Yoga competition may be an oxymoron. But it really does exist.
Competitive yoga, part of Indian culture for thousands of years, first appeared in United States about six years ago.
The Oregon Hatha Yoga Regional Championship, to be held this Sunday in Portland, is a chance for the state’s yoga practitioners to qualify for national competition.
Eight Central Oregon yoga students from Bikram’s Yoga College of India in Bend have committed to compete in the regional event. And these local students know what it is to be committed.
At the Bend studio, nestled on the first floor of a building in The Old Mill District, where large windows provide a wide view of the Deschutes River and Mount Bachelor. It is a cold fall evening outside, and the Bikram Yoga studio is warm and humid — though even at 80 degrees it is some 20 degrees below its usual temperature.
A few of the dedicated soon-to-be competitors gather, sitting in a small circle on the floor. Mirrors stretch across three of the eggshell-yellow walls and large wood beams surge up to the high ceilings. The students discuss competition specifics.
Kathy Durham, a yoga instructor at the local facility and a three-time regional and national competitor, sits cross-legged on a raised podium and shares a few of her experiences in yoga competition.
“The most rewarding part of it has been the relationships, the friendships, the community that I’ve built,” Durham says. “Not only in our own studio here, but with people all over the world. We come together through yoga.”
Some of the students stretch. Each of them has just practiced 90 minutes of Bikram Yoga in the 105-degree room — as most of them do 365 days a year — and now they are here to prepare for the competition.
In addition to their daily yoga practice, the group meets four days a week for about one hour to practice their three-minute routine. The competition requires five mandatory postures and two optional postures.
The competitors are judged by a panel. Judges are generally looking for stillness in the posture, focus, complete postures, and calm and grace as participants go in and out of their poses. Competitors are also judged on the degree of difficulty for their optional postures.
“You are demonstrating everything about the postures that has nothing to do with the physical body, is how I feel about it,” explains Durham, 30. “When you are watching someone up on stage you see their focus, their concentration, the determination, the willpower, the strength, the flexibility. You see all those things demonstrated in just seven postures that they show you. As well as grace and confidence, calmness — you can see it.”
How does one “compete” at yoga?
The competitions are less about opponents and more about demonstrating the capabilities of the human body and the beauty that unfolds when yoga enthusiasts contort their bodies in some of the most unusual shapes.
“Everybody just wants to see everybody else achieve and work, and it’s just really nice,” notes Bend’s Maria Limberg, 32, who took part in last year’s regional competition.
Durham explains how yoga competitions began in the United States: “In India, they started doing yoga competitions as a way to demonstrate yoga and build more awareness about yoga. And Bikram and Rajashree (Choudhury, a married couple) — our teachers — they both participated in these as children. … When Bikram and Rajashree came over to the United States, as they started building their yoga community … it was a way for them to kind of bring a part of India over here and a way to show yoga to people. Because people come and watch these competitions and they get to see these postures — to see the possibilities of the human body, the different ways that people can move.
“Competitions are mostly designed to heighten that awareness of yoga and what it’s doing in people’s lives.”
Durham has been testing her own physical and emotional boundaries through yoga for years. Day after day she has worked to bend backward and go farther and farther into the advanced backward bend posture known as the wheel, or Chakrasana.
Durham widens her stance, stretches her slender arms into the air and reaches up and then back and back and back, folding her body into an arch and then slowly and gracefully grasping her ankles. Her head, stretched backward and upside down, swoops between the triangle formation of her legs.
Her upper body and lower body appear as if separate structures.
“I think of it almost as an art display,” says 49-year-old Collene Funk, of Bend, who this year will take part in the regional competition for the first time. “Where we are presenting our bodies in the postures as works of art, rather than competing against one another — or even ourselves. We are making ourselves an offering of art (through the postures) to share with other people.”
Durham has twice won the regional competition and once taken third at nationals.
The top two competitors at the regional competition qualify for nationals. The top two finishers at nationals earn a spot at the international competition.
While Durham expects to move on the national competition Feb. 6-8 in Los Angeles, most of the other local yoga competitors are first-timers. And as a few of them mention, they are entering the competition for the motivation to consistently practice yoga and achieve goals.
Tom Dean, also an instructor at Bend’s Bikram Yoga studio and a first-time competitor, explains why he wants to compete.
“Just for the challenge and a focus, a goal,” says the 35-year-old. “It’s more of a self-awareness type journey for me. That journey of self-discipline to heightened self-awareness.”
“For me it’s a challenge within myself,” notes Limberg. “It’s the sense of accomplishment of saying, ‘OK, I’m going to do this. I’m going to practice at it. I’m going to go up there and do my best and when I’m done, I’m done.’ I’m going to know that I worked hard and did my best.”
During the few days remaining before the competition, the local yoga practitioners will continue doing what they have been doing: Practicing yoga every day and after class practicing the same seven postures over and over again until they can be completely focused, clear their mind and hold still in their perfect pose.
“We have a common goal to do our best together,” says Funk of the eight locals who will travel to Portland to compete on Sunday. “We’re not competing against each other. We are encouraging each other to be our best.”