Is Yoga A Sport? Overlaps & 3 Major Differences Explored

Whilst they can both make you sweat, there are fundamental differences between the two practices. And only one promises spiritual enlightenment...

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Yoga is such a multi-faceted discipline, it can be difficult to narrow down the exact definition, particularly because yoga is an ever-evolving phenomenon.

To some people, it’s a calm and meditative practice, for others it’s an intense form of exercise… But would we consider yoga a sport? It depends who you are. We’ll lay out the facts and you can decide for yourself.

After all, it shares many characteristics with activities we traditionally regard as sports. But then again, there are also undeniable differences between yoga practice and a game of basketball.

Let’s examine the intricate nuances of this question and establish once and for all, is yoga a sport?

To get to the bottom of this, this article covers:

a woman in red playing volleyball on the left and a woman meditating cross legged on the right against a blue background

Definition of Sport

To understand whether yoga fits the criteria of the traditional definition of sport, we need to understand what “sport” actually means.

Simply put, sport can be defined as a physical activity or game that involves structured competition, typically governed by established rules and regulations. It usually requires a particular skill, strategy, physical effort, and sometimes teamwork. 

Sports encompass a huge range of activities, including but not limited to athletics, team sports, martial arts, dance, and other forms of physical exercise.

Of course, sports can also be recreational. There are plenty of people who run, swim, or play tennis for the sake of pleasure, personal development, or mental health benefits. The lack of competitive element doesn’t immediately strip a physical activity of its “sport” title.

Additionally, some sports don’t involve a physical component. Chess, poker, and even shooting are considered sports, for example.

As you can see, the definition of sport is rather fluid, as is the definition of yoga.

5 Overlaps Between Yoga and Sport

The entire reason we are asking ourselves if yoga can be considered a sport is due to their many similarities. Let’s take a look at the main points of overlap between yoga practice and sport.

1. Physical Activity

Most forms of yoga involve physical postures and transitions. Practitioners engage in a series of asanas that require strength, flexibility, balance, and coordination, not unlike many other types of sports.

three women standing against a wall with sports equipment

2. Discipline and Training

In order to develop their practice, every yogi has to make a commitment. Just like any sport,  yoga requires discipline and consistency when it comes to training. Naturally, with time practitioners advance their practice.

This statement applies both to the asana practice and the meditative and spiritual aspects of yoga. It takes time, effort, and discipline. But as long as you stick with it, the progress will come.

3. Health Benefits

For many people, yoga is a great form of exercise. In turn, yoga offers many mental and physical health benefits, similar to other types of solo and team sports.

4. Mind-Body Connection

In order to avoid injuries and optimize performance, both yoga and other forms of physical activity emphasize the connection between the mind and body. 

Similar to yoga, sports like running or weightlifting require focus and breath control. In other disciplines, such as rock climbing, circus arts, or boxing, practitioners have to be hyperaware of their bodies in order to move purposefully and efficiently

5. Community

Whether you attend group classes or pracice at home, yoga is a wonderful way to connect with people. Over the years I’ve practiced yoga, I made many lifelong connections, both as a student and as a teacher.

Additionally, certain types of yoga practice involve teamwork and active interaction with fellow practitioners. For instance, Acro Yoga involves coordinated partner work and cooperative movements that resemble team sports and tandem sports.

a woman crouching and unravelling a blue yoga mat

3 Differences Between Yoga and Sport

It’s important to note that for all of their similarities, there are also significant differences between yoga and many traditional sports. Yoga is usually more focused on holistic well-being, spiritual growth, and inner peace, which may not necessarily align with the central goals of many competitive sports.

1. Competition

Historically and culturally, yoga is not inherently competitive in nature. While there are some competitive forms of yoga emerging, the traditional practice is focused on personal growth, self-awareness, and holistic well-being. 

In contrast, performance-based competition is a key component in many sports. That said, many people partake in sports reacreationally, following personal performance and health goals.

2. Objective

In sports, there are clear objectives, rules, and scoring systems. The goal is typically to achieve a specific result or win over your opponents. 

Yoga, on the other hand, doesn’t have a win-lose framework or a standardized achievement milestones. Furthermore, people do yoga for a variety of reasons, which is reflected in the nature of their personal practice. 

3. Cultural and Philosophical Elements

The trademarks of yoga are its philosophical and spiritual components. Deeply rooted in ancient Indian philosophy, and influenced by local religions, yoga follows spiritual principles not present in any other sports.

a yoga class doing warrior pose

Competition in Yoga

This might sound like I am contradicting myself because I already stated that yoga is not a competitive practice. However, in the last couple of decades there has been a shift that introduced a competition element to yoga.

How it Started

The first world yoga competition took place in 1989. It was organized by International Federation of Yoga Sports with Fernando Estevez-Griego (Swami Maitreyananda) leading the event.

Reportedly, the purpose of putting together a yoga championship event was to show young people the virtues of yoga though the lens of competition. Held in Montevideo (Uruguay) and Ponducherry (India), the competition covered all eight limbs of yoga as outlined in The Yoga Sutras.

This championship has since established itself as an annual event, attracting hundreds of people worldwide. One of the reasons this event was so successful is due to the minimal demand for infrastructure and equipment, particularly compared to other sports.

a woman practicing restorative yoga on a bolster

Yoga Asana Championships

One of the most well-known yoga competitions is the Yoga Asana Championships, which is backed by the International Yoga Sports Federation (IYSF). One of the major players in asana competitions is USA Yoga, a non-profit with a mission to promote yoga as a means to improve well-being and fitness. 

In these competitions, participants perform a series of postures within a time limit and are scored based on strict factors like alignment, balance, flexibility, and strength. These competitions specifically refers to participants as “athletes”, further promoting the notion that yoga is a form of sports.

Community Pushback

The inclusion of competitive yoga has sparked debates within the yoga community. To many dedicated practitioners, yoga competitions are an oxymoron. How could you turn An individual practice that revolves around personal growth and spiritual enlightenment into a competition?

The counterargument here is that in India, yoga competitions have been happening for hundreds of years. If the birthplace of yoga practice approves and even encourages the competition, surely that’s okay?

Furthermore, it’s worth noting that yoga practice takes many forms depending on each individual person. Competitive yoga is only a small niche within the broader yoga community. The vast majority of yoga practitioners engage in yoga without any competitive element. 

a woman in a green yoga top practicing a warrior pose

Yoga as Complementary Training

Another reason yoga may be considered a sport is thanks to its complementary function when combined with other sports. Many amateur and professional athletes turn to yoga as a means of cross-training, active recovery, and injury prevention.

Here are the main reasons why yoga works as complementary training:

  • Improved mobility. Yoga is famous for increasing flexibility and end range of motion
  • Strength and stability. Yoga poses engage various muscle groups, helping to build overall strength and stability in muscles and ligaments.
  • Balance and coordination. Sports that depend on a sense of balance benefit from yoga as cross-training to hone those skills. 
  • Injury prevention and rehabilitation. Yoga is often prescribed by doctors and physiotherapists as a means to prevent injury or promote healing.
  • Mental focus. Yoga can help athletes maintain focus, manage stress, and stay present during competition or training sessions.
  • Breathing techniques. Pranayama can help athletes optimize their breathing patterns for improved performance.

Conclusion: Is Yoga a Sport?

Ultimately, whether yoga is considered a sport depends on the context in which yoga is practiced. Some people may view it primarily as a wellness practice, while others may see it as a competitive activity.

One of the greatest things about yoga is its versatility. It wears many different hats, acting as a form of exercise, a spiritual practice, a self-improvement tool, or an opportunity to socialize with your peers.

I know that not everyone will agree with me on this, but as far as I am concerned, sports is just one of the “hats” of yoga. 

Don’t worry, it doesn’t mean that every practitioner has to engage in yoga as a form of sports. If you are opposed to this view, it is perfectly acceptable to define the practice differently, based on your personal experience with yoga.

If you’d like to learn more about the competitive side of yoga and the surrounding controversies, check out the documentary Posture by Nathan Bender and Daniel Nelson, which follows the USA Yoga Federation National Championship.

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An avid yoga practitioner, Cat completed her training as a Hatha yoga teacher in 2016. She firmly believes that with the right guidance, yoga can benefit everyone, regardless of age, gender, size, or ability. With a background in journalism, Cat realized she could share her yoga experience with others, kickstarting her freelance writing career.

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