Competitive yoga may seem like a sport based on contradictions, but its fans call it physical enlightenment.
WHERE ARE ALL THE MORALE-BOOSTING ASSPATS? What about the chest thumps, the I got game like Vishnu’s got arms proclamations, the Don’t bring that mess into my studio smack talk? They may call this version of Bikram yoga competitive, but it seems about as fiery as T-ball practice. For close to an hour, Nina Granatir and Frannie Assaf have been coaching their lean and muscular students at the Sweatbox studio on Capitol Hill for this month’s Washington State Yoga Asana Competition, and the closest they’ve come to dressing anyone down with a Bobby Knight–like blaze of fury was when Assaf told one wobbly yogi that “that was the most graceful fall I’ve ever seen.”
Adrenaline-infused combat it ain’t, but dismiss it as a weak sports knockoff for the confrontation-averse set and you’re kind of missing the point. The focus and flexibility—not to mention the strength—necessary to compete are probably more useful in your day-to-day life than being able to dunk a basketball or slap a 300-yard drive off the tee. “The ability to ground in and be inside of yourself—that body-mind connection—at any point in your life is really the fullest expression of yoga,” says Granatir.
A little like Olympic gymnastics (without all of the flips and stagey smiles and body glitter), competitive yoga consists of a series of five compulsory postures and two optional ones performed in three minutes before a panel of judges. As a silent crowd of spectators watches, yogis are scored on a 1-to-10 point scale for each posture, based on how well they execute the compulsory ones and the difficulty of the optional ones they choose, the ability to hold each posture for five counts, and the grace with which they perform them. Oh, and no panting or showing signs of strain: “You want to appear perfectly calm,” Assaf tells the students. “Like, ‘Oh, I do this while I’m waiting for the bus.’ ”