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Bending the competition
JACKSON, WYO – Breathing in and breathing out has taken Pinedale eighth-grader Jamie Rellstab far in her 14 years of life. From being able to cope with an autism spectrum diagnosis without drugs since the age of 3, to twisting into sixth place in the National Yoga Championship earlier this month.
“For quite a while she was number one in the nation,” said Jamie’s mom, Leanne Rellstab. Leanne has brought Jamie to three national yoga championships in the past three years and hopes to fly her all the way to the Summer Olympics in 2020 if yoga becomes an Olympic sport.
“The competition part added a spark to it that wasn’t there before,” Rellstab said. “At this age it’s something different to strive for.”
Rellstab is one of three young yogis from Wind River Yoga and Body Works studio in Pinedale whose forward bends and backward arches were judged in the 2014 USA National Yoga Championships in San Antonio, TX. They all placed in the top 10. Faye Kudar, 11, earned fifth place and Fallon Ramsey, 17, finished in eighth place. Hailey Harbor, who competed alongside the girls from the same studio, also performed in the adult competition and placed 39th out of 78 qualifiers.
Yoga competitors are judged on a 10-point scale in front of a panel of judges. Stillness, breath and alignment are of utmost importance in the three minutes they get to perform five required poses and two elective poses.
Wind River Yoga provides an opportunity for kids to learn this new competitive sport in a small blue-collar town in which the natural gas industry often creates a challenging social and economic environment. With more and more yoga coming to Jackson, perhaps the valley will begin to see competitive yoga, too.
“Yoga for my students is a sanctuary, a tool for surrendering and coming into the present,” said Darcie Peck, their coach and owner of Wind River Yoga. “It’s about sharing your heart.”
A student of Bikram Choudhury’s hot yoga, Peck began teaching yoga without heat to a primary school in California before returning 11 years ago to the place where her grandparents homesteaded. Bikram yoga is usually taught in a studio heated to 105 degrees with 40 percent humidity. But excessive heat for kids is controversial, so Peck keeps temperatures in her studio closer to 80 degrees.
She has since cultivated a following of dozens of kids and their parents who come to her studio to listen to her philosophy on how to weave breath into a flow of circus-like physical postures.
“Flexibility is one thing, but yoga competition? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms for a practice that preaches nonattachment?” I asked Peck.
“Anything in life can be competitive … in yoga you are competing against yourself,” Peck said. “It’s not about flexibility. You don’t have to be a super bionic woman. It’s about the way you use your breath with movement and grace.”
“We are all competing against each other but we give each other support,” Jamie Rellstab said. “It’s not really about praising anybody. It’s about finding out who you are.”
“Darcie has had a huge influence on my life,” said Rellstab. “When I get mad at my friends or I’m taking a test, I slow down my breath and it helps me be present.”
While it is a fairly new sport in America, Hatha yoga competitions have been held for centuries in India, where asana has been a male dominated physical practice. Competitions, now held in every state, were popularized in 1975 when Swami Gitananda established the Pondicherry Yoga Association and held its first state yoga championships.
Bikram Choudhury was 13, about the same age as Jamie, when he won the National India Yoga Championships. He has since become a household name synonymous with more than 1,000 hot yoga studios all over the world. He established the International Yoga Asana Championships in 2003 and began a petition to the Olympic committee to include yoga as a sport.
Coincidently, the Indian Olympic Association is considering pitching New Delhi as host of the 2020 Olympics, the first year yoga could be considered as an Olympic sport.
But it is possible that Bikram, who has come under scrutiny for his Beverly Hills lifestyle, could be in jail by the time the Olympics could come to India, creating even more controversy for the sport.
In 2012, after years of bullying yoga studios that did not pay him royalties, Bikram was sued and stripped of his copyright on a series of 26 poses, which he culled from 84 classical yoga postures. Last May, two former “Jane Doe” students of his filed lawsuits accusing him of intimidation, sexual harassment and rape.
The United States Yoga Federation, or USAYoga.org, which sponsors the national championships, is a nonprofit organization founded by Bikram’s wife, Rajashree Choudhury to promote yoga as a sport.
“Yoga is so beneficial, especially in today’s world. We need to make the change,” Choudhury states on the website. “The change can only come with you – within your spirit, within your beliefs.”
While Peck and the Rellstrabs are turned off by Bikram Choudhury’s ego (he once told the Chicago Tribune that he owns 35 Rolls Royces), they said his wife is very nice and sent a great message to the more than 100 participants in the competition this year.
For Rellstab, who has a high IQ but a very short attention span because of a condition known as Sensory Processing Disorder, it has been a saving grace, her mother said. It keeps her focused and allows her to thrive in the classroom.
“When you are told to use your breath for an hour every day, it has a calming effect on everything else you do,” Leanne Rellstab said.