Now, yoga is being pitched as a competitive sport

Faster, higher, stronger — most elite athletes aspire toward this Olympian goal. But can a way of life that is yoga — a spiritually transformative experience involving the mind, body and soul — succumb to the hard-charging ways of a competitive sport?

Udit Sheth, president of the newly formed National Yogasana Sports Federation, certainly believes so. Speaking on the sidelines of the first-ever National Yogasana Championship in Bhubaneswar which concludes today, Sheth singles out the gymnastic potential of “asana” —or the ‘physical postures’ limb of the eight essential parts of yoga. Can yoga make it to the Olympics? “The short answer is yes. The long answer to that is I have to go to the national games first, then the Commonwealth and then the Asian Games. Make sure that more countries participate in it,” says Sheth, a fitness expert, nutrition practitioner and sports promoter.

“Olympics has a requirement that at least 80 countries have to have a great affinity for a particular sport. And we have to spread this ‘sport’. It is actually very possible if we all work towards it as hurriedly and systematically as possible,” says Sheth, asking for 8 years to build a “roadmap”.

Come to think of it, a dream of taking yoga to the Olympics couldn’t possibly be begrudged. For 36 years, even poetry was an official Olympic competition category called the “Pentathlon of the Muses” before it was discontinued in 1948. Amateur dancers can also rejoice as breakdancing will now be a medal event for the 2024 Paris Games. But in order to train “yoga athletes”, build a culture of “yogasana as sport,” purists and practitioners might balk at the Federation’s concerted push towards further commodification of this ancient practice, beyond already existing attempts at branding “wellness” and “spirituality services “in the marketplace.

“The need of the hour is to package yogasana as sport and create a multibillion dollar brand,” reads a press note from NYSF which is recognized by the Union Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports. It has plans to make yoga as much of a money-spinning vehicle as cricket, besides gaining an “athlete-base across 600 districts,” creating “tournaments with prize money at every level”, starting “world academies, championships and leagues” IPL and ISL) “, building” great coaches, curriculum and electronic scoring systems, “the press note further states.

Sheth has a hectic year ahead with formulating a training and competition calendar for NYSF. He wants to showcase NYSF athletes on broadcast television and OTT platforms, set up brand collaborations so the yoga sportspersons are paid well. “Otherwise our athletes will all be poor. They would prefer to go to IPL, or basketball or football where they can make more money. To retain this culture, we have to make sure it is rewarded,” says Sheth who sees no harm in commercializing and selling yoga as a sport to a mass audience. “If we don’t do it, somebody else will. If there’s yog without udyog (industry), nothing will work in today’s day and age.”

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