Out of the eight petals of yoga, the only petal that is exhibitive is the yoga asanas whereas the other petals are very individual and personal. As such there is nothing wrong with holding a competition on the qualitative presentation of yoga asanas. –BKS Iyengar, Yoga Luminary
In a kaleidoscopic display of talent and postural form, one by one, advanced yoga practitioners stepped onto a grand stage to demonstrate individual asana routines in front of an audience of hundreds. As they twisted and elongated their bodies into elegant lines and shapes – their faces calm, some even breaking into a wide smile, spectators looked on in admiration and awe. Swept up by the positive energy and community spirit of a yoga championship, the entire event felt like a celebration of personal practices rather than a white-knuckled competition. The weekend of June 8 and 9, 2013, marked my first time attending an international yoga asana competition event.
The annual International Yoga Asana Championship has been taking place for a decade now. Sponsored in 2013 by the International Yoga Sports Federation (IYSF), this was the largest event yet, drawing a pool of competitors with a broad global reach. Throughout the weekend, 99 athletes from 26 countries descended upon the Grand Ballroom of the Sheraton Gateway LAX, literally minutes away from the airport’s arrival and departure gates, to demonstrate the sport of yoga asana. Judged by an international panel, the conclusion of the weekend meant the highest scoring males and females from the adult and youth divisions would leave the podium with the title of 2013 World Yoga Asana Champion; their bouquets of flowers and shiny gold trophies serving as the decorative trimmings.
The international event is an invitational, comprised of athletes who placed in the top rankings during affiliated national and regional competitions which are open to practitioners from any school or style of yoga. The rules and competitive structure follow the Hatha yoga tradition; championship judges are educated by their Indian Federation counterparts on how to award marks for balance, strength, flexibility, well-paced timing, and appropriate breathing in postures. In turn, points can be deducted for instability, lack of proper alignment, forced or uneven breathing, falling out of a posture, or other factors. Ultimately it is the athletes’ ability to master postures in stillness in the present moment which makes the difference.
It was on Saturday, an unseasonably cool day in Los Angeles, that all 79 adult competitors – the women’s count had one up on the men’s – demonstrated their routines to qualify for a spot in Sunday’s Final; their individual three minute presentation of seven asanas (five compulsory and two advanced) symbolic of the culmination of months of training, coaching, resting, and dietary discipline. Prior to the moving into a state of stillness in an asana, the athlete is required to name the pose – whether it be Stretching, Peacock, Handstand Scorpion, Rabbit, Lotus, Tortoise, or Bow, and it is in the moments after this announcement that their performance is evaluated.
In the breaks between demonstrations, the hotel ballroom, which served as the competition space, was a mash up of foreign accents and conversations – a whirlwind of words in French, Swiss French, Spanish, Russian, and British and Irish accents. Hearing the slang of the down to earth Australian contingent was, for me, like being home for a few precious moments (especially when I met one of the yoga athletes, Kowshini Bazil, who happens to teach at my home studio in Lane Cove, Sydney). Though it was a total of around six hours of yoga asana, the length of the day went unnoticed; it was the absence of the heightened energy after I’d left that was fondly reflected upon and missed.
The Los Angeles sun made its appearance for Sunday morning’s Youth Division Finals. The demonstrations of nine boys and eleven girls, who’d flown in from places as close as Mexico and as far away as India, left an audience inspired. Ali Godoy from the US and India’s Arup Bhowmick scored the highest; each was awarded the title of 2013 World Yoga Asana Champion (Youth). A couple of days after her win, Ali, who competed in her first ever International championship this year, wrote to me via email, “It feels amazing to be titled the Youth International Yoga Asana Champion. It is actually sort of incomprehensible; my goal was just to perform to the best of my ability. I never expected to win. I entered because I thought it would be a great way for me to improve my practice and be inspired by the other competitors.” For a 13-year-old, she is already paving the path of service, “In the future I want to volunteer or work with different groups to help introduce yoga to other young people and raise awareness about its benefits.”
I am sure I’m not alone in this reflection; that if only I had known about the sport of yoga asana when I was a teenager, I would have practiced it. For someone who was never interested sports as a kid, I was introduced to yoga in my late twenties and it has been a constant ever since, well into my thirties. In the 1990s, yoga was becoming trendy in America and Australia was seemingly slow to catch up. Today, having the practice so accessible and available globally is a real advantage for the younger generation. I spoke with Rajashree Choudhury, IYSF President and Founder, and five-time All India Yoga Asana Champion about youth and sport a few months ago. She’d said, “Kids have a difficult time when they go through different stages in life; I know this as I raised two kids of my own. There has to be a sport (for them), there has to be a purpose – if they take yoga as a sport, they can constantly improve.”
The Adult Finals took place after the Youth Division. Though the number of the routines was condensed to 20, the demonstrations of the top scoring males and females created an atmosphere equally as palpable as on Saturday. The grand finale meant that only one male and one female would walk away with the champion title. In a collective display of flexibility, strength, and technique of routines comprising beautifully executed asanas that only the judges could decipher with precision, Jared McCann (US) and ChauKei Stefanie Ngai (China) were named the 2013 World Yoga Asana Champions.
The embodiment of impending success, Jared had said a few days before his win, “Participation in the yoga competition, for me, means for that minutes onstage I am fully connected to myself, my spirit, and the members of the audience watching my demonstration. Everything else fades away and I become an instrument for something I love and believe in… yoga.”
Post-competition, my daily yoga sessions have been filled with a greater sense of peace in my practice, a feeling I directly attribute to witnessing the championships. It’s as if it finally clicked – that no matter how advanced or how preliminary one’s practice is, we all share in moments of vulnerability. It’s what connects us. Whether we choose to demonstrate yoga on the stage, in class, or in our own space, it comes down to a mutual unwavering dedication and perseverance of taking part in something that we love.
After six years of competing, ChauKei said of her win, “After this championship, I’m thrilled to see all the pieces come together into a picture of what I’ve been trying to achieve in the past few years. All the small steps, unglamorous changes, and seemingly untimely moments are part of it.” Constantly facing and embracing our emotions in the present moment leads to a series of courageous performances throughout life – it is what epitomizes healthy competition and taps into the champion within all of us.
Marina Chetner is a Los Angeles-based Australian freelance writer.