Zoe Kors: In this country, the idea of yoga as a competitive sport is very controversial. And highly criticized.
Rajashree Choudhury: Yes. It’s very controversial. The Yoga Federation of India calls it “byayam,” which means exercise. People should be talking about “yoga asanas” as a competive sport. Because there are many forms of yoga. The most common two forms are hatha yoga and raja yoga. That’s mostly what people understand.
Raja yoga is the mental practice and incorporates meditation, pranayama, and mudra. What are the benefits of having a raja yoga practice? The benefit is spirituality. Can spirituality be measured? No. And we don’t try. What we are, what we are actually doing in the competition, is only hatha yoga. What’s the benefit of hatha yoga? Physical. What do you need to do hatha yoga? Physical body. That’s it. Breathing and spirit is a part of any sport. So that’s why hatha yoga can be a sport.
ZK: The way any physical practice can be a competitive sport.
RC: Yes. Any physical practice can be a competitive sport. What level you can take postures to create the maximum challenge and show your maximum skill, maximum control—it’s not a combat game. It’s a benefit to you.
ZK: I think that people are under the misconception that competitive yoga is an American idea—one of my friends said that it’s is like taking the worst of American culture and imposing it on the best of Eastern spirituality. But, yoga competition has been going on for thousands of years in India.
RC: One hundred years it is documented with the Federation. We see that there were meets before that was going on. In India, it’s going fine. Everyone will jump for competition. Over here—now I’m going to say this—if you are being judgemental, that is non-yogic.
ZK: I went to my first yoga competition recently, by your invitation. I had an open mind and open heart. I was happy to see what a warm and supportive atmosphere it was.
RC: One hundred percent.
ZK: There were a variety of levels. Women who had more weight, women who were very skinny, very bendy, and some not so bendy. I found it really touching to see that when someone fell out of a pose, they got more cheers for getting back in and completing it.
RC: This is exactly the reason I’ve been trying to encourage people to come and watch this competition. These last ten years, we have been reaching out to all levels. It used to be that the participants were teachers and practitioners in great condition. Not anymore. You see more and more regular people coming up.Yoga is all about what you do, actually do, for yourself. Every competitor that is there is there for themselves.
ZK: There is a misconception that the competitions are exclusively for the Bikram community. You say that’s not the case.
RC: That is not the case. We are open for everybody.
ZK: Each participant showed seven poses—five compulsory, two optional—in three minutes. The five compulsory are all from the Bikram sequence of twenty-six.
RC: But let me tell you this also. There is another misconception that Bikram tried to copyright each individual pose. It’s the sequence being copyrighted and the dialogue being copyrighted, but those five postures are not in the sequence that way, in that order. Those five postures are authentic, traditional yoga poses, which is hatha yoga.
This competition is run by USA Yoga Federation. If you go to USAyoga.org, you can find all the information. Competition has to be certain way. The postures have to be performed in a way that we can really judge. We have a Federation now, the Federation runs this competition. We have coaches’ clinic, judges’ clinic, athletes’ clinic. We follow rules and bylaws.
ZK: Same as figure skating. Same as gymnastics.
RC: Exactly. And then USA Yoga is a member of the International Yoga Sports Federation. So we’ll see, you know. We are trying to work for asana yoga as a competitive sport. That’s the way, I think, more kids will practice. Otherwise we cannot bring the kids.
ZK: So the idea is to bring yoga to more people—
RC: More people, more kids. Start yoga early. Sports brings people together. Sports brings community together. Sports keep you feeling cheerful, feeling spirited, it’s a kind of a thriving feeling. Which parents would not like to see their kids up there? Parents will support the kids. And the kids will go back and talk to other kids about it. So my next thing is to develop the kids’ program. We will start a camp, we will start a clinic, we will start clubs.
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