Bikram Choudhury, pioneer of the sweaty style of hot yoga that shares his name, is primarily known in yoga circles as the man with the gold chains, multiple Rolls Royces, and penchant for suing Bikram studio owners who fail to pay him licensing fees. Not what you'd call a good reputation. Lately, Choudhury and the entire Bikram Yoga community have been the center of a new storm of controversy over an idea that some yoga teachers feel is anathema to the practice's core principles: yoga competitions.
This Sunday at Concordia University, Portland's stretchy scene gathered in a basketball gym to watch contestants serenely battle for the gold at the 4th Annual Oregon Regional Yoga Asana Championship. Organized by Suzanne and Derek Cummings, co-directors of the Bikram school on Fremont Street, the contest sends winners (at the Cummings' expense) to a National Championship in L.A., from which the greatest yogis go on to competition on the International level. Derek says the contestants are judged based on “body proportion, poise and grace, and difficulty of optional poses."
As the scantily-clad contestants are called one by one to the carpeted stage to show off their moves, there is a vibe similar to that of bodybuilding tournaments. Except that many of the hopefuls don't appear to be athletes in the traditional sense; several are middle-aged women and men lacking muscle tone and bearing an average amount of cellulite. Regardless, the positions these normal-looking people can twist into are impressive: from something called “The Guillotine” that brings a woman's head down through her legs until she is face-to-face with her own spine, to the classic “Sleeping Yogi Pose,” in which a contestant pulls both ankles behind her head and rocks gently, pretzel-like, on the floor.
While the contest is fun to watch, some attendees feel that the very idea of competitive yoga gives a shortsighted view of what is reverently called, in some circles, "the practice." Yoga instructor and teacher-trainer Wren Doggett of Peacefull Soul Yoga on NE Alberta Street, says contests “defeat the whole purpose of yoga. It's focusing on the anatomy to the extent that it overshadows the contemplative aspects of the practice.”
The florescent-lit gymnasium stands starkly opposed to most yoga studios' soft ambience and new-age vibes, and it does seem surprising that there is so much focus on Asanas (physical poses), without mention of yoga's foundation of beliefs, such as the idea of Karma Yoga (volunteer work), meditation, or the Yamas and Niyamas (a Ten Commandments-like ethical code that devout yogis follow.)
“The traditional reason for Hatha Yoga [the physical exercise part of the whole yoga practice] is to prepare the body to sit in longer periods of meditation,” says Doggett, “and how would you judge who's a good meditator? Are you going to read their minds and say they're thinking of their grocery list?”
Derek Cummings doesn't worry about detractors. He points out that yoga contests have taken place in India for “thousands of years.” And while it may be primarily a Bikram thing right now, he hopes that within a couple of years, more yoga schools will get into the competitive spirit, bringing more diversity to the events. Whether or not diehard yogis can get behind the idea of contests, soon they may have to take it seriously in terms of the public view of yoga. Cummings points out that Bikram fanatics are gunning for inclusion in the Olympic Games. It requires five years of International Competitions before a “sport” can be entered, and the Bikram contests, now in their fourth year, are flexing forward to the mark. MARY CHRISTMAS.
Photo: Contestant Kathryn Durham performs at the Oregon Yoga Asana Championship 2006 at Concordia University on Sunday, Nov. 12.