And we have a champion! — or four

Neal Pollack, a practicing Ashtanga yogi himself, writes Top Yogi: Rabbit poses, coconut water, and a Bikram-practicing dance team at the international yoga championship in Slate Magazine from the scene of the sixth annual international yoga championship sponsored by Bikram Yoga:

When I returned the next morning, the room had been transformed into a legitimate athletic stage, with no evidence of the previous night’s variety-show nuttiness save a few stray red balloons in the rafters. Everything ran with precision and efficiency. The video and audio were of professional quality and the emcee had a classy, sonorous voice. Most impressively, the competitors, judged under strict and consistent standards, continually wafted into beautiful and magnificent yoga postures.

It was refreshing to read an article in a mainstream outlet that was not pulled by an undercurrent of snarky cynicism or cozy boosterism. Pollack respected the skilled discipline of the competitors and certainly did not commit the sins of other journalists, as reported in his 2005 Slate article, Big Men Stretching: Quarterbacks who do yoga and the journalists who love them. Pollack is also writing a book about yoga culture in the States.

For me, the whole competition thing is wrong-headed. I am constantly trying to beat down my own competitive urges on the mat, catching myself watching someone else’s wheel out of the corner of my eye or comparing the volume of my ujjayi breathing to the rest of the room. I’m even competing against myself, stacking up pre-injury performance against how I’m doing now. The way the Bikram people explain it, you have to surrender your competitive instincts in order to score in their competition.

One quick word on the attitude problem that Pollack noted among some of the Bikram yogis, who tended to look down on other yoga lineages, like Ashtanga and Iyengar. Bikram followers do not have a monopoly on this mental distortion. My daughter recently helped out at a Shiva Rea workshop and found the assistants and some of the participants really obnoxious. I’ve heard the “holier-than-thou” shroud laid on the Jivamukti clan. Hell, even Pollack’s own Ashtanga school’s been known to disparage other approaches. Whenever someone invests as much time, energy and emotional capital into a goal or activity, it’s human to justify it as the only “right” choice. But as Pollack points out at the end of the story, once you get on the mat, all the differences should disappear.