Rabbit poses, coconut water, and a Bikram-practicing dance team at the international yoga championship.
To those of us who've spent years practicing yoga in an atmosphere of soft-lit candles, chanting, and nonjudgmental good vibes, the idea of a yoga competition sounds about as absurd as the idea of competitive prayer. On my way to the 6th Annual International Yoga Asana Championship, held at the Westin Hotel LAX on the weekend of Feb. 7, I steeled myself to bear witness to some sort of whacked-out yoga circus, and that's more or less what I got. But a lot of yoga culture feels weird and circuslike to me anyway, so I would have felt disappointed if it had ended up being otherwise. I can now also tell you that there's a chance competitive yoga will soon be an official event at the Summer Olympics.
At the center of the weekend, wearing flashy suits and various fedoras, stood Bikram Choudhury, the animating force behind the competitive yoga circuit. Here's a man who's copyrighted his style of yoga (26 postures, repeated twice, in a room heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit), sends cease-and-desist letters to those who dare flout the copyright, and, in interviews, summarily dismisses all other forms of American yoga while also bragging about his love for McDonald's and hislarge fleet of self-restored Rolls-Royces. He once famously told Business 2.0 magazine that his yoga was the "only yoga." When asked why, he said it was because he has "balls like atom bombs, two of them, 100 megatons each. Nobody fucks with me." Not surprisingly, other yoga circles view him and his particular craft with everything from mildly dismissive amusement to a disdain coming close to disgust.
Nothing that went down on Friday night would have done much to change their minds. In the yoga world, only Bikram would have the chutzpah, * at the opening ceremony of a rigorous athletic event, to throw himself a lavish birthday party (funded by his affiliate-studio owners) in an enormous hotel ballroom appointed like the grand hall of a middlebrow cruise ship. The evening's program, a nonstop cavalcade of Bikram worship that flowed like a river of artificially sweetened ghee, included: an enthusiastic performance from the Bikram-yoga-practicing dance team Pepe and the Outer Circle Crew; a confused presentation from Ogie the Wild Man, a Bikram devotee also known as "the world's fastest golfer"; and a performance of the Shirley Horn song "Here's to Life," with lyrics changed: Here's to life, to every joy it brings / here's to life, to Bikram and his dreams.
The evening ended with Bikram giving a short birthday speech addressing the economic crisis. Life is like waves in the ocean, he said: one up, one down. You have to stay afloat as long as possible until the waves hit the beach, and yoga is the only thing that can keep you going for certain. "Every business is going down," Bikram said. "But yoga is going up 60 percent." By the end, Bikram was onstage with Pepe and the Outer Circle Crew, wearing a red, spangled shirt and out-dancing everyone to a disco remix of "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)."Well, I thought, at least someone is having a good year.
When I returned the next morning, the room had been transformed into a legitimate athletic stage, with no evidence of the previous night's variety-show nuttiness save a few stray red balloons in the rafters. Everything ran with precision and efficiency. The video and audio were of professional quality and the emcee had a classy, sonorous voice. Most impressively, the competitors, judged under strict and consistent standards, continually wafted into beautiful and magnificent yoga postures.
The men's division, for the most part, looked like dudes doing yoga very well. But watching the women, all performing serenely daring stuff, was like staring at water getting poured from a pitcher very slowly. It was lyrical, majestic, composed. Legs folded behind heads, and heads appeared between legs, chin on the floor, after impossible backward bends. Yoginis folded into lotus, balanced on their knees, and shot their legs back while balancing on their arms, smiling all the time. I may have been dreaming but I swear I saw, during the youth competition, one girl draw into a bow, arch back, and place her toes in her mouth. I'd been doing yoga for years, but this was the first time I'd seen poses like the ones I used to gawk at in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Yoga competitions have a long and respected tradition in India. Bikram himself became the country's youngest-ever national champion at age 12, and, as his self-propelled legend goes, won three straight years until his guru, Bishnu Ghosh, told him to stop for the sake of the other participants. His wife, Rajashree, is also a multiple-time champion. When I talked to her between events in the ballroom, she remembered how, at the time she married Bikram in 1984, India had formed a federation to attempt to get yoga into the Olympics. That attempt went nowhere, since at the time no other country had enough skilled yogis to field a team.
Even in 2003, when Bikram and Rajashree held their first cup to honor Bishnu Ghosh's centenary, the field included only the United States, India, Canada, and Australia; men and women competed against one another directly. But this year's field featured competitors from 20 countries, with separate men's and women's divisions, as well as competitions for boys and girls under the age of 18. There are well-attended regional competitions throughout the year featuring yogis from nearly every U.S. state. While the wave is clearly rising, it's still far from mega-corporate status. This year's "official sponsors" were a few yoga-wear companies, most of them owned by Bikram people, and Zico coconut water. Still, Bikram's global reach, ambition, resources, and a bull-dogged marketing scheme that comes close to nagging were enough to draw several members of the International Olympic Committee to the Westin. "Everything has to happen at the right time," Rajashree said to me confidently. "This is the right time."
The end goal of all yoga is to get to samadhi, a state of enlightened bliss where the ego separates from the self and the practitioner realizes that he's powerless to control the vagaries of an endlessly shifting universe. Obviously, this can't be quantified. Instead, yoga competitions involve various asanas,or poses, within hatha,the physical branch of yoga. As in diving, figure skating, or Platonic philosophy, there's an ideal form.
Neal Pollack is the author of Alternadad. He lives in Los Angeles.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.