Is yoga on its way to the Olympics?

Frances McInnis
Shine On

Yoga practitioners bend their bodies in pursuit of inner peace, spiritual awakening and — for some — the glory of victory. As yoga competitions rise in popularity, organizations in Canada and the U.S. want to see yoga become an Olympic sport.

The founders of the USA Yoga Federation, which is holding a National Yoga Asana Championship this week in New York, want to join with similar organizations in other countries to form an international yoga federation and bring yoga to the Olympics.

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Canada has its own share of yoga championships and sends participants to the Bishnu Charan Ghosh Cup, an international championship held in Los Angeles each year.

This year's Eastern Canada Regional Asana Championships will be held in Toronto on April 15. The top two finishers in the men, women and youth categories will move on to the international cup in June, which means they'll have a few extra months to perfect their poses.

Check out this video of last year's winner in the women's category

But does the competitive spirit run counter to the precepts of yoga? Typically, yoga is presented as a spiritual discipline that seems antithetical to a competition in which practitioners are judged for execution and seek to beat the rest.

"Basically, it's a matter of perspective," says yoga instructor Teshia Maher, who has co-organized the Toronto competition for several years.

"The way that we approach it is that it's more a personal challenge and you're competing with your own goals, against yourself, as opposed to really going in there, like, 'I'm going to win, I'm going to beat other people,'" says Maher, though she admits "there are a few" who are just in it to win it.

She says the Toronto competition lasts about two hours. Participants will do a series of seven yoga poses in three minutes.  Two are their choice, while five are must-dos: standing head-to-knee pose, standing bow-pulling pose, bow pose, rabbit pose, and stretching pose.

"The posture can be competitive." Rajashree Choudhury, the founder of USA Yoga, told The Associated Press. The poses have been selected to show "how someone can have perfect strength, balance, flexibility in the body," she says.

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Fixing your hair or adjusting your costume will both be penalized, while locked knees, straight wrists and graceful entry and exit will earn kudos from judges.

Yoga pose competitions have a long history in India, where yoga began. Public performances were meant to inspire onlookers to deepen their own practice. Choudhury, who is married to Bikram Yoga founder Bikram Chodhury, won the Indian national yoga asana championships five times.

She believes they may competitions help widen yoga's appeal to people who are more interested in athletic achievement than spiritual awakening. "Someday, I want everybody to watch it on ESPN," she told the New York Times.

Still, don't expect any cheerleaders, chanting crowds or commentators. Maher says that during the competition, fans are expected to stay completely silent — though they're allowed to clap afterward.