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Competitive Yoga Enthusiasts Seek Spot In Future Olympics

Olympic fever has gripped Eugene, with the Prefontaine Classic last weekend, and plans underway for the Olympic Track & Field Trials at the end of the month.

There's a move afoot to add a new sport to the summer Olympics: competitive yoga. As April Baer reports,  several Oregon yoga studios have gotten involved in the campaign.

Full disclosure: When I first heard  the phrase "competitive yoga" I almost laughed.  The same peaceful discipline that preaches relaxation and  self-acceptance, ratchetted up to the same high-anxiety level as gymnastics or the hundred-yard-dash?

But Suzanne Cummings, one of the organizers of Oregon's competitive league, is a persuasive sales-person. This is Suzanne, describing the first yoga match she ever saw.

 Tiger Scorpion
Leota Wolford demonstrates one of her signature asanas, Tiger Scorpion.

Suzanne Cummings: "I was amazed. It was beautiful, I was skeptical at first. It was everything yoga was meant to be."

In competitive yoga, there are no Neil Diamond soundtracks or spangled costumes. Each "practitioner" enters a silent hall, and performs seven poses, or asanas, in three minutes — some are compulsory, others elective.

Suzanne Cummings: "It was absolute beauty in the postures — and it really appealed to my competitive nature."

Suzanne and her husband Derek have been deeply involved in the league that's already staged five regional championships in Oregon. They also run a Bikram Yoga  studio in Northeast Portland.

Those who know yoga may not be surprised to learn that Bikram practitioners are the driving force behind the competitive leagues.  Bikram is very distinctive style of yoga, practiced in sweltering hundred-degree plus rooms.

It's fast-paced, with instructors who are unrelentingly positive, and — unrelenting!

Ambient sound from Suzanne's class: "Stretch up! Touch the ceiling, glue your palms, full lungs. Now bend to the right — perfect straight line please, do not tuck your chin at all. Push your hips to the left, as hard as you possibly can, beyond your flexibility….."

Unlike most yoga studios, Bikram yoga is a franchised business, and Suzanne says that structure has been indispensable in getting competitive leagues up and running. 

The competitions are open to anyone — not just Bikram practitioners. But the Bikram tribe is viewed as, well, a little different, within the yoga world. Its heat, its aggressive style, its rigorous breathing exercises.

Most Americans who practice yoga go to classes that sound a lot quieter…like this noontime class at Yoga Pearl in downtown Portland.

Ambience: "Inhale lift your tail and your shoulder blades, arch like a cat."

This slower pace, and more relaxed style is what Joy Wolfe has been teaching for about sixteen years, at a North Portland studio called Prananda. She says she's disturbed by a trend she's detected lately in the yoga world. It's a kind of perfectionism, she says, a no-pain-no-gain mentality.

She's caught some of her favorite yoga magazines airbrushing their cover models down to size-2 perfection.  And she sees competitive yoga as part of that same trend.

Joy Wolfe: "It's portraying yoga in a way that I think is really missing the heart of it."

Wolfe says many people who come into her class are so over-stressed they have trouble calming down for a ninety minute class. She wants them to stop comparing themselves to others.

Joy Wolfe: "If you're doing the yoga, breathing correctly, and you feel the pose correctly, that's the yoga, right there. It's not making it look perfect."

The diversity of opinion on competitive yoga isn't limited to Oregon. Competitions have been around for some years in India, the cradle of yoga. But even there some yogis believe the contests aren't true to the tradition.

Competitive practitioners say they know they're dealing with some skepticism, but they hope people will give  it a chance.

Leota Wolford is a tiny woman, and a three-time Oregon asana champion. She's placed third in national competition twice. She says she was initially too shy to compete, but tried it, as a test of her ability to overcome fear.

Leota Wolford: "There's always a danger of getting caught up in the whole ego aspect of it. But more strongly I think is the possibility of changing yourself at your deepest levels to be a more positive force in the world."

Wolford says she follows her teachers' guidance, competing with herself, instead of looking to surpass her competitors.

She agrees to show me one of her signature asanas, Tiger Scorpion.   It's one of those impossible-looking poses, but Wolford makes it seem easy.

Leota Wolford:  "Create the triangle…"

She braces her forearms against the floor, and from a headstand, bends her legs back into an exotically graceful C-shape.

Leota Wolford: "…arching the spine…bend the knees…."

Her feet arch carefully down until they're resting on the top of her head. Leota tilts her head up and opens her enormous blue eyes.

Leota Wolford:  "…relax… hold perfectly still."

Organizers with the competitive yoga movement hope to win over the International Olympic Commission in time for a showing at the 2020 Summer Games.

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