India plans to develop yogasana as global sport

KOLKATA – Having deftly transformed the ancient practice of yoga into a contemporary soft power tool, India is now pitching to develop yogasanas – defined yoga postures that require choreographed movements – as a competitive global sport.

It is a goal that will be nurtured by national and international championships featuring medals and broadcast-friendly packaging which, if all goes well, could even generate spin-off career opportunities for athletes and coaches.

This ambitious plan was revealed at a press conference on Dec 17, when the Indian government said it had formally recognised yogasana as a sport that would be promoted widely, with a long-term goal of having it included in the Olympic Games.

Describing the Olympic ambition as “the aim and objective of any sport”, Minister of State for Youth Affairs and Sports Kiren Rijiju told the media: “This is the beginning of a long journey. We will have to make it very proper, authentic and well-accepted form of a sport.”

Some of the groundwork to codify the sport has already been done, with rules and a syllabus for yogasana prepared, asanas (postures) shortlisted from traditional yoga literature and an automated scoring system in the works.

In November last year, the government also set up an International Yogasana Sports Federation to spearhead its campaign to develop yogasana as an international sport.

Kicking off its 2021 calendar of yogasana events, the government will organise a National Individual Yogasana Sports Championship in February, which will be held virtually.

This will be followed by championships at the state, national and global level that have been planned for later in 2021. It has even proposed individual, pair and team yogasana events at these championships, with a total of 51 medals for winners.

The Indian government in 2014 had presented the idea of an annual International Yoga Day at the United Nations. This was approved by the UN General Assembly, and the first such event was held on June 21, 2015. Efforts to promote yogasanas as an international competitive sport have also been on for many years.

Organisations working to achieve such a goal have welcomed the Indian government’s new move as one that will add greater institutional heft to their campaign.

Ms Rajashree Choudhury, the president of the Lausanne-based International Yoga Sports Federation (IYSF), told The Straits Times it was a “big step” forward.

The IYSF was set up in 2003 to promote “yoga sports” internationally and have it included in the Olympic Games. It has since also organised a biennial World Championship of Yoga Sports, the last edition of which was organised in Beijing in December 2018.

“We have a common goal to make yoga big and we need government help to promote it internationally. I, therefore, think the Indian government’s acknowledgement of yogasanas as a competitive sport is a huge thing,” Ms Choudhury said.

But the government’s ambitious plans has also prompted concern among some purists who feel it could further strip yoga of its inherent spiritual component and reduce it to a competitive physical sport not unlike gymnastics.

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Dr Ananda Balayogi Bhavanani, chairman of the International Centre for Yoga Education and Research at Ananda Ashram in Pondicherry, said he understands why some hold this view.

“For me, yoga is life. You are running your race and not anybody else’s race, so there is no competition. At the most, it is what you were yesterday compared to what you are today,” he told ST.

However, he pointed out that yoga sports, at the same time, has popularised yoga among children, many of whom have gone on to pursue it with sincere interest.

Government recognition of and support for yogasana will now lend this process further momentum and also enable its young practitioners to use it as a tool for empowerment, such as through securing admission into higher educational institutions under quotas reserved for athletes.

“That is why I am playing a very tough balancing act,” said Dr Bhavanani, who is one of the vice presidents of the National Yogasana Sports Federation, which was set up in August last year to promote yogasana as a competitive sport.

In 1989, his father, Dr Swami Gitananda Giri, a well-known yoga proponent, initiated an annual international yoga sports championship in Pondicherry to attract youngsters to yoga.

It incorporated oral questions for contestants on yogic philosophy to avoid it from degenerating into a “gymnastics and flexibility context”. “We tried to keep it very holistic,” Dr Bhavanani said.

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The government’s initiative is, however, focused on yogasanas as a physical exercise, which, he warned, could lead to certain pitfalls.

“One is that people who cannot win in gymnastics will end up becoming yoga stars. It sort of becomes a poor man’s gymnastics,” Dr Bhavanani added.

“So there is a danger again of people losing out the bigger picture of yoga and as way of life, philosophy and psychology.”

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