Yoga in the Olympics?

Posted on March 7th, 2012 by in Yoga


When I started practicing Kripalu Yoga around 19 years ago, the main lessons I got were: “Accept yourself, exactly as you are today,” “Don’t compare,” and “Don’t judge—yourself or others.” Those were all messages I desperately needed to hear that deeply planted seeds of healing in me.

The growing movement to make yoga an Olympic sport pretty much blows every one of those sacred tenets to the moon. I don’t mean to jump on the whole yoga-competitions-are-evil caravan—it’s crowded enough—but after witnessing my first live yoga competition the other night I am all a-shudder and need to process.

Just walking in the door to “see” yoga at a theater in midtown Manhattan for the 2012 United States Yoga Asana Championship New York Regional edition last Friday night was odd enough. As a yoga junkie, though, I was curious—what exactly happens at a yoga competition? Who’s got the loudest ujayyi? Who can fidget least in Savasana? Who can keep their bottom ribs arced in Triangle? Those are things I’d want to strive for, at least, since I’ve been told so many times, in so many styles of classes: “Yoga is not about how close you can get your foot to your head” and “Yoga is about moving with the breath” and “Yoga is about dipping deep inside to the place beyond places, where everything,” as my Kripalu Yoga Teacher Trainer Devarshi says, is “eternal, infinite, and whole.”

I saw what this actually meant over three hours, watching about 36 competitors—10 men and 26 women by my count—each perform a seven-posture set in three minutes.

1. Standing-Head-to-Knee Pose (Dandayamana-Janushirasana)

2. Standing Bow Pulling Pose (Dandayamana-Dhanurasana)

3. Bow Pose (Dhanurasana)

4. Rabbit Pose (Sasangasana)

5. Stretching Pose (Paschimottanasana)

6. Optional Choice Posture

7. Optional Choice Posture















Photo courtesy of Valerie Reiss

Poses are judged by detailed alignment criteria for a total of 80 points, plus ineffables such as “grace” are considered. Every sequence was done in near-absolute silence, minus a churning fan. A variety of body types and a range of ages wobbled as best they could or flew through vertebrae-defying asanas. Watching the men was especially vulnerable viewing—seeing them tremble through peacock in nothing but a Speedo made me want to give them a blanket, or cry. So much poignant beauty, both athletic and unintended.

An emcee working the event kept a Friday-night party vibe going that was simultaneously awesome and inappropriate. After people struggled silently through complex poses, he jokily filled time with statements such as: “There are going to be all sorts of guys tuning in to watch this online. It’s sick.”

That, combined with the requirement that each competitor call out each pose before going into it—”Rabbit!”—made for downright surreal theater.

Does this all add up to something that could get yoga recognized as an Olympic sport some day? The first question being: Can you rally a huge, diverse community to a cause that makes its collective skin crawl? One bit of judging criteria is: “15% of total points are allotted to the overall attractiveness of the body. Choose an outfit that best enhances the body’s shape and proportions.” Um, I don’t want to judge, but: Yuck.

The other main problem for the championships is that after a while it’s pretty dull viewing, watching the same static poses, one after another. The only suspense is with the less experienced practitioners in Standing-Head-to-Knee: “Will she fall?” (As one woman teetered out of the pose someone behind me actually let out a full snicker.) And most of the awe-filled moments are those that also have an ick-factor—that double-jointed, where-are-your-bones? freakish quality. And maybe that’s enough. That’s exactly how I don’t want to roll.

And yet, I love watching teachers demo challenging poses—it gives me something to aspire to and it can be simply lovely to watch a soul intimately unfurling in asana. If the yoga Olympics movement can somehow do this for yoga—reveal prana, exhibit strength and tenderness without invoking the inherent shame of feeling like a loser for not being able to do a posture exactly like the manual or a guy named Manuel—then it has a chance to touch the planet on a massive level. If not, then, well, I’d rather spend my yoga time uncomfortably yet happily struggling to love myself as I discover my limitations and limitless freedom.

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail


About Valerie Reiss

Valerie is a writer, editor, speaker, consultant, and Kripalu Yoga instructor in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, The Huffington Post, Women's Health, Natural Health, Yoga Journal, Beliefnet, Vegetarian Times, and more. She keeps a gratitude blog, wrote Yoga Journal's NYC blog, Samadhi and the City, and has blogged for and others. As Holistic Living & Blogs Editor at she also co-wrote the popular Fresh Living blog. She was previously Articles Editor at Breathe, a yoga-inspired lifestyle magazine. A native New Yorker, Valerie has an M.S. from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. from Beloit College. She's also working on a book about yoga, cancer, and some of life's other humbling hilarities.
  • Abby

    I just don’t see the point of competition in yoga. Demonstration, ok, but I’m afraid it will push yoga students to try to come into extreme postures, and injure themselves…

    • KripaluEditor

      We appreciate the comment, Abby.

  • Vicky Cook

    I have tried to stay out of the conversation/controversy and make a conscious decision not to discuss too deeply.  Everyone has a path and I am not the one to choose for anyone else.  On the first day of the Yoga competition I taught a morning class and talked about the goal of yoga and what that is for the individual.  I think each of us has a different idea in mind when we come to our mats   When I first started yoga, all I desired was to get this pose or that pose and it was purely physical, or so I thought…  The gift that happened is that it brought me closer to my breath, as i realized I needed it to truly go deeper into the postures and this naturally brought me closer to my inner consciousness.  Centering at the beginning of class and Savasana were my least favorite, over time they became my treasures, they helped me to quiet my mind and soothe my heart, I found I wanted these parts of class to be longer.  This led me to a meditation practice and the rest is history as they say.  Yoga is a healing art, for some of us that healing begins in the body,something tactile and something we can hold onto literally.  my hope is that those who stay long enough and reach the heights (or not) of their physical practice can find the deeper healing that Yoga offers.  I also realize as a teacher it is my responsibility to teach my beliefs, what is authentic to me.  I feel it is best to keep the door to yoga open by practicing principles that yoga has steeped deeply in me as a practioner. My hope is that every person who comes to yoga finds the benefit in the full practice of it. 

    • KripaluEditor

      Thanks for sharing what the practice means for you, Vicky. We really appreciate your comments on this topic.

  • Lorenstorm

    I was in PT last week and all the therapists were discussing the yoga olympics- I truly thought it was a joke.  That said- I second seeing the demo of the poses. Its wonderful to be taught but not enough teachers demo anymore and I learn so much from just watching.

  • Karl Saliter

    Nice overview!  I particularly liked ” That’s exactly how I don’t want to roll.”
    My inner jury is still out on this one, and I love reading your perspective.

    • KripaluEditor

      Thanks for the response, Karl.

  • gen

    Thank you for your perspective. The simple words of ‘competition’ and ‘Olympics’ seem completly opposite to the practice of yoga in my mind.

  • Jason Wisdom

    This COULD help raise the bar. The yoga industry is decentralized and while there are merits to that, there are many people out there looking (an unable to find) a good example to follow. Be able to discover a great teacher? There are relatively few, and many of the best keep a low profile. Buy a DVD? There are hundreds if not thousands out there, how can a person in south Delaware tell which one is good. Plus, there is the publicity: I wouldn’t mind hearing street conversation about the big yoga contest; better that than Afghanistan. 
    On the other hand, there are the unavoidable politics and flaky criteria (that 15%) that are bound to come with it…. Am cautiously optimistic. Hopefully good people will find their way into leadership/judging/influence positions. 

    • KripaluEditor

      Hi Jason,
      If you need help finding yoga teachers, feel free to check the Kripalu website. There is a tool for finding teachers in your area:

  • Bruce Wayne

    If some yoga folks feel the need to explore this avenue of yoga competition and yoga in Olympics, that’s fine by me. Will I be interested in watching, reading or participating in such an enterprise? Nope.

    • KripaluEditor

      Hi Bruce,
      It will definitely be interesting to see how this evolves.

  • Jen

    I would have much less of a problem with this if it didn’t come from House of Bikhram.