An inside look into the not-so-cutthroat world of competitive yoga
When one thinks of yoga, the first thoughts that come to mind are usually ones of meditation, stretching, and relaxation. The practice itself is defined as the union of mind, body, and breath.
Competition is the last association one is likely to make with yoga, but competitive yoga has actually been around for hundreds of years. Originating in India, yoga competitions emerged as a way for practitioners to deepen their practice, demonstrate their commitment to training, and inspire others to take up the practice. With the rising popularity of yoga in the United States, it wasn’t long before these competitions began to migrate west.
USA Yoga, an American institution whose mission is to spread yoga throughout the U.S., holds regional and national competitions across the country. At both regional and national competitions, participants perform an on-stage routine, in front of a panel of judges, that consists of six or seven postures demonstrating their mastery of three categories: balance, strength, and flexibility. Postures are ranked according to their difficulty, and each routine is timed.
Participants then receive scores based on how well they complete each posture in the given time. If they rank among the top competitors at the regional level, they are invited to move on to the national level and eventually to the intentional level.
“The Yoga Asana Championships are a celebration of yoga, of beauty in the human form,” said Mardy Chen, owner of Pure Bikram Yoga in Austin. “Competitors demonstrate that, with a consistent yoga practice, the possibilities of what you can accomplish are boundless. [You see] mastery of physical strength, stamina, balance, flexibility, breath, and concentration.”
The reasons why yogis compete are as varied as their performance routines. They compete for themselves, for others, and for the unique opportunities that open up through competition. Most agree though: They don’t compete to win.
Monica Lebanksy had been in and out of rehab for a lifelong drug addiction before she first discovered yoga. She credits the practice for helping guide her life in a better direction and for giving her a new community support system. She never imagined that yoga would have such a huge impact on her life or that, when she decided to compete, she would make it to nationals.
One of the top reasons Lebanksy competes in yoga is to build a sense of community around her. “I compete because it enables me to bond with the people I've come to love so much. Sharing my practice with others is very humbling and unexpectedly rewarding,” she said.
Practice doesn't always make perfect, but it does draw attention to our strengths and weaknesses—to what makes us all human. Practice brings to the surface some of the reasons why we might seek out experiences that challenge us. “Competitive yoga has opened my eyes up to the thoughts that tend to circulate around my head. I think it's natural to have doubtful or negative thoughts. But the beautiful thing [about competition] has been learning to get up on stage regardless of those thoughts and realize that these types of fears are what bond us to others,” Lebanksy said.
Trainings, classes, workshops, and competitions offer a chance for yogis to surround themselves with likeminded individuals. “The yoga community is unbelievably supportive. It’s so cool to take a class with other competitors and feel how much love, respect, and joy we feel for the practice and for each other,” Lebanksy said.
While there is undoubtedly a large amount of female representation in yoga competitions, there is also a significant male presence. Jeff Chen, a USA Yoga board member and co-owner of Pure Bikram Yoga in Austin, represented the male division in the Texas regional and national championships this year. Yoga competitions have been a part of his life for the past 10 years.
A veteran competitor, Chen believes that competition is another way to help you grow and highlight your strengths and weaknesses in a new setting. “During my first competition in 2004, I trembled so much. My heart was pounding and my breath was out of control,” he said.
The setting was unlike his normal practice room. Over time, he has gotten better at demonstrating stillness and breath in his asanas (or poses). “I like to practice like I am doing a demonstration and demonstrate like I am practicing,” he said.
But competing continues to be a constant and evolving improvement process. “That's probably why I will never stop,” Chen said.
Chen is also a competitor in Kendo, a Japanese martial art that combines swordsmanship with physicality. He’s a big supporter of competition being a diagnostic tool by which to self-assess, reflect, and demonstrate your commitment to your practice. “The three or so minutes on stage is simply a reflection of where my yoga practice is at that singular point in time,” he said. “Competition is the culmination of my regular practice.”
Mardy Chen, co-owner of Pure Bikram Yoga in Austin, was this year’s Texas Yoga Asana Champion. Outside of yoga competitions, she trains competitors, runs a yoga studio, hosts workshops and fun, music-themed yoga nights, and even started her own yoga-themed fashion line.
While competitions offer a way for yogis to learn more about themselves and share their practice with others, they also pave the way for participants to get creative with yoga. “Participating in the Championships has encouraged me to sharpen my skills through training, dedication, and devotion to the sport,” Mardy Chen said.
Yoga competitions offer participants a chance to simultaneously reflect on and become better versions of their selves. They offer competitors a community of people who are pursuing (and questioning) the same things. And they offer yoga enthusiasts a network within which to circulate ideas, training methods, new classes, and ways of engaging more deeply with the practice.
The irony in competition is that it’s as much about you competing against others as it is about you competing with yourself. You come to realize that your competitors are actually your inspiration and that the people you wish to beat are actually the people you most admire. More often than not, reasons that initially inspired participants to take on the challenge of competition change and transform into other motivations.
“It’s really difficult to understand why we do it,” Jeff Chen said. “Unless you actually do it.”