Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Is yoga as an Olympic sport a stretch?

Pam LeBlanc, Fit City

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Yoga, an Olympic sport?

If some yogis get their way, athletes from around the world will one day be striving for a perfect 10 in the bow pose.

That might sound weird, but consider that tug-of-war, croquet and live pigeon shooting all have been part of the Olympic Games at one time or another. The lineup changes with the popularity of different sports.

Women's boxing makes its debut this year, and the 2016 Games will add rugby and golf. Karate, squash and wake boarding have lobbied for future inclusion, and New Zealand officials have even made a pitch for sheep shearing.

But yoga?

Proponents say putting yoga on the Olympic stage would increase awareness of the practice and its health benefits, and showcase the athleticism of those who do it. Just like swimming or running the hurdles, yoga requires discipline, skill and many hours of practice, they say. Opponents argue that competition goes against one of the main tenets of yoga — that it's a spiritual, meditative pursuit.

Either way, competitive yoga isn't a new idea. Yoga competitions originated in India hundreds of years ago. Yoga contests started popping up across the United States about a decade ago, and Austin has been part of the trend. The 10th annual Texas Regional Yoga Asana Championships are scheduled for Aug. 12 at the Barton Creek Resort & Spa.

The nonprofit, California-based USA Yoga Federation formed three years ago with the goal of trying to make yoga an Olympic sport. It hosts regional and national competitions in which athletes perform a series of seven yoga poses in three minutes. Five are compulsory — standing head-to-knee pose, standing bow-pulling pose, bow pose, rabbit pose and stretching pose. Participants pick the last two poses themselves. Contestants are judged on gracefulness, movement, general appearance, execution, style, steadiness and performance of postures.

"Each time they don't complete the guidelines, we deduct points," says Rajashree Choudhury, founder of the federation and a five-time winner of the All-India Yoga Championship.

Choudhury will serve as one of five judges at the Austin competition, where top finishers will qualify for the 2013 National Yoga Asana Championships.

In Austin, the yoga community is mixed on whether competitive yoga is a good thing. Some point out that the philosophy of yoga is acceptance, and as such people who practice it should be accepting of those who want to compete at it.

"Yoga is a personal practice, so for each person it's what you want it to be," says Anne Haskett, an Austin yoga instructor at Bodhi Yogi and at Castle Hill Fitness. "If you are looking for spirituality, you can practice for that. If you find your connection through competition, go for it; that's great."

The ultimate goal is to spread yoga to the masses, so the public understands the benefits of it, says Jeff Chen, co-owner of Pure Bikram Yoga and organizer of the Texas Regional Yoga Asana Championships next month. The Olympics are a vehicle to do that.

"Many will take it very seriously — there's no doubt about that. It will fuel some of that Type A competitiveness. But if yoga is still practiced in the way it should be practiced, it's demonstrating spirit," Chen says. "It's about everybody gathering together to share their practice with each other and demonstrating where they are in practice at that point in time. ... I could care less who wins or loses, and that's the spirit we take here in the Texas regionals."

Still, some Austin yoga practitioners think competition has no part in yoga.

"To me, competitive yoga just sounds like an oxymoron and counterproductive to what yoga is truly about," says Abby Lentz, a yoga instructor who specializes in working with overweight students.

Jogi Bhagat, who teaches yoga at the Lamar Senior Activity Center in Austin, agrees.

"The real purpose of yoga will be defeated if we make it competitive," Bhagat says. "Yoga is not a performance, it is an individual practice. By making it competitive, my practice can be better than yours — which is totally wrong. By making yoga competitive, we miss the basic spirit of yoga."

Contact Pam LeBlanc at pleblanc@statesman.com or 445-3994 Twitter: @fitcityleblanc

If you go