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Bend it like Bikram

Edited version published in Inside Sport #194 (February 2008)

Darren Ma is feeling a bit nervous. This seems an understatement from a man who is tied up like a sheet bend knot - his torso between his legs, his shoulders hooked behind his knees, and his head dangerously close to his backside. On the other side of the room, Ma’s main rival Dave Reid is being manipulated. One foot planted firmly on the ground, the other slices through the air and hovers impossibly above head height. His head, just for the record, is facing in the wrong direction, turning away from his body in a spine crunching twist.

“Nice legs Dave,” calls 44 year-old Ma from firefly, the term for the yoga pose he is practicing. Reid grins and throws a relaxed comment back.  Elsewhere in the room, 5 yogis (male practitioners of yoga) and 22 yoginis (female practitioners of yoga) stretch and flex, putting themselves through their paces in preparation for three crucial minutes on stage in competition for the ultimate prize – not enlightenment, but the title of Australian Men's or Women's Bikram Yoga Champion 2007, and an all expenses paid opportunity to represent Australia in the Fifth Annual International Bikram Yoga Asana Championships in LA in early February 2008.

Yoga comes in many different flavours, from slower, more sedate disciplines to rapid and cardiovascular types. All have in common a focus on pranayama, or controlled breathing, as the meter by which practice progresses, and the postures, or asanas, themselves. Yoga, particularly Bikram yoga, as part of sports training regimes is nothing new. Professional teams at home and abroad, from the Montana Grizzlies to Melbourne’s St Kilda football club, incorporate regular Bikram yoga sessions into their programs to assist with strength, flexibility, and rejuvenation. It's also a favourite on the celebrity circuit, with Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow and Raquel Welch all swearing that sweating it out Bikram yoga style keeps them lean and toned, fit and flexible, healthy and injury-free.

But yoga as a sport in and of itself? It's a controversial subject. Some see it as a contradiction in terms, an anathema to yoga’s goal of absolving the ego and living a life of non-attachment. Others argue that it’s been around for centuries, and is a natural progression of human behavior. “Competition is the foundation for all democratic societies. Without competition, there is no democracy,” says Bikram Choudhury, founder and namesake of this particular yoga, and himself a teenage yoga champion in his homeland of India, where he won the National Championship three years running before retiring as the undisputed All-India National Yoga Champion in 1962.

Choudhury, now resident in the throbbing heart of competition and democracy - Los Angeles - is no stranger to yogic controversy. He has been criticized for attempting to ‘own’ yoga by patenting his particular style, and for sullying yoga’s Eastern allure with that most Western of idols, money. Bikram yoga is the world’s fastest growing yoga, and its big business. Instructors must be trained and certified (at Bikram HQ in Hawaii) by Choudhury himself, and studios operate in a franchise like fashion.  And it’s hot. Literally.  A ninety-minute series of 26 hatha yoga postures, each performed twice in sauna like conditions of 38 degrees celsius and humidity of 60%. There are an estimated 3 million students practicing in more than 650 Bikram Yoga College of India studios worldwide – and growing. Australia hosts twenty, with five each in Melbourne and Sydney alone.

Jodie Robertson introduced Bikram yoga to Australia in the mid nineties, and organized today’s competition. She’s also a judge at the international event. “Each contestant is scored on a points tally of 80, 10 for each pose and then ten for grace. They start with a perfect score, and get points deducted if they’re nervous or trembling, if they’ve got bruises or blemishes or pimples. We’re looking for concentration, grace and ease. Even though we know it’s not easy for them, its performance, we’re looking for that ‘happy smiling face’ as Bikram would say.”

Bruises, blemishes or pimples? I wonder if this is a sports competition or a beauty contest. “Everyone’s got an idea about what that perfect yoga body looks like, we’re not so interested in that. But you can tell when someone has a bad lifestyle. We don’t deduct for birthmarks and so on, but we are definitely looking for vitality.”

 “Judging yoga has been around for a very long time, it’s a traditional Indian thing,” explains fellow judge Murray Hatton, another of the panel of five presiding over today’s proceedings. “We’ve been trained to judge by professional Indian judges. It’s based on an assessment of people’s confidence, how they present themselves. You’ve got three minutes to be in your zone. It’s an amazing mental challenge. To have the balls – if I may say so – to get up and practice alone, to really pull it off being minimally nervous, that’s fantastic.”

“If you want to have a really fascinating look at where your ego is really at, at how attached you really can be to outcomes and dreams, then compete in a yoga competition,” says 2006 women’s champion Phiona Voyazis. “I could float around thinking I’m not competitive, I’m not ego invested and all that stuff, but I’d by lying if I said I didn’t want to win! I’m not ashamed of that, I don’t feel bad about that. It’s awesome to be acknowledged for what you do. The competition is hot, it’s massive. It’s intense, it’s scary. It’s very inspiring.”

Ma is equally pragmatic. “I enjoy competing,” he explains. “I really do want to be a world champion, and the work I do towards that is good for me. I’m involved in a health industry, I look after myself, I eat well and I do lots of healthy physical exercise and push my body. I used to race dragon boats for ten or eleven years and we raced at world championship level for years and years and years, and we finally won a bronze medal at the Beijing Championships in 2004. The absolute joy of bringing home some steel, winning a medal at such a high level of competition when you know you’ve been working so hard, training and killing yourself every day, it’s amazing. When you win, you can’t beat that feeling.”

But back in the warm up room, not everyone is as relaxed as Ma and Reid. In fact the air in the warm room at North Sydney's Independent Theatre is veritably humming with nervous tension. One competitor is so nervous she can hardly talk to me. I can smell cigarettes on her breath. Voyazis is wide eyed and a little tongue tied, and tells me if she could run a hundred miles from here, she would. Alex Stone sits with her back against the wall, eyes closed and spine straight, plugged in to her ipod. I ask later what she was listening to, expecting yogic chanting or dolphin noises. But these are yogis with their feet planted firmly in the modern world, and Stone was listening to her feel good songs of the moment: ‘Better Than’ by the John Butler trio and ‘Happy Ending’ by Mika. A crew of yoginis from Adelaide with the bodies and leotards of acrobats are here for the first time and keep to themselves, chatting and preening and warming up in the corner, using the weight of their own bodies to increase each others stretch. They tell me they don’t expect to place today, but they wanted to experience training and competing: “It gives you something to do your yoga for.”

Eventually the contestants are lined up and introduced one by one on stage, then shuffled off to await the beginning of the competition proper. The men’s division will lead, followed by the women. Contestants aren’t allowed to watch others compete until they’ve done they’re own routine, so they’re bound to the warm up room to await their call, where a pregnant silence descends. Contestants still themselves, run through last minute stretches, touch up their makeup. One sneaks outside and applies hairspray to his hands and feet to prevent slipping. Finally the buzzer sounds. Ma is up first, which is just the way he likes it. There is absolute silence as he steps up on stage to work through his three minute routine of five compulsory and two optional postures.

These are the poses that enable judges to assess strength and flexibility throughout the body, and Ma has plenty. His body is pure muscle is motion as he moves through the five compulsory postures: standing head to knee, standing bow pulling pose, floor bow, rabbit and deep stretching, then into his optional poses, king pigeon and lotus hand stand. The 200-strong crowd erupts as he exits, falling into a hushed silence again as the next competitor takes the stage. There are some unforgivable wobbles, and one competitor has pimples, so he’s out.

Reid is fifth up, and recovers from an early upset in standing head to knee to stun the crowd with his peacock and locust postures. He’s left uncertain. “I didn’t really hit my straps this year. My knee buckled during standing head to knee, and I was just stuck in that pose for the rest of my series, replaying it over and over in my head.”

The two go on to tie for first place. “Darren had a couple of nice optional postures, and Dave really showed a lot of confidence and vitality,” Robertson tells me when we catch up after the competition. “The other men were quite nervous and didn’t shine as much. Darren and Dave’s postures were a little deeper and more flexible than the others.” I wonder how they managed to tie when after Dave’s knee buckled in his first posture, but Jodie tells me it all comes down to the points. “Even though Dave buckled in standing head to knee, he still held it, and he actually got his head on his knee. So he lost points for that buckling but he didn’t lose a lot of points because he did the final pose, he got his head on his knee even after he buckled.”

The women’s division is three times the size of the men’s, and there are surprises in store. Some competitors lose their balance and fall out of postures. One does it three times in a row in the very first posture, and her loss of confidence is obvious, and followed by tears off stage. Crowd favourite Voyazis automatically loses five points after turning the wrong way in standing head to knee. “We need to be able to see the inside of the body,” explains Robertson. “Phiona got up and stood on the wrong leg, so we couldn’t see what was going on. You just can’t afford to do that.”

The feelgood music does the trick for Stone, who pulls off an impressive one armed lotus in peacock and leg behind the head fingerstand, and finishes in second place.

But professional yogini Rowena Ooi blows the competition out of the water to take an easy first place. Her standing bow pulling posture is technically flawless, and her optional postures – full camel and peacock in lotus – a deep back bend and an advanced balancing posture - show the judges both her strength and flexibility.

33 year-old Ooi is on the Bikram teaching faculty, and has just returned from teaching a retreat in Costa Rica. Speaking after the awards ceremony, she is high on a heady mixture of joy and disbelief.  “I’m blown away, I’m really stoked. I only decided to compete three days ago, so I haven’t really trained. I’ve never watched a yoga competition – in fact I was a bit anti the idea of competition in yoga, I didn’t really get it. I wasn’t expecting anything. But I wanted to have the experience and see what the deal is. Somebody said to me, ‘once you’ve decided to compete, you’ve upped your practice.’ And I’ve noticed in class the last three days how much more focused I’ve been. I’ve been much more careful about how I’m getting into postures. I want to see how far I can go. The nerves under pressure add another element to it. I was a little bit nervous today.”

First stop Australia, next stop the world. “The international competition is amazing,” says Robertson.  ‘You see some stuff at the world’s you wouldn’t see in Australia. Each country sends two male and two female competitors, and I think there are going to be 18 countries this year.” 

“The Americans are generally better than the Australians,” says Ma. “Their access to some of the Bikram greats and the length of time they have been practicing add up to stronger practices. But they're not out of reach - with determination and hard work we can be as good as them.”

It’s clear that yoga as a competitive sport is in its infancy. But if Choudhury has his way, it will be Olympic sport – in fact, it’s rumoured to be on the cards as demonstration sport at the 2012 London Olympic Games. “At the world competition in February 2007 a bigwig from the International Olympic Committee was there for the whole weekend,” says Robertson. “He said there was definitely scope for it to become an Olympic sport. But there are a lot of procedures to go through, that can take years.” We’ll be watching.