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Where Yoga Gets Crazy

We’ll explore the body and mind-bending world of competitive yoga.

Yoga teacher Kyoko Katsura demonstrates standing bow puilling, one of the poses that could be seen during the National Yoga Asana Championships in New York, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2012. Katsura will be a competing in the national competition which will take place from March 2-4 in New York City. (AP)

Yoga teacher Kyoko Katsura demonstrates standing bow puilling, one of the poses that could be seen during the National Yoga Asana Championships in New York, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2012. Katsura will be a competing in the national competition which will take place from March 2-4 in New York City. (AP)

Yoga has become a big deal in America.  Everywhere you turn, it seems, there’s somebody with a yoga mat.  On their way to class.  To sweat and bend and get centered.  Limber.  Some say alive.  One of those “come to yoga” acolytes was Benjamin Lorr.  He went from chubby mess to yoga svelte.

And then on – to competitive yoga. Yes, there is competitive yoga.  His was hot, Bikram-style.  He found a lot of pain there.  And some joy.  And a lot of insight into the world of yoga.

This hour, On Point:  the body and mind-bending world of extreme yoga.

-Tom Ashbrook


Benjamin Lorr, author of Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga.

Cynthia Wehr, USA YOGA winner 2005 and 2007.

From Tom’s Reading List

New York Times “How many times have you found yourself clicking through a slide show about someone who has lost lots of weight? In the last one I saw, a woman who lost 160 pounds took a picture every 20 pounds or so. The images were riveting, even though it often looked as if she were standing in a closet under a fluorescent light, her hair stringy, her face un-made-up. The human body amazes — both in its grotesqueness and beauty. Today, physical transformation is the stuff of reality TV shows; a century ago, it was the foundation of Bernarr Macfadden’s media empire. His flagship magazine, True Story, published readers’ accounts of miraculous weight loss. And the miracles rarely stopped at the shedding of pounds: health and vitality were regained, marriages reinvigorated, purpose found.”


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  • http://twitter.com/CoolGreenPines CoolGreenPines

    I don’t want to hear a thing from this show until I know for certain Tom has taken a yoga class. lol  C’mon, Tommy, you can’t just talk about it.  (And we want pictures!)

    Btw I love yoga and consider it a very important part of my overall health.  But even after 7 years I’ve yet to move from intermediate to advanced.  Not sure why, except it doesn’t seem important to me. Maybe one day when I’m 70.

    • http://www.facebook.com/laura.lovellinglese Laura Lovell Inglese

       I second the motion for Tom to take a yoga class! Woo Hoo!

      • http://twitter.com/CoolGreenPines CoolGreenPines

        It must be done! ;)

  • Gregg Smith

    Competitive yoga? That’s weird IMO, it sounds like an oxymoron. Here on the farm we are into The Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/YMV2HJ2TBKMCN2QRAVI3I2OOGM Jim Jim

    Resist Americanization of everything. 

  • ToyYoda

    OT 1: Please cover the great musician Ravi Shankar, the sitar player who just recently died.

    OT 2: Please add some sort of suggestion box to your website where people can suggest topics.  Please give enough space for suggestion so that they can also send links to pertinent information.

  • AC

    ugh. this topic is making me feel lazy – i haven’t gone in a while….

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1043274337 Sara Moore Giannoni

    I took a few Bikram classes, kinda liked the heat but some of the instructors seemed pushy.  I don’t think being pushy is yoga.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

    Why talk about the extremes? Most people doing yoga are just doing some poses and stretches once or twice a week, modifying as needed according to their strength and flexibility.

    The big deal is that so many people are doing this – not the extremes that some people take it to.

    • anamaria23

      I have been doing “gentle” yoga (still challanging) for years in very relaxed, non-competitive group.  The emphasis is on maintaining physical and  emotional balance and flexibility.  Great emphasis on breathing and the life force and meditation. 
      I cannot imagine doing  competitive yoga.  It would defeat the purpose for me, but to each his own. 

  • Acnestes

    The very idea of competitive yoga sounds perverse.

  • Wahoo_wa

    “Competitive yoga” makes me giggle…coming up on Thursday’s show competitive Zen Buddhism (“I don’t exist!”  “Oh really?! Well I don’t exist more!!!  So there : P”)

  • ToyYoda

    Where will all of this go?  Will competitive yoga be in the Olympics?  Will their be drug testing of contestants?  Team yoga?  City-subsidized stadiums?  Commercial endorsements?  Will zealous parents push their kids to be yoga prodigies and have fist fights in the bleacher seats?

  • MadMarkTheCodeWarrior

    Just like extreme endurance sports where individuals push there bodies to the point where they inflict damage on their organs, working at extreme temps, way above core temp serves no purpose to me… I’ve done power yoga many times at 93-98 degrees; there’s plenty of pain and suffering to be felt there. Going even hotter, ignoring the lessons that nature teaches us, exposing oneself to needless risk, seems pretty much pointless and stupid. Almost the epitome of a narcissistic enterprise.

    • http://www.facebook.com/patrick.moltane Patrick Moltane


  • johnsloth

    To quote Carl Jung: “Every form of addiction is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alcohol, morphine or idealism (YOGA).”
    C’mon, of all things. What next? Competitive Rosary recitation? How about competitive meditation? Jeez… give us all a break.

    • asuka langley sohryu

      What has pulling shapes in a hot room got to do with idealism?

      • johnsloth

        Jung’s references to alcohol and morphine establish the obviousness of these as “vices” while his use of idealism points to the fact that anything, even a seemingly benign pursuit such as yoga, could become an unhealthy obsession. The guest openly said at one point that he was “addicted” to competitive yoga. It was that comment that reminded me of Jung’s warning.

  • Marianna Holzer

    Competitive yoga sounds just awful and against everything I believe in yoga. I practice Iyengar yoga, it is a great help to my MS. Hot yoga is one thing, something I cant do because this kind of heat would activate my MS, but for those who like it, fine. But to be competitive seems just wrong. Can’t we Americans do anything without making it a competition???

  • atakemoto

    Competitive yoga:  an oxymoron if ever I heard one.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

    How is competitive yoga any different than competitive gymnastics? Or dancing? It’s just a display of proficiency.

    Although competitive laughing yoga would be … interesting.

  • Ringwoodsteve

    I guess the winner would be the 1 who cares the least about winning. The winner would be the 1 who loses the competition.

  • Donna W

    Yoga changed my life, I resisted it for years–had an IT band injury from extreme exercising on the machines at the gym without stretching.  First I tried physical therapy then began yoga–I have dropped physical therapy, cured my IT band issues and am addicted to yoga–ideally 3 times per week.  I cannot recommend it enough.  I am 58 years old and feel like a million dollars thanks to yoga.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1043274337 Sara Moore Giannoni

    It upsets people because it does not fall with in our expectation of yoga.

  • Dana Ortegón

    Last Christmas a good friend took me to Yoga For You in West Roxbury. It was the best present I could have asked for. Bikram yoga challenges me physically and mentally and has helped me battle life-long anxiety. I think I’m lucky to have had my start with Diane and her instructors, as well as the folks who practice there. The atmosphere is non-competitive, welcoming, spiritual, athletic, and warm. (haha!) I went to Bikram as a substitute for running while recovering from plantar fasciitis, but I can’t imagine not having Bikram in my life now.

  • Robert Shapiro

    Competing with yourself, trying to be your own “champion” is fine and may not be at odds with yoga philosophy.  The thing I don’t understand is how does someone judge a competitive yoga event.  There has to be some agreed-upon criteria;  is it flexibility?  beauty?  endurance of discomfort? 

  • Robert Shapiro

    What I meant to say is that having an outside entity judge each person’s effort to be his/her best is puzzling to me, and does seem at odds with what I know of yoga philosophy.  How can anyone be determined to be trying harder?

  • Steve Witmer

    What’s with the dismay between different body types and its effect on yoga? All competitive sports are comprised of people with varying body types and capabilities. That’s kind of the point of competition: matching your ability against those of your peers. It’s also why there are age and gender divisions in all sports and weight divisions in some events.

    A few other points:

    1. All competitive sports, no matter how seemingly benign, have their dangers and those practitioners that will sacrifice life and limb to go to “the next level” and assert their capabilities over their peers.

    2. All sports have the purists, those that find enjoyment in non-competitive participation, and the competitors, those whose competitive spirit necessitates propels them toward matching their abilities against their peers.

    3. Enjoy what you like doing in the way that you are doing it, whether it involves competition or not. If it’s not your cup of tea, then don’t drink from it.

  • johnsloth

    What about the roots of yoga and the purpose of its development by the original practitioners? It was to be an aid in personal meditation, not some novel way to gain recognition from others. The same controversy exists within Surfing and in that “sport”/art form commercialism reared its head quickly and polluted the activity with increased aggression within its ranks and people seeing it as a career opportunity… too bad.

  • ben kelley

     I vomited after my first Bikram class.  That was a year and a half ago. 
    I practice about 4 times a week since then.  Each class is a personal
    dichotomy of intensity and revelation- it’s addicting.  I leave each
    class feeling grounded, clearer and more peaceful- in addition to the
    health benefits. 

  • ben kelley

     I vomited after my first Bikram class.  That was a year and a half ago. 
    I have been practicing about 4 times a week since then.  Each class is a personal
    dichotomy of intensity and revelation- it’s addicting.  I leave each
    class feeling grounded, clearer and more peaceful- in addition to the
    health benefits. 

  • MadMarkTheCodeWarrior

    So why is the Yoga community embracing this narcissistic SOB? He is antithetical to the spirit of Yoga. If the Don is listening, I’m sure he’s thinking about how to roll our Trump Yoga.

  • jhlangerman

    How refreshing to hear someone tell it like it is… yoga in America is rarely a spiritual exercise, but rather one of narcissism and competitiveness, just as your guest says.  Try a class at any of the “chain” yoga studios (because in America, yoga is franchised) and you will see a collection of Type-A personalities dressed in expensive Lulu Lemon-wear furtively glancing at other students as they attempt to outdo each other on the mat.  American yoga reflects our culture… competitive, narcissistic, and materialistic.   

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1607035794 Stephanie Freed Teixeira

      “yoga in America is rarely a spiritual exercise” … I think there’s a big shift happening towards a more spiritual focus in yoga. There are plenty of small, independent studios where there is not competition, but rather a sense of community where like-minded people gather to raise their collective and individual consciousness, where meditation and kirtan are on the regular schedule, where the scriptures are discussed in class. Do we also challenge ourselves with difficult asanas? Yes, we do. But the asanas themselves are not the goal, but one possible pathway to the goal, which is, as stated succinctly above, is “[S]elf-discovery, [S]elf-realization, [S]elf awareness, knowledge of the [S]elf.” (My emphasis is on the larger Self rather than the smaller self.)  If you’re inclined, I’d recommend exploring some of these places; your generalized opinion may just shift.  And by the way, there were asana competitions in India dating back to the early 20th century.  We don’t have a monopoly on them here.

  • Abha Gupta

    Yoga is 4000 years old ancient science and it was mainly an
    oral tradition. The key person who put it down in writing in the form of Yoga
    Sutras is Patanjali, who is now considered the father of yoga, rather ‘ashtanga yoga’
    to be more precise. Patanjali is not the inventor of yoga, but rather yoga’s
    most popularly known scribe who wrote it around 2000 years ago. “Yoga
    Sutras” (sutra means thread) or almost equally as common, as the
    “Yoga Darshana” (the vision of Yoga), is actually a compendium of an
    ancient pre-existing oral yoga tradition consisting of both practical advice
    and theoretical context to live a wholesome happy life.


    Now, when we talk of yoga and the benefits of yoga, what’s the first
    thing that generally comes to mind. Stress buster. That it helps to lower the
    stress, calm the mind and so on.  Now,
    for a moment lets’ go back 2000 years ago or 
    why that far, just 200 years ago, the yogis who were practising yoga were mainly men who
    had renounced the world that means, no family responsibility, no possessions,
    no jobs, no earnings, no bank account, they lived in hermitage or an ashram
    close to nature, by a river, surrounded by trees. So, what kind of stress
    were they dealing with, that they needed to do yoga for years? These are the side
    benefits, stress reduction, calmness of nerves, etc. The main purpose of yoga
    is self-discovery, self-realization, self awareness, knowledge of the

    Abha Gupta

    • http://www.facebook.com/patrick.moltane Patrick Moltane

      well said. thank you for clarification.

  • ToyYoda

    Listen to Judith.  She’s got it right, mostly.  Historically, yoga was physical preparation for meditation.  If you find benefit in yoga, then that’s great keep it up.  Yoga also seems to give an expanded awareness and a kind of spirituality to it’s practitioners.  And if it does that for you, great.  Keep it up.  And if that’s all you want from yoga: physical improvements and even some deep spiritual experiences, that’s great too.  Keep it up.

    But note, it’s only the first half toward the journey to Eastern spirituality and it’s optional.

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    Excellent show Tom. While I’ve never thought of yoga in those terms it’s definitely woven into American culture in such a way that this discussion is useful. I’m flying to LA tomorrow and will drive by the Bikram world headquarters. Just driving by it makes me want to vomit.

  • Designomat

     Your absolutely right! Just see how many TV shows about competitive cooking, dance, design etc. This obsession in this country to be the best may appear to be positive but in reality it is not focused on the task at hand but how YOU the narcissist compares to the others. Its like the student who wants an A to please the teacher rather than just thinking about the greater enrichment of the DOING which actually takes you away from the “self” and in so doing allows you to reflect on the activity rather than this constant harang of our culture’s concern with achievement.

  • Kenneth Rubenstein

    Next stop, competitive praying.

    • m2cts

      In my town there’s a “House of Prayer” where delusional people, guided by an African refugee, do nothing but pray. Yup: no charitable work, no food bank, no clothes collection, no actual work, the wages of which could be used to alleviate suffering – just prayer.
      As I said: delusional.
      Check out whywontgodhealamputees.com if you still think that praying does have any effect at all.

  • Pointpanic

    Or maybe contest defecating!

  • Damian Stoy

    For you folks judging competitive yoga, I suggest practicing more yoga.  I love how Americans think we know what yoga is.  Bikram is a true yoga master, from India and yoga champion.  Americans judge too quickly.  That is why I recommend yoga.  To get ridge of expectations, judgements and to be more kind, compassionate and caring.

    Like any thing in life, competition breaks boundaries not just in a culture, but in the Self.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/JNCPA3EAEOLSKIN25YY36U5BZ4 AmyD

    I love to do Bikram yoga… usually. I find that the physical difficulty is meditative,. When yoga is good, it’s one of the ultimate escapes from whatever happened on a given day. However, I occasionally have encountered instructors who are competitive, and it always turns me off. These are instructors who do basically the opposite of what Judith Lasater suggests: Rather than honoring what the individual needs to bring to the practice that day, they act like drill sergeants, calling people out when they take a break or can’t quite get into a pose to the same extent that they did last time. Ugh I just don’t think that should be the point!

  • NatalieAP1986

    I find the Bikram style and the idea of competitive yoga to be very antithetical to the philosophy of yoga. As a Hindu who studies the religious Hindu texts (the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras), what we think of as “yoga” is not at all related to yoga in its original context. Physical yoga was originally intended as a way to become stronger so one could spend more time in meditation, with the ultimate goal of realization the unity of the individual with the Self in meditation. Other forms of Hinduism emphasize meditation as part of a religious devotion to an aspect of God. 

    Most non-Bikram yoga classes at least preserve some of the appropriate attitudes associated with Hindu yoga (mindfulness, being present, self-compassion, acceptance, dedication and perseverance as virtues, etc.). These things are beneficial, though not connected with the original practice of yoga. Though these attitudes ignore the context of yoga and remove most of the beauty of the tradition, I believe they at least helpful to most people. 

    However, in the case of Bikram Yoga and competitive yoga, these are simply ego-gratifying exercises that go completely against the philosophy of yoga. It strips a tradition of its beauty entirely. Competitiveness and yoga to glorify the physical body are cutting off the beauty of the religious tradition, and also harmful to the individual. 

  • Pingback: Vinyasa- to place carefully. | Devon Wilson-Hill Yoga

  • Regular_Listener

    Hi, regular yoga practitioner here – and not a big fan of the Bikram style.  I tried it a few times but found it to be a fairly regular sequence of asanas with the addition of extreme heat, which I did not like.  Now, I don’t mind doing yoga on a hot day, indoors or out, but Bikram is different – it is usually done in a studio with the heat turned up to an oppressive degree, to the point where I felt a bit nauseous.  Yes, one sweats a lot and loses some water weight, but I could not see anything superior about it.  I prefer Ashtanga or vinyasa or pretty much any of the other popular styles.

    I would also like to mention that I don’t see anything terribly wrong with competitive yoga, so long as people see that this is not really what yoga is meant to be!  But if it were done competitively, in the way that gymnastics or figure skating is done, I don’t really have a problem with it.  But to be honest, I doubt very many people who are not yogis would want to watch – and most of the yogis would probably rather be doing yoga.

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