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.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

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.

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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.

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."

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.

Correction, Feb. 18, 2009: This piece originally and incorrectly used the Yiddish word naches (meaning pride) rather than the term chutzpah (meaning nerve or gall). (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Neal Pollack is writing a book about yoga culture, to be published in May 2010. He lives in Los Angeles.

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