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Competitive Yogis to Contort in Times Square Contest

By Meredith Hoffman | February 27, 2013 7:32am

WILLIAMSBURG — Brooklyn yogi Omri Kleinberger can suspend his body like a board on his hands and he can touch his forehead to his knee while standing on one leg.

But, though his flexibility amazes normal folk, the contortions are nothing new to the judges he'll try to impress this week.

The Williamsburg yoga teacher is one of hundreds of yogis competing on a Times Square stage Friday.

"It's an opportunity to showcase the beautiful parts of your practice, and to go on stage in such a controlled state," Kleinberger said of the 10-year-old USA Yoga competition, whose national and Northeast regional matches are this weekend at the Hudson Theater.

"It's an inspiration...it drives the yoga world forward."

The hundreds competing in 2013 matches compare to just 30 who took part the first year. In New York, so many sought to compete in regionals that many had to be rejected.

"New York is the state where we get hundreds of people who want to participate, so we had to have a qualifying round," said USA Yoga founder Rajashree Choudhury.

"We started [the competition] to get more kids involved and to increase the popularity of yoga...if you use yoga as a sport everyone will get the true benefits."

To Choudhury — whose husband is Bikram Choudhury, the creator of  Bikram yoga — those benefits are better physical health and mental evenness. The competition element, she said, both helped yoga appeal to a broader population and stemmed from ancient Indian traditions.

"India has had competitions for hundreds of years...In India kids treat it like gymnastics or figure skating," said Choudhury, a champion yogi who began competing aged 11 and who won the All-India Yoga Championship five times from 1979 to 1983.

Even though judges rank the yogis on strength, balance and flexibility, Choudhury insisted that the real "competition is within yourself."

Each participant has three minutes to perform seven poses, including five mandatory and two optional positions, she said.

Regional winners compete in a national contest, and the winner of that goes up against yogis from 23 countries at an international match.

In preparation for competitions, practitioners spend months taking classes five or six times a week, including at least one "advanced" class, Kleinberger said. 

But for some yogis, introducing a competitive edge to the meditative practice doesn't sit well.

"The idea of a competition seems completely the opposite of what yoga is all about — it's about what's going on in your body and nobody else's," said Park Slope yoga teacher Zaria Forman.

"You do the poses so that you can sit comfortably for a long time and meditate, find that quietness in your mind and sustain that quietness until you reach eventual enlightenment."

And J. Brown, the founder of Williamsburg's Abhyasa Yoga, said that "sport" yoga was like "mediocre gymnastics" that could distract students from the true yogic path.

"To them, advanced yoga means being able to execute difficult poses," Brown said of competitive yogis.

"The problem is I know a lot of people who can execute 'Level 4' poses and who are miserable people."

"Advanced yoga," Brown said, is really about contentment and self knowledge, which nobody else can measure.

"My question would be 'how do you feel about the fact you're alive?' That's more accurate."

But international champion Joseph Encinia claimed contests help yogis "bring their practice to the next level."

"When I first competed in 2005 in Texas I got last place…but it was my first time ever to be a part of a sport and it inspired me," said Encinia, who now lives in Astoria and teaches clinics around the world.

"I tell students it's really a competition between the mind and the ego, and body is the stage on which we perform."

And Bikram Yoga Williamsburg founder John Golterman, who is judging this year's national competition, said each yogi's "peacefulness of the mind" matters when rating the postures.

"The spirit of it is beautiful," he said. "Like with a great swimmer or diver, we love to see excellence in other human beings."