Experts train to sweat it out at the British championships
By Andy Dangerfield
You might think yoga is all about discovering inner strength and peace in your own time. But many of those at today's British yoga championships have a different view and it's threatening to split the world of yoga in two.
Those of us who've never done any yoga probably have misty notions of a mostly female crowd attempting to become more supple and promote inner tranquillity in a room smelling faintly of patchouli.
But there is a school of yoga that is all about intensity and competition, and they are causing concern among traditional yoga devotees.
Bikram yoga, where participants exercise in 40C heat, has seen phenomenal growth in recent years. Schools are opening every week adding to more than 600 across more than 40 countries.
Twenty contenders are due to sweat it out at the British championships held in London this weekend. Within three minutes, each contestant must perform five compulsory postures followed by two optional poses before a panel of judges.
But there is a growing divide between yoga traditionalists, who think competition is not part of yoga's philosophical framework, and radicals who want to jockey for pole position.
And this is not the first time there has been controversy in yoga circles. In the past, offence has been caused by everything from exercise classes and celebrity DVDs to clothing ranges and diets.
If all you see is a 20-something girl bent into a pretzel shape, you may decide it's not for you
Tara Fraser, Yoga Junction
The creator of this latest controversial yoga craze is Bikram Choudhury, who started practising as a three-year-old and became Indian champion aged 11. At 17, following a weightlifting accident that shattered his knee, Mr Choudhury was told by doctors he would never walk again.
But he devised a 26-step sequence of postures and through daily practice restored his mobility in six months.
"Anybody, any age, any sex, with any chronic disease can practise the sequence," he says.
Bikram yoga has since gained popularity worldwide, and had celebrity clientele from George Harrison to Madonna.
And while the British championships may feel a little amateur, with even the competition's date fluctuating in recent weeks, the world championships, put on by the World Yoga Foundation in LA next month, should be a grander affair.
As a child, the possibility of winning a competition was the only way to motivate myself
Rajashree Choudhury, former yoga champion
Representatives are even crossing their fingers (among other limbs) for yoga in the London 2012 Olympics, having already had discussions with Olympic committee chairman Sebastian Coe.
But some teachers are against yogis - yoga practitioners - battling out their gravity-defying postures.
"I don't think it should be competitive," says Tara Fraser, from London's Yoga Junction. "Competing is not embedded in yoga's philosophical framework and makes no sense if you want to achieve self-realisation."
But in India, the birthplace of yoga, it has had a competitive dimension for more than 2,000 years.
"Yoga competition is an old Indian tradition," says Mr Choudhury. "It's a tremendous discipline - a hundred times harder than any other competition."
Mr Choudhury's wife, Rajashree, also a former yoga champion, says the spiritual side is important even in a yoga face off.
"The only way to win is to be balanced, calm and concentrate. If you think you are competing against others, you won't win."
BRIEF HISTORY OF YOGA
3000-1700 BC: The first pictures depicting meditation
900 BC: The first texts describing meditation
100-200 AD: Classical yoga text written
Post 200 AD: Independent yoga schools begin to develop
1893: Modern yoga is said to have begun at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago
1950s: Selvarajan Yesudian writes book Sport and Yoga
1960s: Maharishi Mahesh teaches Yoga to the Beatles
Today: 30 million people reguarly practice yoga worldwide
Ms Fraser thinks seeing experts perform against each other like circus contortionists might put some people off taking up yoga.
"If all you see is a 20-something girl bent into a pretzel shape, you may decide it's not for you," she says. "If your body doesn't bend a certain way, it doesn't matter. It's like being blonde or brunette. You have to work with what you've got."
But Mrs Choudhury says competition can actually encourage people, particularly children, to take up yoga.
"As a child, the possibility of winning a competition was the only way to motivate myself. Yoga is very boring for children. They need motivation to win."
British School of Yoga teacher Danielle Kirby, who has taught in schools, thinks children enjoy yoga because it is not competitive.
"It was the favourite PE class of larger children, who had been pushed behind in competitive sport," she says. "Larger children balance better, and the fact it wasn't competitive was appealing to them as there were no goals."
Competitive yoga may also increase the risk of injury, Ms Kirby thinks.
"Rushing into positions could damage your body. They won't realise until someone gets injured," she says.
The Bikram organisation dismisses such suggestions. "Bikram is a healing yoga. Competitors are sufficiently warmed up to avoid risk of injury."
Competitive yoga certainly looks set to remain controversial, as will other yoga trends that come and go. Anyone for laughter yoga? Or how about a quick session of disco yoga?
Each trend may raise a few eyebrows, but may also raise a few more legs and arms as yoga gains exposure.
"There is some sort of gory fascination with yoga competitions. A really bendy person looks quite amazing," says Ms Fraser. "But something is better than nothing at all, so it's not necessarily a bad thing if it introduces people yoga."
Below is a selection of your comments.
Bikram yoga classes are held in huge, sweltering studios and there are easily over 100 people there but only one teacher who stands on a podium with a headset on shouting instructions. It was like an aerobics class in the middle of the desert. In my experience practising yoga in the heat makes you THINK you are more supple which means that you can over-stretch and push your body to beyond its natural limits, especially if you are new to yoga. When you attend (smaller) normal yoga classes, you naturally warm up your body with less challenging poses first. You also have the benefit of a teacher who can spot if you are positioned incorrectly. Sarah Bailey, London
The problem with this is, when you speak to someone who would clearly benefit from doing yoga, they always say "oh, I can't do all those bendy exercises because..." and when you try to explain what yoga is and how everyone can do it, you just seem to hit a brick wall. If people want to make yoga a sport, they should call it something else, like "yogort" perhaps. Pete, Wirral, UK
Camaraderie rather than competitive energy would be a nicer focus for these events. We have a free yoga session outdoors at a local heritage center every Sunday, and we are always glad to come together. Even though there is a "winner", there can still be a beautiful commingling of spirits. Jerry Snyder, Reading, Pennsylvania, US
As a child I was very small for my age and hated all competitive sports (I still do). Yoga was one form of exercise I was able to enjoy. I enjoyed gymnastics too, as long as it was for fun and not competitive. There will always be non-competitive children and adults and it is important to have forms of exercise that are not intimidating for us. Sarah, Amersham, UK
This sort of competitive bendy-ness is why I gave up going to organised yoga classes. People would sneer at you when you first joined just in case you were more bendy than them and then when they realised you weren't they would sneer at you again for not being as good as them! I now practice yoga in the comfort of my own home with dvds. Helen, London
Competition and yoga don't go together, but if this promotes exercise it can't be bad. Too many people are curled up over a computer screen. We need something to counteract our sedentary lives. Chris, Yeovil
"Rushing into positions could damage your body. they won't realise until someone gets injured." So presumably no-one has been injured yet? So what's the problem? Getting out of bed can injury your body if you don't do it right. Jen
I don't think this was originally meant as a competitive activity. Having recently returned from India I think must people there would consider this to be a joke. It is like having a competition to see who is the best Christian. Bible reading competitions for London 2012? Yourmumsays, Banbury
Yourmumsays, the article mentions competitive yoga has been going on in India for 2,000 years. Maybe they wouldn't regard it as a joke after all... Roblo, Plymouth
No mention is made of the heat in bikram v hatha yoga, but the increased temperature of the room would certainly enhance the flexibility of the muscles for perfecting poses. Improvement in balance and flexibility is a great motivation for yoga as an addition to running and spinning. Candace, New Jersey, US
Candace, I'm not so sure about that. I have been working on Hatha yoga for more then 30 years. I believe that using the muscles will warm them up, not being in a well-heated room. It may add to your perspiration level. Still I am not a doctor. Any doctors want to weigh in on this? Alec Aakesson, Chattanooga, TN, US
I've always been told by yoga instructors to go at your own pace. They want you to feel peaceful, not competitive or inadequate. Although I think it's neat seeing the poses being carried out in their most perfect form, don't they belong in gymnastics? Maureen, Florida, US
If you don't like the idea of yoga competitions then, er, don't compete! Oscar Strawberry, London
I have been practising Bikram yoga since 1989. Long before it became part of the current craze. The 26 postures done in the prescribed order in the prescribed way, as Bikram says in his book, have been the most beneficial form of exercise I have ever taken. I have never attended a class of his, but can vouch for the effectiveness of this particular sequence. Having tried many other classes and forms of yoga - this is the one I always return to. Jo Carter, Folkestone, England
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