Don't Get It Twisted

Competitive yoga may seem like a sport based on contradictions, but its fans call it physical enlightenment.

By Matthew Halverson December 8, 2008 Published in the December 2008 issue of Seattle Met

WHERE ARE ALL THE MORALE-BOOSTING ASS PATS? 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.’ ”

Easy for her to say. In “standing head-to-knee pose,” competitors balance on one foot while holding their other leg straight out in front of them and bending at the waist to touch their forehead to their raised knee—and they do it all in one fluid motion. In other words, not only does killer balance come in handy, crazy strength and Gumby-like bendability are must-haves as well. “It is the absolute, quintessential body-mind-connection posture,” Granatir says. “You have to be so dialed in to be able to nail that.”

That “dialed-in” (albeit restrained) intensity is a trademark of the style of yoga developed by Bikram Choudhury. Students practice in 110-degree heat, which may seem sadistic but is a must for loosening muscles for the spine-challenging postures. And it’s one of several ways that Choudhury distinguishes his form of yoga from what many in the States have come to associate with the centuries-old discipline. “Bikram calls Western yoga ‘Mickey Mouse yoga,’” Granatir says, laughing. “He’s like, ‘You guys think that you light some incense and ring a bell and you’ve reached enlightenment. Lock your knee, suck in your stomach, and do it right.’”

That being said, Granatir and Assaf take a decidedly gentler approach to coaching—more often than not, they judge their students’ attempts with a sing-songy “gor-geous”—and they stress that competitive yoga is for anyone brave enough to get up in front of a group and turn what’s typically a personal, contemplative experience into a spectator sport. Another requirement: Get past the notion that yoga is no place for winners or losers. Granatir acknowledged the counterintuitive notion of competitive yoga before the practice session—she even invited anyone with serious concerns to email her to discuss it—but encouraged her students to just think of it as an opportunity to raise their game. “This is just an Indian tradition,” Granatir says of the competition. And because yoga is about discovering a deeper understanding of self, it’s up to the people who practice it to decide if they’re comfortable with a scoring system. “People who get it, get it, and people who don’t, don’t.”

Along with hosting the state competition at their Shoreline studio, Sweatbox owners Laura Culberg and Frankie Grausam will pay to send the men’s and women’s champions to Los Angeles on February 7 and 8 for the 2009 Bishnu Charan Ghosh International Yoga Asana Championship. It’s an exhilarating experience, says Granatir, who won the state competition in 2006. “I knew that there were hundreds of eyes on me, and I remember deciding that I was going to take that energy and have it move through my body,” she says. “It felt like I was floating on air.”