THE competitors stood nervously on stage, awaiting the judges' decisions. As each name was called the crowd cheered, and the winner stepped forward to claim a prize, bowing his or her head to accept a medal.
"Wow, that was a miracle," said Kyoko Katsura, the winner in the women's division of the New York Regional Yoga Championship.
Yoga enthusiasts like to talk about the many benefits of their practice -- good health, inner peace, killer abs -- but seldom do they brag about the thrill of victory. Yoga as a competitive sport has been almost unknown in this country, largely because the practice is seen as a spiritual quest rather than an exclusively physical exercise like gymnastics.
But now Rajashree Choudhury and her husband, Bikram Choudhury, who created the style of yoga known as Bikram, are trying to build momentum for competitive yoga in the United States. Mrs. Choudhury has set up two nonprofit organizations, the United States Yoga Federation and the World Yoga Foundation, and she has been staging competitions for the last seven years. This fall and winter, regional championships are being held in several states, and the winners will advance to a national championship in Los Angeles in February.
The ultimate goal of the Choudhurys, who emigrated from India to Los Angeles, is to have yoga qualify as an Olympic sport. "It's far away," Mrs. Choudhury said in an interview. "A lot of work needs to be done before we really get into it, but this is our dream."
One big obstacle may be the yoga community itself. To many people, the idea of competition goes against the philosophy of yoga, which emphasizes self-acceptance and inner growth. Although yoga does tend to attract people who are limber, the physical poses, or asanas, are only one aspect of the practice; others include chanting, meditation and reading Sanskrit.
"The initial reaction from most people is always the same thing: competition yoga? Those things don't belong in the same sentence," said John Philp, a filmmaker in New York who directed a documentary film, "Yoga, Inc.," about the commercialization of Western yoga, and wrote a book with the same title.