I have first of all, in the manner of all good politicians and journalists, to declare an interest here. I am a trained yoga teacher and one of the first things I tell every class I teach is “Be gentle with yourself…yoga is not a competitive sport”
At the weekend a friend forwarded a link to an article in the New York Times about Yoga Competitions being proposed by a man named Bikram Choudhury. Some background. Bikram Choudrey is a very shrewd and successful businessman. He is the Bikram in Bikram yoga; a specific series of postures performed in a hot room as championed by sportsmen such as Andy Murray.
But is he a yogi? No. And I’ll tell you why.
Yoga is not just about the postures. Indeed the postures are possibly the least important aspect of yoga practice. As Patanjali puts it in the Yoga Sutras, yoga is about stilling the mind. I practice Ashtanga yoga, primarily, which is a series of postures performed in sequence, which was developed at Mysore, India by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and I have been fortunate to be instructed at a workshop here in Scotland, by his son Manju. Manju told us that his father had given up performing the physical aspects of yoga as, having stilled his mind, it was no longer necessary to stretch and pull the body. The postures are a stepping stone to stilling the mind.
Yes, the postures are important but there are seven other aspects to consider as there are eight-limbs of yoga. The postures are the entry point for us in the west wanting to embark on life based around the yoga principles of right thought and right action. We are more familiar with the physicality of exercise than we are with internal practices such as meditation so attending a yoga class and mastering the postures is a good way to start.
A good way to start…
….but for lots of westerners a yoga studio becomes little more than an exercise class with buddhist chants replacing the bass-beats of body pump or body combat. Students look around, see fitter, sleeker more flexible bodies and start to compare themselves…they become competitive with others in the room. Then, worse, they become competitive with themselves. Getting into lotus becomes a challenge that they will force their body to accept and defeat. This is not yoga! It is on this focus on the body beautiful and our inability to control our ego that allows Bikram Choudhury to suggest the idea of competitive yoga and even hopes to have yoga accepted as an olympic sport!
…yoga is about the mind. When I see someone in a perfect headstand how can I tell what is in their mind? Am I seeing a yogi or a great gymnast? By definition if I am seeing a perfect headstand in a yoga competition I am not seeing a yogi!