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How yoga is not a sport, and sports can be yoga

Relationships and considerations


The first world asana championship was held in Uruguay and India in 1986. Indian governmental site


“Yoga is when you become really absorbed in enjoying something. […] So many people come to yoga having had many experiences of yoga just through nature.” Richard Freeman, 2010


Emma Kunz, Work No. 003. Read below why I chose this image for this blog entry.


Let’s start by saying that so-called “yoga championships” are indeed a thing. It’s incredible to me that one can be judged on their performance of asanas, and other yoga practices such as kriyas, pranayama, mudras (and even meditation!). But, as the article I link to in the first quote above states: “The aim behind initiating competitive yoga was to bring awareness about yoga, its benefits and spiritual background in young community.” So, those competitions are really the equivalent of an “expo” for yoga, a public display aimed at promoting the practice, not the practice itself. We also know that physical culture became embedded in yoga in the 20th century and that modern yoga is dominated by health and fitness-oriented asana practice.[1]


And that’s all fine. But is yoga a sport? Let’s look at some points of potential differentiation.


The breath.

One of the fundamental ways in which yoga is not the same as (or just) a sport activity is to do with the focus on the breath. This is a key component of any movement discipline associated with yoga, whether it’s single-posture practice, or flow, or somatics, or even just walking. It is also one of the hardest parts. 


In the context of reviewing a body of research to identify commonalities in yoga and other contemplative practices such as tai chi and meditation, David Keil writes: “This research review is a good reminder of how key the breathing is to effective yoga practice. There is flexibility in which asanas we choose to work with. But, working with the breathing isn’t optional — it is the practice.” [2]


The expression “breathwork” often comes across to the lay person as being something complicated, rather arcane and esoteric. Although it can (and should in some contexts) be approached in that way - given the very rich history of breath work existing in many ancient cultures around the world -, in the context of this article we will consider breath work something as “simple” as paying attention to our breathing, without attempting to control it. This type of attention is also ground work for mindfulness practices more generally. 


Why is this relevant? Because breath work (or breath attention if you prefer) gets one to the core of the yoga practice. The lack of it will limit the potential of yoga as a holistic discipline, a discipline of the whole, i.e. of bodymind. It is also a much harder thing to do (attention) than “mastering” complicated asanas. 


In my view, other aspects in which yoga differs from sports are: competition, stillness, and ethical principles. 


Competition.


I think it is key to acknowledge that yoga, unlike sports, is not a competitive activity, despite the championships’ scenario outlined earlier, whose aim I believe has been clarified. There’s no prize to be gained from practising yoga, there are no tournaments, there is no gain other than that of creating the conditions - with each new practice session - for further practice opportunities to unfold over time (hence the commitment to regular practice). This means, for example, doing our best to avoid injuries. As hard as that is, the attention to the breath will naturally allow for this to happen. If I think about the times I got injured, they were never during my own personal practice, but rather while teaching, or during photo sessions, or in other contexts such as while hiking. I have seen people get competitive in group classes. That is unfortunate as it completely skews the discipline’s aim and potential. Group practice in my view should be about shared intent. The intent is to look inwards, paying attention to one’s own breath, tuning into a collective rhythm that has nothing to do with “how well I am doing” and a lot with what, in the context of psychedelic therapy is called “ego death”, or “psychic death” in Jungian psychology, which is a transformation of the psyche. This kind of terminology is often misunderstood. The ego here is not the individual itself (we need our ego to survive), but its heavy conditioning, the biases it holds about itself, “what I’m good at/what I’m not good at”, the very limited conception of what one is or could be. By tuning into the collective resonance of group practice one can for a while “forget” one’s own assumptions about one’s self and simply “be” in the flow, or posture. Unfortunately this is a very rare occurrence in modern yoga class settings, especially in led classes, but also in guided self-practice contexts (the Mysore style). And it’s hardly possible in sports where competition is indeed the primary aim. At this point I would like to emphasise that competition in sports has a value in its own right and, as long as it doesn’t become aggressive, it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to have in that specific context. I really like sports, too. My interest here is simply to differentiate that from yoga. 


Stillness.


With regards to stillness, this is something never heard of in sports where activity, performance, and/or calorie-burning exercises predominate (= the opposite of stillness). Even then, I have a fond memory of being 16 in PE class at school. My dear teacher one day made us stand still for 30 minutes in an attempt to contain our exuberant teenage spirits into a form of discipline-through-holding-posture kind of way. I remember really enjoying the challenge, and how hard it was, to be still and silent! In hindsight, I think she gave us a brilliant lesson in education-through-embodiment (very different from corporal punishment and yet totally centred on the body) and I’m very grateful for that.


Although I will need to write a different article on what stillness actually is and whether complete stillness is ever even possible (spoiler alert: I don’t believe it is), the practice of ‘becoming still’ (or approaching that state) is an essential aspect of yoga. So much so that there is a sense in which in the practice we’re always attempting to find some stillness in and within the transitions, arriving at the still point of posture in an integrated way, just like music has pauses and silence as essential parts of it. I feel this is somehow related to David Garrigues's point that "There is no pose that is not Samasthiti and there is nothing in this world that is not me." [3]


Ethical principles. 


With regards to ethical principles, of course there are ethical principles in sports too, but that’s more to do with what is called “fairness”, again in competitions, races and so on. As yoga is not a competitive sport, the ethical principles are a little more subtle. And here I’m not necessarily referring to the yamas and nyamas which are outlined as foundational steps in the Yoga sutras of Patanjali. I’m talking more generally about how the practice affects our ethics (behaviour, not morals) on a day-to-day basis, how it shapes behaviour towards self and others which is not a requirement in any sports I know. I guess here I’m talking specifically about the development of ‘equanimity’ through practice, which is THE hardest skill to achieve, hardly possible.


In conclusion: absorption.


As a follow-up to all that’s been said above, I have often talked about yoga more as a martial art, rather than a sport. In both martial arts and yoga the focus is on awareness, the control of subtle energy pathways to generate movement, and meditative states. Although not essential to any sports, those aspects can certainly be incorporated in sports too. In fact, they can be incorporated into anything one does, as an aspiration at least.


I really appreciate the very simple definition of yoga Richard Freeman offers in that second quote I entered at the beginning of this article, "when you become really absorbed in enjoying something." As a really senior, experienced and vastly knowledgeable teacher, he could easily give very complicated descriptions of yoga. Instead he goes with what resonates with us all. And yet, it isn’t easy “to become really absorbed” in something, what with the constant distractions of modern life, the tendency to thought proliferation, life’s events, interruptions, physical and emotional difficulties, obligations etc.


I chose to use a fragment of one of Emma Kunz's mandala-like drawings as to me they are an apt visualisation of a state of absorption, something the pic of a yoga pose couldn't have done by itself. Not to mention what I know (from sources) about the Swiss artist/researcher/healer whose compositional drawing process seems to have so much in common with yoga as the practice described here. I feel it fits nicely with Freeman's description, especially as he specifically mentions aesthetic experiences. Can sports ever work in that way? I feel they can.


 

[1] Mark Singleton, Yoga Body - The origins of modern posture practice, 2010

[2] David Keil, How does yoga work?, https://www.yoganatomy.com/how-does-yoga-work/

[3] David Garrigues, a Facebook post


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