She steps onto the stage, bows in Namaste to the judges and audience, turns to the right and announces the first Asana, “Standing Head to Knee pose.” Except for the hum of neon lights overhead, the room is silent. She folds into the pose; with both hands, she lifts her right leg up. The muscles of her standing leg are engaged, her face is calm. In a one-legged balance, she sways a little to the right, then back to the left. Within a couple of seconds she regains her composure, her stillness. She proceeds to kick out her leg until it is perpendicular to the floor, hugs her elbows around her calf, and touches her forehead to her knee. All the while, the crowd hasn’t made a sound. They are transfixed but you can feel their energy – a “you can do it” group-think of support. Moments later, she exits a beautifully executed posture. My eyes well up as I bear witness to such a powerful and personal practice. In anticipation of the next pose, she announces: “Standing Bow Pulling pose.”
The California Regional Yoga Asana Championship was held in Los Angeles Saturday, January 19. Here, 47 youth and adults from all corners of the state of California congregated at the Edward Roybal Learning Center, located in the city’s downtown area, to partake in the region’s 10th Asana Competition.
Yoga Asana competitions been run in India for hundreds of years, and for the same reason the USA Yoga Federation coordinates these events in the States and around the world—to promote Yoga for the betterment of people’s health. The organization’s aim is to develop Yoga Asana as a sport.
Preparation for Championship
Each yoga competitor trains as an athlete would months prior to demonstrate a series of five compulsory, and two optional (advanced) postures within a three minute time span – on stage, in front of a captive audience.
Said Valerie McCann, Southern California competitor:
“I train throughout the year, practicing regularly – with the occasional double class… Whenever I have time after class I stay and work on a few advanced postures. As it comes closer to competition, I start thinking about the routine and focus on my optional poses. I work on those after class, as well as any other postures or stretches that will complement those postures. The week before competition I try to take it easy. I do class really well, run the routine once or twice for timing and grace details, and then forget about it. Two days before, I take a day off and get a massage, and then really take it easy until competition. Trust that all of your months and years of practice are there.”
Posture Series Demonstration
On the stage and under the spotlight, the success of a yoga athlete’s performance is dependent on their ability to “master the moment.” Working in unison with the mind, body, breath, balance, strength, and postural alignment is essential for the masterful execution of Asanas.
Christian Kline, competitor from Southern California, explained his experience to me:
“For me, once I’m into doing the postures, my mind gets pretty quiet. Back stage my mind gets get pretty loud, but I think once the yoga starts my mind knows it’s time to slow down. I know that there is a big internal sigh of relief after getting out of Standing Bow Pulling pose, when the real balance work is done… If I could calm my mind throughout life as much as I can when I’m on stage competing I would be a much calmer person. That’s why I keep doing yoga.”
It’s one thing to perform on stage; it’s another to perform in front of a judging panel that includes Rajashree – USA Yoga President, Emmy Cleaves and Jon Gans – senior yoga teachers, and Susan and Joe Elliott – yoga studio owners. Their job is to closely watch each pose and assess it on such elements as technique, grace, and balance. To put it into perspective, where the highest score per posture is 10, bent wrists in Floor Bow pose means deduction of ½ a point. Falling out of a pose is a 5 point deduction; not attempting it a second and final time would mean a nil score.
“People work hard on their practices in California. All the winners from California are a good bet to go far in the National competition in March,” observed judge Gans. He went on to say, “Even though I am judging, I am also rooting for every competitor to nail his/her routine. And when I give a score, a good one or not so good, I feel like I am helping that competitor by giving him/her my honest and impartial feedback.”
It’s time for the winners to be announced; the audience’s happy chatter subsides yet their mood remains positively charged. The finalists are called; cheers erupt as the names are called for those who have placed 3rd, then 2nd, then 1st. When the winners accept their awards, I notice they act as humbly as they did while performing their Asana series on stage. “Our competitors are ordinary people like you and me. When you are watching a series of ordinary people get up on stage and do extraordinary things with their bodies, you can’t help but be inspired… to practice harder. Or if you don’t practice, to check it (yoga) out.”Adding to judge Gans’ sentiment, Yoga Asana championships are symbolic to me of how beautifully the human spirit shines when people come together to celebrate sport.
Results: 1st place winners from SoCal, Adult: Valerie McCann and Christian Kline, Youth: Alankane D’quebec. From NorCal, Adult: Victoria Gonzalez and Jeff Jones, Youth: Ali Godoy. For more information, see www.usayoga.org/results
National Championship: The winners will go on to compete at the National Championships for title of USA Yoga Asana Champion. This event is held in March in NYC. See www.usayoga.org for details.
Marina Chetner is a Los Angeles-based Australian freelance writer.