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Yoga Competitors Stretch It to the Limit

At the L.A. Convention Center, contest puts participants' agility and control on display.

September 29, 2003|Jia-Rui Chong | Times Staff Writer

On a stage draped with a 19th-century painting of the Hindu deity Krishna, Ashley Hooper arched her spine into a teardrop-shaped loop and pulled her bare feet so far forward she could cross her pointed toes under her chin. Awe-struck whispers ran through the audience Sunday as digital cameras beeped. Four judges flown in specially from India scribbled notes on the 19-year-old Angeleno's steadiness, proportion and grace.

At the end of Hooper's seven-pose series, about 400 yoga enthusiasts broke into hoots and cheers.

Though the traditional Indian practice of yoga aims at inner calm, the excitement of the first-ever yoga pose championship held in the United States made the Los Angeles Convention Center seem more like a football stadium than a venue for yoga. The host of the first Yoga Asana Championship, Bikram Choudhury, insisted there was no irony in holding a yoga competition.

"With this competition, you learn for the first time in life how to fight yourself ... [for a] perfect body, perfect mind," said Choudhury, known for founding "hot yoga," in which poses are completed in a room heated to 105 degrees. "You're not competing two persons against each other. You're competing with yourself."

Yoga competitions are nothing new, said Choudhury's wife, Rajashree Choudhury, who organized the competition. She estimated that India has held yoga pose competitions for about 100 years, and recent contests have sprouted up in Brazil and Japan. Both Rajashree Choudhury and her husband have won multiple All-India yoga titles.

As yoga grows more popular in the United States, Rajashree Choudhury said, it is important to make sure it appeals to all age brackets. "Here, you don't have the younger generation," she said. "In India, children do the competitions. They start in school."

Showing the "sports side of yoga," she said, may get younger people more excited about the practice.

Some compared Sunday's competition to other sports.

"It's almost like gymnastics," said Chokae, a Los Angeles-based yoga teacher. "You know what you have to nail, and if you want to do Cirque du Soleil [stuff] afterwards, you can."

The contestants performed five basic, compulsory poses and two advanced poses of their own choosing. David Cieslak, 29, saw nothing wrong with turning an introspective physical activity into a competition.

"It's exercise, like bodybuilding, and they have a competition for that," said the San Diego native. Cieslak, who said he rarely practices yoga, came to Los Angeles to cheer on his friend Lesli Christiansen, 27, of San Diego, who eventually won the competition.

Many said there were no losers in the competition. "If you are a regular practitioner of yoga, you come to appreciate the ability of those around you," said 28-year-old Dominique Moralez. The event was "just about recognizing that these people have given up everything -- years of practice and lifestyle choices," the New Yorker said.

Indeed, all 10 finalists elicited murmurs of approval from the audience, especially as they tried advanced poses such as full camel and crane. But contestants said some of the hardest poses were the most basic.

The standing-head-to-knee pose, which was performed first, was the most difficult, said 27-year-old Radi Horton of Houston. Clasping the bottom of her foot, unfolding her leg to be parallel to the floor, and touching her forehead to her knee involved a lot of tricky balancing, she said.

But whatever the results of her performance, she said, she was glad she participated. "I know locally, in Houston, the idea of the competitions raised the bar, raised the focus," Horton said. "Concentrating on the poses, looking into me made me a better teacher too."

She was also impressed by the other contestants, especially Hooper, whose incredibly supple spine amazed Horton. "It's insane," Horton said. "I'm flexible, but that!"

Hooper, who placed second, said she enjoyed the opportunity to take yoga out of the studio and onto the stage.

But she paused for a long time to consider whether yoga really was like other spectator sports.

Hooper, who used to perform ballet and gymnastics, said she preferred yoga. "Yoga is about your health overall," she said. "With ballet -- and with other sports -- sometimes you have to deal with, 'It's better to look good than feel good.' "

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