clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Pose harder

Competitive yoga is catching on in America. But is it still yoga if you're scoring points?

Yoga is what many Americans do to stay in shape. To recover from injury. To de-stress. To be spiritual. But to win? Not often. And yet, hundreds of yoga enthusiasts gather every year from across the country for the National Yoga Asana championship. This March, the competitors, their entourages, and vendors hawking loud yoga tights descended upon San Antonio to see who would make it into the international competition, which takes place this weekend.

To many of the estimated 20 million Americans who do yoga — or even those who have simply been exposed to the dopey, incense-soaked stereotype of blissed-out hippies or contortionists — the idea of competitive yoga sounds like an oxymoron. Many yoga teachers, in fact, regularly implore students not to compete with each other, and to focus on their own practices instead.

There's a sense in which yoga as practiced by many Americans rejects even self-competition. Your body is different from day to day, the yoga teacher says. Don't push it; your body will do what it does. It's a far cry from the sweat-soaked, Gatorade-swilling, Just Do It mindset that pervades many high-level sports.

In 2012, a handful of news outlets caught wind that USA Yoga, a nonprofit organization that promotes the sport of performing yoga postures, had petitioned to get yoga into the Olympic Games. The writers could barely contain their skepticism. "So just in case [yoga] becomes too relaxing, why not turn it into a competition we can stress about?" wrote Time. The Daily Caller surrounded the word sport with ironic quotation marks.

But a growing movement wants to make yoga postures a widely recognized competitive sport in the US — a sport that everyone from kids to senior citizens practices. This movement raises several questions about the nature of both sports and yoga. Can an ancient practice with such a heavy spiritual component really be considered a sport? Does yoga lose some of its power when it's being scored by a panel of judges? And are Americans — who often flock to yoga as a refuge from their stressful lives — even interested in a competitive version of the practice?

"Everybody's like, ‘How could yoga be competition?’ That is the biggest challenge I faced. In India this is a very old concept."

If competitive yoga resembles any major sport, it is probably closest to figure skating or gymnastics. Many of the highest-level competitors train year-round for hours a day, eat special diets, and give up major chunks of their free time, all in order to perfect one three-minute routine. There are five compulsory moves that all athletes must complete, only for yoga instead of a triple salchow or back handspring, it's a standing bow or rabbit pose.

The competitors also get to express themselves; after performing the compulsory poses, they get to show off with two poses of their choice. The athlete must announce each posture before doing it — a practice that is part a formality and part functional. It's a little bit like a pool player calling her shot. If a competitor aiming for handstand scorpion — an advanced pose that involves standing on the hands, then bending the legs and back until the feet rest on the head — decides halfway through the pose to just opt for a plain handstand, the judges would be none the wiser if she did not announce it first.

A table of judges takes notes and awards points based on rubrics for how any given pose should look. If the athletes fall out of a precarious balancing pose or take up too much time, points are docked. And as is often the case in figure skating or gymnastics (the women's versions of those sports, anyway), the uniforms are minimal. The women usually perform in what look like one-piece bathing suits, the men often in little more than boxer briefs.

But it's gymnastics or figure skating without the overt fireworks. There are no explosive quadruple jumps or soaring vaults. The competitors go through each pose slowly and deliberately, making sure to hit every alignment point and maintain their balance. Plus, the only surefire way to tuck an ankle behind your head and stand on the other leg, and to do it perfectly, is to ease into it.

Zeb Homison competes at the 2013 USA Yoga Asana National Championships (USA Yoga)

Meanwhile, the audience must stay absolutely silent. When the competitor achieves a perfect pose, the people watching tend to freeze along with him, as if afraid a single throat-clear or arm-scratch would upset his balance. And when the competitor is wobbling hopelessly on one leg, the spectators lean in their seats, willing him to stay upright (and, of course, not groaning or gasping when he does fall).

Of course, fireworks aren't the point. Even though there's nothing explosive about it, a person pulling herself into a perfect posture with no sign of struggle is a different breed of impressive than a figure skating routine.

It isn't just that a competitor tucked her legs behind her shoulders and stood on her hands; it's the ease with which she pulled it off, looking as nonchalant as if she were flipping through a magazine or clipping her nails. And from the looks of it, she could probably do it a few more times if she had to.

Because it's about fitting an exacting rubric of how a pose should look, the differences between how two people perform the same posture can be miniscule. To my untrained eye, two contestants' versions of standing head-to-knee could be virtually identical. The expert judges, however, can detect sizable differences.

For their parts, the athletes say it's all about staying on their own mats and not paying attention to how the other athletes are performing. In fact, no matter how many people I asked or how I pried, every competitor said there are no rivalries, no bitter rifts between top athletes.

"You're competing against yourself up there," said Gianna Purcell, the 2013 national champion and a 2014 competitor, in a variation of an answer I heard from at least half a dozen athletes. The lack of animosity with which the yoga competitors describe competitions seems to separate them from many other top-level athletes in sports that breed huge egos and rivalries.

One other thing that seems to separate yoga from many major competitive sports is the power that many of its practitioners ascribe to it. One competitor told me yoga helped him stop drinking and regularly getting into bar fights. Another told me it helped him lose 65 pounds. Purcell says yoga helped her get off antidepressants and ADHD medication.

And though this is a competition, it's hard to divorce the sport these athletes are practicing from yoga's often-touted spiritual and healing aspects. It doesn't seem strange to hear several of these athletes say, in all seriousness, that yoga cured their ills, but it might seem more peculiar to hear a series of professional golfers say the sport helped them get off drugs.

Still, yoga is not without scandal — and serious scandal at that. At the helm of the movement to make yoga a competitive sport is Rajashree Choudhury, the founder of USA Yoga. She's married to Bikram Choudhury, the founder of Bikram yoga, a prominent figure in the yoga community — and the defendant in several sexual-assault lawsuits. As of February, five women had filed civil lawsuits against him, accusing him of sexual assault. Rajashree is also named as a co-defendant in the lawsuits, though the sexual assault charges focus on Bikram.

Bikram's connection to competitive yoga goes beyond his marriage to Rajashree. All the poses in the competition are Bikram poses. Many competitors are Bikram teachers, and have trained with Bikram Choudhury. The competition hosted yoga classes before the matches began, and they were Bikram classes. One former competitor and one of Choudhury's accusers, Sarah Baughn, alleged in a Vanity Fair article that she rebuffed Choudhury's sexual advances, and that he retaliated by overruling judges' decision in 2008 to award her the national championship.

Sexual assault is already a serious crime, and it takes on new dimension in the context of the relationship between a guru and his students, hundreds of whom might sign up at a time for one of his nine-week teacher training courses, which cost thousands of dollars. Practicing yoga becomes a central part of many Bikram devotees' lives. Baughn left college to train with Bikram. And one accuser told Vanity Fair that she thought "her life would be over" if she left the Bikram community, even after her alleged assault.

Bikram Choudhury did not make an appearance at the 2014 championships. I asked Rajashree whether the sexual assault accusations have hurt the sport. She demurred.

"I cannot say from their perspective because I'm adding my word to the Bikram community's mouth," she said.

Lisa Ingle Stevens, a Bikram teacher in San Antonio who served as the organizing host for this year's national championships, didn't want to talk about the Bikram accusations, either.

"We're not here to talk about that," she said. "That has nothing to do with what we do here. This is a completely separate business."

Yoga has been in Rajashree Choudhury's life since she was a child competing in yoga matches in India.

"I gave all my life to yoga as a sport because I would not have stuck with yoga if I hadn't gotten introduced to it at a competitive level," she says.

Her mother made her do yoga when she was very young, an experience Choudhury says was "such a drag" — that is, until she won an interscholastic yoga competition at age 10 or 11, she says. Her competitive nature took control, and she eventually won the Indian national championship five years running, from 1979 to 1983.


Rajashree Choudhury practicing yoga as a girl in India

Speaking to Choudhury, it's clear she's been making the pitch for competitive yoga for a long time. When I ask her about the struggle to make yoga a widely accepted sport in the US, her answers are both passionate and practiced. Yes, she believes people can and should be judged for their postures, and she also thinks people need to loosen up about it already.

"Everybody's like, ‘How could yoga be competition?' That is the biggest challenge I faced," she says. "In India this is a very old concept. It's just the mindset of people."

Competitive yoga remains a fringe activity, but it's picking up steam. This year, there were 640 people competing at regional yoga competitions and 144 at nationals. That's a big step up from last year, when 590 people competed at regionals, and a nearly 30 percent jump from two years ago, when 500 people competed.

That's impressive growth over a short period, but it's a shadow of the popularity of competitive yoga in India. Around 50,000 to 60,000 boys and girls compete in yoga annually, according to the International Yoga Sports Federation, the international governing body for yoga asana worldwide.

Many members of the yoga community in America do seem ready to accept the practice's competitive side, adopting a live-and-let-live mentality.

"When people start to say 'this is yoga' and 'that's not yoga,' to me that's really troubling," says Jasmine Chehrazi, who runs Yoga District, a group of yoga studios in Washington, DC. She says she can't imagine herself ever competing, but adds that that's also not the point.

"Part of what yoga teaches, even in the yoga sutras, is that each person has a different constitution, and that we all kind of, for lack of a better English term, evolve at different rates, but we're all going to the same place," she says. "And there's many different paths."

But others are skeptical.

"Competitive yoga — it seems like an oxymoron," says Sandra Carden, who has been teaching yoga for 12 years in Lake Leelanu, Michigan. "What's lost is the whole purpose of yoga. The purpose of yoga is enlightenment."

Yoga, she adds, "is finding freedom and peace and whatever experience you're in right now. And it takes a lot of practice. It takes a lot of practice to find that. The movement of competitive yoga is based on, ‘You're not okay. You're supposed to be better.'"

Here it is important to make a distinction: the word "yoga" as many people use it (and as this article has largely been using it) does not simply refer to the postures. Yoga has eight components — called limbs — each of which is a guideline of sorts to how to live one's life. Those include limbs corresponding to areas including ethics, self-discipline, and meditation. Asana, the practice of yoga postures, is only one limb. In its Take Back Yoga campaign, the Hindu American Foundation has emphasized this point: that divorcing the postures from yoga's other aspects perverts it.

"What we're trying to say is that the holistic practice of yoga goes beyond just a couple of asanas [postures] on a mat. It is a lifestyle, and it's a philosophy," the foundation's founder, Sheetal Shah, told NPR in 2012. "How do you lead your life in terms of truthfulness? And nonviolence? And purity? The lifestyle aspect of yoga has been lost."

The organizers of the championships have not lost sight of this. The name of the competition itself is the National Yoga Asana Championships — by definition, it's focusing on just one of yoga's limbs. A competition involving other aspects of yoga, like pranayama (breath control) would be something else entirely.

Whether competitive yoga will really take off in the US remains an open question. One serious problem, of course, is the sex scandal. Will people want to get involved with an activity that's so closely connected to a man accused of rape?

Relatedly, another issue that competitive yoga faces in the US is expanding beyond its Bikram-heavy community to bring in other schools of yoga, like ashtanga. Lisa Ingle Stevens said this is already happening.

"Every year that percentage [of Bikram practitioners] is being balanced with other people," she said.

Rajashree Choudhury also says that she wants other schools of yoga to feel welcome at the competition. "I'm reaching out," she said. "I want other communities to join."

Competitive yoga also faces a practical hurdle: its imperfect scoring system.

As with figure skating and gymnastics, yoga is subjective. Competitors must perform particular feats and are judged based on a rubric of what a posture should look like. A backbend that kinks the spine into more of a V shape than a U shape, even forgetting to announce a posture before doing it — any of these can ruin an athlete's chances at winning.

And that scoring system is deeply flawed, says Esak Garcia, a former international yoga champion and one of the judges at this year's US competition.

"To the kids at school it's not really a surprising thing. It's another sport I do."

"We really need to devise an all-new scoring system," he says.

One of his biggest complaints is that though poses start at a total of 10 potential points, the system doesn't always allow for 10 points' worth of deductions.

For example, stretching pose, where the person sits and reaches for her toes, bending her head down toward her legs, the rubric only lists six possible half-point deductions. Factor in the additional half-point deductions that can happen in any pose for "trembling" or "labored breathing," plus the additional potential point off for "greater movement" (none of which are likely in this posture, especially at the national level), and the lowest a person could get, according to the rubric, is a 5 out of 10. So if a judge decided to give less than a five, he couldn't explain it fully.

"We need to make it so that every single point can be justified," he says.

Gianna Purcell competes at the 2013 USA Yoga Asana National Championships (USA Yoga)

Some of the athletes dislike the scoring system, too. When I ask one of the men's competitors whether he and his peers often disagree with their scores, he nods enthusiastically before I can even finish the question.

"Oh yeah," he says. "All the time."

Yet another obstacle competitive yoga faces is getting people interested in it at a young age. For now, only a few are. At the 2014 national championships, only 13 girls and one boy end up competing in the youth division.

One of those girls is Jamie Rellstab, a 14-year-old from tiny Pinedale, Wyoming. About an hour before the competition, she sits on the floor in a corner of the theater lobby balcony, leaning against a bench, between the shins of a friend who is intently braiding and spraying her hair.

Though she's one of relatively few youth yoga competitors nationwide, she says that at her high school her friends don't see her extracurricular as particularly out of place.

"To the kids at school it's not really a surprising thing. It's another sport I do."

That said, she and the other youth competitors make it look like less taxing of a sport than the adults do. Where the adults slowly ease into poses that look altogether painful, the limber preteens and teenagers seem much more able to easily slip into many poses, particularly deep backbends. Later, when Jamie takes the stage, she will perform locust to scorpion: lying on her stomach, she will push her arms into the ground at her sides and lift her legs up and forward, bending her back until her feet eventually come to rest on her head.

Rajashree Choudhury says getting more kids interested in doing yoga onstage is about changing society's perspective of what yoga is.

"Every day we have to have a challenge and we are actually dealing with really the awareness and understanding and knowledge of the public," she says. "The public cannot learn everything in one day. They cannot change their mindset overnight. I think we are on a very good positive path."

That is Choudhury's perspective, but the Jamie Rellstabs of the world will get to decide exactly where yoga's path leads. If competitive yoga is to grow, more people in younger generations will have to decide they want to go to the local yoga studio instead of the soccer field.

Editor: Eleanor Barkhorn
Designer: Uy Tieu
Developer: Yuri Victor
Lead image: USA Yoga


How millennials learned to dread motherhood

Even Better

It’s okay to suck when you try something new

Even Better

What to know about the new FAFSA

View all stories in Life