Are you curious to hear Bob Costas talk yoga? Or Le Collinsworth? Maybe ESPN would do Monday Night Ashtanga. That would be bizarre. Mike & Mike would talk about it on the radio the next morning. Oh Greenie did you see that rabbit pose yesterday? Amazing, Golic. And to follow it up with a perfect scorpion? It blew the roof off the studioMel Kiper Jr. could compose a mock yoga draft. Who would be the Yoga Barkley? Yoga Ditka? Yogka?
OK so that actually sounds a little scary. Still: There’s a growing competitive yoga movement in this country—there are national championships this weekend in New York—and a push to make it an Olympic event. The Associated Press ran a widely-disseminated feature on this the other day, and the suggestion freaks some folks out, since yoga-for-medals sounds antithetical to what yoga supposedly is. On the other side, sports bars may hesitate to flip the big screen over to a yoga final. But let’s all just take a deep belly breath and hold on for a moment:
First, consider audience and reach. Yoga is not a marginal activity in 2012. Baseball, maybe; yoga, no. Where I live, it is easier to do yoga than get a haircut. You can find 10 studios within a 10-minute walk. Conversely, I need to charter a helicopter, three ferry boats and a space shuttle to play a round of golf. Yoga has become a lifestyle, a passion, an ongoing cultural conversation. People do it to get in shape, to relax, for spiritual centering or any number of personal reasons; participants are young and old, growing in numbers and increasingly male. Bring up yoga next time you’re at a dinner party. That will inhale the next half-hour. Then bring up the All-Star Game of any major sport. Crickets.
I am not a high-level yoga student. I have entered and exited classes at various times, and I am not accomplished or limber; I often resemble a 199-year-old man trying to find a contact lens. (My wife, on the other hand, can balance on her hands as if she escaped from a circus boxcar.) But I’ve never regretted a minute of it, and one thing I’ve always liked about yoga is that it never felt exclusive or judgmental in the way a lot of life feels exclusive and judgmental. What you bring and take away is up to you.
The competition in New York this weekend is put on by an organization called USA Yoga, and the idea is pretty straightforward: Participants do seven poses, five of which are compulsory, and two that are the participant’s choice. There are judges, and there are winners, but if you talk to USA Yoga’s founder, Rajashree Choudhury, you don’t get the vibe that it’s guys slamming football helmets against lockers. Nor is it trying to unlock the metaphysical. “There’s no spirituality we’re trying to judge,” Choudhury says.
Of course, competitive yoga gets a skeptical reaction from those who enjoy the practice precisely because it isn’t winner-take-all. But Choudhury believes there’s room for every style and approach, and notes that there’s been competitive yoga in her native India for more than a century. “In India, competition is a very, very old matter,” she says. “I was champion from 1979 to 1984Think of that”
Amanda Baisinger is a 34-year-old yoga instructor from Brooklyn who will be competing in Friday’s New York regional event. “I’ve never been huge into competitive sports, but the training for this is very athletic,” she says. “The challenge of doing the routine in front of a bunch of people just gets you to a whole new level in your practice. For me, it inspired me to get more serious.”
Baisinger recited a quote that struck her as excellent motivation: Humble enough to prepare, confident enough to perform.
Recognize those enlightened words? That’s Tom Coughlin, coach of the Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
Consider my friend Robert Sidoti. Years ago, Robert was my sports nemesis— faster and stronger, he was better at everything, whether it was basketball, tennis, golf or whatever. He was also a little bit of a trash talker. Robert was the kind of guy who might dribble up to you on the court and chuckle as he blew past you for a layup. He was That Guy.
Robert’s a yoga instructor now. This is how the world changes. He’s created classes for men called “BROga,” and while he’s not on the Olympic yoga bandwagon, he sees little wrong with the idea of friendly competition. “Knowing how difficult the poses are, I do find something incredible to it,” he says. “Would I like to see it as an Olympic sport? It would be weird at first. But I think it could benefit yoga, make it more mainstream.”
But as Robert knows, yoga already is the mainstream. Yoga doesn’t need to be part of the sports world to be relevant. Sports, however, could stand to be a little more like yoga.