The 6th Annual International Yoga Asana Championship’s Southern California Regionals returned Saturday to the Lanterman Auditorium, drawing 26 competitors of all ages.

“The purpose of these championships is to demonstrate and educate the general public as to the life-renewing benefits of yoga,” said Rose Malmberg, owner of Bikram Yoga La Cañada and host of the event.

This year’s Regionals was marked by a confidence that one day Hatha Yoga—that is yoga done as exercise—will one day be an Olympic event, on par with gymnastics. A federation of yoga associations in India and here in the United States has been laying the groundwork by organizing these yoga championships, which have been taking place in India for hundreds of years, but only in the U.S. for six.

And though he was there Saturday as a spectator and yoga practitioner, Charles Lee, a retired L.A. Superior Court judge and Chef De Mission of the 2008 U.S. Olympic team in Beijing, gave the event an air of optimism.

Three judges, Emmy Cleaves, Darius LeGall and Marlon McGann studied the poise, flexibility, form and grace of the 30 competitors in three divisions: men, women and youth. Though practitioners of all forms of Hatha Yoga are invited to compete, those at the Lanterman represented primarily Bikram “hot” yoga. Fifteen different chapters of Bikram Yoga from San Diego to Santa Barbara were represented.

For the uninitiated, Bikram Yoga is a 90-minute class of 26 postures that purportedly works every muscle, joint, ligament tendon and organ in the body. It is practiced in a heated room to allow muscles to warm-up quickly and to improve circulation, as well as help to eliminate toxins and significantly reduce the risk of injury during deep muscle stretching. It is so named for its founder, Bikram Choudhury, who brought this more competitive, athletic take on Hatha Yoga to the Los Angeles in the 1980s.

The competition itself is based on competitor’s performing five compulsory postures, plus two advanced postures, performed in three minutes or less, as timed by event timer Aaron Fishman.

Jeff Rangel, a teacher at Bikram Yoga La Cañada, took first place in the men’s division for the second straight year in a row, thanks largely to his jaw-dropping Finger Stand and Scorpion postures, in addition to his compulsory poses.

Rangel is an avid surfer, runner and mountain biker who discovered yoga while working on a doctorate dissertation at the University of Michigan. He ? found yoga melded his cerebral side with the physical.

“Bikram Yoga is a great balance and gives me a sense of calm and peace,” Rangel said.

Anthony Burkart of El Cajon placed second and Dixon Perey, representing Bikram Yoga Downtown Los Angeles, placed third.

In the women’s division, Lauren Balefsky, a student from Bikram World Headquarters in L.A. placed first, with Jennifer Kunkler and Juliana Olmstead both of San Diego, taking second and third place, respectively.

In the Youth Division, 12-year-old David Tang of Palm Desert won first place with a routine that culminated with a posture laying on his stomach, looking forward and bringing his legs up over his head. It was called, appropriately, Scorpion.

“You’re looking at the Michael Phelps of yoga once this becomes an Olympic sport,” said the event’s MC Hobey Echlin of Tang’s win.

Kimberly Ramirez, an 11-year-old from Covina and Mishaelle Kemp, a 12-year-old from South Pasadena, tied for second. Kemp’s mother Inga Colbert, also competed in the event. Stefany Alvarado Arias of Los Angeles Headquarters placed third.

Though most of these yogis honed their skills in studios heated to 105 degrees, Lanterman Auditorium was not as warm. Second-place Youth Division winner Ramirez — who wowed spectators with a backbend that allowed her to smile at the audience while looking forward through her own legs — has been practicing yoga for just one year. “I like it better without heat,” she said.

Hatha Yoga, though, has been largely adapted in the U.S. for its healing qualities — some of which can be magnified by practicing in heat. John Tunks has been practicing at Bikram Yoga La Cañada for four years. “What else can we do to improve our strength, flexibility and balance which we lose as we get older?” he asks, adding, “The heat of Bikram [yoga] helps us relax and stretch which also helps flexibility.”

Most in attendance were avid Bikram Yoga practitioners, like Emmy Cleaves, one of the event’s judges. Cleaves started practicing yoga after the birth of her child to get back into shape. “It made me feel so much better that I have been doing yoga for the last 50 years!” she said with a laugh.

“It took me 20 years to do the splits and now I can do them any time. Yoga literally changes the construction of your body from inside out.”

Adds Malmberg, “Yoga is not about how flexible you are — it’s about stretching your body and spine in all directions the best you can. All that matters is that you try the right way, go to your personal edge, and you’ll get 100% of the benefits."

Perhaps the greatest benefit of the Yoga Regionals was its impact on the small but enthusiastic audience. When Danuta Biernat, a student at Bikram Yoga La Cañada, was asked what she thought of the competition, she replied, “Very inspiring. Tomorrow, I will be in class.”


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