Fans of the Olympics are used to noticing an extra bounce that takes points off a gymnast’s score, or a less-than-vertical entry that makes the difference between a first- or second-place dive.
If one group has its way, Olympic spectators will someday be looking for deductions caused by a twitch during the Om posture, or a wobbly ankle while performing the Full Standing Bow.
Yep, that’s right, there’s a movement to make yoga an Olympic sport.
“It’s a process that takes a very long time — a decade or more of work to try to make this happen and, of course, the results are never guaranteed,” said Jon Gans, a member of the board of directors for USA Yoga, based in Los Angeles. “In the meanwhile, the effort is to gain more acceptance for yoga asana as a competitive sport.”
Competitions are already happening on the international level, with divisions for men, women and youth who quality at regional and national events.
The 2013 Utah & Wyoming Regional USA Yoga Asana Championship starts at noon Saturday, Jan. 12, in Weber State University’s Wildcat Theater. The competition continues until 3 p.m. in the theater, which is in the Shepherd Union building on the Ogden campus.
Yoga competitions aren’t about meditation.
“We use the word ‘yoga’ as shorthand for two different concepts,” said Gans.
One use of the word refers to the practices designed to achieve inner peace and harmony. The other refers to yoga asana, or the postures that show control and mastery of the body. It’s yoga asana that is the focus of the contests.
Competition isn’t foreign to yoga.
“In India, they’ve had yoga competitions for hundreds of years,” said Carolynn Valencia, an employee at Ogden Bikram Yoga and event coordinator for the regional championships. “The championships are a chance to be inspired — to see what the physical body can do with the help of a focused, calm, centered mind.”
Done right, the competition doesn’t take away from efforts to achieve peace and harmony.
“We don’t look at it as competing against one another,” Valencia said. “We get inspired to train together and work together, and keep up the energy. It is competitive, but really light, and bright and fun, so it’s not negative.”
Competitors at the Utah & Wyoming Regional USA Yoga Asana Championship are required to complete seven postures.
“The first five are compulsory,” said Gans, adding that each posture is designed to highlight strength, flexibility or balance.”
The five mandatory postures are the Standing Head to Knee pose, the Standing Bow Pulling pose, the Bow pose, the Rabbit pose and the Stretching pose.
“It might sound like watching competitors perform the same postures over and over would be boring, but it turns out to be quite fascinating,” Gans said. “You can see different body types having to work around the same principles of posture.”
For the Standing Head to Knee pose, competitors stand on one leg while holding the other leg parallel to the floor with the knee locked straight, then touch the extended knee with their forehead.
“It’s a very difficult posture” Gans said. “Even to complete the posture, whether they’ve got it exactly right or not, is an accomplishment.”
Competitors start with 10 points for this pose, but lose points for errors.
“It has to do with holding the foot in the proper place, and having the leg parallel — not too high, and not too low,” Gans said.
Judges also make sure the proper thigh muscles are contracted, that the forehead is actually touching the knee, and that the competitor isn’t shaking, wobbling or bouncing up and down.
“Each one of these failures to achieve the form is a deduction,” he said.
Mind and body
Last year, the regional championships were held in Sugar House. There were so many competitors and supporters from Ogden Bikram Yoga that the studio, on Historic 25th Street, was given the opportunity to host the event this year. The group arranged for the competition to be on the WSU campus.
Valencia says the venue is going to be great for the competition, but there will be some challenges for competitors.
“They’re used to a hot room,” she said, explaining that studios are often heated to 105 degrees. “They really have to condition the body to be flexible and strong, to be able to do these poses in an unheated room.”
They’ll also have to be strong mentally, to block out distractions, although it shouldn’t be too difficult in the Wildcat Theater.
“One year, in Colorado, they had the regional championships in a mall during the holiday season,” Valencia said. “There were cellphones ringing and babies crying, and people riding up and down escalators, so there was a lot of commotion.”
At Ogden Bikram Yoga, Valencia tries to prepare her students for anything that could happen.
“We’re trying to give them any kind of sound, or anything that might turn their attention away,” she said. “Their goal is to stay in focus ... to breathe and do the routine with grace and precision.”
Going for gold
Gordon Clifford, of Ogden, took second place in last year’s regional competition.
“When you’re doing yoga on a regular basis, you come in and there are no expectations,” he said. “When you compete onstage, you have everybody looking at you and one chance to do what you’re going to do — there are no retakes. It puts a lot more pressure on a person, which gives you more opportunity to excel.”
There was even more pressure when Clifford went to the national championships in New York.
“You’re dealing with people who are a little more solid, more put together,” he said of the competitors. “Every time you do a posture, 600 cameras are going off along the stage. It’s pretty cool, but definitely intimidating the first time.”
Clifford is planning to compete at the regionals again this year.
“I’ve been there before, so that makes it easier, but to keep yourself at that level of performance ... in some ways, that’s more challenging,” he said.
Even his facial expressions will be scrutinized by the judges.
“People who look like they’re stressed, or struggling, won’t score as high as someone who possibly has a relaxed face or a smile,” he said.
No matter how he does at the championships, Clifford feels like he’s already won.
“I started doing yoga three years ago,” he said, explaining that it was his way of dealing with the end of a 10-year marriage. “I was trying to become more comfortable with life, and it did help. I’m a pretty relaxed individual these days, compared to where I started.”
He’s also more fit.
“I’m doing things in my 30s that I wasn’t able to do in my 20s,” said Clifford. “Not only can I touch my toes, but I can bring my head within inches of my feet, so I’ve improved my flexibility — mentally and physically.”
WHAT: 2013 Utah & Wyoming Regional USA Yoga Asana Championship
WHEN: Noon-3 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 12
WHERE: Shepherd Union Building, Weber State University, 3848 Harrison Blvd., Ogden
TICKETS: Spectators, $5/adults, free/younger than 12