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5 Reasons Why Yoga Championships Aren’t a Great Idea

March 24th, 2012

The recent Yoga competition and the push to get Yoga into the Olympics has many yogis up in arms, in a nonviolent way of course…

I was recently interviewed about it on a PBS radio show (link to mp3) with many callers expressing opinions. It is commonly the case that many yogis are upset and voice that the “purity” of Yoga is being compromised by competition—which they assert should never be part of Yoga. Or they assert that competition isn’t “spiritual”, isn’t in accord with the eight limbs, or that it strengthens ego.

Whether or not the eight limbs is the definition of Yoga, or if competition, or ego, can or should be eliminated from the fabric of life could easily be debated. But instead of going there, I’m taking a different tack. Is a Yoga competition really serving our best interests and can proficiency in Yoga practice be measured by judges? It can be argued that national and international competitions will bring greater authenticity, relevance and acceptance to asana practice, but is this the right way to get it? Does Yoga even need it? Here are five reasons championships are probably not the right path:

1. How do you measure who is doing the best Yoga?
When you see someone doing a beautiful or graceful pose, especially if it’s pushing the limits of movement and flexibility, it’s easy to assert they are an advanced student, or they are “very good” at Yoga. But what cannot be measured, or cannot easily be measured, is whether the way they are doing that pose is really good for the long term well being of their body. Is, for example, standing on their hands and putting both feet on their head, or wrapping both legs behind their back (full disclosure: I did these and more for years, back in the day) really the measure of “good” Yoga, and is it serving the long term well being of that body? Are these extreme or performance poses what others should aspire to and emulate in their practice? Are extreme poses good for the lifetime health of the spine, disks, and joints? Much more often than not, the answer is no. Is the person doing the best pretzel poses really the winner?

At White Lotus we assert that advancing in Yoga, developing proficiency in Yoga, is learning how to use the asanas, techniques, and practices to better serve the ones body for a lifetime. Learning to listen to internal feedback, to learn to make subtle energy flow, bone and nerve adjustments, to learn to discern the effects of the poses, and to become adept at self balancing and self healing is truly the essence of advancing in Yoga.

2. Yoga is for every body.
It is said there are hundreds of thousands of asanas. I suggest that is a metaphor showing that Yoga is for any and every body. I’ve seen bedridden and wheel chair confined practitioners doing, or should I say “using”, Yoga beautifully. Sure, certain body types can do many more poses, and super models, men and women, can look gorgeous in poses, but this can miss the essence. Any body, at any age or stage can get great benefit from practice. There is no need to compete.

3. Yoga is not a sport. Yoga is not a performance art.
Yoga isn’t really in the same category as sports, dance, or even gymnastics. There is a large performance component to sports. And of course, a large competitive component. Even dance is expressing a theme, form, or metaphor. Whereas the purpose of Yoga is health, well being, self healing, self transformation, awakening and re-awakening. The “winners” are all those who learn to use the tools of Yoga effectively for themselves.

If the winners in Yoga are the those who can do the most difficult positions and moves of flexibility and strength in a graceful and beautiful manner, then circus acrobats have already won. I’ve seen acrobats, in the Cirque du Soleil for example, do the most unbelievable Yoga-like poses with strength, grace and beauty.

4. There is no perfect pose.
There are endless adjustments, modifications and tunings of asanas. The essential reason for this is not “so someone can do the pose” but rather so the pose can do them. In other words the pose should be adjusted to serve the person instead of adjusting the person to fit into the pose.

5. Everybody wins.
The real beauty of Yoga is that everyone can win. There is competition in nearly every arena of life. We’re constantly conditioned to favor winners and shun losers. But in a class of twenty, or one hundred, Yoga students, who is the winner? Everyone! Everyone can be a winner at the same time in Yoga. This possibility is too rare in life to diminish. And, again, can you even say who is doing the best, most proficient practice? May be the stiff, injured, or elderly person in class is the one using the poses in the most subtle and refined manner.

These competitions may be here to stay, but will competitions and championships bring the right kind of attention and motivation to the art and science that is Yoga?


Thank you for beautifully articulating the health and healing purposes of yoga. The individual listening to the body’s wisdom is doing the “best” yoga.

Good points. I would add the 6th reason and perhaps the most important one, that yoga is not all about just the asanas. May be they should start the competition with yama, niyama and so on… :)

Beautifully stated Ganga! I have seen my practice shift and change as my body evolves and my needs change. I loved when you told us in training, “you have never done yoga in a body this old before!” Judgement of my own yoga or of anyone else does not have a place in a compassionate universe. Thank you for sharing your wisdom, I will be reminding myself and my students of your valuable insight!
Much love,

Ganga: I always enjoy reading your thoughts. They seem to help me organize mine, which apparently are very aligned with yours! Thanks, as always, Shoosh

Again you have beautifully affirmed and inspired us as students, teachers and humans with your message that resonates with our hearts of truth. Thank you for your willingness to speak up, motivating us to consider a wider, broader view of yoga and the world. Thank you for your reminder that these gifts of yoga ARE for me/us and for everyone!

Love and gratitude from Canada,
Doug and Linda

Excellent article! Over the years I have had the benefit/pleasure of being at White Lotus listening to you express much of what you said in this article. You and Tracey have had a huge impact on my life and the way I view Yoga. Your words have have helped me keep it “real”, they have helped me keep the clutter/nonsense out of Yoga.
As my arthritic body ages, your words constantly remind me that I am not in the game to see how deep I can go into a pose, I am in the game to see how the pose (or variation of the pose) can help me.

Thank you for such a gracious piece. In these times when sensationalism seems to be the current trend, it was so pleasant to read a calm, wise, well written piece on the yoga world I live in. My teaching journey began with you back in 1995. You said to us at the end of the training…”this training won’t make you a teacher, it just puts the culture in the yogurt”. I never forgot that. That culture is still bubbling up nicely…thank you!

I’ll be sharing this piece with my students!

I wholeheartedly agree with every point. The question is, what is our true heart’s intention for yoga? I have always believed that yoga is NOT about competition, that it is for every BODY, regardless of age, flexibility, ability or how one “looks” in the pose. If yoga is to appeal to the masses we need to let go of the idea that “perfect poses look like THIS” and embrace the idea that MY “perfect” pose is only for me to define. Namaste’

Ganga, Thank you for your exquisite and passionate opinion on this matter of competition on the mat. We need to hear more from you. Your wisdom needs to be heard and the yoga world needs to be reminded of why “my down dog is better than your down dog” .

Thank you Ganga for your wonderfully articulated comments here.
I believe that competition often leaves a lingering residue of “more”, and a lifetime to even realize. Over time, yoga acts as a wonderful solvent, allowing us to slowly release our harbored feelings of “not enough”. When we are ready, contentment will find us, and a sense of “enough” will soon follow.

Thanks for sharing your perspective on this… It’s an important inquiry and a good reminder of the more essential aspects of Asana practice.

Thank you for these well thought out and well expressed responses to the idea of competition. I have had experiences where strength or flexibility were sources of comparison in a regular class. It is painful – to self, to growth, to all reasons I come to the yoga mat and not to an achievement based practice such as gymnastics or some martial arts disciplines. As James Morrison says – I come to the mat to “appreciate who shows up”. Separation and comparison lead me to dis- integration; the antithesis of what yoga offers me.

“Everybody wins.” Nice. Thanks, Ganga. Only once did I leave a practice thinking I’d “lost”. I’d been competing with a younger version of myself, and he was doing poses “better” than I was able to do them. I’m happiest when I’m able to leave both those guys behind me. (And reminders like these 5 points you’ve made so well helps me to do so) Every practice is a win when I’m able to fully appreciate who shows up on my mat with me and none of us feel the need to compete.

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