When I first heard about a yoga competition taking place in Columbus several years ago, I was taken aback. Sacrilege is the first word that came to mind. As someone who has committed his life to all things yoga, I felt like the message of non-attachment and non-judgment was made pretty clear. Why would people in the yoga community want to propagate a forum that fueled attachment, ego, and judgement?
The contrarian in me wanted to know more. After all, who was I to judge with so little information about what it was? There was a buzz and plenty of opinioned discussions taking place at our studio and locally within the yoga community. As you can imagine, popular sentiment wasn’t kind and comments ranged from “this isn’t yoga,” to blaming America for adding competition to a sacred practice. The “anti-crowd” certainly added to the anxiety of my conflicted feelings but in a strange way, it furthered my curiosity. I discussed the idea with others and decided that if I am going to work in the yoga industry, then I don’t want to judge any of it [from Goat Yoga to Beer Yoga] without feeling educated or, better yet, experienced in the matter.
The first verbal introduction I had to competitive yoga was from a yoga teacher that explained it in terms of present tense awareness and mindfulness. The teacher, who had competed in the past, described her concept of yoga as truly connecting mind-body-breath regardless of the surroundings. She went on to say, “What a better way to fully embrace present tense awareness than to stand on a stage making shapes, barely clothed, in front of 6 judges with 30+ people watching?” Logically, this made sense to me. I’ve stood on a stage many times and understood that to really dive-in and engage the audience, I have to shed my ego, become vulnerable, and embrace the moment.
The second introduction I had to competitive yoga was by the former USA Yoga President (the “people” that promote yoga sport among the International Yoga Sport Federation), Joseph Encinia. About 6 weeks prior to the event taking place, Joseph made the trip to Columbus to host a couple of workshops and answer questions about the competition. My first impression of Joseph was that this guy doesn’t seem competitive at all. I don’t know who I was expecting but he didn’t fit the description of a rigid, pushy, train at-all-cost type of athlete that was recruiting people to the dark side. Joseph seemed like one of the nicest open-minded people I had ever met. He spoke about how he found yoga as a teenager to alleviate his debilitating arthritis and approached the upcoming event by saying, “I love talking about competitive yoga because of how much it brings up in people; feelings, emotions, experiences, anxiety. People usually feel very strongly and it creates an open dialogue.”
He said that his “why” was to grow yoga in general and to inspire people to take up the practice. It doesn’t matter how people find yoga if we trust that the practice will do the job it has done for so many others. This was something that resonated with me. After all, I found the practice for the physical and quite frankly, the egotistical. There was absolutely a part of me that had to talk myself into my first yoga class by calling on my ego to say, I can do this! I’ve run marathons, played sports, have some flexibility, how hard can yoga be? Was that an “appropriate” way to find yoga?….probably not but it worked. After his workshop, I came to learn that modern yoga competitions began in India nearly 200 years ago and renowned yoga figures like B.K.S. Iyengar have endorsed the events. I decided to sign-up, prepare a routine, and step onto the stage for my very first yoga competition.
The competition was held as part of the Arnold Sports Festival, a multi-sport festival named after The Terminator himself, that attracts nearly 250,000 people to Columbus every year. It’s known as a prestigious weightlifting event but it includes all different types of disciplines and, quite frankly, there was a part of me that was excited to participate!
The convention center was packed as I walked through it that morning. There was upbeat music, people with muscles that you would picture at Venice Beach, and sporting events taking place all over. Finally, I found the signs that said Yoga. They pointed me to an upstairs conference room outside of the general hustle from the Arnold Festival. When I walked into the room, there were a lot of chairs with people working together to quickly set up. There was an energetic “buzz” in the room with hugs and embraces that only take place at long overdue family reunions. I checked-in and immediately noticed that the organizers were adamant about calling the yogis, “athletes.”
They showed us [athletes] the warm-up room that was a mild 74 degrees, the make-shift stage which we would perform, and the volunteers walked us through the process of what to do when it was our turn. My nerves skyrocketed as I walked-through my routine on the stage that morning and stared into the sea of 50 empty chairs that would soon be filled by relatives, festival goers, and locals from the yoga community that were curious like me. The room was cold, the mat on the stage was hard, and the table that would soon be occupied by 6 judges was within 10 feet of the stage, directly in front of me.
I hung out in the warm-up room with long sleeves and sweatpants to keep my muscles loose, did some light postures, shadowed my routine, and mentally prepared. I looked around and smiled at the others who were doing the same. Everyone seemed super nice. This was anything but an environment of guys that I was supposed to be competing against. We made light conversation, nervously joked about how cold it was, and we laughed that yoga was at the same event as bodybuilding. Eventually, we heard that they were starting the competition and I began to strip my outer layers. By the way, as if my anxiety of being on stage wasn’t enough, I need to add that I was going to be wearing the shorts that I made. There was no doubt an intense layer of additional nerves building from the fear that people would judge me on my product as well. My fears ping-ponged back and forth between, “What if I fall out of a posture?” to “What if my pants split?”
Needless to say, I didn’t fall and my shorts definitely didn’t split. Everything went so well. The anxiety beforehand, the intensity on stage, and the release afterwards felt so good! I was flying high and felt a level of accomplishment that I didn’t know existed. It wasn’t like a marathon with 15,000 other runners and it wasn’t like volleyball in high school where victory was the goal. This was a rush from moving through a level of vulnerability and fear unlike anything I had ever experienced. My rank and score were the last thing on my mind. At the time, I knew I was supposed to look at what the judges tallied and where they placed me but to be honest I didn’t really care. Why would I let an external factor like that ruin my incredible feeling? Several folks came up to me afterwards and thanked me for the inspiration and for sharing my practice. I harnessed the good energy and realized that I had just done something personally that was much bigger than my score or my standing.
Since then, I have competed at three different national events and have brought that same experience with me to every competition. I stand on the stage not to win anything, but to share my daily practice and enjoy the experience. I practice my routine (occasionally), but I don’t obsess or carry the expectations with me. I celebrate and embrace all the feelings, for it wasn’t that long ago that I would try to suppress and numb everything. Lastly, I’ve come to realize how special the people are that I have met at these events. It’s easy to form a strong bond over a shared experience that requires such a high level of vulnerability. Competition and self-judgment is something that is inherent to most of us and it runs deeply in me. I have come to realize that instead of trying to suppress and (most likely) project it into other parts of my life, it’s far better for me to meet it head-on in an actual competition with standings and judges. It reminds me that victory doesn’t come from the ranks, it comes from the experience.