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Valerie Reiss Headshot

Is Yoga Ready for the Olympics?

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Though we in the competition-squeamish yoga community have been repeatedly assured that yoga competitions are historically common in India, your first time can be shocking. That was my experience at least, at the Hudson Theater in Midtown Manhattan, watching the 2012 United States Yoga Asana Championship, New York Regional edition. My shock started at the door, where instead of being handed a ticket, a woman slashed a bright blue "X" on my right hand with a Sharpie (instant college keg party flashback). Then a Bikram-heavy marketplace greeted us, an orgy of teeny shorts and bra tops in many colors.

Once inside the main theater, we were sharply hushed by intent ushers. The place was packed. Taking our seats, we watched yogi after yogi -- then yogini after yogini after yogini (there were, not surprisingly, twice as many women competing) -- on a stage with what looked like two yoga mats taped together, surrounded by graceful, floor-to-ceiling navy velvet curtains. Over about three hours, 35 competitors each moved through a seven-posture set in three minutes. Here's the pose list from USAyoga.org:

1. Standing-Head-to-Knee Pose (Dandayamana Janushirasana), executed in four (4) distinct phases

2. Standing Bow Pulling Pose (Dandayamana Dhanurasana)

3. Bow Pose (Dhanurasana)

4. Rabbit Pose (Sasangasana)

5. Stretching Pose (Paschimottanasana)

6. Optional Choice Posture

7. Optional Choice Posture

Poses are judged by detailed alignment criteria for a total of 80 points, plus ineffables like "grace" are considered. Every sequence was done in near-absolute silence, minus a churning fan. Then loud or polite applause, depending. There were a variety of body types and a range of ages. Some wobbled and just made it through, some soared through vertebrae-defying asana. Watching the men was an especially vulnerable viewing experience -- seeing them tremble through peacock in nothing but a Speedo made me want to give them a blanket, or cry. It was all odd, but not without poignant beauty -- athletic or unintended.

Pose sets were interspersed by commentary from an emcee who, though enthusiastic, entertaining, and positive, seemed a bit off-tone, more suited to a campy twirling competition than an event trying hard to be taken seriously. After people struggled silently through complex poses, he jokily filled time with things like: "There are going to be all sorts of guys tuning in to watch this online. It's sick." And, when an attractive man won a seminar with event founder Rajashree Choudhury, Bikram's wife: "I think they're gonna put the semen in seminar."

That, combined with the requirement that each competitor call out each pose before going into it -- "rabbit!" or "stretching!" -- made for downright surreal theater.

But spectacle aside, is the Bikram family mission to bring yoga competitions to the 2016 Olympics any closer to fruition that when it started nine years ago? I'd say yes and no. There are now competitors from 36 states and in 15 countries -- with 60 countries to go. That's a lot. But, despite the call to include people from "all yoga," attendees and sponsors appeared to be mostly Bikram-affiliated. The alignment goals were clearly Bikram -- hyper-extended knees in standing head-to-knee and popped hips in standing bow. And when certain competitors or teachers were announced, rounds of knowing applause went up; this was a group of insiders. The people in front of me found out about it through a flier at a Bikram studio.

The latter brings up a key point -- in my travels to various studios throughout the city, I didn't see a single flier for the events of this weekend. Most yoga studios in New York are helping New Yorkers become less competitive through yoga and are appalled by this movement to sportify the practice. And New York is not alone in this, making it the biggest hurdle for the Bikrams -- rallying the larger community to a cause that makes its skin crawl. One Yoga Championship judging criteria, from last year's website, is: "15% of total points are allotted to the overall attractiveness of the body. Choose an outfit that best enhances the body's shape and proportions." Maybe it can move ahead without the backing or blessing of the millions who love yoga for its ability to help us stop harshly judging ourselves and others. Or maybe not.

Another challenge for this mission is simply the format. Watching person after person do mostly the same poses is, as one attendee noted, "strangely compelling," but it's also deeply lulling -- though the emcee was amusingly inappropriate, he also kept us awake. One woman across from me was openly reading a book. Maybe it's my vinyasa-loving bias, but if you want to teach the world to love yoga, bring out its deeply-compelling inherent beauty, not with static poses, but with a flow that incorporates stillness. With a flow that brings out gorgeous prana, or life energy -- which looks good in anything.

Most of us love watching our teachers demonstrate challenging poses -- it gives us something to strive for, and can also create a sense of intimacy, as if we are peering into her soul. If the yoga Olympics movement can do this for yoga -- unite, connect, and have us feel more tenderly toward our own creature and others, it has a chance to touch the planet on a massive level. If not, it's no more interesting than watching someone do really impressive calisthenics. Which has its own beauty, but doesn't do the full, spiritual range of hatha yoga any kind of justice.

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