Champions of Zen
Inside the controversial world of competitive yoga
CHAVIE LIEBER Feb 24, 2016, 9:00a Photos by Cole Wilso,
Picture this: a hundred people sitting around a boxing ring at a Brooklyn gym one snowy evening in late January. Instead of gathering to watch people fight, they are there to watch people bend, twist, and fold their bodies into contorted yoga poses.
The room is completely silent as all eyes focus on the center of the ring, where 22 yogis will each demonstrate six different postures before the night is through. A panel of judges is positioned at a table in front of the ring while they analyze the movements, stone-faced.
Slowly but surely, the room comes to life. When Craig Friedman, a competitor in the senior division, breathes heavily through Dandayamana Dhanurasana, standing bow pose, his knees quiver as he pulls one leg up in the air to make a straight line with the one planted on the ground, and the crowd claps encouragingly. Beads of sweat drip down Friedman’s forehead as he brings his leg into Janu Sirsasana, head-to-knee pose, and the judges take swift notes.
Then Victoria Gibbs, tall and taut in a black bodysuit, takes the ring. Bending backwards to grab her shins, she completes Chakra Bandhasana, full wheel pose, to the sounds of soft gasping from the impressed audience. Moments later, she’s morphing into Vrscikasana, scorpion pose, and veins pop out of her forehead as she tries not to wobble while balancing on her forearms.
A few feet off away from the ring is an area where a dozen competitors are warming up their splits, backbends, handstands, and downward dogs on gym mats. They watch the competition and swap tips. Nikki Ortiz, a 27-year-old from Ecuador who teaches at Yoga to the People, says the atmosphere is friendly: “Nobody wants anyone else to fall. They just want you to do your best.”
These yoga enthusiasts are competing in the USA Yoga Asana New York regional championship, now in its 13th year. This is just one of 16 such events that will take place around the country in 2016, and those who earn the highest scores tonight will face off against champions from other regionals during a final competition in Jackson Hole, Wyoming in May. Those winners will then go on to compete in the international championships, where representatives from participating countries like Australia, Spain, Mexico, Switzerland, Chile, England, and Denmark will battle for the title of world champion.
The US competitions are organized by the United States Yoga Federation, also referred to as USA Yoga, an LA-based nonprofit with a mission to develop and promote yoga as a sport. Its clever logo resembles the NBA’s, but with a yogi doing standing bow pose instead of a basketball player dribbling a ball.
“Nobody wants anyone else to fall. They just want you to do your best.”
“The whole purpose is to inspire others to take on the practice and gain the benefits of yoga,” says Joseph Encinia, president of USA Yoga and an international yoga champion himself. “We find that the more people see competitions, the more they are interested.”
And the more steam competitive yoga picks up, the more polarizing it’s become.