Competitive Yoga Exists. Here's How It Works

Anyone who has ever tried yoga even once will know that it can be far more intense than those blissed-out yoga instructors on YouTube will have you believe. It is a discipline that offers a full-body workout when performed correctly. A newbie's first attempt going from a plank to an upward-facing dog — a pose involving holding steady on your hands and the tops of your feet (shown above) — can feel like your back ins going to snap at any moment.

Even a moderately fit person will struggle to get through twenty minutes of yoga for the first time without wincing, but the beauty of the practice as a workout is that it doesn't take very long at all to start feeling the difference in terms of flexibility, strength, and stamina. Soon, many people find that yoga becomes highly addictive, a fun exercise with numerous health benefits worth practicing regularly, and that's before you consider yoga as a wider philosophy, the roots of which potentially go back to the fifth century B.C., per Britannica.

While not everyone who begins their day with a few triangle poses and standing pigeons is necessarily also delving into the sutras on which they are based, there are those who see yoga not as a mindful practice at all, but as a potential sport. As U.S. News reports, competitive yoga is fast becoming popular, especially in the U.S., where proponents are lobbying for the activity to become an Olympic event (per the Daily Caller). Here's how it works.

The surprising truth of competitive yoga

According to U.S. News, competitive yoga started making waves as a concept in America around the start of the new millennium, when the organization known as United States Yoga Federation (USA Yoga) began to grow in influence. USA Yoga was set up by Rajashree Choudhury, whose profile on the company's website describes her as the "five-time winner of the National Indian Yoga Championship from 1979 to 1983." Choudhury was also the wife of the now disgraced Bikram Choudhury, the creator of the Bikram Yoga studio chain that spread around the world in the early 2000s.

Per Vox, it was USA Yoga that first suggested introducing yoga to the Olympics back in 2012, and as it turns out, competitive yoga bears many similarities to gymnastics. Per USA Yoga's website, competitors are given three minutes to perform "[one] posture from each of the following six compulsory posture groups," which are: backbends, forward compressions, tractions, twists, lifts, and inversions. Competitors are evaluated by a panel of judges based on how well their postures adhere to USA Yoga's "posture guidelines," while points are docked for competitors who perform their postures in the incorrect order or go over time, and for routines that fail to adequately demonstrate the "​​​​characteristic[s] of balance, flexibility, or strength."

A controversial sport

As most news outlets reporting on USA Yoga's Olympic lobbying in 2012 pointed out, the concept of competitive yoga has proved to be highly controversial among many of the U.S.' estimated 20 million practitioners (per Vox).

For those to whom yoga is more than a just a workout, the idea that time spent on the mat could be competitive seems to be the antithesis of what the practice is really about: self-care, mindfulness, and relaxation. Per Yoga Journal, the author and yogi Rajiv Malhotra has called competitive yoga as promoted by USA Yoga "a form of misappropriation," while professional yoga teacher Loretta Turner has described competitive yoga as "posturing" and "offensive." Even the sport's adherents understand the dissonance inherit in the idea that yoga might be performed competitively. "Should the competition even exist? Is it unfair to yoga?" Asks Heather Palmer Welesko, a competitive yogi, per the same source. Welesko reflects that to turn yoga competitive is typical of Western consumer culture. "We live in America," she says, "we live in a capitalist country and the whole country is competitive, like your whole life is a competition if you choose to look at it that way ... me, I need to do it." 

However, supporters of competitive yoga also note that yoga competitions are nothing new, with the National Yogasana Sport Federation claiming that competitive yoga existed in India as far back as 2,000 years ago.