By Tom Schad
The Baltimore Sun
2:40 PM EST, February 23, 2013
On Saturday, Eddie Hall of Cockeysville will stand on a stage in New York City wearing skintight shorts.
He will tuck his foot behind his head, push both hands against the ground and lift his body into the air, staying still and at peace even as his body is twisted like a pretzel. The posture, or asana, is called Om. Then he will untangle himself and move on to the next one.
This is yoga asana, and it might be the most fascinating sport you didn't know existed.
After first-place finishes in last month's regional championship, Hall and Allison Kinter of Baltimore will represent the Baltimore region at the sport's national championship beginning Saturday. They will compete against 130 other yogis as they try to bend, hold, arch, twist and balance their way to a national crown.
It's not as easy as it sounds — and it sounds pretty difficult.
“It's like running a sprint for three minutes,” said Hall, 34. “You stretch every different way you can, so it's exhausting physically. But most of it is mental: getting over nerves, being able to focus and control your mind while you're on stage.”
Competitive yoga routines consist of seven individual asanas: five compulsory and two of the competitor's choice. Each is scored by a panel of judges on form, stillness, breathing and consistency. Points are deducted for falling or trembling, and even for labored breathing.
The sport is structurally similar to gymnastics, figure skating and diving. But in other ways, yoga asana is in a category of its own.
While other sports demand intensity, yoga values peace and stillness. While other sports reward those who do the most, yoga rewards the ability to do the least. It flies in the face of conventional sports wisdom.
“The physical part, you have that from practicing in class,” Kinter said. “It's the ability to control your mind, control your nerves, control your fears, just stay still, move and not think. That's the hardest part.”
Kinter has been a yoga instructor for four years and now teaches at Bikram Yoga Baltimore. She said the sport is unique because it isn't competitive — at least not in a traditional sense.
Yoga originated in India thousands of years ago as a form of meditation; the name stems from the Sanskrit root “yuk,” which means to join or unite. The very nature of the practice seems to discourage competition.
Kinter said yoga is competitive only because it pushes you to compete against yourself. Others believe it's a display of skill, a celebration of the shared goals that all yogis have achieved on the mat.
“It's not a cutthroat atmosphere at all — it's more of a cooperative atmosphere,” Jon Gans of USA Yoga said. “For competition, I think that is relatively unique.”
Yoga asana also has a unique mental component.
Yogis practice in hot rooms kept at a balmy 105 degrees. The goal, Kinter said, is to develop a peaceful mindset in the hot room that can be applied anywhere in life — from traffic jams on Interstate 95 to the national championship stage at the Hudson Theater next weekend.
Hall, his fiancee, Kelly Weckesser, and fellow competitor Lauren Kaye spend roughly 10 hours per week in the hot room at Bikram Yoga Hampden, usually in 90-minute increments. The heat makes it difficult to breathe, but there's a cleansing effect, too. Kinter said it's like hitting the reset button.
“It's the most intense workout you'll ever have,” said Hall, who is the director of fitness at Baltimore Fitness & Tennis. “You're moving your body in ways you've never moved it before, but you keep battling, you get through it and you feel great.”
Added Kaye: “I'm cold in the rest of my life now. Getting in the hot room, that's the only place I feel normal.”
Unlike most sports, yoga asana is a lifelong practice. Kinter has seen teachers in their 70s and students in their 80s. The Johns Hopkins men's lacrosse team has trained with Hall in the hot room, and Ravens Hall of Fame tackle Jonathan Ogden is among the 22 million people, according to USA Yoga, who practice yoga asana in the United States today.
People take up the sport for a variety of reasons. Kinter first used it as stress relief while working at a mental health clinic in Pennsylvania. Weckesser, a professional dancer, started practicing 10 years ago to complement her dance classes. Hall used yoga as a cardio interval in his workouts. Kaye said it helped her lose 100 pounds.
Collectively, they've discovered that yoga is a hard itch to scratch just once. Hall called it an addiction.
“I think it's changed my control a lot more, like not getting aggravated and angry about every little thing,” he said. “Not letting other people steal my peace, that's the way Bikram says it. If someone steals your peace, then you're the loser.”
Next weekend will mark the 10th anniversary of the USA Yoga Asana National Championship. What started as a small get-together at a studio in downtown Los Angeles is now a nationwide event featuring yogis from 31 states and Washington, D.C.
USA Yoga hopes yoga asana will one day become an Olympic sport. Gans pointed to gymnastics and diving as examples of what the sport could eventually become.
“Our objective is to put these incredibly talented yogis in front of audiences so that these audiences can be inspired by their performances and go out and take up the practice of yoga themselves,” Gans said. “We need to have it in a format that large audiences will find interesting.”
Hall will compete in his third national championship on Saturday, and his first as regional champion. He said yoga asana has made him a better fitness instructor and helped him find his fiancee, Weckesser — the two met on a yoga date.
Plus, it's also a pretty cool trick to show friends at a party.
“Yeah,” Hall said with a laugh, “I'm not above that.”
Yoga competitions are only a small piece of the broader yoga lifestyle. Yogis spend time with yogis, and everyone is working toward another goal.
Kinter is confident that she can do yoga for the rest of her life. Hall wants to learn new postures like the handstand scorpion, which involves bending your feet backward and touching them to the top of your head.
“It's very humbling,” Hall said.
“And we're still learning,” Kaye added. “We'll always be learning.”
Copyright © 2013, The Baltimore Sun