New York Welcomes Yoga Asana Championships

March 1, 2012 by  
Filed under Yoga Articles

Piotr Redlinski for The New York Times

On Friday, yogis from the New York area will compete for spots in the national yoga finals. Kyoko Katsura adjusted a student’s pose while leading an advanced preparation class for the competition.

For Kelsea Bangora, New York’s 2011 yoga asana champion, the conversation usually goes like this:

“Yoga champion? How does that work?”

“Well, it’s like a dance performance, sort of, or a gymnastics routine, but not really.”

“So, can you touch your head with your feet?”

“Well, of course”

Typically, she does not demonstrate.

“I don’t want to show off,” she said. “I mean, my own students don’t even know I’m a champion.”

Others will be vying for that title when the United States Yoga Federation hosts the ninth New York Regional and National Yoga Asana Championship Friday night through Sunday afternoon at the Hudson Theater in Midtown Manhattan.

Before a panel of five judges, participants will have three minutes to perform seven postures, five required and two of their choice. In the youth division, participants ages 11 to 17 will perform six postures total. The top two finishers in each group — men, women and youth — will proceed to compete in the Bishnu Charan Ghosh Cup, the international championship held in Los Angeles in June.

In Sanskrit, yoga means to connect or bind together. Body with mind. Breath with movement. Inner with outer. Patanjali, who wrote the Yoga Sutras thousands of years ago, posited that yoga created holistic health by easing the fluctuations of the mind. Over time, many limbs of yoga formed. Hatha yoga, developed in the 15th century, is the physical practice that most Americans are familiar with, referred to as asana.

Some competitors describe the physical practice as a moving meditation, one that their advanced, competition training has deepened.

“Through the postures I have learned patience and perseverance,” Bangora said.

But how does one master easeful meditation during competition when being judged and ranked creates the very mind tremors that Patanjali assured yoga could quiet?

At last year’s regional championship, Bangora said she believed she performed so poorly that she hid in a broom closet and wept, being sure to put a smile on her face before rejoining the other participants. She ended up winning.

“No one feels good about their performance on stage,” she said.

Bangora’s roller-coaster experience — one shared by competitive athletes around the world — highlights why many are puzzled by competitive yoga.

“Aren’t there enough things in our world that feed the competitive mind?” said Leigh Evans, a senior yoga teacher of Brooklyn’s Greenhouse Holistic yoga studio. “Bending yoga to fit this already twisted mind state, instead of allowing it to expand our consciousness, is a misuse of the great gifts that are the potential of the practice.”

But Rajashree Choudhury, the founder of USA Yoga and the wife of Bikram, who has his own copyrighted yoga sequence from which most competitors come, said if it were not for competitions, she would never have practiced yoga.

As a child in Kolkata, formerly Calcutta, Choudhury loved track and field, though yoga was always around.

“I was 4 years old when I started, and everyone practiced yoga after school,” she said.

But she was irritated when her physical education teachers signed her up for a school yoga competition at age 9. Yoga did not seem exciting enough.

Then she won.

“I saw the amazing things people could do with their bodies, and I got hooked,” Choudhury said.

She became a five-time national yoga asana champion.

Yoga performed for an audience is not as rare in India, where forefathers of many western yoga schools, like Pattabhi Jois, spent years demonstrating hatha yoga. Sharon Gannon, a founder of Jivamukti Yoga School, studied for many years with Jois and said that he required his students to complete a rigorous final physical examination, comparable to an athletic team tryout.

“He would call out the name of an asana, and you would perform it in front of a board of people,” Gannon said. “If you were going to teach, you had to show that you had put in the hard work yourself.”

For those in competitive yoga, the training regimen resembles that of serious athletes. Many practice four hours a day and six days a week in a Bikram studio, where the temperature steams at 105 degrees.

“They are not weekend yogis,” Gannon said of the competitors.

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