Is Yoga A Sport? Or A Spiritual Discipline?
So what is yoga?
Can we consider it a sport?
A spiritual discipline?
A mind-body practice?
The answer, it turns out, is a little bit more complex than a simple yes or no.
Let’s first start by defining what exactly is a sport and what exactly is yoga…
What is a sport?
The origin of the word ‘sport’ comes from the early 14th century Old French word ‘desporter’ which means ‘to amuse, please, play; to seek amusement’. (1)
The Global Association for International Sports Federations (GAISF), previously known as SportAccord, is the umbrella organization for all Olympic and non-Olympic international sports federations.
According to GAISF’s definition, the following items qualify if an activity is an actual sport: (2)
- The sport proposed should include an element of competition.
- The sport should not rely on any element of “luck” specifically integrated into the sport.
- The sport should not be judged to pose an undue risk to the health and safety of its athletes or participants.
- The sport proposed should in no way be harmful to any living creature.
- The sport should not rely on equipment that is provided by a single supplier.
GAISF also uses five categories to define sport:(2)
- Primarily physical (e.g. tennis or athletics)
- Primarily mind (e.g. chess or go)
- Primarily motorized (e.g. Formula One or powerboating)
- Primarily coordination (e.g. billiards)
- Primarily animal-supported (e.g. equestrianism)
What is yoga?
Here’s where things get tricky because there are a lot of differing opinions and misconceptions around the definition of yoga.
You’ll get different depending on who you ask.
This is a multi-faceted practice and it really depends on your end goal or main “why” for practicing.
Now, in its origins yoga is an ancient Indian practice dated as far back as 5,000 years.
At its core, yoga is a mental/emotional/physical/spiritual practice.
That’s what makes it unique.
In Classical Yoga, we use the body to transcend the senses and the mind in order to reach the highest level of consciousness known as Samadhi.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the oldest authoritative text on how to live the Yogic Path, outlines 8 limbs or stages of yoga, one of which is asana, the practice of physical poses.
Other limbs included are self-regulating behaviors (Yamas), personal observances (Niyamas), breathwork (Pranayama), sense withdrawal (Pratyahara), one-pointed focus (Dharana), and deep meditation (Dhyana).
Yoga according to modern asana players:
Even though yoga is a practice that’s thousands of years old, it’s really only become mainstream in the last 60-50 years.
Many of the teachers that are responsible for popularizing yoga and bringing it to the west appealed to influencers, celebrities, and authorities of the time by positioning yoga as an effective physical practice.
Westerners were very drawn to the physical effects of yoga and so in a manner of a few decades numerous yoga studios opened and many yoga styles evolved to cater to this growing demand.
Today we have many physically focused studios and styles like Bikram (hot) yoga, power yoga, fusion yoga, vinyasa flow, and ashtanga.
Competitive yoga is a real thing in this camp, and if you ask anyone in it they will tell you emphatically that yoga can indeed be a sport!
This side of modern yoga culture even hosts regional and national yoga asana competitions.
Yoga according to traditional lineage teachers:
“Many people who start studying yoga by practicing asana continue to learn more poses until the only meaning of yoga for them is physical exercise.
We can liken this to a man who strengthens only one arm and lets the other one become weak.
Similarly, there are people who intellectualize the idea of yoga…
But they cannot sit erect for even a few minutes.
So let us not forget we can begin practicing yoga from any starting point, but if we are to be complete human beings we must incorporate all aspects of ourselves.”
– TKV Desikachar, The Heart of Yoga
According to Classical Yoga, focusing solely on the physical practice of asana means your practice is not complete.
As outlined in the Yoga Sutras, there are many more facets of practice other than the physical.
There are 17 points on the yogic path according to Classical Yoga:
- Self-governance and self-regulation
- Non-harm and good intentions towards yourself, others, and all living things
- Truthfulness and authenticity
- Even exchange, not taking something for nothing
- Detachment and non-grasping
- Self-control and temperance
- Cleanliness and purity
- Self-discipline through challenge and pain
- Self-study and self-awareness
- Surrender to a higher power
- Using the body to practice meditational postures
- Using the breath to cleanse and energize the body
- Turning the senses away from the external world, towards the internal one
- Sustained focus
- Deep meditation
- Transcendence of the lower self and union with the true self
“True yoga is not about the shape of your body, but the shape of your life.
Yoga is not to be performed; yoga is to be lived.
Yoga doesn’t care about what you have been; yoga cares about the person you are becoming.
Yoga is designed for a vast and profound purpose, and for it to be truly called yoga, its essence must be embodied.”
– Aadil Palkhivala, Fire of love
So, is yoga a sport? A spiritual discipline? A mind-body practice?
The answer is it can be all of the above.
It depends on what your end goal is.
It depends on your “Why” for practicing in the first place.
This is where you get to decide for yourself.
If you’re after more physical strength, flexibility, and stability and aren’t very interested in pursuing the rest, that’s totally fine.
If you’re more interested in Yoga as a lifestyle and philosophy, and the mental training of it but not so much on the “sports” side of it, that’s ok too.
Whatever you decide on, just check in with yourself and make sure it feels genuinely right for you.