Things I like about yoga: Increased flexibility. Stress reduction. My newly discovered biceps muscles.
Things I do not like about yoga: Warrior I. Teachers who issue flaky commands to “tighten your inner ankles” or rotate a joint until it feels “yummy” or “juicy.” Musical accompaniment involving John Mayer songs.
And the showoffs . . . ugh, the showoffs. Like the bald guy at the beginning of some classes who loudly practices his handstand when everyone else is trying to relax. Or the Mila Kunis-look-alike who smirks at everyone else in the room after successfully standing head-to-knee.
Somewhere on the path to enlightenment — or, at the very least, lowered blood pressure — the famously nonjudgmental and inward-looking practice of yoga became a public performance.
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This past weekend, a few hundred people from all over the country converged on Midtown Manhattan’s Hudson Theater for USA Yoga’s national Yoga Asana Championship. (“Asana” refers to any one of the numerous postures that make up a physical yoga practice.)
Competitors, some outfitted in the tracksuits and complicated hair plaits often found on gymnasts, milled around. In the lobby, an assortment of vendors at folding tables hawked apparel in strangely ugly, rococo fabrics. Inside the 600-seat theater, yogis took turns twisting their bodies into a series of crazy contortions. (Extreme Makeover: Pretzel Edition.) One fan favorite: a nasty and aptly named little maneuver called the “broken leg.”
Organizers say the aim is to bring awareness to yoga — eventually, they want to make it an Olympic sport. These ambitions prompted a fair amount of chuckling over the past week — “just in case it becomes too relaxing, why not turn it into a competition we can stress about?” asked a writer for Time — but yoga competitions have apparently been around for decades. Rajashree Choudury, 46, the founder and president of USA Yoga, is herself a five-time winner of something called the All-India Yoga Championship. (Choudury is married to Bikram Choudury, the creator of the famously challenging and controversial Bikram yoga method, which incorporates a wall of mirrors and a room heated to 105 degrees.)
As for what a “yoga champion” is, it’s difficult to say. As in gymnastics or figure skating, ability and skill in yoga asana is measured subjectively, by a group of judges. (A USA Yoga news release explains that competitors are judged on technical execution, difficulty and poise.) Part of the problem with this is that it seems anathema to what the practice is supposed to be about, which has as much to do with inner stillness as exterior movement.
“The more you separate yoga from its real intention, the more you center it on the physical, you might was well go to the gym,” says Linda Sparrowe, a yoga instructor based in Rhode Island. “That’s not really what yoga is about. And it’s certainly nothing that I’m interested in.”
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In USA Yoga’s defense, the yogis last weekend seemed more concerned with controlling their bodies and minds than communicating an air of superiority. There was none of the preening or peacocking so often seen elsewhere.
Plus, isn’t engaging in rivalry part of what it means to be human? A few weeks ago, one of my teachers good-naturedly acknowledged a group of aggressive students by telling the rest of the class, “don’t mind the alpha males up here in the front.” And as Liz Glover, owner of D.C.’s Bikram Yoga Capitol Hill, points out, there’s an element of competition anytime you put a group of people in a room, especially in urban areas. “Does it complicate the message a little bit? Absolutely,” she says with a laugh. “But I mean, honestly, my feeling is it doesn’t matter what keeps the kids off the streets.”
“I think if I have issue with it it’s just that I’d hate for yoga to be boiled down to something as ultimately insignificant as what one person’s body is capable of doing when put to the test,” says Kaitlin Quisgaard, editor in chief of the San Francisco-based Yoga Journal. “That’s where the danger of creating competition lies.”
Choudury, to her credit, welcomes some criticisms. In fact, she doesn’t really see them as criticisms at all. (Must be all that yoga.)
“I try to look at everything as beautiful, so I always say that if someone comes to it this way their mind-set is just not open to this idea,” she says. “A competitive setting is all about deep reflection.”
Raj Bhavsar, 31, a former competitive gymnast, took a few minutes before judging Friday’s finalists to push this talking point further. “This is more of a showcase for a practice than a competition,” says Bhavsar, who credits yoga with helping him lead his team to a bronze medal at the 2008 Bejing Olympics. “It’s about self-acceptance.”
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Tell that to the competitor whose face crumpled when she toppled out of a difficult balance. Or the judge who made a joke about the participants in the children’s division skipping breakfast for a month in order to “look good in their costumes.” (Most of the kids in the category were adolescent females.)
William J. Broad outlines the physical risks that come with a competitive or aggressive yoga practice with some truly horrific anecdotes in his new book, “T he Science of Yoga,” which, in January was excerpted in the New York Times Magazine under the headline “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.”
“It’s ego,” yoga teacher Glenn Black is quoted as saying. (Black is one of the biggest critics of the way yoga is practiced today.) “The whole point of yoga is to get rid of ego.”
Sparrowe, who oversees the Himalayan Institute’s Yoga International magazine, penned a feature for the spring 2012 issue on yoga, status anxiety and body image, warning that “a yoga practice that focuses primarily on the physical body can actually exacerbate any preexisting body issues.” She reports on students who pressure themselves to look like the women in yoga marketing materials, who are often indistinguishable from the models seen in fashion and cosmetics ads. (Which is to say: young, white and thin.)
Sparrowe’s piece is one of the few I’ve seen on the issue of status and competition in yoga. Yoga Journal, the biggest and most commercial of various American yoga periodicals, has published only one story on the subject, part of a 2007 online-only Q&A titled “Competition Problems” in which Ashtanga expert David Swenson counseled a yogi who was disheartened by the level of nastiness among her fellow teachers. “I think that a mistake we all make is to think that the world of yoga will be any different than the rest of the world,” he says. “In yoga, people pretend [competition] is not there.”
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“How do you know their mind state if you’re not talking to them?” Choudury asks after I complain repeatedly about the attitudes in some of the yoga classes I take.
She has a point: Maybe I’m just projecting. Ideally, she explains, I should be able to lie down and go into savasana — the pose of deep relaxation most often practiced at the end of any yoga class — next to the loud guy doing headstand or the middle-aged brunette with a thing for sighing loudly. “Start ignoring them. Start ignoring them,” she says. Translation: Do more yoga.
Later that day, I take an evening class with one of my favorite teachers, Danielle, who makes it a point to create a calm and accepting atmosphere. She puts us through an exhausting series of poses before instructing us to squat on the back of our mats to prep for crow, a difficult arm-balancing maneuver.
“Lose your ambition,” she says. I’ve been trying for months to achieve the pose, in which one’s body weight is fully supported by one’s arms and core. I suck in my gut, push into the ground with my palms, then lift my right foot off the floor. “Lose your ambition,” Danielle calls out again. My other foot comes up off the mat and I take a peek to my left to check on the progress of a woman who made a big show of balancing in tripod five minutes earlier.
Then I fall forward, flat on my face.
To read previous columns by Anna Holmes, go to wapo.st/anna-holmes.