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Does competition stretch yoga's soul?

Courtesy of USA Yoga

For some, competitive yoga is turning the traditional spirit of the practice upside down. Here, a participant performs the handstand scorpion pose during last year's US national championships.

By Cari Nierenberg

Although they may look like contortionists performing in Cirque du Soleil, some of the country's best competitive yogis will be participating in this weekend's National Yoga Asana Championship in New York City. Audiences watching the event may be amazed as the participants move and balance their strong and supple bodies in many jaw-dropping ways.

And yet for those with a more traditional view of this age-old practice, the very idea of yoga as a competitive event -- where people win and lose, and perform routines in front of judges -- seems contradictory to its basic principles. It might even seem like the subject of an Onion article -- actually, it is: "Monk Gloats Over Yoga Championship."

Yoga, critics of the competitive event suggest, has an inward focus: It teaches participants how to listen to the body, tune in to the breath, and quiet the mind. It's not outwardly focused on results and trophies, and on attaining a pose that's deeper or more advanced than someone on a nearby sticky mat. 

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But USA Yoga, the organization that hopes to one day qualify "yoga asana" -- or yoga postures -- as an Olympic sport, believes competitions can "inspire many practitioners to improve their practice or encourage newcomers to take it up."

While yoga asana participants may be able to wrap their arms and legs into unimaginable positions, not all yoga enthusiasts can wrap their minds around the idea of competitive yoga. They don't consider yoga a sport, nor do they think that judging has a place in a spiritual practice with a non-judgmental philosophy.

"Yoga competitions are new to Western countries, but they're not new to India," explains USA Yoga founder Rajashree Choudhury, who was a five-time champion in her native land. "Competition has always been in my mind and in my heart," she says, and in 2003, she and her husband helped organize the first American national championship.

Choudhury believes the union of body, mind and spirit can happen for participants in a yoga competition without it taking away from the traditional aspects of the practice. She also sees the competitive sport as a way to bring more young people into yoga so they don't consider it "boring" or "something Mommy does so she's no longer angry."

Choudhury doesn't think that competition overemphasizes the athletic parts of the sport while shortchanging its mental or spiritual dimensions. She points out that judges have clear guidelines to consider the physical elements, such as the participants' strength, flexibility, alignment, extension and degree of difficulty in their performance.

But, she argues, participants also need to demonstrate the mental and meditative aspects of yoga. They must maintain stillness of mind -- holding for 5 counts within each final posture -- and display grace, fluidity, and control. Spirituality is not being judged.

During the national championship that mind-body connection will be on display as 105 men and women from 32 states will be judged on their performances. Each competitor will do a three-minute routine consisting of five required poses and two poses of their choice. Younger participants, ages 11 to 17, complete six rather than seven poses

"Some people say that during the three-minute routine you're telling a story about your spine," says Amanda Baisinger, a yoga competitor.

Five years ago, the 34-year-old Brooklyn resident took her first Bikram yoga class hoping to de-stress, get in shape, and lose some weight. But her practice took an unexpected turn when she watched her first regional yoga competition and felt inspired by it.

Baisinger had been drawn to the stage before since she is a performer and sings with a band, yet she admits that doing yoga in a timed competition is completely different.

"If your intention is to share your yoga practice and be more connected to it, and to do your best that day, then the performance is more yoga-driven than ego-driven," she explains.

Although Baisinger doesn't have a dance or gymnastics background as some participants do and never considered herself athletic, she placed third in last year's New York regional competitions.

"[Competitive yoga] helped me get deeper into the asanas; I was thinking in a different way, and learning more about what I want out of life," she admits. It also led her to become a yoga teacher and to make better choices about her health as a type 1 diabetic.

Baisinger feels that doing yoga competitively is just another aspect of the sport, one that she hopes will help get the next generation involved in yoga at earlier ages.

But just as different styles of yoga appeal to different people, not all yogis have embraced the idea of competitive yoga.

"The original purpose of yoga asana was and is to help facilitate health and meditation, not competition," says Andrew Tanner, director of professional trainings at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Mass. "Yoga is an inward practice, through which we do not measure success by other people's expectations of perfection."

Dr. Timothy McCall, medical editor of Yoga Journal magazine and author of "Yoga as Medicine," has a similar reaction. "I think the true spirit of yoga is non-competitive," he says. "Trying to be better than other people and win is kind of missing the point."

What do you think of competitive yoga? Discuss this story on Facebook. (You can also check out last year's top male and female performances.)