The State Games

USA Yoga Federation is striving to bring attention to yoga as a sport. For the past fourteen years, USA Yoga has worked to be recognized as a legit organization by committing to following the rules the IOC (International Olympic Committee) requires. The Olympics are the highest stage of all, so complying with this path can establish yoga not only as a sport but expose yoga globally, making yoga more household and accessible to everyone everywhere! This year was another big boost as for the first time USA Yoga was invited to participate in the State Games, which is every two years.  This event hosted this year in Grand Rapids, Michigan, held competitions all weekend from sixty different sports, with competitors from all fifty states, complete with an opening and closing ceremony. USA Yoga, Nationals, was on the convention floor in the DeVos Center next to Ping-Pong, gymnastics, and skateboard tournaments. So 114 yogis from all over the country having qualified from their regional competitions, including six from BYSJ, showed up to do six postures in three minutes on stage in front of judges, a crowd, and the noise from our neighboring sports venues!

The women's 50+ division

The women’s 50+ division get together for a selfie.

Yoga in Action

If I were to sum up what I felt in the three days that I was there, it might be “yoga in action.” Our practice produces best versions of ourselves and in this competitive setting that was evident and put to use!  It wasn’t just the yoga that was exemplary, but the camaraderie that was instantly felt amongst everyone!  For me, I feel like I came away with not just friends but more family members.  Yes, we were at a competition, but it felt more like a family reunion. I know as yoga practitioners we just sync not in bloodline but definitely in Prana – a life force connecting us all the same!  There were five categories including the fifty plus adult women group that just rocked:  a sisterhood that I was immensely proud to be a part of from all over the country.  You can honor diversity, even individualism, but it didn’t outshine the union created as a result.  In fact, ask any one of the 114 participants and I bet they’ll tell the stories of people they met as opposed to the single act they performed on stage – Yoga in Action!

My experience included rooming with BYSJ competitors Lee Dickerson, Robin Fox, and Tasha Pastornack.  We got to run around together practicing yoga, eating and shopping around Grand Rapids, and supporting each other in our routines prepping for the stage!  It was our own yoga bubble within the context of this bigger yoga bubble, which as yoga junkies is right up there with winning the lottery – joyous!

Bikram Yoga Grand Rapids is where we went Friday, Saturday, and Sunday to practice before each day’s competitions got started.  This studio was a bit blind sided as about fifty yogis were waiting for the studio to open on that first Friday morning! They weren’t prepared for the crowds, but like true yogis they welcomed any and all with open arms, and together we all figured it out.  One of the owners, Brandon, taught, and he delivered such depth in his classes that I had forgotten that we were even in Michigan at a National Competition.  Brandon graduated a year after I did (2002) and I know that I sound righteous but truly those years of Teacher Training in 2001 and 2002 were like THE best – I think because we had such “senior” teachers for classes and clinics (to include Emmy Cleaves for Posture Clinics). Brandon had his style, fun, and profound thoughts with his sticky points on “flexed rib cage”, and all postures have some traction in the spine (yes!).  He recited some quotes ranging from Beavis and Butthead to the Lost Writings of Wu Hsin”!  With his humor and wit we all complied and left feeling ready, much like we always feel after a great yoga class – coordinated in thought and body; complete in spirit; compassion armed to share! 

Another amazing surprise was having bestie, Bomitra Owner, 2007 Champion Cynthia Wehr show up.  Cynthia and I are super close and she’s ALWAYS been not just a rock in my world, but at these competitions whether judging or handling social media.  She had been traveling so much that I understood that she needed time at home and at her studio.  She did share with me that she had a surprise for all of us and to look for it while we were there, but I thought it would be bags of candy (she loves candy) but instead it was HER!  I was so thrilled.  Cynthia coached me right up to the moment I was on stage, and in her true form, she “Facebook Live” just about everything!  Thanks Cynthia as I’m certain that I would not have done as well without you. Yoga in Action for sure!

Cynthia Wehr and Michele

Best friend Cynthia Wehr and I.

The Competition Explained

What are the judges looking for?  How can yoga be competitive?  Great questions. It follows similar rules to gymnastics as you are competing against yourself. The judges score up to 10 points for each pose. They take deductions based on technique, (is your foot flexed in Standing Head to Knee?, did you drop your foot on the ground when it should have stayed elevated?, where are your eyes looking?, etc…) Then, there is the level of difficulty of each pose.  The first four of the six postures need to show: compression, backbend, traction and twisting. You can select from a pre-approved list or submit a pose and the board will rule if it’s allowed and label the level of difficulty with 6 being lowest to 8 being the highest.  The last two postures are more “advanced” as you have freedom to select the poses you want however, combined they must show strength, flexibility and balance otherwise, deductions are made.  So for instance, an athlete might do “full camel ”as one of the optional poses but the second optional must show strength as “full camel” is mostly a flexibility posture. So, you can see that strategy goes into each routine. Once selected, you need to practice!  As a big part of the scoring is holding the pose!

Yep. There is one judge sitting at that long table right in front of the stage counting your hold in the posture.  It has to be five seconds of “holding posture breathing normal” in order to get full points. If it’s four seconds then it’s a .5 deduction, if it is 3 seconds then it’s a one-point deduction and if it’s less than 3 seconds, the score of the pose is a 0!  Can you imagine, you go to all this effort and don’t hold the pose long enough and get a 0!  So it’s common and smart to have a coach, as this person can help each athlete in their practice with proper execution, transitions from posture to posture, and the appropriate holds for each six poses. The routine itself is timed too as the limit is three minutes for the entire routine. Any longer than that and the last pose will be given a zero. These guidelines sound harsh but it’s actually really fair, making something subjective objective.  After each category competes, a fifteen minute break is taken as scores are posted and athletes have a chance to appeal.

Day one is everyone, starting with Adult Men 50+; Adult Women 50+; Adult Male; Adult Female. The top seven or top ten from each category move on to Sunday, Day 2.  Day 1 judges are different than Day 2.  The top two winners from each category on Day 2 move on to Internationals, yet, as you know, everyone is a winner.  Just like our individual practices, every day is different. Competing is no different.  It’s a snap shot in time in where you are with your practice, mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually.  It’s three minutes of complete rawness as you expose your full self on stage.  It takes courage and calmness; bravery and vulnerability; planning and letting go.

Sarah Newman, BYSJ teacher, said the other day in class that we should “Expect Miracles” to happen in our practice. It was out of the ordinary timing to say such a thing, which meant it hit you more potently. She’s right and as I had a chance to sit with it, I realized my time on stage was an expected miracle. On both days I felt good in my body. My spine was supple; my muscles felt loose, and overall I felt comfortable in my skin. Many of you know that I don’t travel much at all, and joyfully spend my time at the studio practicing day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. The feeling that I hold in the room practicing with all of you, my BYSJ community, is what I took with me on stage:  confidence, warmth of the surroundings; trust in the process; joy in my practice; focus on execution of each part of the pose.  The miracle in it was my ability to stay with what was important and dismiss what wasn’t.  I knew the judges were scoring, I knew the crowd was watching, I knew that I was wobbling for a few moments with my standing leg but none of that pressure was stronger than the important tasks at hand:  pointing my toe; looking up; pausing to gain the support I needed to regain stability; silencing with breath; and joy as I held the expression that I could give in each pose.  The irony is expecting this miracle! It’s nothing more than what we each can gain in the repetition of a yoga practice.  Discerning what’s important and what’s not in any situation and pouring our yogi developed attention to what really matters IS the tool to living your best life.

If anything, perhaps the gift I gained in coming in second is to be a louder spokesperson for what I so deeply believe in.  I’m not a freak of nature, and like you I have had to come in the hot room and deal with all my shortcomings, struggles, and stories to be what I am today.  No doubt, I will always have stuff (part of being human), but I’ve turned something big inside out and now feel an ease with which I conduct my life.

Since I’m getting older, it’s become more evident how lucky I am with this practice as unfortunately many friends and family don’t have a practice, and the effects of a weary body and tired mind are taking a toll on them. It makes me sad really, as everyone can feel as good as I do. I heard a few days ago about a gentleman at age 88 doing a practice and he started at age 78! Never too late, never too old …

I’m so proud of you Bikram Yoga San Jose.  You get it! Let’s grow what we have now and get everyone into a practice, a community, a consciousness! Tell your friends about our monthly Karma Class (it’s free), our twice a month Bikram Basics (it’s free), and other events we host to enroll those who don’t know, are scared or cynical! I’m simple living proof of the richness we can all have! Yoga is the way!