Yoga Twists Its Way to Olympic Spotlight
ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
As sports go, it is exhausting. Victory requires perfect control of every muscle, every breath. The competition is cutthroat - not tennis, yoga.
All kinds of sports are angling for a seat at the Olympic table, even some you might not expect like competitive yoga. April Baer of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports.
APRIL BAER: You heard it right, yoga as a competitive sport. It would be so easy for this to go horribly wrong - yoga students in sequin-spangled costumes stretching and strutting to Neil Diamond anthems. But Suzanne Cummings says it's not like that at all. She's one of the organizers of Oregon's Competitive League. The first match she saw was pretty restrained.
M: I was amazed. It was beautiful. It was - every - I was skeptical at first, and it was everything that yoga is meant to be.
BAER: In competitive yoga, each practitioner enters a silent hall and performs seven poses or asanas in three minutes.
M: It was absolute beauty in the postures, and it really appealed to my competitive nature.
BAER: Cummings and her husband, Derek, run a Bikram yoga studio in northeast Portland.
M: Chin up more, close the...
BAER: Those who know yoga may not be surprised to learn that Bikram practitioners are the driving force behind the competitive league.
M: Stretch up, touch the ceiling...
BAER: Bikram is a very distinctive style of yoga practiced in sweltering 100-degree plus room.
M: ...that feeling where your palms will rise. Now, bend to the right...
BAER: It's fast-paced, with instructors who are unrelentingly positive, and unrelenting.
M: Push your hips to the left as hard as you possibly can beyond your flexibility.
BAER: The Bikram tribe is viewed as, well, a little different within the yoga world - its heat, its aggressive style. Unlike most yoga studios, Bikram is a franchise business, and Cummings says that structure has been indispensable in getting competitive leagues up and running.
Most Americans who practice yoga go to classes that sound a lot quieter. That slower pace is what Joy Wolfe has been teaching for 16 years at another Portland studio. She's not convinced yoga was meant to be competitive.
M: It's portraying yoga in a way that I think is really missing the heart of it.
BAER: Wolfe says yoga is too cranked up for its own good. She sees yoga magazines airbrushing their cover models down to size 2 perfection. Her stressed out students often have a hard time winding down for class. Competitions have been around for some years in India, the cradle of yoga tradition. But even there, opinions vary on whether contests are true to the tradition.
Leona Wilford(ph) also had reservations, but tried competition as a test of her ability to overcome fear. She's now competing at the top levels.
M: There's always a danger of getting caught up in the whole ego aspect of it. But more strongly, I think, is the possibility of changing yourself at your deepest levels.
BAER: Organizers with the competitive yoga movement hope to win over the International Olympic Committee in time for a showing at the 2020 Summer Games.
For NPR News, I'm April Baer in Portland, Oregon.
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