Bend it Like Bikram

Confessions of an Extreme Yogi

Can competitive yoga offer spiritual transcendence? Benjamin Lorr says it’s not as crazy as it sounds—and it might be just what America needs in the new year.

‘TIS the season! Not just for Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanza, and New Years, but also that newest answer to our spiritual-cum-commercial urge – the yoga competition. Nevada just had one, and Utah, Wyoming and Florida are coming up next. The USA Nationals follow soon after in New York City. All replete with spandex, stage lights, and coconut water vendors galore.

But I know I’ve lost some of you already.

Yoga and competition? Cue brow wrinkles. Cue rising sense of self-satisfaction. Cue horribly clever quips:What’s next, competitive praying?

Ugh. How typically American. We get our hands on something and ruin it.

Total oxymoron. Emphasis on moron.

Which, to be fair, isn’t a surprising reaction from a culture that has been force-fed images of the yogi as peacenik saint for years now—as earnest as Bob Ross, as content as a nursing babe, and with all the ego of an uncut onion. As fetching as this vision is—and let’s be honest, it’s doubly so when clad in a buttock-smacking leotard—it’s as incomplete as most other pieces of received wisdom.

Yoga has been, and always will be, multi-faceted. Yes, all yoga shares the goal of achieving union: an end state often characterized as Samadhi, the blissful absorption of the individual in the universal. But achieving oneness with the universe is a pretty broad goal, and, over the centuries, a number of different strategies have been brought to bear: from pranayams and chanting mantras, to meditation and withdrawal of the senses, to ritual group sex and the quite literally risible Laughter Yoga™. Competition is just another tiny footnote in this vast tradition, providing just another tiny foothold for an aspirant of a certain mindset to begin his climb.

I should know: I am one of those aspirants. About four years ago, I stumbled into a Bikram Yoga studio, plump and mopey, and watched as the practice snapped a metaphorical pair of jumper cables to my chest. Bikram is the hot one (105 degrees and miserable humidity), ruled by the eponymous Bikram Choudhury, dark prince of the American yoga scene: an authentic hatha yoga master, gifted healer, and petty control freak. I quickly found myself entranced by both the practice and the man, and wrote a book—Hell-Bent—trying to sort out all the contradictions (during the writing of the book, I repeatedly reached out to Choudhury for an interview, but was rebuffed each time). I doubt I would have ever participated in a yoga competition if I hadn’t been writing the book, and I know I will never compete in one again, but am nevertheless extremely grateful for the experience.

The fact is, yoga competitions aren’t some American imperialist invention/corruption/conspiracy to subvert the pure. Although it is true that today’s yoga competitions are pretty much all channeled through Choudhury, in India they predate his influence considerably. No less an authority on the authentic than B. K. S. Iyengar has blessed the notion, even going so far as to give notes on the qualities by which competitors should be judged.

This is largely because yoga competitions aren’t really yoga competitions. They are asana–or postural–competitions. Asana is the aspect of yoga that involves bending the body into forms; it is the yoga of wall calendars and gyms across the land. Depending on the tradition, there are anywhere between 84 and 8,400,000,000 distinct asanas. But regardless of lineage, all asanas share one basic fact: each has a distinct form. It is definitional to them. Meaning that when bending into, say, Bow posture, you are trying to align your physical body with a mental image of Bow posture.

Now, reasonable yoga teachers can and do disagree about what constitutes a platonic perfect Bow. Just as reasonable practitioners can and do content themselves with merely doing an approximation of its form as their body allows. But if a bunch of yogis got together and agreed on the fine points of each posture—and if some others in this group decided to push their practice to match these forms, perhaps because they were naturally flexible and strong, or perhaps because they were exactly the opposite, working through illness and weakness, trying to prove a point to themselves about the capacity of the human body, trying to demonstrate it’s almost unreasonable ability to exceed limitations—if these yogis got together, it’s not too difficult to see how they could come up with a system for determining who was demonstrating a posture best.That would be competitive yoga.

There is a stage. There are lights. A participant comes on, bows before the audience in service, offering her demonstration up as inspiration, and then proceeds to try to bend her body to match a series of abstract forms. Points are awarded according to the degree of difficulty— the degree to which the posture is hard to imagine, much less execute, and therefore, the degree to which it is instructive about human potential, destructive to preconceived notions, and indicative of mental-physical alignment. Then, after all the contestants have finished, the judges confer, fill out scoring sheets, and a single participant is selected as champion, a delegate almost, elected because he or she best represents the excellence in the room.

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The whole affair is called a competition, but really only in the subversive sense of reclaiming that word, connecting it back to its more noble roots of allowing others to inspire us to our best. The Latin roots for competition, com / petere, means “to strive in common,” with connotations suggesting, “to come together, to agree, to be qualified.”

Or, as 2009 International Yoga Asana Champion Courtney Mace says, “When I began competing I was very nervous. Here you are, all alone on stage, demonstrating something extremely personal. But there is a shift the more you practice. I realized it just wasn’t about me. Win or lose, I was a role player, a participant along with everyone else … For me getting on stage to compete is an act of generosity, realization and love.”

That is not to say there aren’t people for whom all this backfires: those for whom competing does not bring out their best, or those who rely on competing as their only way to bring out their best, or those who pervert the whole experience by fixating on the way that one competitor’s best is related to another competitor’s worst. But in my experience, especially in the self-selected world of yoga, these are a tiny minority. There are no jeering yoga moms in the bleachers, nor any post-demonstration rumbles in the parking lot. Instead, there are a lot of hugs backstage and more than a few stevia-soaked compliments about how incredible and inspiring everyone looked up there. And so scorning the whole idea of competition just because it can backfire in a tiny minority feels reflexive and unnecessary. Not only is that type of thinking not very helpful, it is counter to the whole spirit of union at the center of yoga.

So this year, while all those yogis adept at identifying the oxymoronic sit around unwrapping their Luon-stitched super pants during a holiday season that has actually and undeniably been debased by the commercial instinct, join me in applauding all those competitive yogis as they step offstage. Perhaps they represent exactly the type of spiritual-cum-commercial urge America needs to indulge in most.