fitness · yoga

Competitive yoga: oxymoron, abomination or just a thing? You make the call

We at Fit is a Feminist Issue have a wide variety of personal viewpoints on yoga. I’m a huuuge fan myself, and have been immersed in it for the past four years or so (I’ve practiced off and on for 30 years). Tracy does yoga and meditation regularly and has even done the 108 sun salutation practice (108 Sun Salutations– Oh My!) Cate, inspired by Tracy, did 108 sun salutations on Christmas morning while on vacation in Australia (108 Sun Salutations on Christmas Morning). Christina has done yoga challenges, Mina has contemplated her toes during yoga, and several of our bloggers have tried goat yoga (for a compendium of our goat yoga posts, look here).

But nowhere in the vast oeuvre of Fit is a Feminist Issue will you find us discussing competitive yoga. Why not, you might ask? Don’t we have a responsibility to cover topics of import and relevance to the community? Indeed, we do. So, let’s settle in, breathe, and begin.

What is competitive yoga? It’s hard to get a neutral explanation; even its Wikipedia page is disapproving. So here goes: competitive yoga is a sport in which participants do yoga asanas, or poses, and are judged on them. The poses they do are very advanced or are extreme modifications of advanced poses, requiring flexibility and strength well beyond what any yoga practitioner needs or ever demonstrates in a class or workshop or retreat.

Pictures will make this clearer. Here are some:

Competitive yoga seems to combine yoga asanas with contortionist performance. That’s cool; it’s not what my body can or wants to do, but y’all go!

However, using the word “yoga” upsets a lot of people. In a Yoga Journal article on a documentary about competitive yoga (because of course there’s a documentary about it), yoga teachers expressed their unhappiness about it.

“I think competitive yoga is a form of misappropriation if they’re calling it yoga and making it look like they’re really doing yoga and competing,” Breaking India author Rajiv Malhotra says on-camera. Other yogis agree with him, suggesting that the focus on a mere three minutes of asana leaves out the spiritual side of the practice. “The word yoga competition becomes so offensive, because yoga is much more than posturing,” adds New Jersey yoga teacher Loretta Turner.

I haven’t seen the film, but we can all access it here.

I’ve been thinking this week about the idea of trying to perfect a yoga pose– being in competition with others, or even yourself. I admit that I do this often in yoga classes myself. I try to stretch more deeply, get those palms on the floor, straighten those legs, intensify that lunge, you name it. My friends have joked for years that I am competitive even in yoga class. I get the joke, and there’s truth in it.

What I love about my own approach to yoga, is that my efforts– for more intensity, for trying modifications, for stretching myself (literally), are about ways I want to feel, not ways I want to look. And they are all about what’s going on in my own body and mind and heart and feels.

On Friday I went to my absolute favorite yoga class– gentle and restorative yoga– with my favorite yoga teacher Liz Reiser at Artemis, my local and beloved yoga studio. My sister Elizabeth and niece Grace went with me. We all had different experiences there, as we have different bodies, different body and yoga histories, and were in different emotional and physical states that day. That day, when we did yoga nidra, an extended deep relaxation, I did it with my legs up the wall, not a standard pose for yoga nidra. It can feel uncomfortable, and you need hamstring flexibility for it to work. But I have that, and that evening it works blissfully. I felt calm and settled and relaxed and quiet. It was wonderful.

My sister and niece lay on their backs with legs on bolsters, covered with a blanket. It was good and okay for them, respectively.

I would not call my Friday experience competitive. I would call it attentive to the variations of life. Sometimes you are in the zone. Sometimes you are distracted. Sometimes you are injured or otherwise tender. Sometimes you are annoyed or distracted (maybe by goats). What I love about yoga is that the goal is to realize where you are, and do what you want and feel like you need to do. And you’ll have some experience or other. And that’s what winning is in yoga– have the experience you have.


What do y’all think about competitive yoga? Working on super-hard poses? Not working on them? Is this inspiring, off-putting, amusing? I’d love to hear from you,

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