Two people – two different stories. Two parallel personal accounts of struggle, breakthrough, and a hopeful future. The catalyst for their transformation: participating in Yoga Asana Championships.
Since 2003, a series of annual Regional and National Championships have been held around the world, with top-placed athletes competing each year at the International event. In 2013, the IYSF International Yoga Asana Championship is anticipated to be the largest ever with 98 competitors from 25 countries.
JOSEPH ENCINIA, 27, US Yoga Champion 2009-2011, International Yoga Champion 2011
“Participating in the competition in my first year of yoga practice boosted my passion and love for yoga. If it wasn’t for that I probably wouldn’t have become a teacher.” — Joseph Encinia
Teaching yoga is Encinia’s vocation and the title of Yoga Champion opened doors for him around the world. “I love to travel. I think the best part of it is that I get to teach in other places.” From Australia to Asia, and Moscow to Mumbai, Encinia has one well-stamped passport.
That said, it’s hard to imagine him housebound for a decade. At a child, he suffered a heart attack, was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, and took five pills a day – he gave life beyond Dallas hardly a moment’s thought. “After knee surgery at age 11, I stopped playing; I stopped going outside… As a kid, I remember imagining what my life would be if everything went perfectly. What yoga has given me has far exceeded that,” he laughs. At 19 he left for college and wanted to gain control of his life. A friend introduced him to yoga.
A month into the practice, Encinia remembers feeling good; his joint swelling had decreased and his weight went down. Previous attempts at other fitness regimens hadn’t given him such mobility. From then on, he knew yoga would play a large role in his life. With a renewed sense of confidence and inspired by a workshop led by yoga champion Esak Garcia, he signed up for the regional competition in Texas.
“I was pretty pumped up in my first year of yoga; I had this joy for having some physical ability. It was the first time I could ever participate in an athletic event.” Unprepared, he competed for the sheer fun of it and came last. “I fell out of Standing Head to Knee, Crow, and Locust poses, but after that experience, I knew I would be competing the next year.”
As part of his competition preparation, Encinia fundraised enough money to attend Bikram Yoga Teacher Training. In his third year of competing regionally, he achieved a milestone. “At the time, it felt like the biggest accomplishment of my yoga career. I was the Texas Yoga Champion and I was teaching yoga.” In that same year, he went on to place second in the Nationals and qualified for the Internationals. “As I didn’t expect to move to up to the International level so quickly, it was a big surprise. I was so excited, and my ego got really big… then I fell sideways out of One-Legged Wheel.” He didn’t place but reached another milestone – he moved from Dallas and headed to San Diego to be coached at a higher level by Jim Kallet.
“Jim helped rein my senses in,” say Encinia of his mentor and competition coach. “He taught the Bhagavad Gita… He trained me to be a champion in my spirit even before I walked on stage. The asana practice – well, that just came with it.” Encinia studied videos of champions to refine his technique and deepened his knowledge through reading philosophy. The next year, he placed second at the Internationals. Things seemed to be looking up until life took a turn. Encinia ended a long-term relationship and lost his focus. Knowing he needed a change, he landed in India where he taught yoga for a year.
“Competition is so engrained in the Indian culture that being a US yoga champion gave me brownie points – the title holds a lot of weight there and they respect that. The biggest learning that I got from India was how to live yoga… Even though it’s so chaotic, people flow with the chaos. They are very present – regardless of what they’re doing. That’s where I honed my skills to become International champion the following year.”
The night before his 2011 win, Encinia needed to regroup. He had scraped into the Finals (he placed seventh out of 10 in the Semi-finals) and was feeling the pressure. Stepping out of his own way and with Kallet’s guidance, he reflected on why he’d started a yoga practice: It made him feel good, and it helped heal his mind, body, and spirit. The next day, he stood onstage with that intention and recalls, “During that performance, for first time in my life, I felt stillness.” He won.
Roseann Wang Photography: roseannwang.com
CYNTHIA WEHR, 35, US Yoga Champion 2005 and 2007, International Yoga Champion 2007
“I was truly in shock as I didn’t think I was going to win. I didn’t feel like a champion. I couldn’t even say it for a good while.” — Cynthia Wehr
The year was 2007. After four years of competing in yoga championships and not qualifying for Internationals in 2006 – “I did a good routine but it was a trying year,” Wehr prepared for her upcoming event by simply letting go. “I fed my spirit. I listened to music and ate what I wanted. I didn’t care about the result.” Then it happened. Wehr won the title of the International Yoga Champion, Women’s Division. A lesson waiting in the wings, she defines the moment as a turning point in her life, “I really understood what it meant to listen to my intuition.”
It took a few years for Wehr to fully embrace being a champion. Her mentor and fellow yoga teacher, Michele Vennard, encouraged Wehr to use the accolade as a platform to inspire others and to own the title “for the betterment of mankind.”
A few months after the win, Wehr and fellow Male Division champion Ky Ha embarked on a world tour to spread the love of yoga as positive role models and representatives of the practice. “That brought it to the next level. It opened doors; we met students and people who were inspired to work harder. We demonstrated, and our practices got better. Being an ambassador for yoga is incredible.” The two traveled on behalf of USA Yoga for six months – across the USA, and to Portugal, Singapore, The Netherlands, and Paris, France.
At 19, Wehr was studying theatre/acting at NYU; amidst her studies, she practiced at Jivamukti and Bikram Yoga in the city. After a move to LA, she continued her yoga practice, and in 2003, became a Bikram Yoga teacher. When her father suffered a stroke the following year, she immersed herself in the practice. “With all the stuff that came into my life, and my dad being sick, I could have easily gone to the doctor and asked for medication. It was either that, or I could take a yoga class. I practiced to deal with my emotions,” Wehr explains.
After winning the national title in 2005, she was offered the opportunity to teach yoga in Japan for eight months. She loved it there and returned after her international championship tour, contemplating relocation, but it wasn’t meant to be. In 2010, Wehr moved home to Northern California to be closer to her parents (her father passed away in 2012) where she now lives with her mom.
These days, Wehr sits on the other side of the competition stage as a judge. She will also be celebrating two years as a yoga studio owner this July (in Mountain View, California). “I never wanted to be a studio owner, I never planned it, I never dreamed it – and I think that’s because I never thought I could have it. But the stars aligned… and when the moment came, I said, ‘Sure, let’s do it’. Something was telling me this was the next chapter.” Running a business and creating a community in her yoga space brings new meaning to family. Says Wehr, “The fact that I can bring people together and witness students becoming friends from afar, that makes my heart sing.” In the future, she’s looking to write a book fusing art and yoga. What about her initial aspirations for acting? “When I teach a class, it’s almost like a performance. It’s real, which makes it all the more profound. I have been able to keep my extroverted, theatrical nature and I use my body to express who I am rather than through words.” Two weeks after she opened her studio in 2011, Wehr was asked to perform in San Jose in an eight show theatrical run of ‘In our own Words: the Pioneers of AA’ by Jackie Bendzinski. “The stage will always be calling in some shape or form.”
Photography by Steve DiBartolomeo: westsidestudioimages.com
The IYSF International Yoga Asana Championship will be held on June 8-9, 2013 in Los Angeles. For more information, visit: iysf.org
Marina Chetner is the Managing Editor for Find Bliss LA as well as a writer, blogger, and content manager for various publications, websites, and yoga organizations. www.linkedin.com/in/marinachetner @mchetner