World Competitors Stretch to Prove Yoga Is a Sport

June 12, 2012 by  
Filed under Yoga Articles

Piotr Redlinski for The New York Times

Juan Manuel Martin-Busitil of Spain won the men’s championship. There were 75 competitors from 24 countries at this year’s tournament. More Photos »

LOS ANGELES — Silence prevailed during the yoga asana routines of the ninth annual Bishnu Charan Ghosh Cup — except for one distinct sound: the low engine rumble of airplanes lifting off and landing at the Los Angeles airport.

This international competition has made the noise of momentum, too, but just where it is heading is hard to predict. Will it become a sport recognized on the Olympic stage as Rajashree Choudhury, the founder of USA Yoga and the International Yoga Sports Federation, hopes? Or is it destined to remain a quirky transplant from India practiced by an exclusive set of Bikram yogis?

“All are welcome here,” said Choudhury, the wife of Bikram and a five-time national champion in India. “We need as many yogis and styles as possible to make this dream a reality.”

The event was held at the LAX Radisson, where the mirrored ballroom became a competitive yoga stadium and runway-like hallways morphed into warm-up rooms for yogis. Onstage, a garland-draped image of Bishnu Ghosh, Bikram’s guru, looked on while seven judges sat with pencils raised, critiquing the routines.

“The quality of the athletes has evolved tremendously,” said Jon Gans, an organizer and former judge of the event. “Postures, like peacock, that seemed to be a pinnacle pose the first year would now seem normal.”

The Bishnu Charan Ghosh Cup in 2003, before the federation took the reins, was a Bikram affair. The sprawling Staples Center featured hundreds of yoga vendors, and the competition got lost in the merchandise. Fewer than 10 countries were represented, and it is said that Bikram lost a quarter-million dollars.

Though the event is more focused now — and often serves as a platform for yogis to tell their stories — the number of competitors has grown. At a Friday night dinner, Choudhury welcomed the 75 competitors from 24 countries.

Throughout the weekend, Bikram’s monogrammed Rolls-Royce sat at the hotel’s entrance, and he remained front and center, changing his outfit six times over the weekend. One silver sequined jacket, said to have inspired Michael Jackson, sparkled so much that one female competitor confessed that it distracted her onstage.

At first, Choudhury avoided the word “competition,” urging the participants to accept whatever happened with humility and a smile.

“Shine on that stage,” she said. “That should be your mantra. …There are no rivals, only fellow coaches.”

But later she compared the Ghosh Cup to other sporting events, and the ethereal gave way to the mundane.

Mary Jarvis, a coach of seven world champions, reported last-minute changes in the grace score methodology. When coaches politely grumbled about the late notice and lack of organization, Jarvis said, “This is a work in progress.”

Competitors had three minutes to complete five compulsory poses from the Bikram beginner series and two optional poses, which typically came from the advanced series. Judges considered the posture’s degree of difficulty and “how well the body reveals the therapeutic benefits of the practice.”

The national anthem kicked off Saturday’s qualifying round, but little else resembled an Olympic event except for the impressive athletic ability. Judges were paraded on stage in cocktail dresses, events ran up to two hours behind, and the 800-person ballroom was sometimes half empty. The online viewership throughout the weekend exceeded 10,000 hits.

Ten men and 10 women moved from Saturday’s qualifying round to Sunday’s finals, including seven Americans. The United States, with a developed network of studios, presented four representatives from the highly attended national competition, while others, like China, sent only one, and she lives in Boulder, Colo.

Bishnu Ghosh’s granddaughter, Muktamala Mitra, said Americans seemed more ambitious in their practice. “They struggle more and are harder working,” she said.

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