Yoga buffs show off form during regional contest at Point State Park


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For her final competitive yoga pose, Lori Battist performed "goodbye," where she stood up slowly with her foot behind her neck in front of a panel of judges and spectators. When she finished, her husband surprised her with flowers.

"He wouldn't miss it for the world," she said. "He knows how hard I train."

Just one month ago, her husband was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. When he was recently in the hospital for surgery, she kept him company, even though he would urge her to go "train for a couple hours and come back."

Yogis compete at Point State Park

Almost 30 participants gathered to compete at USA Yoga's Pennsylvania/New Jersey Regional Yoga Asana Championship held during the One Whirl Yoga Fest and Healthy Lifestyle Expo Saturday. The winners will advance to the national competition.

Although only a first-time competitor, she placed third in the Pennsylvania women's category Saturday at the USA Yoga's Pennsylvania/New Jersey Regional Asana Championship at Point State Park.

"I'm astonished," the 36-year-old from Mt. Lebanon said. "It's proof that hard work pays off."

Mrs. Battist was one of 27 competitors performing daring poses in front of three judges.

Although it was the second time Pittsburgh hosted the championship -- one of 18 regional competitions in the nation -- it was the first time it coincided with the annual One Whirl Yoga Fest and Healthy Lifestyle Expo. Three competitors came from New Jersey, three from Philadelphia and the rest came from Western Pennsylvania.

The four competitors who won in the men's and women's categories for both states will advance to the annual USA Yoga national competition. USA Yoga, a nonprofit formed to promote yoga as an Olympic sport, held its 10th national competition in March.

Although relatively new in the United States, yoga competitions have been held for centuries in India.

"The concept is you must practice every posture like you are giving a demonstration," said Mary Jarvis, USA Yoga head coach and competition judge. "That's what we should see -- somebody is standing on stage and isn't afraid that they are going to fall out or worried about what people think of them."

Each competitor, she said, must be in "the present moment" when he or she is not afraid, sad or in pain. "That's the goal of any kind of yoga practice."

First, each participant had to complete five mandatory postures: standing head to knee, standing bow, floor bow, stretching and rabbit (a kneeling position where the head is tucked to the knees and hands hold the feet).

Participants then performed two advanced postures of their choice. The goal of the competition was to complete all of them while keeping still and transitioning smoothly within three minutes.

The three judges, yoga experts from across the country, looked for a mix of good balance, strength and flexibility.

"You can see a certain geometric shape that the body should be in and depending on where that person is in their practice and in their growth they will be deeper or less deep in a particular posture," said Jessica Rask, a judge and competitor coach who owns studios in Chicago and St. Louis. "You also look at their presence. Nerves come through very easily so it's what is their state of mind while they are performing."

Like Mrs. Battist, almost half of the competitors were first-timers. Dan Antonielle, 28, of Lawrenceville had been practicing a little more than a month for the competition.

"I think it's pretty nerve-racking to be doing this in front of people you don't know in your underwear," he said.

His personal goal was to have a "solid routine with no major mishaps."

"Everyone is there more so just to learn from each other as more of like an inspirational thing," he said. "I think [the competition] brings exposure to yoga as like something that people can embrace on a more mainstream level."

For competitor Danielle Hoffman, who placed fourth in Pennsylvania last year, competitive yoga is just like marathon running.

"You don't usually enter to win it, you enter it to set a really crazy personal goal," said Ms. Hoffman, 32, of Bloomfield. "For me it's like I'm going to balance on my arm with my feet on my head. And that's crazy, but I'm going to do it."

Zeb Homison, international yoga champion and owner of Bikram Yoga Pittsburgh, negotiated with USA Yoga to bring the competition to Pittsburgh. After teaching a back-bending workshop, he participated in the competition and placed first in the men's category, wowing the crowd with his flawless "crane" by balancing his upright body on his fingers with his legs bent and wrapped around his arms.

Despite rain and the occasional thunder, people spilled out of tents for some popular yoga sessions during the day, some with around 80 participants. People of all levels of ability participated in sessions that included power yoga, zumba, children's yoga and yoga with a kick.

Pre-registration was three times more than last year's 1,200, which was no surprise to Whirl Magazine editor Christine Tumpson, who credits the success to the growing number of yoga studios in Pittsburgh.

Ever since she got into yoga about two years ago, she noticed the number of participants and new studios growing in the greater Pittsburgh area. Just last year, she counted 100 studios, and now this year the number is just shy of 150.

Studios South Hills Power Yoga, Schoolhouse Yoga, South Hill Hot Yoga and Yoga Flow have all opened branches in multiple locations around Pittsburgh. "It feels to us that Pittsburgh is really thriving on a growing business sector based on healthy lifestyles," Ms. Tumpson said.

A list of winners of the USA Yoga's Pennsylvania/New Jersey Regional Asana Championship are available at www.usayoga.org.

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Marina Weis: 412-263-1889 or mweis@post-gazette.com. First Published July 28, 2013 4:00 AM


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