Yoga Asana Championship. Three little words that will ruffle many a yogi’s crow pose. For all intents and purposes we’re glad Rajashree Choudhury wrote this piece to try to clear up a few things around competitive yoga, because we’ll be darned if we ever quite get it. As the wife of controversial and real life yoga comic book hero/villain Bikram Choudhury, Rajashree Choudhury is at once in an arduous and a perfect position to defend and grow competitive yoga asana in America. Yep, we said it. It’s really happening.
Rajashree is president and founder of the United States Yoga Federation, the group responsible for hosting the National Championship of Yoga Asana (the 10th anniversary of which just happened this past weekend in NYC) and lobbying for yoga to be in the Olympics as a competitive sport.
Yoga as a sport? [see: 'wussification' of America] Many believe ‘yoga competition’ is an oxymoron. Yet like it or not, competitive yoga continues to grow in popularity and is still, as we speak, being pushed to reach Olympic heights, not surprisingly by the pose master flex, “enlightenment has nothing to do with it” Bikram Choudhury. But Bikram the man, with his penchant for controversy and sweaty de-pose-itions, and Bikram the yoga style may be moving to the sidelines while asana championships go for the gold.
Interestingly, Bikram isn’t listed as a board member nor is his name found anywhere on the USA Yoga website in connection with the organization (besides about a dozen Bikram studios as sponsors of the events.) A source working closely with USA Yoga tells us there is a ”concerted effort to move away from anything that has to do with the word Bikram, Bikram Yoga or Bikram Choudhury,” while the organization makes a strong effort to promote that they are indeed open to all lineages as an equal opportunity asana championship.
In this recent article on the HuffPo, Rajashree took it upon herself to explain the history, logic, practicality, sportsmanship and fearlessness of yoga asana championships because, ironically enough, many Western yogis just can’t wrap their brains around the concept. We can’t say we entirely agree, but at least we can hear it from the enterprising woman herself.
Rajashree Choudhury on her own history of growing up with asana championships.
Yoga Asana competitions are part of the Indian way and I participated in consecutive events from an early age. The grounded discipline, determination, and perseverance that was required of me to champion Asana then, armed me with the skills that I use to navigate life’s ebbs and flows. While Yoga Asana was such an integral part of my upbringing, I never imagined I would one day be leading an organization like The USA Yoga Federation, which is dedicated to encouraging people across the country to experience the health and happiness benefits of Yoga Asana.
Here she breaks down yoga in India into 3 parts: prayer, therapy and competition.
If I am able to categorize it, yoga was, and continues to be, practiced in India in either of three ways (with some overlap): at home, where it is part of a daily ritual that includes prayer; as a form of therapy; or as a physical practice — in class, as a demonstration, or in Asana competition, where “Asana” is the Indian equivalent for the word “posture.” India has championed Yoga Asana for hundreds of years, and though its practice differs from figure skating or gymnastics, its concept as a sport is on equal footing with the latter. Each sport requires a dedication to training and a sense of fearlessness.
What is the difference between yoga asana and figure skating, again?
I understand that mentioning figure skating and gymnastics in the same sentence as Yoga Asana might have a few readers wondering, “What is the difference between Yoga Asana, figure skating, and gymnastics, if they are all classified as sports?” It is human nature to feel challenged; to be self empowered. The competition aspect of Yoga Asana comes from within; from striving to achieve one’s personal best at any given moment.
On judging asana and mindful performance versus other sports.
Carefully defined judging criteria are based on rules and structure that follows the Hatha Yoga tradition; championship judges are educated by counterparts in India on how to award marks based on a points system. Ultimately though, it comes down to the competitor’s ability to master their sensory control; to execute postures to their fullest potential while holding them in stillness. In contrast, while figure skating and gymnastics may also be performed as an individual sport, their practice relies on momentum. Mindful practice is the foundation of Yoga Asana competition; the body, mind, and spirit working in unison navigates each participant’s performance. The beauty of continually working towards such a union is that one is also training themselves for being able to gain a better handle on their life.
On why she’s championing yoga championships, as it were.
My desire to champion the sport of Yoga Asana in the U.S. through the non-profit organization, USA Yoga, has one goal at its forefront: to promote the betterment of people’s health across the nation. To be honest, it hasn’t been an easy path to transcend the Eastern concept of Yoga Asana as a sport to the Western world. Coming from a place of non-judgment, I appreciate that there are currently many yoga traditions in the world which lead to different points of view. It is my hope, however, that bringing yoga into sports and introducing it to children will create a lasting change and equip the younger generation with the skills and tools needed for growth and constant improvement.
Phew! It all makes sense now doesn’t it? So, competitive yoga…you be the judge?
If you missed the National Championship of Yoga Asana this past weekend and you’re curious what on earth they could be like you can watch the rebroadcast livestream of the Womens and Mens division finals below as well as the awards ceremony. (There’s also a youth division you could watch too if you have hours to spare and feel ok about it.)
Men’s Division Finals
Women’s Division Finals