Trigger warning: What I’m about to say might be uncomfortable for the yoga community.
Move over, rhythmic gymnastics—yoga may soon be stretching its way to the Olympics. In May, the U.S. Yoga Federation, which advocates for yoga to be an Olympic sport, will host the 13th annual USA National Yoga Championship in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. There, athletes will perform a three-minute routine before a panel of judges in hopes of winning gold. The winner will go on to compete internationally in the World Yoga Sports Championship, hosted by the International Yoga Sports Foundation.
If this sounds backwards—or flipped upside-down, to be more precise—you’re completely right. Traditionally, yoga is a spiritual practice that rejects any sort of judgment. For most old-school yogis, the idea of issuing score cards for certain poses insults yoga’s very roots.
But with all due respect to yoga’s heritage, the reality is, yoga already is a “competitive sport,” whether you like it or not. Don’t believe me? Look no further than Instagram, where every damn day yogis flood the platform with pictures of their practice.
The most famous of all is @Yoga_Girl, who boasts 1.8 million loyal followers. In real life, her name is Rachel Brathen, and she’s well on her way to building a yoga empire. Although she preaches inclusiveness and self-acceptance, she, too, is in the rat race.
Most Instagram yogis will tell you they’re not in it for the fame, but there’s no denying the nature of a platform that rewards people for the most “likes.” Sorry, yogis, but your secret is out.
If this sounds brash and completely judgmental, consider that I, too, am an Instagram yogi. A few months ago, I started the account @CapitalYogaGirl to document my life in Washington, D.C.—via yoga poses and patriotic photography, of course.
The prize for being the most bendy? It might not take the form of a gold medal, but it comes with brand endorsements, amazing travel, and endless free stuff. In order to win, you have no choice but to compete.
In football, soccer, and lacrosse, competition is expected and even demanded. Friendly rivalry is considered a productive way be challenged, learn, and grow. But in the world of yoga, competition has a negative connotation. Competitive yoga, as one famous yogi put it, is “the antithesis of what yoga is.”
“Yoga is a personal practice, so bringing it to a competition blows people’s minds,” Jennilyn Carson, the founder Yoga Dork, told Racked. “Nobody wants to be in a yoga class where everyone’s eyes are looking around at each other.”
But humans are curious creatures, and women are particularly guilty of comparing themselves to others. Stealing a side glance on our yoga mats is nothing to be ashamed of, and posting pictures of our accomplishments is completely natural.
Like all things in life, competition can be taken too far, but that’s what’s great about yoga—it teaches us balance.
Yoga In the USA
As an Instagram yogi, I’m not afraid to embrace my competitive spirit. Growing up, I was taught that competition is a good thing—just look at what it’s done for our country.
Of course, not everyone needs to be competitive, and in a free world, people have every right keep their practice to themselves. But should we shame yogis for taking a more athletic stance?
I started Capital Yoga Girl with big dreams in mind: To one day provide free yoga classes to U.S. veterans. (To put it into perspective, that’s how much I believe in the practice.) To accomplish this ambitious goal, I have to build a following by competing for “likes.”
The attempt to keep yoga non-competitive and judgment-free eerily reminds me of the attempt to bubble wrap our children, provide them with “trigger warnings” and shower them with participation trophies just for trying. At a certain point, we must admit that we’re only hurting ourselves.
As a passionate member of the yoga community, I know that winning a gold medal or getting the most amount of likes is never the ultimate goal—in yoga, it’s changing the world. On the surface, Instagram yoga might look like one big self-absorbed competition, but when you swipe past the fliers and hashtags, it’s clear there’s a bigger purpose. We, as yogis, already know this. But it’s time we be honest with ourselves and share that with others.
If—and when—that requires us to compete, why hide it when we’re doing it for good? I’m not vying for a spot in the yoga Olympics. But for now, namaste competitive. And I feel at peace with that decision.