LOS ANGELES — Silence prevailed during the yoga asana routines of the ninth annual Bishnu Charan Ghosh Cup — except for one distinct sound: the low engine rumble of airplanes lifting off and landing at the Los Angeles airport.
This international competition has made the noise of momentum, too, but just where it is heading is hard to predict. Will it become a sport recognized on the Olympic stage as Rajashree Choudhury, the founder of USA Yoga and the International Yoga Sports Federation, hopes? Or is it destined to remain a quirky transplant from India practiced by an exclusive set of Bikram yogis?
“All are welcome here,” said Choudhury, the wife of Bikram and a five-time national champion in India. “We need as many yogis and styles as possible to make this dream a reality.”
The event was held at the LAX Radisson, where the mirrored ballroom became a competitive yoga stadium and runway-like hallways morphed into warm-up rooms for yogis. Onstage, a garland-draped image of Bishnu Ghosh, Bikram’s guru, looked on while seven judges sat with pencils raised, critiquing the routines.
“The quality of the athletes has evolved tremendously,” said Jon Gans, an organizer and former judge of the event. “Postures, like peacock, that seemed to be a pinnacle pose the first year would now seem normal.”
The Bishnu Charan Ghosh Cup in 2003, before the federation took the reins, was a Bikram affair. The sprawling Staples Center featured hundreds of yoga vendors, and the competition got lost in the merchandise. Fewer than 10 countries were represented, and it is said that Bikram lost a quarter-million dollars.
Though the event is more focused now — and often serves as a platform for yogis to tell their stories — the number of competitors has grown. At a Friday night dinner, Choudhury welcomed the 75 competitors from 24 countries.
Throughout the weekend, Bikram’s monogrammed Rolls-Royce sat at the hotel’s entrance, and he remained front and center, changing his outfit six times over the weekend. One silver sequined jacket, said to have inspired Michael Jackson, sparkled so much that one female competitor confessed that it distracted her onstage.
At first, Choudhury avoided the word “competition,” urging the participants to accept whatever happened with humility and a smile.
“Shine on that stage,” she said. “That should be your mantra. …There are no rivals, only fellow coaches.”
But later she compared the Ghosh Cup to other sporting events, and the ethereal gave way to the mundane.
Mary Jarvis, a coach of seven world champions, reported last-minute changes in the grace score methodology. When coaches politely grumbled about the late notice and lack of organization, Jarvis said, “This is a work in progress.”
Competitors had three minutes to complete five compulsory poses from the Bikram beginner series and two optional poses, which typically came from the advanced series. Judges considered the posture’s degree of difficulty and “how well the body reveals the therapeutic benefits of the practice.”
The national anthem kicked off Saturday’s qualifying round, but little else resembled an Olympic event except for the impressive athletic ability. Judges were paraded on stage in cocktail dresses, events ran up to two hours behind, and the 800-person ballroom was sometimes half empty. The online viewership throughout the weekend exceeded 10,000 hits.
Ten men and 10 women moved from Saturday’s qualifying round to Sunday’s finals, including seven Americans. The United States, with a developed network of studios, presented four representatives from the highly attended national competition, while others, like China, sent only one, and she lives in Boulder, Colo.
Bishnu Ghosh’s granddaughter, Muktamala Mitra, said Americans seemed more ambitious in their practice. “They struggle more and are harder working,” she said.
Rumors that someone might attempt a one-handed, bowlegged peacock, a pose that judges say would have been unimaginable nine years ago, spread throughout the hotel. It was performed by Dipannita Mondal, 17 the girls youth division winner from India.
The Ghosh Cup’s role is to build momentum for yoga asana, providing an “I can do that, too” energy among observers, particularly young ones. Of the 13 competitors in the youth division (11- to 17-year-olds), five were from India, and three were siblings from Canada.
“When I first started two years ago, I couldn’t straighten my knees in a forward bend,” said Toby Killick, 13, who placed fourth. “Everything was pretty sad, you could say.”
A few of his friends find it cool that he can do backbends, and another joined him for class once, but threw up in the hot studio after guzzling too much water.
“I warned him, but it takes some getting used to,” Killick said.
Participants from India, where yoga competitions have been around for a century, swept the youth competition, drawing gasps from the crowd as they bent like rubber into their postures. They hustled on and off the stage, sometimes with more than 30 seconds to spare.
“They are very shy,” Choudhury said, noting that some are from rural villages and most do not speak English. “I bring them to the West to teach them about performance.”
When she competed in India, she said, the audience would bang pots and pans to cause distraction, not unlike what an opposing team does during the pressure-filled moment of a free-throw shot. In the ballroom, the M.C. encouraged silence before promising the audience a lifetime of psychological torment if their cellphones went off.
The men’s finals featured a surprising number of falls, something Choudhury chalked up to mental stress. The American champion, Jared McCann, placed third after slipping from his handstand scorpion into a full wheel.
Gloria Suen, 35, from Singapore, took the women’s gold medal with a full standing bow, her arms spread wide like airplane wings. Juan Manuel Martin-Busutil, 33, from Spain, won the men’s title after pressing into an inverted palm tree that mirrored the landscape outside.
“Being upside down is a way to suspend my mind and let go,” he said. “But yoga is also my tangible grasp on reality.”
Will competitive yoga asana lift off as a sport as gracefully as the champions’ bodies did on stage? Time will tell. Among the duties of the champions is to travel the world promoting and demonstrating yoga asana.
“Every one of you is making history, and evolving this sport,” said Joseph Encinia, of the United States, the men’s world champion last year. “We’re doing well, but we’re not at an Olympic level yet.”
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