Competition yoga? No, it’s not an oxymoron
Fourteen-year-old Aiden LeMay plays hockey and baseball. His younger sister Avery took dance classes until the family's recent move to Concord. Their friend Morgan Kimball is a member of the Groton-Dunstable Regional High School tennis team.
What the three have in common, though, is a sport whose very name makes some people snicker: competition yoga.
"When people hear the words yoga and competition together for the first time it's a little bit of cognitive dissonance," acknowledges their coach, Ellen Olson-Brown. "There's an idea that yoga is not supposed to be competitive. But actually in India, where yoga began, yoga schools have held competitions and exhibitions for centuries."
For the past 10 years, it has become increasingly popular here in the United States, mostly through the efforts of USA Yoga, a nonprofit national organization. Now it's taking hold as a youth sport as well.
The competition model is similar to that for skating and gymnastics, Olson-Brown explained, with a prescribed sequence of poses to be completed in a limited time period. Competitors are judged more on technical accuracy than the difficulty of the pose.
"Competition is a chance to stand in front of people, do the practice that you love, and challenge yourself to do your very best by demonstrating something you've work hard at," said Olson-Brown. "It's not about being able to do some ridiculously complicated pose. You can get a very high score for a posture that is maybe not so glamorous as long as you demonstrate it with precision and focus."
For Aiden LeMay, a two-time national champion in his age division, winning is almost secondary to the other advantages of yoga. "It improves my flexibility," which helps him as a hockey and soccer player, he said. "And I've gotten to travel to some cool places to compete."
Twelve-year-old Avery LeMay began practicing yoga at the age of 7 after watching her mother take a class. She attended her elder brother's competitions and patiently waited to reach the age when she herself could compete, which at the time was 11 but has recently been lowered to 7.
Her first big competition was the USA Yoga Northeast Regional in Vermont last month, where she found that she felt immediately comfortable in the spotlight.
"I wasn't very nervous," Avery recalled. "I really like being on a very quiet stage."
But one minute into her routine, an unforeseen problem struck in the form of a nosebleed. Avery was required to stop her routine and take a long break, but later in the afternoon she was given a second chance.
"Once I finally was able to go on, I was very proud of my routine and I thought I did very well," Avery said. "My timing was perfection. If you go over three minutes, you get a deduction. Your hands need to be a certain way. If your palms aren't together, you might get a deduction. And you need to hold each posture for five seconds."
Avery's instincts were correct — she did so well in the competition that, like her brother, she advanced to the USA Yoga Nationals, which will take place in Madison, Wisc., this summer.
Avery and Aiden's mother, Colleen LeMay, watched the nosebleed episode with dismay. But in the end, it affirmed for her the value of competition yoga for her children.
"So many people came up to me after seeing what happened to Avery on stage to say how well she handled it," she said. "Some kids would have cried or run off the stage. I didn't really think about the poise Avery demonstrated until other people pointed it out."
In fact, for Colleen, a former martial arts champion who owns New Generation Martial Arts in Lexington, there was a symbolic value to the calamity.
"As a parent, you know life is hard and in reality you get a lot of bloody noses," she said. "But it's all in how you handle the bloody noses. Yoga is a tool. I tell my kids, I did not start you in yoga to compete and be champions. I started you in yoga to develop tools for when you are anxious or depressed or stressed and need to connect with yourself."
Morgan Kimball, a freshman from Dunstable, started attending yoga classes last year with friends. "It's the first sport I've gotten really into," she said. "At first I just liked it because my friends were there, but then I started to feel really good in class, and comfortable."
Kimball placed second in her age category at the USA Yoga Northeast Regionals in Vermont last month. "Backstage waiting to go on, I was really nervous. But when I got out onto the stage, I went into this zone and didn't even register that I was in front of judges. I was shaking afterwards, but I was also thinking, 'Wow, I just did yoga in front of all these people!'"
And although competition rankings are divided by age, the training and practice tend to be multigenerational, said Terri Fry, the owner of Hot Yoga Factory in Chelmsford, where the LeMays and Kimball train for competition.
"We have people from age 11 to 67 training here right now, and every age in between," Fry said. "There aren't many situations in life in which you have people of so many ages working together toward one common goal. But for kids, teens and adults alike, competition yoga is a transformative experience. It develops confidence, patience, and attentiveness. It's a chance to be unplugged and to connect with each other."