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Champions of Zen

Inside the controversial world of competitive yoga

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Picture this: a hundred people sitting around a boxing ring at a Brooklyn gym one snowy evening in late January. Instead of gathering to watch people fight, they are there to watch people bend, twist, and fold their bodies into contorted yoga poses.

The room is completely silent as all eyes focus on the center of the ring, where 22 yogis will each demonstrate six different postures before the night is through. A panel of judges is positioned at a table in front of the ring while they analyze the movements, stone-faced.

Slowly but surely, the room comes to life. When Craig Friedman, a competitor in the senior division, breathes heavily through Dandayamana Dhanurasana, standing bow pose, his knees quiver as he pulls one leg up in the air to make a straight line with the one planted on the ground, and the crowd claps encouragingly. Beads of sweat drip down Friedman's forehead as he brings his leg into Janu Sirsasana, head-to-knee pose, and the judges take swift notes.

Then Victoria Gibbs, tall and taut in a black bodysuit, takes the ring. Bending backwards to grab her shins, she completes Chakra Bandhasana, full wheel pose, to the sounds of soft gasping from the impressed audience. Moments later, she's morphing into Vrscikasana, scorpion pose, and veins pop out of her forehead as she tries not to wobble while balancing on her forearms.

A few feet off away from the ring is an area where a dozen competitors are warming up their splits, backbends, handstands, and downward dogs on gym mats. They watch the competition and swap tips. Nikki Ortiz, a 27-year-old from Ecuador who teaches at Yoga to the People, says the atmosphere is friendly: "Nobody wants anyone else to fall. They just want you to do your best."

These yoga enthusiasts are competing in the USA Yoga Asana New York regional championship, now in its 13th year. This is just one of 16 such events that will take place around the country in 2016, and those who earn the highest scores tonight will face off against champions from other regionals during a final competition in Jackson Hole, Wyoming in May. Those winners will then go on to compete in the international championships, where representatives from participating countries like Australia, Spain, Mexico, Switzerland, Chile, England, and Denmark will battle for the title of world champion.

The US competitions are organized by the United States Yoga Federation, also referred to as USA Yoga, an LA-based nonprofit with a mission to develop and promote yoga as a sport. Its clever logo resembles the NBA's, but with a yogi doing standing bow pose instead of a basketball player dribbling a ball.

"Nobody wants anyone else to fall. They just want you to do your best."

"The whole purpose is to inspire others to take on the practice and gain the benefits of yoga," says Joseph Encinia, president of USA Yoga and an international yoga champion himself. "We find that the more people see competitions, the more they are interested."

And the more steam competitive yoga picks up, the more polarizing it's become.

Competitive yoga might sound like a strange, even contradictory, concept. In fact, as an April Fools' prank, Lululemon put an ad in Yoga Journal in 2002 that read "Invitational. Yoga Pose Off. $30,000 First Prize. Watch the world's best as they battle for prestige and cash!" In a time before yoga competitions had hit America, the idea was so offensive to readers that the magazine, drowning in angry responses, had to print a letter in its next issue to explain that it was a joke — but yoga competitions are actually a part of ancient Indian tradition.

Yoga is one of India's oldest methods for holistic healing, with different schools rooted in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, with many yoga poses referencing Hindu mythology specifically. Take the sequences of Virabhadrasana, or warrior poses, that were named after Virabhadra, the son of Shiva, one of the major Hindu deities. According to Hindu tradition, when Shiva's wife Sati died after her body burst into flames of anger, Shiva tore his hair out in grief and threw a lock to the ground which in turn birthed Virabhadra, a fierce warrior. The assorted variations of the warrior pose are said to represent strength, devotion, and an ability to overcome ego.

While its origins date back nearly 5,000 years, the Indian philosopher Patanjali is credited with assembling the Yoga Sutras some time around 400 C.E. He compiled ancient yoga traditions into 196 sutras, or texts, and outlined yoga's "eight limbs," the tenants of the practice, which include posture, breath, focus, and meditation. There are now at least a dozen, possibly upwards of 30, different forms of yoga that are practiced all over the world.

Some experts believe yoga competitions have existed for thousands of years, almost since the practice first originated. Benjamin Lorr, author of the 2012 book Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga, notes that India has ancient traditions of competitive wrestling, and so it's likely that yoga competitions were held millennia ago too. According to the International Federation of Yoga Sports, though, competitions in their current form — Hatha yoga, focused on asana (posture) and pranayama (breathing) — are probably just 200 years old.

Regardless, contemporary competition did not begin to take formal shape until the Yoga Federation of India was founded in 1974. Since then, several organizations have formed to hold yoga competitions and regulate their rules. The biggest one, the International Yoga Sports Federation, has been around since 2003 and acts as a governing body for chapters in 32 countries, including USA Yoga.

Though not officially affiliated with it, USA Yoga has strong ties to Bikram yoga. The organization was started by Rajashree Choudhury, the wife of Bikram Choudhury, who trademarked the popular hot yoga variation where 26 specific postures are practiced in studios heated to 104 degrees and named it after himself.

Some experts believe yoga competitions have existed for thousands of years, almost since the practice first originated.

Bikram Choudhury's journey to becoming a yoga master is deeply rooted in competition. Growing up in Kolkata, India, Bikram began practicing yoga at age four and also studied under the tutelage of renowned competitive bodybuilder Bishnu Ghosh. When he was 17, Bikram experienced a weightlifting accident and was told he'd be crippled for life. He began to practice 26 specific yoga poses (the same ones Bikram yoga studios practice today), and six months later, his health was restored. Bikram was an undefeated yoga champion in India in the 1960s, as was Rajashree in the ‘70s and ‘80s. "I'd be in standing head-to-knee and someone would bang a big steel pan to test my composure," she told the New York Times in 2012, describing her childhood competitions.

The Los Angeles-residing Bikram and Rajashree were staples at yoga championships when competition first came to the US, but due to the recent sexual assault allegations leveraged against Bikram, his involvement with USA Yoga has all but ceased. He has not attended any competitions over the last few years and his name has been scrubbed from USA Yoga's website. Last month, he was ordered to pay $7 million after losing one of the many lawsuits filed against him. Rajashree, who did not respond to interview requests for this story, filed for divorce in December after 31 years of marriage, citing "irreconcilable differences."

Despite this upheaval, competitive yoga has managed to quietly pivot away from the Bikram movement and continue to attract new members. Competitions in places like Texas, California, Florida, and Washington draw big crowds and hundreds of people are expected to attend the national championship in May.

The rules for competitive yoga have evolved over the past several decades, but these days look like this: six poses must be performed within a period of three minutes, and each pose must be held for a minimum of three seconds. Four poses are mandatory and must be some sort of variation on a forward bend, a backbend, a stretch, and a twist; the last two poses are yogi's choice. Each pose is scored on a 10-point scale, so the top score a competitor can receive is 60. Encinia says the average score is a 30, and the highest USA Yoga has ever seen from a competitor is a 42.

Yoga competitions test the asana, or physical movement, with balance, stillness, breathing, and concentration factored into the final score. The easier you make a difficult pose look, the more points you'll receive. Some poses are also worth more points than others: advanced poses like Pincha Mayurasana (forearm stand) and Tittibhasana (firefly pose) are worth more points than, say, Ardha Bhujangasana (baby cobra).

"It's not just about what you do, it's how you do it," says Encinia. "We're looking at technique. If a yogi's alignment is off, we'll hold it against them, but we're also watching for balance and control of the breath. Someone can be holding still the entire time, but if they're holding their breath, they'll eventually start shaking. We've had athletes and contortionists come to compete and they think they're going to kill it, but then they get jittery and fall. Yoga is about catching the stillness."

"Sure, the highest score wins, just like in gymnastics, but here the deductions have to do with what else affects the posture," adds Cynthia Wehr, the owner of a yoga studio in Mountain View, California and one of the judges at the New York event. "Yoga is the union of their body, mind, and emotion, and the postures demonstrate control, so we are looking to see how breath affects it."

"Yoga is about catching the stillness."

While these events are certainly competitions — the main objective, after all, is to get the highest score — the community prefers to use the word "championship." As Encinia claims, "There are no winners and losers."

More than 24 million adults in America practice yoga, according to a Sports & Fitness Industry Association survey from 2013, making it almost as popular as golf. It's been cited as a $27 billion industry, a number that is simultaneously hard to believe and easy to understand, if you're going to include all the coveted gear and green juice that yoga studios sell. Yoga has been welcomed with open arms by Americans hopping on the wellness bandwagon, but competitive yoga remains controversial: people either love the idea or utterly despise it.

"To a lot of people, it's the antithesis of what yoga is," says Jennilyn Carson, founder of the popular blog Yoga Dork. "Yoga is a personal practice, so bringing it to a competition blows people's minds. Nobody wants to be in a yoga class where everyone's eyes are looking around at each other, but this is the competitiveness they are trying to push."

Carin Gorrell, the editor-in-chief of Yoga Journal, says the whole aspect of judging someone's practice leaves her puzzled: "Every yoga discipline — and teacher, really — has a different and strong opinion on proper alignment. Who would have the ultimate say in what makes a ‘perfect pose?'"

Encinia, and others involved in the competition world, assert it's not about a contest between battling yogis, but rather "a competition between our true self versus our ego."

"It's a lot like martial arts, it requires serious commitment and discipline," says Ortiz. "It's not about showing off, it's about testing yourself and knowing you can mentally focus for those three minutes and commit to the practice. Winning doesn't motivate us. We are there to help our personal growth."

Loretta Turner, a yoga instructor from New Jersey, says that even though these competitions promote the idea that you are facing off against yourself, at the end of the day, "someone is watching you and calling out your mistakes. That makes it come down to good versus bad, and that is no longer yoga, that's just trying to impress someone."

"You can't compare one person's yoga form to the other because not all bodies are capable of doing the same movements," adds Amanda Shafran, a 28-year-old instructor in New York City. "Everyone's anatomical proportions are different, so yoga is really most effective when tailored to the needs of the individual's body." Shafran and others are also concerned competition strips yoga of its inherent spirituality.

Lorr, on the other hand, who studied the competitive yoga world for his book, posits that championships are less about winning and more about participating.

"It's like going to church and listening to the choir. It's Bikram yoga's version of a high school play."

"They provide an overwhelming sense of community, the same way people see CrossFit," says Lorr. "It's like going to church and listening to the choir. It's Bikram yoga's version of a high school play. It encourages people to deepen their practice and rally around their style of yoga. To an outsider, it sounds sinister, but that's the reason most people participate: it strengthens their ties."

"I love the opportunity to go on stage and demonstrate what I've worked so hard to do," echoes Eddie Hall, a 37-year-old personal trainer from Baltimore. "I also think it helps motivate guys because there's such a small representation of us in yoga."

Ortiz, who placed third at this year's Brooklyn championship, says competing has pushed her own yoga practice to a whole new level.

"I tell people that it's good for them," she says. "The first time I competed, there were poses I couldn't do that were required. And yes, a lot of yoga instructors will tell you not to push yourself, and yes, you should never push yourself to injury, but when you actually set a goal and work to it, it's amazing to see what you can do. It was mind-blowing to see how much more progress I made in three months getting ready for a competition than in a year practicing yoga."

Gianna Purcell, a Chicago-based yoga instructor who competed from 2009 until 2014 and now coaches competing yogis, believes being involved in competition is the best way to advance as a teacher. "As a coach, you're sitting around for as many as eight hours a day, throwing ideas around," she says. "I found it very encouraging and helpful in ways that I was never fully aware of."

Still, Shafran posits there are serious flaws to the mindset competitive yoga promotes. Making postures worth more points than others, for one, is not ideal. "That is really troubling because once you begin to rank postures, it encourages value to be put on one posture over the other," she says. "And a pose's difficulty does not reflect its worth. We say that Savasana [corpse pose, in which yogis lie still on their backs at the end of their practice] is the most important pose because it allows systems to regulate themselves and that doesn't even involve any movement!"

"I would not say that one student is better than the other because they can do harder poses like handstands," says Karla Misjan, a yoga instructor from Brooklyn's SyncStudio. "We encourage people not to be attached to the fruits of their outcome. They should practice for the sake of practicing."

Up until now, it's been relatively easy for the competitive yoga debate to quietly, peacefully simmer. Yogis like Shafran and Misjan will likely never participate in a yoga competition, and Hall says that while everyone is welcome, "if you aren't interested in getting involved, then don't!"

But competitive yoga could soon be too big to ignore, as it may take to a far larger stage: the Olympics. USA Yoga has been advocating for yoga to be considered an Olympic sport for as long as the organization has been around.

"People don't think of yoga as an intense sport," says Encinia. "It might look effortless, but it requires so much hard work. Most people don't take it seriously — they think of yoga as meditation — but being an Olympic sport would make it reach so many more people."

Yoga becoming a recognized Olympic sport is not as farfetched an idea as you may think. In order for an activity to be considered by the Olympic committee, it has to be played or practiced in 75 countries across four continents. There are currently IFYS affiliates in 32 countries, and interest is rapidly growing. Just six months ago, the Sports Ministry of India announced it was classifying yoga as an official country sport; it now holds the same status as swimming, soccer, squash, and chess in India, and the government will provide funding for future yoga competitions.

But those in the competitive yoga community don't just want the validation that would come from Olympic inclusion: they want to change the very nature of the games.

"This is a healthy competition where you are only competing with yourself on stage," says Hall. "I think yoga in the Olympics could spread what competition should look like, instead of all the sports you see today, with the violence and steroids and cutthroat attitude."

"I did sports as a kid and was involved in other competitions, and our culture is so different; it's very inviting," echoes Purcell. "There is never the mentality to ‘take someone down' — nobody is strategizing how they can beat the other yogis."

More realistic than yoga altering the state of international competition is international competition altering the state of yoga. Those who participate in yoga competitions as they currently exist say they still enjoy the mental and spiritual components of the practice, but once an Olympic model is introduced, will athletes continue to recognize yoga's roots? Or will Olympic yoga focus solely on the perfect form, with athletes propelled by big sponsors and the singular pursuit of that coveted gold medal?

"Yoga in the Olympics could spread what competition should look like, instead of all the sports you see today, with the violence and steroids and cutthroat attitude."

This concern illustrates a broader debate among yoga practitioners, which Turner attributes to an overall Western influence on yoga. The BBC writes that India feels it "has lost control of ‘brand yoga' to the West."

"When you keep watering down yoga, it just gets diluted," says Turner. "And at a certain point, it's no longer yoga: it's its own Western version, one that is appropriated, disconnected, and has lost all sense of respect of the meaning behind it."

It's not that Encinia doesn't agree. He admits the yoga that the majority of Americans practice today is far from its original form — and that's okay.

"In respect to the yoga we do here, it is a creation of our own culture," he says. "The special pants, the special mats, the Instagram pics: none of that was ever part of the practice."

And remember: competitive yoga originated in India, likely thousands of years ago.

"Yoga is romanticized," says Lorr. "A version that fits American needs has been created, and it's an often stress-free environment that doesn't involve any competition and is judgment-free. That's a beautiful thing and I wouldn't want to take that away from anyone, but yoga in India does exist in a huge tent where there are many forms. Some of those forms are violent, some of them are militant, some are scholarly, and others are rooted in competition."

In that way, competitive yoga can be considered just as authentic as practice rooted in Hindu mythology. As much as opponents want to fight the rise of competition, history has shown there is room for all manners of yoga. A tournament approach, as well as a transcendent one, can coexist.

As Hall puts it, "Nobody owns yoga."

Chavie Lieber is Racked's features writer.

Editor: Julia Rubin


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