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USA Yoga championship competition, hosted by Bikram, on cover of NY Times.

USA Yoga championship competition, hosted by Bikram, on cover of NY Times.

To warm up backstage before the ninth New York Regional and National Yoga Asana Championship, some competitors slid their legs behind their heads and others curled into back bends. Michael Colwill, 46, stood still in a purple Speedo and practiced bowing. Perfecting a gentle smile, he stood on a yoga mat, secured to the stage with electrical tape, and gazed out serenely at the nearly 700 theater seats.

Since ease carries a 10-point weight in competitive yoga asana, warming up the face is as important as loosening the hamstrings. Competitors complete seven postures in three minutes, and the total 80-point score takes into account technical precision, physical presentation and timing, among other aspects.

Because there are no entry requirements for regional competitions, Colwill, a kindergarten teacher at Public School 8 in Washington Heights who had practiced for less than three years, decided to try.

On Thursday, he demonstrated the routine for his pupils. “It was like when I walk on my hands on the playground,” he said. “They were excited and quiet — well, at first.”

The competition, hosted by the United States Yoga Federation, also known as USA Yoga, took place Friday night through Sunday afternoon at the Hudson Theater in Midtown Manhattan. More attentive than most 5-year-olds, Friday night’s audience maintained more silence than any hushed golf crowd. As Craig Villani, one of the hosts, announced, “Yoga is about intention, and so the audience’s good thoughts helps these performers.”

Sneezes were strangled, Velcro frowned upon and vibrating cellphones feared while competitors bent and balanced their bodies as if on an invisible high wire.

Rajashree Choudhury, the wife of the Indian yoga master Bikram Choudhury and the founder of USA Yoga, whose long-term goal is to promote asana as a sport for the Olympics, recalled her own childhood competitions in India, where she was a five-time champion and noise was commonplace.

“I’d be in standing head-to-knee,” she explained, “and someone would bang a big steel pan to test my composure.”

Different struggles surfaced in this American competition, which was open to all yogis but was dominated and sponsored by those who practice the Bikram style: Can you deeply stretch in an air-conditioned theater when you are accustomed to a 105-degree studio? Can you maintain balance while blinded by spotlights when you are used to focusing into a mirror? Can you keep that gentle smile when you fall out of a pose or your swimsuit creeps up?

Colwill, Friday evening’s first competitor, mastered the smile but trembled throughout his routine. He placed second to last.

“It’s fine,” he said. “I was able to represent yoga at my present level, and I’m honored if that inspires someone else to give it a try.”

Even watching the competition required patience and concentration. In the yogic tradition, the physical postures are said to prepare the mind and body for meditation, so reducing external stimuli is a necessity. At least for practitioners. Patanjali, the writer of the Yoga Sutras, gave no guidance for audiences.

“It does get to be a little bit like — how many more of these routines am I going to have to sit through?” said John Schoggins, 35, who placed third in the region. “After a while you’re waiting till the last two postures, wondering if they’re going to do something cool.”

Whereas Friday evening’s regional event was designed as a platform for all body types and ages, the Saturday semifinals were more serious. Choudhury acknowledged, “People want to win now.” Competitors individually performed the same five postures, announcing their names beforehand, then showcased their other talents with two optional asanas.

Sunday’s finals, featuring 10 men and 10 women, presented an opportunity for competitors to impress with the slam-dunk versions of asana. Some favored the scorpion, a back-bending handstand; others the guillotine, a forward bend so deep that the head and arms slide behind the legs. And then there was the goodbye pose, in which yogis stand, hands to heart, with one leg locked behind their heads.

Children and adolescents, a target audience for USA Yoga, seemed happy to try these and other advanced poses during the 11-to-17 youth division nationals on Sunday morning. Choudhury, stepping down as a judge, told the audience, “I am like a nervous mother to all these children.”

Watching the female-dominated youths’ routines (there was only one boy), Choudhury, a former asana coach, murmured instruction, feedback and admiration. “See how they are now?” she whispered. “Imagine them at 20 or 30!”

One spectator, Jocelyn O’Shea, a children’s yoga teacher in New York, said children did not need competition to be inspired. “At first they bring their competitive mind-set to class — we all do — but then it’s like the gates open,” she said. “They move beyond it.”

Will promoting asana as competitive sport distort its essence, the intent to provide healing and body-mind unification? How could an increasingly popular asana avoid being consumed and altered by a world hungry for sport as spectacle?

Joseph Encinia, 26, the current world asana champion, said the opposite would happen. “Yoga will change our view of sport itself,” he said.

Backstage, elite asana athletes were hugged by coaches, towels thrown around their necks. Some held bouquets of flowers, and with their lean bodies clad in swimwear, they might have been swimmers on an Olympic podium.

Afton Carraway, a former dancer from Orlando, Fla., retained her women’s championship, and Jared McCann, a yoga teacher from New York, was the men’s winner.They will represent the United States in June at the Bishnu Charan Ghosh Cup, an international championship in Los Angeles.

“I’m exhausted mentally and physically,” McCann said, grinning.

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