The Men’s Division champion had a different relationship with wellness and fitness only a year back, when he found himself wanting to improve his overall health and joined a weight loss challenge with a few co-workers. Introducing a yoga practice into his routine was the fire that ignited his newfound passion for fitness and nutrition. Pang took his first yoga class in August 2015 at a Bikram Yoga studio on Oahu. He committed to a frequent practice and watched his body and mind transform. Pang lost almost 40 lbs within the first six months, easily winning the weight loss challenge at work. As his health improved, Pang was able to reduce his daily intake of cholesterol medication and eliminate his high blood pressure medication.
Inspired by his transformation and commitment to his yoga practice, Bikram Yoga Kapolei invited Pang to participate in the 2016 Hawaii Regional Yoga Asana Championship. Pang spent the next two months polishing his nutrition and yoga practice, put together a yoga routine with his coach Gail Bursell, and took first place in the Adult Men’s Division. He then went on to represent Hawaii at the National Yoga Championship last May in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
“Competitive yoga” may sound contradictory for a holistic practice centered around non-judgment. After all, the contestants are judged only for their asana (poses) — merely the physical aspect of yoga — and not for their embodied practice including breath, awareness, and enlightenment. But in fact, yoga competitions date back thousands of years, and some historians believe they were an intrinsic part of the practice since its origin.
According to the International Federation of Yoga Sports, competitions in their current form are probably around 200 years old. Since 1974 several organizations have formed to hold yoga competitions and regulate their rules. The biggest one, the International Yoga Sports Federation, has been around since 2003 and acts as a governing body for chapters in 26 countries, including USA Yoga.
“I am constantly striving to improve my practice,” says Pang. “Being around others who practice is always a positive experience. The extra training for competition has helped my practice a lot. I am constantly improving my breathing technique, even when I need to take a break and rest to let my body recover.”
Like Pang, 2016 Hawaii Women’s Division gold medalist, Lisa Greenacre, feels that yoga championships have a greater purpose than showcasing a winner. “It’s not a competition to prove that you’re better than someone else,” says Greenacre. “It’s an opportunity to spread awareness for yoga, and you never know who you may be inspiring.”
On a personal level, competing has helped Greenacre step out of her comfort zone to learn new postures, travel, and practice among other yogis. “Meeting and practicing yoga with individuals who are also competing can be exhilarating and scary, but ultimately very uplifting,” says Greenacre. “Yoga competition can be stressful as well and it has taught me to not be hard on myself through the process.”
Contestants have three minutes to demonstrate six different postures, including a forward bend, a back bend, a stretch, a twist, and two poses of choice. Each posture must be held for a minimum of three seconds. Judges evaluate each contestant on grace, execution of the yoga postures, and the overall ability to hold postures in stillness.
Yoga has been welcomed with open arms by western culture, but competitive yoga remains controversial: people either love the idea or despise it.
Some still believe that competition defeats the purpose of yoga, which is a practice focused around acceptance and modesty. Those involved in the competition world assert it’s not about a contest between battling yogis, but rather “a competition between our true self versus our ego.”
Benjamin Lorr on the other hand, who studied the competitive yoga world for his book “Hell Bent,” describes that championships are less about winning and more about participating and strengthening ties in the community.
Pang also sees the competitive arena as an opportunity to inspire others. “I believe the Yoga Championships have a positive impact on the yoga community,” he says. “Simply surrounding oneself with fellow yogis who share the same vision is a win in itself. I’ve made many new friends and had the opportunity to share philosophies, techniques, nutritional knowledge. It’s definitely an opportunity to learn and grow.”
In a yoga competition, all competitors gather and cheer for one another. The result is a spirit of camaraderie and support unlike any other type of competition.
“At the end of the competition, the judges do have to grade postures and routines to find a winner,” explains the Hawaii Yoga champ. “However, the practice is always about one’s own personal journey towards their health and wellness. So to some degree, everyone is a winner.”
In his book, Lorr explains that history has shown there is room for all manners of yoga. In other words, both a tournament approach and a spiritually transcendent practice can coexist within the same realm. Yoga competition does not necessarily champion the personal ego, nor the judgment of others. In fact, it fosters acceptance and a strong sense of community. Above all, the common element among all forms of practice remains — that at the end of the day, yoga is a personal journey.
Patricia is a certified yoga teacher, fitness, and wellness coach. Co-owner at Bikram Yoga Kapolei, her passion is to inspire people to make daily healthy choices and embrace a happier lifestyle. Former scientist, Pat holds a Ph.D. in Biological Sciences and loves to combine her knowledge of human anatomy and physiology with the teaching of yoga.