NYC competitive yoga event stirs debate

One by one, the nervous yoga practitioners took to the stage to perform routines of amazing contortionism and athleticism under the scrutiny of judges.

With just three minutes to complete five mandatory poses, plus two of their choosing, the pressure was on. Occasionally, a participant stumbled — and then had to make a snap decision about whether to attempt a second try for a reduced score. There were gasps when one woman fell out of a pose Friday night.

Welcome to the the world of competitive yoga — the controversial brainchild of the wife of yoga bad boy Bikram Choudhury. The U.S. Yoga Asana Championship, a three-day event in a theater near Times Square, concluded yesterday with the crowning of Jared McCann of New York and Afton Carraway of Orlando, Fla., as the men’s and women’s national champions. About 200 or so watched the 47 male and 62 female national semifinalists compete Saturday, with the top yogis going on to the international competition in Los Angeles in June.

USA Yoga founder Rajashree Choudhury, 47, acknowledged the idea of competitive yoga strikes many Americans as a contradiction.

“Competition teaches us to be humble and be confident,” Choudhury said.

Eventually Choudhury would like to see yoga as a sport in the Olympics, but for now would settle for more acceptance from the U.S. yoga community. Nearly all competitors at this weekend’s ninth annual event came from her husband’s Bikram style of “hot yoga,” with representation from other yoga traditions noticeably absent.

Competitors admit that the performing with the grace, poise and stillness that the judges are looking for can be difficult.

“It’s really nerve-racking because you have to be so still, but your body wants to shake because of all your nerves and all your adrenaline,” said Heather Maule-Ffinch, 24, a yoga teacher from Phoenix.

Participants support and encourage each other and say they feel no rivalry with the other contestants.

“It just gives me something to look forward to, to set goals and make myself a better person,” said Carraway, 30, who repeated as the woman’s national champion.

McCann, 31, of the East Village, admitted he takes some razzing when he tells people he’s a yoga competitor.

“They laugh, and say, what is that? And they say what do you win? And I say coconut water,” he said. (Zico is a corporate sponsor). “I think everyone thinks it’s kind of quirky. None of my friends think it’s cool. It’s just funny and ironic. And I like that. Anything that pisses people off makes me kind of happy.”