we are the champions: yoga competitions, gender & judgement

Yoga competitions are a hot button topic in the yoga community. Last month, I spoke out against them in an Associated Press interview, declaring that, “The roots of yoga are based in acceptance and non-violence and compassion toward self and others. In most classes, what we’re trying to do is encourage students not to compete.”

But there’s nothing I love more than having my assumptions challenged, so when I saw that my best friend from high school, Sandee Moore, had become a yoga champion (while dressed in drag), I needed to hear more. She almost has me convinced that yoga competitions can be fun, build community and confidence, and push gender boundaries. Almost. Read on.

My path to yoga championship was strewn with potato chips, chocolate cake and Coca Cola. It was also quite short. I spent less than a week preparing for this, my first, friendly in-house competition at my local studio, Bikram Yoga Langley/Maple Ridge. I did the Bikram 90-minute beginners’ yoga series daily for nearly a week leading up to the competition and made no effort at a sugar-free diet – I’d have to be super human to cull icing from my diet.

Having done one advanced class ever, I watched a few online videos to try to identify postures that I could do (see the 26 Bikram postures here.) I also used my webcam to record myself doing my competition series – five postures from the beginners’ series and two optional postures from the advanced series: in one I was constantly out of frame, in the other I was disrupted by my overly-affectionate dog, who took this as an opportunity to cuddle. Neither of them were suitable to send to teachers who had offered to coach me.

The day before the competition, a teacher barked at me, “Show me your competition series, right now!” Abandoning my extremely important yoga studio receptionist duties, I did just that. My Standing Head to Knee Pose was wobbly, and I sure wasn’t anywhere near the standing splits in Standing Bow Pose. I resolved to keep my thigh muscle contracted and not to let my weight roll to the outside of my foot.

Somehow, I to get caught up in the excitement of competing. I was ready to “kick some asana,” as the trash talk between me and my coworkers on our yoga studio Facebook wall will attest. I only wished that the postures that I’m really good at were in the competition series. I think I could win an Awkward Pose competition. And, there would be no shortage of entrants for a Savasana competition.

On the other hand, there was a shortage of entrants for this competition. Particularly male competitors. Competing is not about winning, but no one wants to embarrass themselves. Especially men, right?

Noting the impending lack of male competitors, I joked to the studio owner that I could always wear a false moustache and enter the men’s competition.

Introducing: El Sando, the first yoga competitor in drag

The next thing I knew, the studio owner was pulling me up on stage and introducing me as El Sando. I didn’t know what to do – except to slap on a false moustache (why, yes, I do always carry them with me for just such an occasion), swagger across the stage and introduce myself as the very, very recently female-to-male trans competitor, El Sando.

I think that hamming it up as the über-macho El Sando actually assisted me in honing my concentration. I wasn’t thinking about all the people watching me. I didn’t notice the judges writing on their judging sheets or the time keeper ticking off my three minutes. I simply thought about the fullest expression of each posture and counted five seconds in each. (Well, except for in Rabbit Pose, when my leotard began to ride up my bum crack and, graceless as it was, I simply had to pick it out.) My Standing Head to Knee was solid, my Standing Bow elegant, and the top of my head skimmed my toes in Hands to Feet pose.

The pressure of competition often brings people to this special place where they are calm and in control but also intensely aware of their own bodies. In talking with a teacher at my studio, Juliette Raymond, who recently placed 3rd in the BC Interior Hatha Yoga Championships, she noted that taking your yoga practice out of the yoga room and your comfort zone and embracing the unexpected can bring you to a new level.

More thrilling than getting into the zone with my own practice, was seeing the other competitors – my work colleagues and people that I practice with regularly – do their series. I felt genuine pride in their efforts and beautifully-executed postures. Everyone that I’ve talked to agrees that sharing yoga and building this sense of community is the goal of asana competitions. Another teacher at my studio and judge for this competition, Ellena Malsegna, shared an experience of being inspired by yoga asana competitions: “The most inspiring person didn’t have the best postures, wasn’t the thinnest or the most flexible but had a compelling presence and focus.”

Judging vs criticizing vs competing

It’s a rare treat to observe others’ postures, as part of the yoga discipline is to focus on yourself even while practicing with others. While we’re supposed to leave judgement (of ourselves and others) behind when we enter the yoga room, the judging in asana competitions aims to omit the negative and stigmatizing aspects of judgement. Each competitor’s body is taken into account, according to the United States Yoga Federation, who have developed the rules and judging criteria. Precision of form, control, normal breathing and focus are emphasized.

I was wowed by some of the advanced postures my friends could do – Half King Pigeon and Full Camel. So, I was surprised when El Sando, whose choice of Fish Pose and Upward Stretching for advanced postures were comparatively unspectacular, was announced winner not of the meagerly peopled men’s category, but of the women’s category. “Do you know why you won?” Ellena asked me later. It was, she told me, because I had control, held my postures and did everything correctly. Or, as she put it “didn’t give the judges reasons to deduct points.”

So now I, or as much as El Sando as I have in me, am yoga asana champion of Bikram Yoga Langley/Maple Ridge. What have I gained from this experience – cue the Dougie Howser MD journal writing and summary of lessons learned music — other than a huge first place medal and Lululemon bra top? I have become my own judge (not critic), applying these judging standards to myself in each class. I work on maintaining control, not allowing myself to give up or become distracted, and on attaining the fullest and most correct expression of each posture possible for my body.

I can only hope that this victory has helped El Sando overcome his little man syndrome, finding greater peace and worth in himself rather than his laughable and creepy masculine posturing. Isn’t that what we all want from yoga – less creepy dudes?

Sandee Moore is an intermedia artist, occasional art critic and receptionist at Bikram Yoga Langley and Maple Ridge Studios. She used to dismiss yoga as hippie stuff, but has been practicing Bikram Yoga for seven years.

  1. This is a great article, Roseanne. I don’t know where I stand on yoga competitions. Could be a great topic for WIMG one week! But, I will have to say that I would definitely pay money to see El Sando compete! lol!

    • haha, i would pay to see El Sando compete, too! s/he’s turned yoga competitions into performance art, which is amazing. i think yoga competitions would be a great topic for WIMG!

  2. oh El Sando. I remember when we were taking pics of our genitalia for her;) and i think she was known as El Greenie then!

    • haha, the good ol’ days!

    • OMG! Hi Cathleen! So awesome that you remember me.
      Gender trouble used to be the focus of so much of my art; I never imagined that it would become the focus of my yoga. Thanks for the props, everyone. I think El Sando will compete again soon. 🙂

  3. it’s exciting to read a piece about bikram yoga somewhere other than the all-bikram-all-the-time sphere. and especial interesting as i’ve just gotten in the door from watching the bikram yogis of toronto compete this aft’. we too, had a much fewer male than female competitors, and with that in mind, it makes sense that the judges to faves – regardless of sex, should carry on to the next level – and not just one of each sex.
    i’m not sure how i feel about the competitions overall, tho it was a good way to get me out of the house on a grey sunday afternoon and fun to sit next to one of my fave teachers and constantly quiz him about how i compared to the competitors is certain poses 😉 i’d have to manifest a lot more body love and confidence before jumping in the ring myself.

    • was there an el sando in your competition this afternoon? i hope so! there should be an el sando in every bikram competition.

  4. “El Sando” is also quite the writer! What a fun read 🙂

    Strangely enough, this article reminds me of participating in a Spelling Bee when I was a kid (Yes, very strange, I know). I don’t recall there being any antagonistic, aggressive-type competition, but instead preparing for it suddenly honed and focused me in a new way.

    The other thing that stands out for me reading this is a sort of redefinition (or reclaiming or appropriation of) what competition and judging means, as something distinct from disempowering critique.

    In Sandee/El Sando’s words “I have become my own judge (not critic), applying these judging standards to myself in each class.”

    Very interesting, fun perspective. Thanks for sharing the experience and the lessons!

  5. Love this! SO much fun to read.