in order to widely propagate and raise public awareness of what yoga practice can do. In fact, there is even speculation that the postures in Ashtanga are held for only 5 breaths in order to facilitate public demonstration (who wants to sit around and watch somebody stay in Kapotasana for, like 50 breaths?).

Demonstration has at least one thing in common with competition: In both cases, the aim is to showcase a particular relatively narrow range of yogic practices (in this case, asana), in order to catch the spectator's attention. And if demonstration can play the positive role of showcasing yoga to people who would otherwise never have anything to do with it, why can't competition--with the high energy and publicity that typically surrounds--fulfill the same role?

Indeed, it seems that if we are to believe certain sources, yoga competitions may very well be a long-established tradition in India. In a letter addressed to "Respected Western Minds" a few years ago, a certain Swami Shankaranda (can somebody please enlighten me as to who he might be?) states:

"Here in India we have yoga competition for 2000 years in many Kumba Melas, where all the yoga masters, yogacharyas, sadhus, yogis come together each year.  We have pranayama competition and philosophical competitions because yoga competition is our tradition."

He then goes on to give many examples of recent competitions that have been organized in various parts of India. Perhaps more significantly, he also cites doctrinal support for this practice of holding yoga competitions: 

"We have in India a very nice book we call Mahabarata.  Part of this book is another text, the Yoga Sastra, that most people call Baghavad Gita. In Yoga Sastra, Lord Krishna teaches Arjuna about Life and Yoga. Because Life is Competition. How to fight in the war. Because the war is the big Competition, like Mahabarata. Kirshna teaches about attitude in action. Krishna teaches this in the war to be a yogi, and this attitude we teach in the game of yoga sport.

Life is competition and Sri Aurobindo teaches: all of Life is Yoga and Yoga is Competition."
Swami Shankarananda's argument can be summarized in the following way: 

(1) All life is yoga.
(2) Competition is part of life.
(3) Therefore, competition should also be part of yoga.

I think this is very compelling argument. But there are, of course, limits to how far this argument can go. For example, one can also easily use the same argument form to argue the following:

(1) All life is yoga.
(2) Having sexual orgies is part of life (in the sense that there are people who participate in them).
(3) Therefore, sexual orgies should also be part of yoga.

And we know where this second argument leads, of course [wink].

But all this is, again, neither here nor there. I guess this shows that there is only so much that we can accomplish using formal logic when talking about yoga. But seriously, I really do think there is something to be said about Swami Shankaranda's argument: After all, if it is indeed true that asana competition has been a key feature of yogic life in India for 2000 years (in a way that sexual orgies are not, William Broad's recent ridiculous claims notwithstanding), then it may very well be the case that there is a positive role that such competition can fulfill in yogic life, a role that many of us in the west, with our rather sanitized visions of what yoga should be like, have overlooked. I'm not sure what this positive role may be, but I think it can't hurt to keep an open mind, can it? 


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    1. Given the ever increasing crowds in Mysore, it seems only a matter of time before Sharath will adopt a point deduction system for extra breaths, heel lifting and other infractions at the Shala. We will be hearing 'half point deduction!!' and 'full point deduction!!' (immediately followed by 'one more!' while the offending student is dismissed to the finishing room).

    2. Hahaha! Now that would be something to watch, wouldn't it?

  2. Very interesting! I wonder how they'll decide what the perfect standard is for each posture, given that there are typically so many variations.