Juliana Olmstead spent the last weekend down in LA getting inspired by the amazing competitiors of the International Bishnu Ghosh Hatha Yoga Competition. Here blow she gives us the inside scoop on what it was like to be among the world’s yoga champions. Enjoy!
by Juliana Olmstead
The Yoga, the fun…
The performances were amazing this weekend. Things started strong on Friday with the U.S. championship, but by the final round on Sunday, things were really being taken to a whole new level!
The championships really do get better every time. Courtney Mace, last year’s international champion, taught the 7am class at headquarters on Friday, and she kept saying that it was amazing to see how everyone, collectively, is getting so much stronger every year.
I adore the championship weekend because it’s just like a massive family reunion (where there are hundreds of people in the family and very few of them are related by blood). Teacher training groups were reunited – the fall 2005 graduates were very proud to point out that almost all of their Group One was there! – students were reunited with their favorite teachers, Facebook friends met face-to-face for the first time, and of course everyone got to see Bikram, Rajashree, and Emmy.
I kept describing it as a “yoga convention” to my friends at home, because that’s what it feels like to me.
Even if you’re not competing, you spend the entire weekend immersed in the world of Bikram yoga. I was getting up before 6am every morning to take the 7am at Headquarters, but I still found myself awake past 1am, at the hotel bar with a glass of wine talking about yoga miracles or in a friend’s hotel room talking about how to pick up the foot in standing head to knee. In other words, it was yoga dork heaven!!
Bikram’s birthday party on Saturday night, complete with Indian buffet, mind-boggling demonstrations from last year’s champions, and a classic Bikram speech. And yes, he danced. (He loves to show off his disco moves. “I invented disco; I just took off the -theque!”) And yes, I did too. It was glorious and silly. It was everything that you wish you’d had at your awkward middle school dances.
On a personal level, I was thrilled to meet some great new friends and spend time with some of my favorite people. On Sunday night, after the awards ceremony, a car-full of us took off and went to the Korean bathhouse and to a late-night Pakistani place and filled our stomachs. When our waitress asked if were were from here, and everyone laughed; we had one person from Hawaii, one from Australia, two from Massachusetts, and one Massachusetts/California hybrid (me). It was such a joy to be in that moment, in that place, with those people.
On the Youth Division…
One of the youth competitors in full standing bow. Photo: Mike McInnis for YogaCup
My jaw was on the floor for most of the kids’ performances. It’s great to see people starting Bikram yoga so early in life! And there was some seriously good yoga this year, especially among the girls. One after another, they went up there and nailed advanced postures that I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to do for years! (Can anyone tell me, when did all the little kids start doing full standing bow?!) It was really inspiring to see.
On the International finals…
Those top 10 performances were mind-blowing. In the men’s division, Kasper Van Den Wijngaard and Joseph Encinia were neck-and-neck for the International gold medal. I honestly couldn’t tell who had won. Kasper ended up coming ahead of Joseph by only six-tenths of a point. (The routines are scored out of 80 points.) I also have to give a shout-out to Deepak, whose score would have been in the same range if he hadn’t gone over time in his last posture!!
Joseph Encina, in Handstand Tiger-Scorpion pose. Photo: Mike McInnis for Yoga Cup
And then, in the women’s division… that may have been the best 30 minutes of yoga I’ve ever seen. One of the more senior Bikram teachers wandered past me halfway through (I was working as volunteer, guarding the door), and said, “The ladies are bringing it this year!!” I think it’s fair to say that 5 years ago, any one of those performances would have earned an international medal.
Brandy Winfield ended up with a definitive win, but again, the scores were really tight; there was only eight-tenths of a point difference between third and seventh place!
The Technical Stuff…
You can learn a lot by watching these performances. You get to see the postures in their fullest expression, and you get a good glimpse of the advanced postures. The competition also helps you to start understanding the nuances of the postures.
Think all standing head to knee poses look the same?
Chau Kei Stephani Ngai in Standing Head to Knee Photo: Mike McInnis for YogaCup
Try watching 60 different people do excellent versions of the pose, all in a row. Your eye starts to recognize all the differences and subtleties. The little technical details – the exact position of the grip, the height of the heel, the angle of the wrists – start to jump out at you. And since every body is unique – long legs, long spines, short arms, short torsos, muscular and strong, slim and flexible – you start to see what correct execution looks like on all the different bodies, with all their different proportions.
On the events afterward…
On Monday there was a choice between advanced class with Emmy or judge’s clinic with Bikram. I headed to advanced class, and I was happy with that choice, since Bikram was actually there with us for the first hour before he headed over to the clinic!
Bikram and Emmy started the class by talking about the postures that they’d seen on stage over the weekend. Their advice to future competitors was clear and simple: follow the Dialogue! They said it over and over.
At the national and international championship level, people are still just getting deductions for not following the precise set-ups that are given in the dialogue.
Teshia Maher, Eastern Hatha Yoga Champion in Advanced Class. Photo: Mike McInnis for Yoga Cup
They mentioned things like
- gripping three inches below the toes in standing head to knee
- two inches below the toes in bow
- keeping the wrists straight in bow
Have no doubt, these guys know exactly what is written in the dialogue, and they are sort of baffled when people aren’t following it! Emmy thinks that when people get advanced, they start to do things their own way, but they should be doing it the way the dialogue says in order to get the best benefits.
Even in competition, it’s not about doing the “prettiest” posture; it’s all about doing the most correct posture, according to the dialogue, to get maximum medical benefits.
The Real Competition…
On the final day, just before the last awards ceremony, last year’s champions all got up to speak. I was really moved by Courtney Mace’s speech. She said that she started Bikram yoga about 6 years ago because she “just wanted to feel better,” and she never imagined the potential that would be unlocked by just 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises. (At this point, I was already mumbling, “I think I have something in my eye…”) She said that when you see the competition, and especially when you are a part of it, you know that it’s not really a competition between people.
Courtney Mace delivering her closing speech. Photo: Mike McInnis for Yoga Cup
“There is always a competition,” she explained, “but it’s not between people. It happens every time you step into the hot room, and it’s a competition between the ego and the soul. And the soul always wins. It has to. So by the time you get on the stage, there is no competition anymore. There is only your soul.”
(Okay, I admit it, I definitely got teary!)
It was a wild, disorganized, and wonderful weekend, all in true Bikram style. If you ever get the chance to attend one of these championships, it’s most definitely worth the visit.
Juliana will be updating my her blog (keepitlocking.blogspot.com) with more bits and pieces throughout the week, so keep checking over there if you still want to hear more!!
Photos from the 2010 Bishnu Ghosh Cup can all be found here.