International Yoga Asana Championship
Yoga Expo - Los Angeles Convention Center
By Felicia M. Tomasko
"I'm the one with a boa and sequins," Allyson Meacham told me. "No, not really. The instructions specifically said no sequins." Allyson was one of 54 contestants from the U.S., Japan, Germany and India, who competed in the First Bishnu Charan Ghosh International Yoga Asana Championships, a competition named for Bikram Chowdhury's guru, organized by Bikram and his wife Rajashree, both former yoga champions in India.
The participants demonstrated asana. Seven asanas, to be exact, of which five were compulsory (rabbit, bow, standing bow or dancer, seated forward fold and standing big toe pose, and two optional, with points given for difficulty. They performed before a panel of seven judges from the national championships in India along with Bikram and Rajashree.
"This isn't a yoga competition, it's an asana competition," one spectator said vehemently.
"Yoga is a complete lifestyle," Bikram Choudhury announced in his introduction to the event.
"This is a demonstration of asana, perfection of the posture," Rajashree told me.
Is there ever such a thing as a perfect posture? Doesn't the practice of yoga come from within? Isn't perfect posture an internal experience?
The contestants strove to achieve their own perfect poses aware of the judges' understanding that different body types complete the pose differently. They were subsequently applauded, ranked and awarded for their efforts. This event has created controversy in the yoga community-is a yoga competition an oxymoron? Does yoga belong in a competitive arena? Rajashree reported receiving hate mail condemning the competition and thanked the contestants for their commitment.
Reactions to the competition were unsurprisingly mixed. While watching day two of the demonstration (it stretched over three days), I overheard "A yoga competition, how strange," as a yogini wrinkled up her face. After a contestant's demonstration of peacock in lotus, her companion remarked, "Now that took some core strength." One Expo attendee felt some conflict, "what is this representing about the yoga tradition? Play to your heart's content, but don't call it yoga." Others expressed admiration. "I have seen pictures, but to watch them get into and out of the pose, it's amazing. It's mind-blowing." Erich Schiffmann onsite as a spectator for the "finals," congratulated Ashley Hooper from Los Angeles after a particularly graceful full bow, feet on her head, arms flying out to each side.
Myself, I was skeptical but captivated watching the intensity of the contestants' practice, impressed with their focus moving in and out of Natarajasana, standing bow, also called dancer. With their back leg held long, high and almost straight, their arched dancing body anchored over their standing leg, in front of a roomful of people watching, the occasional forbidden cell phone interrupting the quiet, they were a stationary example of grace in motion. They could have been in a Yoga Journal calendar, a book demonstrating asanas, or in an ad for a new video. When a contestant faltered, the room drew in a collective breath.
"We are all nervous for each other," Ashley told me, "We watch, wanting the other person to do their best. We don't feel we are competing with each other. We are competing with ourselves; what is the best that we can do in that moment?"
Points were given not only for completion of the pose, for supposed perfection, but for difficulty, overall poise and composure, and for the grace of movement both moving into and out of the pose. It is not only completion but execution that matters. Still, how do the judges decide? The Championship was awarded on the basis of a three minute performance, completed twice over three days. In the end, they said the ten finalists were very close. Bikram announced, "Very easy to watch, not easy to judge when everybody is almost perfect."
Bikram's enthusiasm for this event shone through as he sang "This is the moment" between announcing finalists' names, and reiterated his dream of Yoga becoming an Olympic sport. He has committed to organizing the event again next year, which will feature separate championships for men and women.
The contestants I spoke with all feel that this experience has deepened their practice. It made them more aware in asana, honed their ability to move in and out of a pose with a sense of calm and become more present in the moment. They challenged themselves physically, mentally and emotionally. Allyson tried ashtanga and read books on yoga; she met close friends she admires. Ashley learned to complete an asana with a feeling of calm.
Lesli Christensen, who was awarded the Championship title, will return to hairdressing and teaching yoga in San Diego, where her clients follow her from the hair salon to the yoga studio.
Will they compete next year? Ashley's parents will return to watch, whether or not Ashley competes. As for Ashley, who was awarded the second place medal? She doesn't know yet. She entered this year's competition buoyed by the encouragement of the teachers and students she practices with at the Bikram Yoga Headquarters in Los Angeles. With no regrets about participating nor disappointment in her performance, maybe she will next year.
Of course there were prizes, as befitting a championship. In addition to being awarded medals, hung around their necks as if they were already in the Olympics, the five top contenders received a duffle bag and cash prizes ranging from $250 for the fifth place contestant to $3000 for Lesli who came in first. Ashley received $2500 along with a scholarship to the Bikram Yoga College of India; in addition to cash, Lesli also took home a two-week trip to a city of her choosing and the impressive Bishnu Gosh cup. The cup was heavy, requiring Lesli's coach to take the stage to help.
Are they champions? "A champion is a person in a wheelchair performing pranayama," one attendee told me, declining to give her name. Rajashree's intention with the championship is to inspire yogis, non-practitioners and kids. And does it inspire? Jeannine Marzella from Yoga West thought so, "I am inspired by someone going for excellence." Perhaps we are equally inspired, by the yogi in the wheelchair and the yogi on the stage.
Felicia M. Tomasko has been practicing yoga for 17 years. She teaches yoga and practices Ayurveda in Santa Barbara and Los Feliz and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org