Monday, July 21, 2003

Ready, Set, Om

Baseball games Violin concertos. Hot-Dog Eating contests. Presidential elections. Nursery School admissions. There is no end to the list of things in which we'll compete, things where we are determined to name a winner. Doing well for its own sake, satisfaction at having tried as hard as we could... well-meaning platitudes, to be sure, but not the reality with which most us live. We tell our kids that triumphing doesn't matter, that sportsmanship is more important than winning... and yet at the end of the little league season, when the standings start to count, you know which kids will be sent to the outfield and why.

Yet, even in the midst of this constant ranksmanship, there are enclaves where peace and tranquility are the ultimate objectives, not championships. Take reading... no, sorry about that, schools have reading competitions to encourage kids to pick up a book. Well, then there's walking... oh, yes, that's been an Olympic sport for years. Well, at least there's gardening... whoops, my mistake, they award prizes for the best flowers and fruits.

In other words, there is almost no safe haven from the race to name the best. It would seem that in order to find a quiet place where no one will judge you, you have to turn inward. For many, traditional organized religion is where they find serenity. For others, it means exploring different belief systems and structures. And to some, it means trying to get in touch with their inner selves through yoga.

After all, what could be more peace-inducing, more self centering than an 5000 year old, ancient eastern philosophy whose entire focus is... well, focus: focus on your self, focus on your body, focus on your energy. If you can understand and master those elements, it would seem that regardless of what anyone says about you, you will truly know who you are and be comfortable with it. Biggest? Best? There's no place for that when the pitch is your inner self.

Or is there? From the left coast comes a different point of view. From a throne in his studio in Los Angeles, Bikram Choudhury, the hot fitness guru of the minute, is holding a competition among his nationwide legion of devotees to crown those with the best yoga poses. Choudhury, who has franchised his yoga technique and teaching approach, is looking for the Reuben and Clay of the Yoga Idol set. In doing so, he is seeking to emulate what in his view is the perfect approach to accepting and dealing with today's mass market lifestyle. No, not Judaism or Christian Scientist or Baha'i, but Starbucks.

And so a panel of judges at his studios is ranking extended puppies, downward facing dogs and cow faces (to the uninitiated, those are poses, not pets), with an eye towards finding the person with the best form for function. Gracefulness and appearance count, as do the lack of distractions like jewelry, nail polish and body hair. And while it's being done in a low-key manner, the goal is no different than the World Series of the NBA Championship or a Julia Roberts divorce... to come out with a winner. And that means it's just a matter of time...

"Live from the Staples Center in Los Angeles, welcome to ESPN's exclusive coverage of the US National Yoga Bowl, brought to you by Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream. Now, here's your host, Al Michaels."

"Thanks and welcome to this year's competition. The place it packed, the incense is burning and the leotards are pressed... all in preparation for tonight's big pose-off. I'm joined in the broadcast booth by John Madden and Maharashi Papadum Choi Massala. John, let me turn first to you. Who do you like in the field?"

"Well, when you talk about desire, when you talk about commitment, you have to talk about Helen Faranda from Troy Hills, Michigan. She's been training 8 hours a day, focusing on her Muladhara Chakra. She's a Mountain alignment specialist, and her move from that into Caterpillar is nothing short of awe inspiring. But she'll be given a run for her money by Milton Kevlar of Pascagoula, Tennessee. Kevlar's Balancing Bear was a sensation at the regionals in Atlanta, and his Plank sets the standard. Al?"

"Thanks John. Let me turn to the Maharashi. Papadum, what should we be watching for?"

"Al, I think we're going to see a battle tonight between the two main Yoga paths for achieving enlightenment. Will the classical path triumph, as the posers still the fluctuations of mind and prana through inner focus, concentration and meditation? Or will the tantric path shine, as the competitors uncoil the serpent releasing kundalni to rise up the susumna channel through all seven chakras to unite Shakti with Shiva? It should be exciting, indeed!"

"Uh... sure... whatever. The ashram will be rockin' tonight, no doubt about it. Thanks, Pops. We'll be back for the first salutation, right after this word from one of our sponsors, Ben Gay."

You might wonder which part sounds far fetched. Well, we've already determined that there is a competition in yoga poses. So expanding the audience is just the next logical step. After that, it'll become just another big time sporting event, complete with agents, music videos and the inevitable doping and cheating scandals. And perhaps we'll hear excuses such as that immortal line from Woody Allen, "I cheated on my metaphysics exam. I looked within the soul of the boy sitting next to me."


Marc Wollin of Bedford flexes his instep before getting out of bed, hoping to achieve inner peace. His column appears regularly in The Record Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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