Emily Avery is ambitious. She’s a first year student at Princeton, a pre-professional ballerina, and she wants to be a neurosurgeon. Emily Avery is also, very, flexible.
And if the USA Yoga Federation had their way, there would be a place at the Olympics for competitive yogis like her. But for now, USA Yoga will hold their annual national championship in San Antonio this March. And, of course, this 19 year old yoga champ will be there.
Competitive Yoga Is Serious Business
“You bend your elbows below your calf muscle, and tuck your chin in to your chest,” Avery narrates as she contorts her body into “standing head to knee.” It’s one of seven postures she and about 200 other competitors will perform before a panel of judges, at the upcoming national yoga championships. Last year, Avery won first place in the youth division. This year, she’ll compete as an adult.
Scores are based on “alignment, and grace, and no reversal of movement, or shaking,” Avery explains. “That type of thing.”
Avery has been practicing yoga for four years at a Bikram yoga studio in Portsmouth. But, she doesn’t have a yoga studio nearby while she’s at Princeton. So, Avery says, she emails her coach in Portsmouth, Sara Curry, videos of her yoga routine, and Curry replies with corrections.
Obviously, this competition is serious business.
But Is It Yoga?
Los Angeles-based USA Yoga started their championships in 2003. Board member and judge Cynthia Wehr says it’s about celebrating yoga, and bringing more people into the practice. “We want to take what already exists,” she says, “and bring it more to the masses.”
But the idea of competitive yoga doesn’t sit well with everyone. Even Wehr says it perplexes people, and seems counterintuitive.
So how flexible is the definition of the word “yoga?”
It depends what kind of yoga studio you’re standing in.
Bikram Yogis Say Competition Follows Tradition
Most competitors, like Emily Avery, come from a Bikram studio – the kind of yoga done at a fast pace, in a 105 degree room.
USA Yoga is trying to recruit competitors in other yoga styles. But, selling the idea of competitive yoga to non-Bikram teachers can prove difficult.
Take Deana Aulisio. She teaches Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga in Portsmouth. Aulisio says she has nothing against competitive yoga – but it’s not what her classes are about. Aulisio explains the word “drishti,” which is Sanskrit and means a focused gaze.
“You should keep it soft, so you're not comparing to the person next to you,” Aulisio says, “and you're not even supposed to be comparing to what it was for you, yesterday. You don’t want to be judging yourself every time you get on the mat.”
Aulisio says breath and energy are the fundamentals of the yoga tradition, and she’s not sure how they could figure into a competition. But, USA Yoga’s Cynthia Wehr says things like breath and energy can be judged. And, she says, it’s not like competitions are some kind of American construct. “This is something that is already actually exists in India,” she says.
University of Pittsburg anthropologist Joseph Alter says yes, yoga competitions began popping up in India in the 1930s, and got popular in the 1950s. But that’s after about 2000 years of noncompetitive practice. Alter says like Americans, Indians also disagree about whether or not traditional yoga can be competitive.
As far as he’s concerned, though, the act of judging and choosing a champion – severs the sport from traditional yoga practice. “Fundamentally, competitive yoga is something which undermines many if not most of the philosophical and physiological aspects of yoga in its broader cultural and historical understanding,” he says.
Alter has never been to a yoga competition. Although, he says he finds the prospect fascinating. And 19 year old competitor Emily Avery says, when you get there, you realize it’s not like other sports. Competitors cheer each other on, and “it’s more about demonstrating what you can do with your body right now,” than judging anybody.
But, Avery says, “I definitely want to do well, and I don’t want to let myself down I guess.”