Pittsburgh Yoga Expo attracts newbies and faithful

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Neon leggings and Lycra appear to be the previously agreed-upon uniform of the 75 or so yogis in the day's session, most of them women in their 20s and 30s. Dizzying variations of floral, striped and tribal patterns mix as arms, legs and torsos contort to match the poses of the teacher.

It's Sunday, Feb. 9, and more than 300 people have come through the doors at the Pittsburgh Opera Building for the Pittsburgh Yoga Expo.

Across the room, checking in on vendors selling organic beet juice, protein bars and more neon leggings, is Rebecca Rankin, owner of Bikram Yoga Squirrel Hill and the expo's organizer.

Ms. Rankin said the event draws "lots of newbies" in addition to Pittsburgh's yoga faithful.

"The goal is to create a less intimidating environment," she said. "There is so much yoga out there. This is a sampling platter."

Yoga teachers from studios around Pittsburgh led nine workshops on various yoga traditions.

"It's nice to experience different styles because I haven't been to a lot of these studios," said Jill Yeomans, 30, of Troy Hill, who said she has been practicing yoga for 10 years. "It's more motivating to do yoga together. When I'm home, I'm more likely to cheat at the postures."

Ms. Rankin held the first expo three years ago after she was approached by the USA Yoga Federation to host the Pennsylvania Regional Asana Championships. She has practiced competitive yoga since 2006, competed nationally and internationally, and been ranked in the top 10 in the world.

The following year, with no competition to host, she continued the yoga expo to create a space where practitioners could learn from each other and expose beginners to a new activity.

She discovered yoga while working in a high-stress career as an architect. A lifelong runner and cyclist, she tried yoga and fell in love. She said she didn't initially consider becoming a teacher, but later quit her job and began teaching. She opened the studio in Squirrel Hill to bring the benefits of yoga to the people of Pittsburgh. Another way to do so was the expo.

Last year about 200 people attended the daylong event. This year, Ms. Rankin estimates the number was closer to 300.

Ms. Rankin's studio, which she has owned with business partner Lisa Lau for three years, teaches Bikram Yoga, pioneered by Bikram Choudhury. It features 26 poses and two breathing exercises conducted in a 105-degree room. The temperature is said to mimic Mr. Choudhury's native Calcutta, India, and flushes toxins while loosening muscles.

USA Yoga Federation, an organization dedicated to raising the profile of Yoga Asana, or yoga as a sport, hosts regional and national competitions, as well as international competitions through the International Yoga Sports Federation. USA Yoga and IYSF were founded by Mr. Choudhury's wife, Rajashree.

While competing for inner calm might seem counter-intuitive, officials from the United States Yoga Federation say yoga competitions in India date back hundreds of years, long before the practice reached the West.

Next month, Ms. Rankin will travel to San Antonio to compete in the USA Yoga Federation national championships. She placed first in the Pennsylvania women's division and will join fellow Pittsburgher Zeb Homison, who placed first in the Pennsylvania men's division. Mr. Homison is also an accomplished yoga competitor and placed third at the 2013 IYSF International Championships.

Ms. Rankin likens judging yoga to judging gymnastics. Competitors must perform seven poses in three minutes. Five are required poses and competitors choose two that show off their skill and personality as a yogi. Judges consider overall form, stillness during the pose and transitions between poses.

Although it's not quite to the famed figure-skating level of rivalries, Ms. Rankin said the competition is daunting at times.

"It can be nerve-racking, going on stage and showing such an intimate and personal practice," she said. Mostly, she said it is inspiring to watch other competitors showcase their craft.

If she places high enough, she will travel to the international competition in Los Angeles this summer.

Back in Pittsburgh, Ms. Rankin said she hopes events like the expo and competitions result in more people discovering yoga.

On the topic of yoga in the Olympics, she's not firmly in either camp. But, she said, if done without losing the integrity of the practice, she'd support it.

"If it meant more people would go out and try it, sure," she said. "If it means more people are taking care of themselves and are more self-aware, that's great."

Lauren Lindstrom: llindstrom@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1964.

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