Building Community Through Competition

Yoga and Life

Along with many others from all over Texas, I attended the 7th Annual Texas Yoga Asana Championship on November 8th in The Woodlands. The venue and format had been expanded greatly from past years to include the first ever Texas Fitness and Wellness Fair. But even knowing that, I can’t tell you how surprised I was to open the event magazine and find that there were 55 competitors, 33 women alone, on the roster to compete. When we hosted the event here in Austin just 3 years ago we were thrilled to have 30 competitors altogether. It’s made me reflect back on just how much things have changed since then.

In the United States, there has long been controversy over the notion of a yoga competition. It seems that most people see it as an oxymoron and think that competition is something that the West has imposed upon a traditional Eastern practice. But that is not the case at all as these competitions have been taking place for centuries in India and in more than just the hatha, physical, practice of yoga (asana means posture).

Only a couple months ago I happened upon a radio interview with Karen Armstrong, a theologian who is currently promoting her recently released book The Case for God. In this interview she spoke of how it was the Indians who exercised the most progressive and democratic means of determining whose view of God, or means of describing God, would be upheld. She then went on to describe a competition first established in the 10th century in which the Brahmin priests would go off on a retreat and through fasting, using breathing techniques and meditation would prepare for a discourse in which the contestants shared their unique perspective and wisdom. The discussion was begun by a challenger asking his opponent an enigmatic question to which the other would respond and the discussion would carry on until such time as someone said something so profound it left all the others speechless. As individuals and as a group, they were in search of the highest understanding of God and it was in this form of contest, called the Brahmodya competition, that they were able to prepare for and put forth their own individual best and benefit from the exposure to every other contestant’s participation.

I shared this story with my fellow riders on the bus to The Woodlands the day of the competition and Jeff Chen added to it by speaking of his personal experience with competitions, past yoga and Kendo (a martial art) competitions. He noted that we call it a yoga championship, avoiding using the word competition, and shared that they do a similar thing in Kendo by calling their tournaments Taikai. He said that Taikai essentially translates to “a gathering of like minds.” To me, this beautifully describes the essence of the yoga championships; an opportunity to gather together, participate and allow everyone involved to expand with the sharing of what each contestant has to present, for better or worse.

As Jeff’s wife, Mardy, and I were preparing to host the Texas Yoga Asana Championships in the past, we sought the support of other yoga studios in Austin and spent time speaking with many yogis of other yoga traditions. I remember conversations in which the other yogi looked upon me with distaste or compassion as they asked, “Why does it have to be a competition in which someone has to lose? Why not just have demonstrations?”

Honestly, at the time I was so surprised by what they chose to focus on that I was left dumbfounded. No one is being forced to compete against their will. I thought of all the entrants in the New York Marathon and wondered how many of them really expected to be the first one across the finish line? Every runner has their own reason for entering the race. For one it may be just for fun or the love of running, someone else may have been challenged by a friend, another wants to finish in under a certain personal best time, others might like the camaraderie of training with others towards a shared goal, and yet another can already feel the finish line tape across her chest and is planning what to do with the prize money. Who loses?

One of our students is an avid runner, using the yoga for cross training purposes, and trained for months to run the Chicago Marathon. Only a few miles into the race itself she pulled a muscle in her leg. She is not one to back down from her goals so she kept going for a few more painful miles before she was able to see the big picture. It was not the only marathon she’ll ever run, yet if she kept on going she would likely extend the time it would take for her muscle to heal and be pain free and enjoy running again. She was able to see that it was the journey as opposed to the destination that she enjoyed.

Sometimes things don’t work out as planned, but it’s always a matter of perspective as to how one takes the results. Competitions provide something to train for, the challenge to rise to your own personal best and an opportunity to take the stage alongside many others and demonstrate your strength of mind and character throughout the process. At the same time the community at large benefits by the heightened awareness of the sport or activity and the thrill of watching the performances.

Bikram and his wife, Rajashree, have a vision that they share with many others in India of making yoga an Olympic event. The exposure generated by being an Olympic sport is obvious. They see this as a step towards ultimately getting yoga integrated into the school system so that kids will be exposed to yoga and its myriad benefits at a young age.

Bikram Yoga is beginning yoga and though some of the postures are extremely challenging, there are still more advanced levels of yoga postures which very few yogis have ever mastered. Since 2003 and the first ever Bishnu Charan Ghosh Cup International Yoga Asana Championship, the level of mastery for both the beginning postures and the advanced postures has improved exponentially worldwide. Bikram used to have only a handful of yogis who practiced his advanced class at his headquarters in Los Angeles, but with each year the bar is raised by the contestants and we can see those most impossible of postures being done right now in many places.

It is human nature to want to grow and expand. The enthusiasm felt while holding the vision of a goal is what provides the interest and excitement that keeps us moving forward and enjoying life. Without this growth or challenge we get bored and stagnate. Whether we resist it or not, competition naturally provides the impetus to grow or change and rekindles the zest for life.

The ultimate goal with all yoga practices is to find inner peace and align with who we are as spirit. The roots of the word enthusiasm are En Theos which means “with God”. When you feel enthusiasm or excited about anything, take that as your sign that you are aligned with spirit. It feels good. It does not matter what triggers that enthusiasm, it will be different for everyone, but whatever it is, hold that vision and let it carry you where it may. You will not go wrong when driven by spirit.