On a sun-soaked stage with San Francisco’s Embarcadero behind them, the contestants battled fiercely, bodies glistening with sweat. All was in the details. How was their posture, their proportion? Were they graceful? How did they execute their compulsories? How difficult were their optional big-finishes?
Each went through the routine—men in swimsuits, women in spandex shorts and tank tops—as the audience, mute as a golf gallery, gasped and “ahhhed.” Standing Bow. Floor Bow. Rabbit. The Paschimottanasana Stretching Pose, which is said to be much harder than it looks, really. Liz Patnode, 34, trembled and winced as she balanced on one leg, lifting the other thigh to touch her forehead. Ivy Woodruff, an intensive-care nurse, crumpled backstage after her routine, immune to the applause from both friends and rivals.
“My bow sucked! Sucked!” she wailed.
“No, you were awesome!” reassured Susan Anderson, a 27-year-old transplanted Texan who ultimately won the first Northern California Yoga Championship, held earlier this month, to no small amount of controversy. When the judges handed the tallest of the three trophies to the pigtailed yoga instructor—who had been so poised earlier, during her perfect backbend—she, too, went to pieces.
“But everyone else was so beautiful,” she stammered. “I’m shocked. I’m absolutely shocked.”
She’s not the only one. Anderson’s trophy, entitling her to a trip to the inaugural Ghosh Cup World Yoga Championship starting Wednesday at the Los Angeles Convention Center, represents the white-hot edge of the debate over the future of the ancient spiritual discipline. The event marks the first official yoga competition in this country. But yoga, critics say, is supposed to be about the unification of soul and body, the liberation of the self, about acceptance and well-being—in other words, anything but a contest.
“The whole idea of competition is contrary,” says Maty Ezraty, founder of 16-year-old Yoga Works studios, based in Santa Monica.
“It’s crazy,” says Ezraty’s partner, Chuck Miller, who has been practicing yoga for 32 years. “It’s a terrible idea.”
But Bikram Choudhury, the “hot yoga” mogul who organized both the championship and the Yoga Expo that will be its setting, sees it as a U.S. version of similar events in India that for centuries have done there what he aims to do here: broaden yoga’s appeal.
“Yoga is not just sitting and doing meditation in the temple,” says Choudhury, whose Beverly Hills-based Bikram Yoga empire stretches to hundreds of cities worldwide. Both he and his wife are former national yoga champions in India, where competitions are viewed as a way “to inspire younger generations, just like you do in sports here.”
The competition has been the talk of yoga aficionados nationwide, partly because Choudhury is behind it (he tailored the rules to his postures and named the prize for his guru, Bishnu Ghosh) and partly because competitive yoga begs the larger question of the discipline’s future in the United States. It’s a debate that not so long ago would have aroused, at best, limited interest. But as yoga has caught on with Americans, the urge to exploit its popularity has been intense—and not just for Choudhury, who has made a fortune by copyrighting a series of 26 postures and licensing franchisees to teach them.
Though a number of practitioners say they will avoid the Expo and the championship because they see them as self-promotion for Choudhury, some quietly acknowledge that if he hadn’t come up with this competition, someone else probably would have. In fact, when Yoga Journal ran a prank advertisement last year on April Fool’s Day, offering a $30,000 prize to the winner of a nonexistent “Invitational Yoga Pose-Off,” the blizzard of mail included this comment from an appalled subscriber: “What’s scary is that the idea is not beyond believability.”
Choudhury, a former weightlifter from Calcutta, says there’s nothing scary about expanding yoga to include competition, except to those who don’t really understand the discipline.
“I think, frankly speaking, Americans are not in a position to raise these questions. Yoga came from India thousands of years ago. We know what we are doing. People here ask all these silly questions. ‘Yoga is spiritual, how can it be a competition?’ I ignore it.”
Indeed, he says, he hopes to bring yoga into the Olympics, “just like kick boxing and ribbon gymnastics.”
“Already there are yoga competitions in Japan, Italy, Brazil and Argentina,” says Choudhury, who will award the winner of this month’s competition with a $3,000 prize and a round-trip plane ticket to any city on the planet. “It is only in America that this has never happened. But we are thinking we can go to the Olympics, maybe as soon as in four years.”
Critics such as Ezraty bristle at that sort of ambition, not least because they view Choudhury’s athletic, feel-the-burn brand of yoga as potentially damaging, physically. Among other things, Bikram yoga discourages the use of bricks and other aids that help reduce strain on developing muscles. And since the contest is designed around Bikram poses, Ezraty notes, it serves only to promote that type of yoga.
“I know what that contest is going to look like—lots of hyper-extended legs and crunched lower backs. It won’t be pretty,” says Ezraty, whose approach blends ashtanga, hatha and other types of yoga. “And just because something comes from India doesn’t mean it’s good. India is a huge country. A lot of crazy things happen there.”
Northern Californians have had similar mixed feelings about the contest.
“When I told one of my friends I was doing this competition, she e-mailed me back, ‘Yoga? Competition?’ ” says Melanie Molino, a 45-year-old former triathlete from Mill Valley who took up yoga for its noncompetitive aspects only to find herself drawn to the Northern California contest. “But I think there’s room for all kinds of yoga. It’s all about making yourself the best you can be. I never thought I could love myself as much as I do now.”
Several days later, a letter in the San Francisco Chronicle cut to the heart of the matter. “I am announcing plans to stage a first-ever meditation competition,” a reader wrote after hearing about the local yoga contest. “Points will be awarded for speed and depth in accessing bliss.”
Shawn Hubler is a Times staff writer who last wrote for the magazine about life after the bust in Silicon Valley.