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A yoga face-off, with muted competition

Participants vying for a regional title end up hugging and encouraging one another. It's not your typical contest.

December 09, 2007|Jennifer McMenamin | Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — With only the whirring of the heating vents, the crackling of their own joints and the occasional ringing cellphone to break the silence, the men and women moved deliberately and carefully through the series of yoga poses.

They balanced on one leg while bringing their head to the knee of their outstretched leg. They kicked a leg up behind them, far above their heads while leaning forward with an outstretched arm. And they twisted, stretched and bent themselves into positions that seemed unimaginable.

Lining the walls of the Bikram yoga studio in the Hampden neighborhood were dozens of spectators, who burst into applause on Nov. 18 at the end of each competitor's three-minute segment in the fifth annual Bishnu Ghosh Cup Regional Yoga Asana Championship.

"Wow," remarked Tom Neel, 66, of Springfield, Va., whose daughter competed in the women's division. "And to think I can't even get up from here," he added meaning the floor of the studio.

This was the first year Baltimore hosted the regional competition, drawing six men and 16 women from Maryland, Virginia and Washington. The two top-scoring men and women will advance to the nationals in Los Angeles in February, which is followed a day later by the international championship with entrants from 19 countries.

Organizers said there was no conflict in holding a competition for practitioners of an activity often associated with inner peace and self-improvement.

"It's actually a championship, not a competition," said Sarah Ittmann, owner of Bikram Yoga Hampden. "In a competition, you compete against other people. A championship is a measure of your own prowess -- your own strength and determination."

The competitors -- if they can be called that -- easily wowed the audience and one another with displays of both.

Sonja Wyche, a 31-year-old physician from Reston, Va., finished her performance with a standing full bow -- an advanced pose in which she grasped one foot in both hands, raising it high above her head behind her while bending and stretching until her forehead touched the toes of her raised foot.

When she returned to the studio lobby, where the competitors were watching through a window, she was enveloped in hugs of congratulation.

"You held full bow for -- I was counting -- it was, like, 10 seconds. I swear it was so dramatic," said Emily Norfolk, 26, of Odenton, Md.

Wyche took up yoga nearly three years ago after flipping through one of her husband's Men's Health magazines. One reader had written to the magazine about how stretching was for girls. In his response, the magazine's editor recommended Bikram yoga.

Wyche tried it and was hooked.

"I'm amazed by other people's practices and just how beautiful they are," said Wyche, who practiced yoga throughout her pregnancy and now joins her husband and 18-month-old daughter for yoga sessions. "I love the competitions because I can see where I am in my practice and support the other people who are competing."

She took second place in the women's division behind Norfolk, a massage therapist whose own Bikram studio is scheduled to open soon.

Bikram yoga is practiced in a studio heated to 105 degrees at 60% humidity. An instructor leads participants through a series of 26 poses that are performed in precisely the same order every time.

At the recent event, which was held without the typical high temperature, each competitor had three minutes to move through a series of five compulsory poses followed by two advanced postures of their choosing. Judges from New York, Pennsylvania and California scored the participants on their strength, flexibility, balance and mental focus.

"I usually have a starting point and then go down from there as a leg wobbles or the person falls out of a posture," said Monica Reese, one of the three judges.

The advanced poses included those that required participants to balance all of their weight on just their fingertips; twist their feet behind their heads; and arch into deep backbends while standing on one leg.

"These are really difficult poses," said Kyle Kessenich, 38, who teaches Bikram yoga. "I mean, the standing bow pose is basically a standing split with a backbend. The strength involved is tremendous."

The performances of the two top finishers in the men's division -- Paul Knisely, a 26-year-old Bikram instructor from Arlington, Va., and Chris Barton, a 40-year-old tax attorney from Great Falls, Va. -- elicited enthusiastic cheers from the audience and other participants.

That alone, Knisely said, distinguished the event from every other athletic competition he's participated in his life.

"Everyone is rooting for everyone else," he said. "It's a really positive support from your so-called competitors."

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