There's a reason that one doesn't play yoga (as in playing a sport). People who regularly engage in yoga call it "practice," and that's because yoga isn't about achieving perfection or reaching a certain physical pose, but about the journey, the breath, and the dedication of that practice that informs other parts of one's life. Or at least that's what I've always been told.
The above is one of the reasons that yoga is supposed to be for everybody — literally. Elderly folks, kids, teens, pregnant women and football players can all do yoga, which is endlessly modifiable and variable in the length one holds poses, or how many poses in a row you might do. Sequencing varies depending on the yoga style and teacher, and quickness or slowness defines whether yoga is more of a relaxing or invigorating endeavor. You can end a yoga class drenched in sweat or having simply aligned your right ankle; both are genuine yogic outcomes.
But if you don't practice yoga, you might be fooled into thinking that yoga was a competitive sport, what with all the amazing shots proliferating around the Internet/on calendars/on magazine covers. And now yoga might be the next Olympic sport, wherein participants would be judged against a standard five poses (with two poses to be self-determined).
The National Yoga Asana Championship was just held on March 2-4 with the aim of getting yoga qualified for the 2012 Olympic Games in London. According to the sponsoring organization, USA Yoga, "USA Yoga is developing educational programs, rules and regulations so that the necessary competitive skills can be understood and mastered by competitors, coaches, judges, administrators and yoga studio operators. Successful competitors will need to achieve mastery of physical strength, stamina, balance, flexibility, breath and concentration."
While this seems new to many Americans, in India — the traditional home of yoga — competitions are common. Reports the New York Times, "Rajashree Choudhury, the wife of the Indian yoga master Bikram Choudhury and the founder of USA Yoga ... recalled her own childhood competitions in India, where she was a five-time champion and noise was commonplace. 'I’d be in standing head-to-knee,' she explained, 'and someone would bang a big steel pan to test my composure.'"
But when you are in class, teachers will endlessly remind you not to compare your poses to that of the teacher, or the person next to you. You're not even supposed to compare where you are today to where you were yesterday. And while you are supposed to align your body as well as you can, or to try to stretch as far as you might be able to, all you really have to do is make sure you are breathing, and focusing on doing your best. Or at least that's what every teacher I've had has told me, and every article I've read has seconded.
That all being said, do I like looking at photos of yoginis in amazing and beautiful poses? Absolutely. Perhaps there can be two understandings of yoga, one of which is only about the poses and not about what most of us experience in class? As USA Yoga published on its site, "To borrow an ancient phrase, ‘the paths are many, the sport is one.’"
What do you think? Should yoga be an Olympic sport, or does that idea fly in the face of what it means to practice yoga?