*This story appeared in the June 2005 issue of FHM.
BEND IT LIKE BIKRAM
Deep Inside the Bikram Yoga World Championships
By Andrew Vontz
On a three-foot high stage at the Los Angeles Hyatt hotel Cynthia Wehr drops the yoga equivalent of a bunker buster. Balanced on one sinewy leg, Wehr lowers her head to her knee while she holds onto her outstretched toe and balances perfectly still like a human letter ‘L.’ The move looks still and simple, but its execution is surprisingly difficult—even many advanced yoga practitioners shake like Parkinson’s patients when they attempt to hold it for any length of time. Wehr, who happens to be the Southern California regional yoga champion, next bends down and works her shoulders behind her legs then leans her torso parallel to the floor into a move called the Tortoise Pose. It might as well be called the Wicked Awesome pose. Deffer than Donatello the ninja turtle with her back arched into a fleshy carapace, this terrapin looks mighty tasty. As she stands and bows, the crowd goes apeshit.
Welcome to the Yoga World Championships. There are some haters out there who say an activity as inwardly focused as yoga—which is meant to develop concentration, focus, flexibility and inner peace—shouldn’t have an international pose down. “To have a yoga competition is oxy-moronic, with the emphasis on moronic,” says William Dalton, a prominent yoga teacher in Los Angeles. “It would be like getting Jesus, Buddha and Krishna together one afternoon and judging their state of consciousness based on how long they could stand on one foot.”
Tell that to Bentley-driving yoga master and entrepreneur Bikram Choudhury and his wife Rajashree. “Yoga competitions have been taking place in India for more than 2,000 years,” Bikram says. “I created a system and it works perfectly.” So there.
Both Bikram and his wife are former Indian national champions. B-Ram won the crown for his age group when he was aged 11, 12, 13 and 14. Then he quit to give the other kids a chance. His old lady cleaned the competition’s clock and snatched the women’s title for five years straight.
And now the Choudhurys have come to America to make some bank from their patented brand of sacred stretching. Sure, Bikram’s practices are often labeled “McYoga” by the purists, but he has more than a thousand franchises in the U.S. and is well on his way to ensuring his name is to yoga what Starbucks is to coffee. “I live in Beverly Hills and I attend Hollywood,” he says. “I’m part of Hollywood, man.” Rocking a Chicago gangsta-style suit and fedora he sure looks like one smooth motherfucker. Almost all of the 22 competitors from 11 countries are certified Bikram yoga instructors and have studied under the B-Train.
While it’s only the second time the Choudrys have held the international event, the two have big plans for competitive yoga. “I want to take this all the way to the Olympics,” Rajashree says.
And let there be no doubt, there’s definitely something to be said for yoga as spectator sport. Before the tourney begins, the event’s competitors hit a conference room to warm up. With their hair in buns and their lithe bodies shrink-wrapped in yoga outfits that look like one-piece swimsuits, they bend with the grace of ballerinas. But some of the poses they muster beat the hell out of anything seen in Swan Lake. Take Western Canadian champ Ida Ripley, who tucks her head between her legs and looks up until she's staring at their own shockingly flexible groins. “I don’t think anybody would have the chutzpah to come and say to me, ‘That’s sexy that you can look at your genitals upside down,’” Ripley says. Maybe she’s been hanging out with eunuchs because it is damn, damn sexy.
A former gymnast, actress and interpretive dancer, the 31-year-old Ripley busted out some crazy Mr. Fantastic-type shit at a regional Canadian competition to earn her berth in these world championships. “I’ve been really flexible from the start,” she says, while sliding into a full splits. “I remember I was five or six when my mom first started dating my step-dad. We would go over to his house for me to kind of get to know him, and she would say, ‘Show John how you can get your legs behind your head.’”
Although she’s been doing the yoga thing since elementary school, Ripley didn’t go Bikram until adulthood. “One of my friends told me I should try it,” she says. “I was shocked at how amazing it was. I had never stretched so much in my entire life. I didn’t know I could stretch the backs of my knees and my ankles and my fingertips.”
Once you go Bikram, you’ll never go back apparently.
Like most of the competitors, Ripley went on to complete the 13-week Bikram yoga teacher training program. At a cost of $10,000. “I did it because it’s worth it,” she says. “That’s just how much it costs. If you go to the supermarket and something is worth $3, you pay it.”
And what’s the yoga world championship worth? Exactly $3,000. And a couple of plane tickets around the world to rock Bikram postures alongside B-Rex and the Rajaraptor.
As Ripley stretches, the first yoga world champion, Leslie Christaensen of Los Angeles, helps a competitor grab her ankles behind her back while laying on her stomach. Clad today in a flowing white Indian blouse, a diamond nose ring and gold stilettos that match the giant gold medal that's dangling Flavor Flav-style around her neck, Christaensen is prepared to step down from the throne. “I’m going back to regular life teaching and practicing yoga every day,” she says. “Also, I’m a hairdresser.”
Soon, the ladies make their way into the ballroom, and it’s war time in the yoga Thunderdome. Each contortion samurai has three minutes to complete a series of five mandatory poses and two of her own choice. There’s no clock to gauge how long they’ve been on stage, so competitors actually rely on the pace of their own breathing to mark the passage of time. If they go under three minutes, the ladies lose points for rushing through the postures. If they go over time, they lose all of the points for the final pose. A panel of nine judges, including Bikram and his shortie, sit at a long row of tables directly in front of the stage and score the competitors on grace, poise and execution.
In a ruling that, admittedly, might prove troublesome should yoga ever reach Olympic levels of popularity, the judges have demanded absolute silence from the audience. “Unless you’re coming up with a cure for a life-threatening illness or giving or taking away life, please shut off your cell phone,” the announcer says. “Don’t even leave it on vibrate because I’ve heard a few phones vibrating against the chairs.”
As Ripley contorts herself on the side of the ballroom, trying to keep her muscles warm, Naomi Reynolds, a former member of the Royal Ballet company in London, takes the stage. When she shakes on her bow pose, her chances of winning go swirling down the porcelain bus. Mika Kaneko from Japan blows it even worse. While lowering her head to her knee in her first pose, she bobbles, loses her balance, and her foot thuds to the floor. Game over, man.
There are some 14,000 yoga poses practiced throughout the world, but all of the moves allowed in this competition have been derived from Bikram’s patented sequence of postures. Of which there are 26. You could argue that maybe that makes the competition a touch biased towards practitioners of his brand of yoga, but none of the yoga crybabies have stepped up with a comp of their own. In the meantime, its Bikram’s world. They just live in it.
“All yoga poses originated because yogis would sit in meditative states for hours on end. Then they would start to stretch because their bodies were cramped and uncomfortable,” explains Elizabeth McMillan, a spectator who teaches yoga. “They started to realize that these stretches were helping them process their meditation and bring them back to the real world in a gentle, compassionate way. So meditation is an important part of yoga. Yet here, they’re only judging an outer perfection. For me, yoga is more about searching for a different kind of perfection in yourself.”
Who invited the hippie?
Up on stage, Ripley finishes 15 seconds short of three minutes and bobbles her final move, a goodbye pose. Ouch. Then China’s only contestant, Huiping Mo, takes the stage in a modest black one-piece and cuts through her routine like a ninja downing an adversary with a pair of poison-tipped sai. After perfectly executing the five required postures, she busts out the yoga equivalent of a nuclear attack as she bends into a peacock lotus. Balancing on her hands, she wraps her knees around the outside of her elbows and tucks them under her chest while holding herself perfectly horizontal above the floor. It's a jaw-dropping power move. Will China emerge as the next yoga superpower?
Everybody takes a two-hour break as the judges tabulate scores. But before the awards ceremony, B-Job spends a half hour talking about himself. “When 60 Minutes went with me all around India, they saw my position in the country and were amazed,” he says. “It’s like Jesus Christ walking around the streets.” Shit, can he walk on water, too? Now that would really be something. It's getting to be a bit much. People shift in their seats and many simply get up and leave.
Finally, Rajashree announces the winners. Ripley squeaks into tenth place while Huiping Mo beats out SoCal’s Wehr for the title. As Mo's given the giant golden “loving cup”—a trophy with two handles—she starts sobbing like a beauty pageant winner. Drama. Tears. Bendy babes. Could a reality TV deal be far off?
Thrilled with her fierce showing, Ripley takes a moment after the competition to defend her choice to rumble yoga-style. “Competition has nothing to do with anybody else,” she says. “Bikram talks about how competition is bred by ambition and without ambition you don’t really want to better yourself. Without competition, there is no ambition. And training for this, I’ve learned so many amazing things about myself.” Preach.
“I remembered a couple of weeks ago when I was struggling and couldn’t seem to balance, I couldn’t seem to do anything,” she continues. “Then I remember why I’m doing this. I do it because I enjoy it, not because it’s a competition. I was born to bend. It was always strange that I could get both feet behind my head.”
And isn’t that what yoga’s all about?