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January 5, 2014

The Zen of Competitive Yoga. ~ Amy Talbott

Dave Benson is a yoga instructor, yoga champion (we’ll get to this in a minute) and a dog trainer.

“One thing that dogs do when you ask them to do something is they tilt their head like, ‘What the hell did you just say?’ That’s the look I get from people when I tell them I’ve competed in yoga,” he says.

Competing in yoga? Yes, it is a thing. It’s been going on in India for hundreds of years, according to Ainslie Faust. She’s the executive director of USA Yoga, the organization that heads competitions in the U.S. It’s only been going on here for 11 years and is still a small movement in the world of yoga. Faust says about 500 people participate in regional competitions each year. That’s out of 20.4 million who practice any kind of yoga, according to a 2012 survey in Yoga Journal.

When I first told people that I was going to practices for a yoga competition, I got reactions like, “Isn’t that against yoga?” and “How do you judge yoga?”

Well, adult competitors are given scores based on the strength, flexibility and balance they exhibit in seven poses: standing head to knee, standing bow, bow, rabbit, and stretching pose. The other two are yogi’s choice. “People think we’re judging inner peace or something, but we’re not,” says Jon Gans, who judges competitions.

I talked with coaches and competitors about the controversy surrounding yoga competitions. And why they can be a good thing.

Alexander King organizes the regional championship for Midwestern states. He compared yoga competitions to a marathon, saying they give yogis something to strive for in their practice. “I think that the thing about some sports like running is that you can compare notes. You cover the miles, you can see someone’s time, you know, but in yoga you don’t really have that point of reference,” he says.

“The people [who focus primarily on the spiritual side of yoga] get deeply offended by the idea that there’s even such a thing as a competition. They really just can’t wrap their brain around the idea that it can be positive in any way, shape or form. But ultimately if you’re a competitor and you’ve competed in anything that’s individual, not necessarily a team sport, you realize that you’re competing with yourself, you’re not really competing with the person next to you.

Some people say, ‘Well, people have different bodies and different proportions and do different things, so how can you really say one person did better than another?’ Well, there’s an ideal and everybody kind of inspires to accomplish. If we didn’t have that ideal, what would you do when you do into a yoga class? What’s the teacher trying to guide you toward?

Dave Benson, the guy who teaches and competes in yoga said this:

“Sometimes other yogis have a problem with yoga competitions. They don’t feel that something that is so personal should be a competition, and then I have other people who are non-yogis who get very interested because some folks just think of it as something that these weird little hippie people do, and they realize that it really does branch out to absolutely everybody. So I think it opens up their minds that yoga isn’t this weird little thing where people get together and sing and chant. I think that’s a stigma that yoga has and I think the competition actually helps it get more mainstream.”

He also says that competing convinced him to work up to poses he might not have otherwise tried. (In competition, more difficult poses get more points.)

When I talked to two first-time competitors, Chelsea Markuson and Steve Naville, and their Bikram instructor Ayanna Brown, all said that practicing for the competition has improved their alignment in poses. “It’s so much more detail-oriented which has been helpful, not just for the competition itself, but to identify parts of my body that need more development or are stiff and I didn’t really know they weren’t as flexible or opened up,” says Steve.

In competition practice, each person goes through their routine, then the judges pick it apart—in a constructive way.

Ayanna has participated in (and won) many competitions.

“Championship gives me a new way to look at my practice, it gives me new goals and challenges. I don’t really care if I win or even place, although I love being on stage, my favorite part is training with my team, the excuse to try something I never thought I could do. If it [weren’t] for this championship I would not have all these fabulous postures under my belt.

And as a teacher it help me see the details in one’s body. I can better help people tune their instruments (so to speak) the more my own instrument becomes tuned.”

So instead of a way to feel superior to your neighbor on the mat, yoga competitions can be a way to challenge yourself, work toward a goal and improve your alignment.

Who doesn’t want that?

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Assistant Editor: Sanja Cloete-Jones. Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: USA Yoga

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Amy Talbott