A dispatch from the sixth-annual international yoga championship.

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Feb. 17 2009 7:30 AM

Top Yogi

Rabbit poses, coconut water, and a Bikram-practicing dance team at the international yoga championship.

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The competition involves five compulsory poses: standing-head-to-knee, which goes just as it sounds; standing bow, in which you balance on one leg with one arm extended forward and the other arm drawing back the lifted leg; bow pose, in which, on the floor, you grab both feet with your hands and arch back; "rabbit," which involves scrunching up into a little ball; and a seated forward stretch. After that, the competitors get to pick two optional poses, where they can really strut. They have three minutes to complete the routine, or else they get penalized.

On Saturday afternoon, I met Mary Jarvis, a San Francisco-based yoga-studio owner who was one of Bikram's first U.S. students. She's kind of like the Béla Kårolyi of competitive yoga; she's trained several world champions and several more runners-up. Jarvis walked me through the basics of the competition with a refreshing bluntness. The first two poses, she said, are about patience, strength, and endurance, while the seated poses are purely biomechanical and reveal the quality of your spine. Your optional poses "tell a story about the kind of person you are," she said. "You demonstrate what you've accomplished in your life. It's brilliant. You cannot lie."

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Competitive yoga, Jarvis told me, is about the unity of body, mind, and soul. "The more advanced a yoga posture is, the more humble the yogi should be," she said. "If somebody's really arrogant, I won't train them. They can have a great posture on stage and be a total asshole."

To a hard-core yoga dork like myself, explanations like hers make sense. Yoga has done more for my physical and mental well-being than anything else I've tried. Still, I don't regularly practice Bikram yoga, and that's where, as the competitions entered their final hours on Sunday, my problems with the whole thing lay.

In order to make competitive yoga Olympics-worthy, Rajashree has started a not-for-profit federation. She's acting, she says, as an objective ambassador of yoga, and anybody from any discipline is welcome to compete in these championships. That's a worthy sentiment, and an evidently sincere one, except that those outreach efforts don't appear to be going anywhere thus far. Every single person I met at the Westin was a Bikram teacher, student, or studio owner, and they all described their experience with Bikram while wearing the eye-glaze of the recently saved. All the postures in the compulsory series are drawn from Bikram's copyrighted practice, and nearly all the optional poses I saw were as well.

When I mentioned my own baseline yoga practice, the Ashtanga primary series, I was met with a quiet nod of silent judgment or a dismissive "hmm." One person said, "Well, if you want to go practice your ujayii breath off in the corner, that's your business." In this, they take their lead from their guru, who in a recent interview said that prop-heavy Iyengar yoga studios look like "a Santa Monica sex shop."

Though I didn't quite feel that my kind were welcome, I did admire the dedication and hard training of the athletes. Every competitor I met took the hot, brutal punishment of Bikram yoga at least once a day; that regimen, as well as extra practice time, would suck the life out of just about anyone. I talked with 23-year-old Joseph Encinia of Dallas, who four years earlier had been an overweight kid with rheumatoid arthritis. This year, thanks to Bikram, he became the U.S. men's yoga champion. Then there was Alisa Matthews, the reigning international women's champion, who'd been roped into competing by Bikram and Rajashree in 2004 because she was from Washington, D.C., and they'd needed a representative from there. Now she was finishing up a year of traveling around the world as an international yoga "ambassador," kind of like a yoga Miss America. "I went out there and inspired," she said.

Just before the awarding of this year's international prizes, I met Courtney Mace, age 32, from New York City. The previous day, she'd been crowned the U.S. women's champion, and today had executed a near-flawless routine capped by a magnificent crane pose. "The competition gets a lot of flak from a lot of people," she said, "but it's not like anyone's trying to crack anyone else's kneecaps. You're sharing your devotion, your story. Trying to help one another out."

A half-hour later, a bunch of buff dudes did a crass onstage display of sweat-free yoga shorts invented by a Bikram studio owner. It looked like the Bikram series performed by Chippendale's dancers. Following that, Rajashree and Bikram awarded this year's prizes. The male title went to a sweet-looking gentleman from Singapore. Courtney Mace won the overall women's championship and will soon begin her travels as an international yoga ambassador.

I wasn't sure what I'd just witnessed and experienced, and I'm still not. But I do know that the next morning, I went to my usual place, a modest apartment where I regularly do Ashtanga with a small and trusted group of friends. There was no hero worship and no talk of competition, transformation, or spreading yoga to the children; just some postures, some very light chanting, and a few laughs afterward. I was damn glad to be there.