BALTIMORE – Practicing yoga can relieve stress and increase flexibility, and now, it can also earn you a blue ribbon.
More than 25 adults and children will compete in their respective divisions at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Yoga Competition at the Bikram Yoga Baltimore studio on Sunday. The top two male and female winners will go on to the United States Yoga Asana Championship in Los Angeles in February 2010.
Yoga competitions were popularized in India by Bikram Choudhury, the creator of bikram yoga and founder of the Yoga College of India. Bikram yoga is also known as “hot yoga” because it is performed in a climate-controlled room heated to 105 degrees. For Sunday’s competition, the studio will be kept at regular room temperature.
Choudhury’s wife, Rajashree, is an Indian national champion of the sport and the founder of the USA Yoga Federation, which hosts several regional events and an annual national competition. According to her web site, she hopes yoga will become an Olympic sport as early as 2016.
Yoga competitions are often referred to as asana competitions, from the Sanskrit word meaning “posture.” Competitors perform a series of seven poses in three minutes: five compulsory poses and two others chosen by the entrant.
A panel of judges at Sunday’s competition will look for proper pose alignment and muscle usage, focus, breathing technique, and grace in transitions, according to Emily Garner, manager and instructor at Bikram Yoga Baltimore.
Competing is about “self-realization and being your best self,” just like in a class, said Garner, a former competitor.
Garner picked up yoga while living in New York working as a ballet dancer.
“I thought that yoga would be a ‘New York’ thing to do,” she said. In her first tournament, the 2005 New York Regional Asana Championship, she placed third.
The Hagerstown native, 27, is now preparing for the competition at her studio, although she feels it is too small.
“We wanted to have the competition in a proper venue,” like a theater, but there was not enough time to book such a place, she said.
The studio, however, can bring an intimate feeling to the competition, where many of the competitors know each other.
“It’s a fun time to get together with your yoga family and see what everybody else in the area is doing,” said Becky Siegel, also a former dancer and veteran competitor of the same event in 2007.
However, Siegel doesn’t even consider the event a competition.
“It says ‘competition, but you’re not competing against each other,” she said. “It’s more of a competition against yourself and an expo to show other people what you’ve been working on and what your body can do.
“Some people can do crazy things with their back, while others just show off what they can do for their age or body type,” she added.
And Siegel has a lot to show off: As one of her optional poses, she may perform the finger fan, lifting her body off the ground with her fingers while holding her legs in front in a pike position.
The Goucher graduate, 22, started doing yoga as cross-training for dance. Nearly four years ago, while studying abroad in South Africa, her professor taught yoga to the class out on the beach.
Siegel has been hooked ever since.
To prepare for Sunday’s competition, Siegel, a teacher at the John Carroll School in Bel Air, trained nearly every day during the summer. Now, with school in session, she attends regular yoga classes four times a week along with an advanced class, to work on the harder poses.
Other competitors are relatively new to the practice.
Eddie Hall, a fitness director and personal trainer at Baltimore Fitness and Tennis, started practicing yoga in January to diversify his workouts. Just one month after adding three to four yoga classes a week to his regular workout routine, he lost 20 pounds.
“I only started training (for the competition) three months ago,” said Hall, 31, who has aimed to train at least six days a week, but doesn’t expect to place in the competition.
“I’m just kind of using it as a learning experience because I haven’t been training that long,” Hall said. “Some of the guys I’m competing with have been doing this for years and years. I’m just looking to have a good time.”