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Yoga-ga: Is America’s favorite spiritual pastime sellling its soul?

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By Monica Westinnewcity_yoga_flat

The 2009 Illinois Yoga Asana Championship just took place, for the second year in a row, at Navy Pier. When I first heard about it, the competition troubled me. After all, isn’t yoga supposed to be about our own path to development, done at our own pace and with a sense of higher consciousness rather than egocentric comparisons with others? I asked to cover the event hoping to know why enlightened yogis would want to sit around judging each other’s asanas (postures).

The competition is also a good starting point from which to consider the explosion of yoga in America, which doesn’t show any signs of slowing down soon, what its popularity might mean, and if our wholehearted inclusion of yoga in the new American lifestyle has robbed the practice of something in the process. One thing I learned while researching this article is that yoga message boards are some of the most charged and sometimes inflammatory I’ve read, and arguments about the relative purity of various practices are the easiest to find. Have we corrupted yoga so that the postures done in a 105-degree room, or in the yoga gym class we’re taking (that promises to strengthen our core and give us a tough workout more than a higher level of spirituality), are no longer yoga? What about yoga with the advertisement of a glass of wine afterward, even though strict yogis are teetotalers? Okay then, what about doggie yoga, where you hold your dog in poses that you do together? At some point, is yoga simply being used as a brand to get people to buy a new product?

The Saturday of the Illinois yoga championship, Navy Pier is jam-packed with tourists and in full swing; Frank Sinatra blasts from the speakers at Bubba Gump, three women dressed up like pirates sing inside the mall, children on leashes abound, and their parents stroll the pier with beers and gyros. A couple leaving Navy Pier laugh when they see the sign. “Yoga competition?” they read, amazed, to each other, and take a picture of a man onstage modeling poses—now they’ve seen everything. The championship is set up on the lawn at the entrance to Navy Pier, a simple white-tented stage and speakers playing world music that just barely manages to drown out Ol’ Blue Eyes. Tourists stand and gape. People in the audience scan the crowd for people they know. A young guy with a meter-long ponytail eats a banana, his back to the stage, watching the tourists. Just another Navy Pier spectacle?

“Those of you walking past, we’re about to have a yoga competition,” the MC announces, drawing people in like a carnival barker. The international men’s champion from last year comes onstage first to demonstrate the poses while the judges explain what they’re looking for technically (in specific anatomical detail) and aesthetically from contestants. Among other things, competitors are supposed to smile gracefully while performing seemingly impossible feats with their bodies. The competition is immediately reminiscent of gymnastics and figure skating for its demand of looking lovely while undertaking physically demanding feats, not to mention the fact that everyone competing is svelte and in unitards. One of the three judges is announced to be “one of Bikram’s most trusted teachers” (more on Bikram and gurus later). The other two judges are a couple from Dallas who met at yoga teacher training.

A little about the logistics of the competition: each competitor holds seven postures (five compulsory and two the participant chooses), with three minutes to complete the routine. There’s a division for men, women and youth; the top two places are invited to take part in the National Yoga Asana Championship, which is held in Los Angeles, followed by the International Championship, held in there days later. Participants are graded on “posture alignment, grace, movement, stability, confidence, balance, general appearance and presence.”

Is yoga a spiritual practice, a de-stressing activity, or a sport? The air of the competition is something like a golf tournament. The audience, including many yoga instructors sitting in perfect posture on the lawn, have a technical understanding of how the poses should look, and they recognize when the competitors really sink one or miss by a nose. Certain poses draw a nervous hiss from the crowd or a murmur of acknowledgment for an especially difficult or spectacular-looking posture (including a number where participants end up with their feet on their heads). The two discretionary postures tend to go for visually impressive. Admittedly, the feats are spectacular and often inspiring. When one competitor chooses the scorpion pose, which seems to defy all laws of physics and anatomy, a guy behind me whispers, “That’s what I did for last year’s competition.” There’s quiet, respectful clapping after each progression, with some cheering for crowd favorites.

Among the fifty or so competitors, the reigning female champion wears a blue sparkly bathing suit and is a crowd favorite—there’s something close to a roar as she gracefully walks offstage following a flawless series of postures. Some contestants grin at the beginning and the end like they’re in beauty pageants, and one woman raises her arms in the air triumphantly after her performance. Behind the tent, competitors stretch, partners massaging their shoulders like coaches. One competitor’s husband stands right next to the stage while she does her series, taking pictures of her with a giant zoom lens. A couple behind me provides running commentary. “Good pose. See how far her shoulders come down?” Someone else in the crowd is competing soon: “I should be warming up, but I don’t want to overdo it… I’m glad I only had one piece of bread. Any more would mess me up.” Yoga, it turns out, can be as intense of a varsity sport as you want it to be.

But if we are corrupting yoga in America, it turns out it’s not by making it a judged athletic event. I talked to Rebecca Andree, an organizer of this year’s Illinois Yoga Asana Championship, who’s an instructor as well as the manager at Bikram Yoga in the City here in Chicago and one of the competitors at the championship. The first thing I learned is that yoga competitions have been a part of yoga for the last two thousand of yoga’s five-thousand-year history. The competition’s Web site bears the epigram “’All of Life is Yoga and Yoga is Competition.’—Sri Aurobindo”; it also notes that there’s a yoga competition every day in India. It makes sense to some extent, in that yoga is a practice that’s learned specifically through imitation and watching others. You learn by watching as much as doing—it’s an apprentice system as much as a personal spiritual journey.

Andree specifically addresses the issue of competition in yoga, calling attention to the difference between positive and negative competitiveness: “Yoga competition helps us better ourselves. Just as in a free market, competition helps the community to have better goods and services, within yoga, by choosing to compete, we’re essentially bettering ourselves. I realize that a lot of people out there might disagree with me, and I would counter that those people probably don’t realize this is something that came from India, where it’s a positive event as well. As opposed to, say, a basketball game, when you hope that the other team is bad so that your team will win, in this type of event we want other people to be their best.” I ask about Andree’s part in the competition this year, and she exhibits some more of that positivity. “Well, I’ve just had a baby, so entering this year was a way to make myself accountable to practice, to push past my own limitations right now. Yes, it’s a good thing for me to do, and yes, doing it after giving birth makes it a little freakier.” She describes competitions as “inspiring,” citing a story of a young man who went from being in a wheelchair with rheumatoid arthritis to winning first place in the national competition. “You hear stories like that all over the place,” Andree says.

If competitions turn out to be part of the practice, and incidentally a good way to motivate yourself, what does Andree make of the other practices I’ve mentioned, like yoga with wine and cheese, or the doggie yoga that I have such a morbid fascination with? “I really hold the philosophy that all yoga is good yoga. I think it’s great that it’s become more popular across the board. Honestly, the only time I see it as negative is when it’s really just about somebody making money and less about the event. For instance, at our Bikram studio, most people don’t come in because they want to find inner peace or higher levels of consciousness; they come in because they want to work out. So I say that if you can find yoga by drinking wine afterwards, hopefully it gets them close to the real yoga, and I see it as positive as well.”

Yoga is also a practice that’s structured around apprenticeships; technically everyone who does yoga is supposed to have a “guru” of some kind, whether we meet him or her or not. Gurus turn out to be more of a tricky topic to tackle and a more ambivalent subject for those who practice yoga seriously. A fundamental part of yoga since its inception has been for students to submit themselves to masters and spiritual guides. Yoga started off as a purely spiritual/mental discipline before movements were incorporated; as Chi-Town Shakti yoga instructor Rachel Levi puts it to me when I ask for a simplified history of yoga, “Yoga at its heart is about letting go of the illusion of the self being separate from everything else, and yogis were meditating on this for a long time before they did movements. After awhile they realized that focusing on breathing and, eventually, practicing movements that bring your awareness back to your body and breathing, could lead to this enlightenment. And to do so, you find someone who’s already attained enlightenment, and you follow their teachings and their movements. Even if all you ever see is a picture of them, you have to see yourself as a supplicant of someone who’s already become spiritually advanced.”

Which brings me to the cult of personality, where Bikram is probably the best example. Linda Smith, a student of Bikram in Chicago, explains her experience with Bikram as a guru. It turns out that Bikram—also known as “hot yoga” as it’s performed in a 105-degrees-Fahrenheit room—is one of the types of yoga most often attacked as being bastardized, with a creator, Bikram Choudhury, who has started a vast Bikram yoga empire all over the world, copyrighting his twenty-six ordered asanas, and suing other practitioners who he feels violated this intellectual property. He’s been called “McBikram” and “McYoga” and, according to Smith, his appearances border on spectacle—“a celebrity experience, with people drooling all over him and putting him in this titled position.” What does she make of this aspect of her practice? “I mostly ignore it, along with most of the other people I practice with,” she admits, but defends Bikram by pointing out that, far from corrupting yoga, his postures are taken exactly from the original eighty-four ancient yoga postures. What does really bug her are messages that yoga should be everything in one’s life, “like those people who claim that it will cure your diabetes. No, no it hasn’t. But I do it because, unlike going to the gym, which I used to do all the time, I have to face myself literally and figuratively for ninety minutes and become bodily aware. You can’t just go through the motions with yoga.” And as far as the competition? “In my studio, we say, ‘Let’s go play yoga now.’ And I’ve gone to some of the training sessions for the competition and they’re that way, too. It’s seeing how far you can take it… and it’s fundamentally cool to be doing yoga with people who are really, really good at it.”

Incidentally, there’s a quote from Bikram on his Web site that declares “Competition is the foundation for all democratic societies. For without ‘Competition,’ there is no democracy.”

But back to the issue of purity. Yogis are required, among other things, to stay away from alcohol, and a few years ago there was a big fuss when classes combined yoga and wine. There are a number offered in Chicago, including one billed as “midnight yoga” (it actually starts at 10pm, with cheese and wine served afterward at 11:30pm) at Self Centered Yoga studio in Chicago. The instructor, Claire Hurwitz, says she approached the studio to do the class in part because, as a twentysomething, she had a lot of friends who still went out frequently, and she was “looking for an alternative to a typical night out… something a little more healthy and a little less crazy.” Her class offers music during yoga and snacks, including grapes, cheese and wine, afterward, with “a chance for people to sit down and eat and drink and talk to each other and learn about the people they’re practicing with.” When I ask the alcohol question, she points out that “yes, if you go to an ashram in India, you’re not going to find wine—or dogs—but that’s not American yoga or Western yoga. The yoga we practice in America is already Westernized, by which I mean that in general America’s mindset about yoga is that it’s a destressor. From that perspective, anything you can do to destress in that form is great… further removing yoga from its already-Westernized roots seems to make the question irrelevant at some point.” In secular America, where yoga isn’t tied to religious practices, customs and traditions like teetotalling or Buddist vegetarianism, we have made it a lifestyle, an organized sport and post-work activity that seems to benefit everyone, no matter what brings them in the door.

While I remain mystified by the concept of bringing my pet to a yoga class, perhaps indeed there’s nothing inherently wrong with getting people to do yoga by offering it at midnight with candles and world music, and followed by wine and cheese. In thinking about the rhetoric of purity in relation to yoga, a lot of contemporary American complaints about Americans practicing yoga are based on an image of yoga that’s somewhat fictional. If there’s anything that yoga is, it’s hybrid and incredibly diverse, having developed over different continents, over thousands of years and through a wide spectrum of religious outlooks, so that it’s been made compatible with prevalent belief systems all over the world. Depending on the track that your yoga practice has evolved on, your ultimate goal of yoga (according to Wikipedia) could range from enjoying an eternal relationship with Vishnu to liberating yourself from worldly suffering to simply finding peace or calmness. At the risk of getting over my head, I want to suggest a parallel with postcolonialism, the branch of literary and cultural study that basically comes out saying that texts produced in colonized countries are complicated, involving elements of native culture and colonized culture that are woven together and in conversation in a way that’s generally richer and more difficult than could be boiled down to binary ways of seeing groups of people. So if we’re colonizing yoga to make it “American,” whatever that means, we’re tapping into its most fundamental tradition of hybridity and flexibility, and maybe making it even more interesting in the process.

The logical conclusion, in a way, of yoga in America is the super-hip Wanderlust Festival, which takes place in a mini-utopian “village” created for the event in Lake Tahoe, where it uses the format of a rock festival to bring together popular musicians and world-class yoga instructors. This year’s lineup includes Common and Jenny Lewis on the music end and a lot of people I’ve never heard of in the yoga department. The festival, whose slogan is “Feel Good/Rock out,” costs $170 for a three-day regular “Seeker” pass and a VIP “Mystic” ticket for $1,250. It seems to be an event that’s channeling Burning Man without all the drugs, and Coachella but with something to do other than sit in a field listening to music all day. It makes the free Illinois Yoga Asana Championship seem pure as new-fallen snow, which is kind of my point about relativity and yoga.

The best answer I heard when asking everyone I knew about yoga’s potential perversions? Again from yoga teacher Rachel Levi: “Yoga, in its most inclusive sense, is a lifestyle and a philosophy. The Yogis teach that ultimately we are not our bodies or emotions, our tastes, our neurosis or our fleeting impressions. We are pure consciousness—what some people would call ‘God.’ The tools of yoga allow any seeker to experience this directly. Physical yoga—hatha yoga—is one of these tools, but not the primary one. My wish for students who come to asana practice for stress relief or fitness is that they eventually experience the deepest, most transformative aspects of the tradition. That said, I’m not offended by Western yoga. Pleasure is compatible with yoga. There’s nothing wrong with practicing with your dog, or doing yoga postures in a gym, or even practicing competitively. The intention behind a thing determines its merits. If ‘yoga booty’ workout classes give you the energy and confidence to love your life, and be kind to the people around you, you’re using it as a tool of yoga. On the other hand, if you meditate for hours a stretch, but leave the cushion smugly convinced of how spiritually advanced you are, you might as well have spent the time surfing the Internet.”

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