For Kelsea Bangora, New York’s 2011 yoga asana champion, the conversation usually goes like this:
“Yoga champion? How does that work?”
“Well, it’s like a dance performance, sort of, or a gymnastics routine, but not really.”
“So, can you touch your head with your feet?”
“Well, of course”
Typically, she does not demonstrate.
“I don’t want to show off,” she said. “I mean, my own students don’t even know I’m a champion.”
Others will be vying for that title when the U.S. Yoga Federation hosts the ninth New York Regional and National Yoga Asana Championship from Friday night through Sunday afternoon at the Hudson Theater in Manhattan.
Before a panel of five judges, participants will have three minutes to perform seven postures, five required and two of their choice. In the youth division, participants ages 11 to 17 will perform six postures total. The top two finishers in each group – men, women and youth – will proceed to compete in the Bishnu Charan Ghosh Cup, the international championship held in Los Angeles in June.
In Sanskrit, yoga means to connect or bind together. Body with mind. Breath with movement. Inner with outer. Patanjali, who wrote the Yoga Sutras thousands of years ago, posited that yoga created holistic health by easing the fluctuations of the mind. Over time, many limbs of yoga formed. Hatha yoga, developed in the 15th century, is the physical practice that most Americans are familiar with, referred to as asana.
Some competitors describe the physical practice as a moving meditation, one that their advanced, competition training has deepened.
“Through the postures I have learned patience and perseverance,” said Bangora, 23.
But how does one master easeful meditation during competition when being judged and ranked creates the very mind tremors Patanjali assured yoga could quiet?
At last year’s regional championship, Bangora said she believed she performed so poorly that she hid in a broom closet and wept, being sure to put a smile on her face before rejoining the other participants. She ended up winning.
“No one feels good about their performance on stage,” she said.
Bangora’s roller-coaster experience – one shared by competitive athletes around the world – highlights why many are puzzled by competitive yoga.
“Aren’t there enough things in our world that feed the competitive mind?” said Leigh Evans, a senior yoga teacher of Brooklyn’s Greenhouse Holistic yoga studio. “Bending yoga to fit this already twisted mind state, instead of allowing it to expand our consciousness, is a misuse of the great gifts that are the potential of the practice.”
But Rajashree Choudhury, the founder of USA Yoga and the wife of Bikram Choudhury, who has his own copyrighted yoga sequence from which most competitors come, said if it were not for competitions, she would never have practiced yoga.
As a child in Kolkata, formerly Calcutta, Choudhury loved track and field, although yoga was always around.
“I was 4 years old when I started, and everyone practiced yoga after school,” she said.
But she was irritated when her physical education teachers signed her up for a school yoga competition at age 9. Yoga did not seem exciting enough.
Then she won.
“I saw the amazing things people could do with their bodies, and I got hooked,” Choudhury said.
She became a five-time national yoga asana champion.
Yoga performed for an audience is not as rare in India, where forefathers of many western yoga schools, like Pattabhi Jois, spent years demonstrating hatha yoga. Sharon Gannon, a founder of Jivamukti Yoga School, studied for many years with Jois and said that he required his students to complete a rigorous final physical examination, comparable to an athletic team tryout.
“He would call out the name of an asana, and you would perform it in front of a board of people,” Gannon said. “If you were going to teach, you had to show that you had put in the hard work yourself.”
For those in competitive yoga, the training regimen resembles that of serious athletes. Many practice four hours a day and six days a week in a Bikram studio, where the temperature steams at 105 degrees.
“They are not weekend yogis,” Gannon said of the competitors.
Since moving to the United States in 1984, Choudhury has worked with Bikram to educate Americans about the health benefits of yoga. Her ultimate goal through USA Yoga is to promote yoga asana so that it will be legitimized as a sport and accepted into the Olympics.
“Someday I want everybody to watch it on ESPN,” she said.
Some competitors laughed at the thought of a crowd in an Olympic arena silently watching participants try to balance in a standing bow pose.
“But why not?” said Zach Gold, 28, who will compete at the regional championship this year for the first time. “Is curling any more exciting?”
To be considered for the Olympics, yoga asana must be widely practiced by men and women in 75 countries and would have to be voted in by the International Olympic Committee. Competitions now exist in 15 countries, and an official rulebook has yet to be created.
“The judging has not been very precise and is still evolving,” said Kyoko Katsura, 40, a former gymnast and regional yoga champion.
With a maximum of 80 points possible, competitors are scored on things like proper alignment, timing and steadiness of holds, but they can also be marked off for an improper attitude, showing off and unattractive blemishes.
“Old-school judges tend to be sticklers about the entrance into and exit from a posture, but new judges seem interested in artistic interpretation,” said John Schoggins, 35, a molecular biologist whose goal is to place in the top half of the 39 competitors this year.
USA Yoga is working to settle the judging inconsistencies, but Choudhury said she hoped to create enough precision in her rulebook to please the IOC while not distancing other yoga schools she would like to involve. Her husband has also told her to be careful not to transform yoga into another variation of gymnastics.
“Gymnastics is about momentum,” Choudhury said, “and yoga is about stillness.”
Neither seated meditation nor Shavasana, a resting pose that many teachers cite as the most challenging for western yogis, is a required pose in competition, but some practitioners suggested that both poses should be.
“It doesn’t matter if you can stick your foot behind your head,” Evans said. “Yoga is a state of mind, and if you could somehow put that on a Richter scale, see how awakened that person was, transmit that to the thousands of people watching, measure their kindness and peacefulness, then you could measure the state of yoga.”
Schoggins, who once performed peacock pose at a party to inspire his friends, said that the yogic elements shined through when postures were properly performed – on stage, in a studio, or at a social gathering.
“You can see serenity, open-mindedness, clarity,” he said. “When people haven’t reached that level, it will look like a gymnastics routine – just a bunch of physical postures.”
One would hardly dismiss a perfect 10 routine from Nadia Comaneci as a bunch of physical postures. Every superior athlete, no matter the sport, can inspire.
“My gurus told me it is very powerful for people to just see yoga asanas performed,” Gannon said.
Gannon confessed she had never been to a competition.
“But I’ve watched them on YouTube,” she said. “I was very humbled.”