As you probably guessed, I love yoga. Yoga was the answer to many of my health problems. Yoga is a great way to improve flexibility and balance; it’s a great way to train one’s mind and body simultaneously. The things yogis are capable of doing are awe inspiring, and some of the most athletic people I know are yoga practitioners.
But is yoga a sport? This is something I’ve often wondered, but I have never had an answer.
“It really depends on how you define it; I think yoga can be a very athletic practice,” Tiffany Cruikshank told me. Tiffany is an international yoga teacher, author, and wellness expert who teaches yoga to many professional athletes. “But even the highest trained athletes can lose their breath or work to fatigue in a yoga class.”
“Sports generally ask you to put energy and training in. The result is a score or performance within the sport often at a physical expense (joints, muscles, energy expenditure) when trained at a high level,” Tiffany continued. “In sports we often push our bodies to the breaking point to see who can go further without tipping the scales. In yoga, while some practices may push us to achieve a certain posture or fancy arm balancing pose (think handstand, crow, etc), our ultimate goal is to use yoga as a form of medicine on some level.”
“Yoga is athletic, and requires stamina, endurance and focus,” said Elissa Lappostato, a yoga studio owner, instructor and co-founder of Prajjali.
“While those are fantastic sport qualities, being a sport implies a sense of competitiveness. It is this sense of competition that is why I don’t believe yoga is a sport,” Elissa continued. “Yoga embodies that idea that you’re accepting yourself and working to cultivate awareness, regardless of the flexibility of the person practicing next to you. As a teacher, I see people break through their own barriers all the time, at their own pace. The look on their face, the determination written in their body shaking to hold a challenging pose, that’s yoga.”
Treating yoga as a sport certainly comes with risks. If you’re competing with your classmates, you’ll likely find yoga irritating and upsetting instead of refreshing. Furthermore, if you push your body further and further as you would in track or swimming, your yoga practice could do more harm to your body than good.
“Perhaps the question to ask isn’t ‘Can yoga be a sport?’ but rather what is the importance of dong yoga properly, and how to know if it’s being done properly or dangerously,” mused Jim Kallett. director of Bikram Yoga San Diego. Jim judged the International Yoga Federation’s Championship Finals for 8 years, and currently hosts the Yoga Is Life radio show.
“Yoga has had a sport aspect to it throughout history,” Jim explained. “Very much so in the last 100 years of India, and all the way back to the Mahabharata. I’m fine with Yoga as Sport, as long as it’s done with integrity.”
Mansi, a yoga practitioner and editor at WorkoutTrends.com, said as a child yoga definitely had a sports aspect for her.
“Back in 1996, when my mom introduced me to yoga, the body bending poses were more of a sport. I took my fascination to my sports classes and challenged my classmates to do better than me. As kids, it was all fun. But as I grew up, I came to acknowledge yoga as a physical exercise that puts me at ease with myself, makes me confident and literally centers me.”
But many students, even adult students, continue to view yoga as if it is a sport. Jackie Penta owns SoCal Hot Yoga in Los Angeles, and said she sees many of her students treating yoga as a sport. “They compete with themselves and others during class by showing signs of frustration when the physical parts of the practice become overwhelming.”
“While Western culture has created competitions surrounding yoga asansas,” Jackie explains, “in it’s true form yoga is not about competing with others or with oneself. Instead, yoga is a physical and a mental discipline.”
With 5 years of teaching yoga and training other instructors, Jackie’s hot yoga practice emphasizes mental relaxation, stretching to relieve sore muscles or pain, strength building to prevent injury, and acceptance of where one is in body, mind, and spirit. But Jackie’s hot yoga doesn’t emphasize yoga as a sport.
“The physical asanas in yoga require a minimal foundation strength and strong breath control, which can only be gained through regular physical practice,” said Jackie. “But the intention of the physical movement is not for athleticism. Rather it’s for cultivating self-awareness by creating a internal connection between the mind and body. Yoga itself is not a sport. It is a practice. There is no tangible, physical goal.”
Perhaps Jackie is right, but perhaps yoga exists like Schrodinger’s theoretical cat in a state of quantum superposition. Maybe yoga is both a sport and not a sport at the same time.
“Yoga is really everything. It’s a science, a tool, a process,” Jim Kallet said. “The process of putting opposite forces into balance (or “union” as it’s most commonly defined), by the action and concentration of Conscious Will.”
Maybe yoga is a sport. Maybe yoga isn’t a sport. Maybe it’s both. And maybe, just maybe, it doesn’t matter.
“Maybe it’s time we end the arguing of who’s right and wrong about what yoga is and isn’t,” Jim continued. “and allow the truth to be unveiled in the mirror of self-realization; in that mirror of yoga practice.”
What do you think? Is yoga a sport? Does it matter? Let me know in the comments.
Photo of, and provided by,Tiffany Cruikshank. Photographer: Jasper Johal