Into the Sweat Pit at the Washington Regional Yoga Asana Championship
The training room is impossibly hot. The athletes' clothes are damp from the exertion of training for world-class competition. This place has hosted hard work before—for 50 years it was the warehouse of a maritime supply company. Here men strained to lift prop shafts, ballast pumps, anchors; what I see evokes blue-collar dedication and tenacity. Then one athlete stops, tugs at her shoulder strap, and says, "Are my boobs hanging out?"
Jen Perry, 25, is a competitive Bikram yogini. That is, she does Bikram yoga (AKA "hot yoga") in competition. When she consented to let me watch her train for the Sunday, December 3, Washington Regional Yoga Asana Championship, she advised that I dress light, as the training room is heated to more than 100 degrees. It's the first time I've ever worn a wife-beater in a professional capacity.
Perry's a yoga teacher who also appears at corporate events as a professional belly dancer. She's got the doe eyes and long lashes of an Indian princess and, predictably for a belly dancer cum yoga competitor, a killer body. A vine tattoo wraps around her torso, and as she goes through the contortions of a competitive yoga routine, it seems to spread all over her body like Jack's beanstalk.
She warms up with some back bends. Or at least that's what she calls them. Think how far you can bend your back backwards. Maybe you can get your head as low as midback, right? Perry walks up to the wall behind me, stands facing away from it, arches her back, and walks her hands down the wall until her head is touching the ground. Her torso is at my eye-level, parallel to the ground, while her arms and legs are nearly perpendicular. She looks like a human side table.
Perry and her training partner, Nina Granatir, run through their three-minute routines, while a former competitor offers tempered criticism from a corner of the room. "You're rushing," she says. "You need to stay in your postures longer," she implores. Then she pauses, considers a moment and adds, "I'm being really picky. Your postures are lovely."
The yoga judges will assess Perry's performance of five mandatory yoga positions and two advanced ones. She must execute these precisely and naturally. But the judges will also appraise her "centeredness" as she walks and how good her body is. So it's sort of a combination of Olympic figure skating and America's Next Top Model. (Perry should reap some competitive advantage from this aspect of the judging; she also models part time.)
Yoga's reputation is as an activity for namby-pambies, but its origins are undeniably fierce. Yogic philosophy's most revered text, the Bhagavad Gita, is a prowar parable fit for the Junior Neocon Book Club. It's a conversation between the god Krishna and an Indian prince, Arjuna, on the eve of a great battle. Arjuna is your typical liberal relativist, with the predictable tiresome qualms about combat: "How can we be happy after killing our kinsmen, O Krishna? Why shouldn't we... think about turning away from this sin?"
Krishna, a sort of divine Sean Hannity, has the answer for that: "If you will not fight this righteous war, then you will fail in your duty, lose your reputation, and incur sin. People will talk about your disgrace forever. To the honored, dishonor is worse than death."
Later Krishna announces: "I am death, mighty destroyer of the world, out to destroy!" There's something you won't see embroidered on a hemp pillow.
More than any other form of yoga, Bikram yoga embraces this warrior ethos. "It's not wussy yoga," Perry tells me. "It's kind of fucked-up." She took her first Bikram yoga class four years ago, after a friend told her how awful it was. "She'd have panic attacks before class because it was so hard and she thought she was going to die," Perry says enthusiastically. "I like that it's not just physical—there's a mental challenge to deal with. My first class, I got up and tried to leave. The teacher said, 'No, once you're here you can't leave the room.' Now that I'm a teacher, people try to leave my class all the time. I tell them, 'If you leave, you'll feel 10 times worse when you get home because you quit. And you're never allowed back in my class.' In four years, nobody's left one of my classes."
Earlier this year, Perry studied with Bikram yoga's founder, Bikram Choudhury, a Calcutta-born former yoga champion. One thinks of a guru as someone who wears flowing white robes, turns his cheek to indignities, and dispenses wisdom to George Harrison. Choudhury drives a vintage white Rolls Royce with the vanity license plate "Bikram," has sued other yoga teachers for copyright infringement, and asserts that he cured Richard Nixon's phlebitis. If there's anything harmonious about Choudhury, it's that naming his style of yoga after himself is completely in keeping with his character.
Choudhury teaches in his Los Angeles studio, where, according to Perry, 147-degree air pumps through the vents, students aren't allowed to leave except by ambulance, and Bikram works in a Speedo. He calls it "Bikram's Torture Chamber." Perry, who likens it to Navy SEALs training, endured it four hours a day for eight weeks, eventually gaining certification as a Bikram yoga teacher.
Two Saturdays ago, as the outside temperature dipped below freezing, I brought a bottle of ice water, a yoga mat, and a sweat towel into the 100-degree heat of Hot Yoga of Kirkland to let Perry torture me with Choudhury's methods. Bikram yoga is not for the faint of mind, body, or nostril. "Twenty people without shoes crammed into a 105-degree room the size of a studio apartment" isn't going to be a Febreze scent anytime soon. My classmates are surprisingly diverse in body type. A pear-shaped older woman sits to my left. In front of me is a hefty guy with a jowly face. Over on the far right are two barrel-chested men, a superskinny dude, and a preteen boy. And at 3 o'clock a perfectly proportioned twentysomething blonde in a stylish, tight, black yoga suit is putting a little more hot into hot yoga.
We start with standing postures, many of which require balancing on one leg while you attempt to dislocate your joints. Perry runs her class more like basic training than like any yoga class I've ever taken. Gone is the gentle correction, the occasional chanting, the soothing NPR-style voice. Instead I hear commands: "Move your hips forward. Keep your legs locked. If it doesn't hurt, you aren't stretching far enough!"
After a few minutes, a small patch of sweat begins at my stomach, another at my chest. They begin to spread toward each other. A similar process is occurring on my back. Ten minutes into the hour-long class, my T-shirt is heavy with sweat. I remove it. It's the first time I've ever been shirtless in a professional capacity.
It's a relief when we abandon standing postures for sitting ones. But I soon find that this means I'll be spending the remainder of the hour braising in my own bodily fluids. There's this growing sea of sweat and spit forming below me, right in the spot where my head is supposed to rest between postures. I struggle to keep my head from falling in, but I'm so tired I give up and, splat, I drop my face in my discharge, as I'm sure many others have before me. If you do Bikram yoga, bring your own mat.
When it's over, I towel off and put my suddenly better-fitting jeans back on. From the heft of my gym bag I estimate I've lost several pounds of water weight.
The Thursday before the championships, Perry doesn't think she's going to compete. "I took a class today and I couldn't balance, couldn't do shit," she tells me. She doesn't even bring her yoga clothes to the competition Sunday night. But at the last minute, she changes her mind. "I tried out my postures for a teacher and she said I'd be stupid not to compete," she tells me minutes before the competition begins. "I decided that I'd do it if someone had an extra leotard." Someone did: a bright-peach one-piece.
About 50 people have arrayed themselves around the competition surface, a parquet floor that's the size of a queen-sized mattress, raised about two feet off the floor of a carpeted Bellevue yoga studio. The judges sit at a desk 10 feet from the competitors; they're the only people who aren't sitting on the floor. For the comfort of the audience, the room is just a little bit above room temperature; the competitors won't have the benefit of the extra flexibility granted by extreme heat.
Each competitor has three minutes for her routine; getting close to three minutes is considered ideal. Each of the seven postures (five mandatory ones and two advanced postures of the competitor's choice) is judged from 1 to 10, for a total of 70 points. The competitors are also judged on "grace" (worth 15 points) and "body proportion" (worth another 15). 100 points is a perfect score.
When I ask one judge how "body proportion" is judged, she hesitates. She doesn't quite come right out and say it, but essentially fatties need not apply for those 15 points. "The ideal body proportion is tall and thin," she tells me. "We look for muscularity, for the correct leg to torso proportion, for shoulders wider than hips." What about people who have a pear-shaped body? Can they win a yoga championship? "Some of it is genetics. I've heard Bikram say, 'I'm 5' 5", and you don't see me trying to become a basketball player.'" Tattoos can cost you points. "The body is a temple," the judge tells me. Fortunately for Perry, the peach one-piece covers her two tattoos.
Can something like yoga really be judged? It will have to be, if Bikram yoga's proponents are to reach their ultimate goal: yoga as an Olympic event. Absurd? Maybe not. Hell, there's a Ukrainian named Yuri Nikitin who owns an Olympic gold medal because trampoline was an event in 2004. The standards these judges use aren't any more subjective than those used in existing Olympic events. Figure-skating judges—just like Tony Awards judges—assess each competitor's choreography. Rhythmic gymnasts perform with balls, hoops, and clubs, and are judged on their leaps and on "artistic effect."
The seven female competitors—future Olympians, perhaps—are lined up outside the studio, wishing each other good luck. The top two finishers here earn a spot at the International Yoga Asana Championship in Los Angeles. The prana is flowing, chakras are connecting, and it's time for a yoga showdown.
The first few competitors struggle to keep their balance. They include a 45-year-old Mount Vernon woman who is fantastically flexible for her age, but still has the body of a normal middle-aged woman and isn't likely to win many points in the "body proportion" category. Last year's second-place finisher—she'd seem to be the favorite, as last year's champion has since moved to California—nearly topples over while attempting one difficult posture.
It's looking good for Perry, who performs next. In training, I've seen her do routines far better than any of the other competitors have so far. Perry competed in equestrian show jumping as a teenager, so the stress of competition isn't new. She walks out with a broad smile on her face. She isn't stretching as far as in practice, but her balance is perfect, she's performing gracefully, and she'll definitely score well in the "body proportion" category.
Her advanced postures wow the crowd. The first is "legbreaker." From a sitting position, she opens her hips, pulls up her right foot and tucks it under the right side of her rib cage. Her second advanced pose, the most difficult tried by any competitor, is "crane." Perry sits sideways, rocks her hips back and throws her legs up over her arms. Then she places her hands flat on the ground and slowly lifts her body up, pushing her hips forward so her back is perpendicular to the floor. The crowd oohs. Perry stands and bows to the judges. One calls out the time of her routine—three minutes exactly. I'm pretty sure Perry's routine is the best so far—with two spots to Los Angeles available, both of the remaining competitors would have to better her score to knock her out of one of the two top spots.
The next competitor has the powerful body of a gymnast, but not the balance. She nearly topples over during one posture and I hear that familiar gasp from the crowd, the same one you hear when an Olympic skater falls after a jump. The final competitor is Perry's training partner, Granatir, a Seattle native and Garfield High alum. Granatir may get extra grace points for the red flower blossom in her hair. And her postures are nearly perfect—she hardly wobbles at all, even on her advanced poses.
Perry's standing just outside the studio, waiting for the scores to be announced. I ask her whether the cool temperature was a problem. "It was easier to grip, but it's a lot harder because your mind doesn't shut off," she says. "When I was doing legbreaker, I heard this little kid say 'gross!' and I nearly started to laugh."
The competitors go back into the studio and line up on the platform for the medal ceremony. Last year's champion, Sarah Baughn, hands out the medals, passing her crown à la Miss America. Heather Thompson, the first competitor, is announced as "the third-place champion," in the inclusive language of the sport. "Second place—Jen Perry!" The crowd claps loudly, I even hear a few tentative whoops. It's not exactly a game-winning home run at Safeco Field, but it's a start. Nina is the "first-place champion," so the two training partners have a new goal—as the top two finishers, they qualify for the International Yoga Asana Championship.
I dash home to catch the end of the Seahawks game, a back-and-forth affair that the Hawks win on a last-second field goal. It's the type of game football announcers will say went to "the team that wanted it more." Perry's competitive secret is the exact opposite. "I'm glad I decided not to compete," says Perry the day after her win. "When people have expectations of winning, as soon as they make a mistake, you see their body language change. Doing my routine was easier because I didn't care." Her theory's supported by the Bhagavad Gita: "Those who are not attached to anything, who are neither elated by getting desired results nor troubled by undesired results, their Prajna is deemed steady."
Perry's next event is the International Yoga Asana Championship on February 8 in Los Angeles. It's impossible to predict who will win, but undoubtedly, it will come down to whoever wants it less.