Hot and humid: Introducing Bikram yoga

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It's not supposed to be competitive, but fans hope for Olympic glory. Matthew Bell reports from the national championships

Flamingos may find it relaxing, but for most of us, standing on one leg isn't much of a tonic. Unless, that is, you're a follower of Bikram yoga, in which case it's the first step to fitness, flexibility and finding inner peace.

That was the message at yesterday's National Yoga Asana Championships, held in the carpeted fug of a central London hotel. Now in its 10th year, the annual competition drew 26 female and nine male entrants, and, for the first time, a youth division, all battling it out to be crowned Britain's bendiest yoga bunny.

Normally considered a form of relaxation, yoga as competition may seem like a contradiction in terms. But as with diving or gymnastics, there's more than one way to flail a limb. In Bikram yoga, named after its creator, Bikram Choudhury, the temperature is cranked up to 30C, the idea being that a hot and humid environment improves joint relaxation. For the competition, each entrant is allowed three minutes in which to strike seven postures, of which five are mandatory, and two are chosen by the individual.

Obviously, the first requirement is to be able to contort yourself into position. So, how hard is it? Just before she goes on stage, Bridgett Ann Goddard takes me through a few moves. "Legs apart, arms out, lean, and head up!" There's a lot to take in, but suddenly we're doing "the triangle". "And, touch your toes!" It's tempting to topple over, except that dozens of Lycra-clad men and women are cheering me on. "Whoop! Way to go!" I hear through an armpit. It may be competitive, but this is a very friendly sport.

Once you've mastered the triangle – what then? "Judges award points for grace, style, accuracy, precision, strength – there's a whole rubric they're following," explains Lorraine Bell, one of the organisers. The competition takes place in front of an X Factor-style panel of judges and an audience of 400 guests, each paying £15.

Competitive yoga is growing in popularity, and Ms Bell hopes it could one day become an Olympic sport. Why? "Yoga is very popular," she says. "More so than curling. Why is curling an Olympic sport? There are more people who have a knowledge and understanding of yoga, who make it part of their lives, every week, every day. I think it would be nice for them to see another place for it to go. Not everyone is competitive and certainly lots of types of yoga are not, but there will be some people who will want to compete. This is just another avenue."

An astonishing number of competitors discovered yoga because of health problems. Ky Ha, 32, is one. A former yoga world champion, he took up yoga 10 years ago, after suffering knee pain. "I was doing a lot of running, and I'd been in a lot of car accidents," he says. "The running was really hard on my joints. A friend said practising yoga would really help me out, and it did."

Most moving is the story of Ayesha Nauth, 37, who suffers from chronic rheumatoid arthritis. Last year, she came third. "From the age of 22, I was quite debilitated," she says. "I was at home being looked after by my mum because I couldn't do anything at all. I got a bit better through taking medication, and started working in the City, but it was really stressful, and the stress was inflaming it even more. A friend of mine recommended Bikram because the heat and the humidity would help my joints. After a few sessions, I noticed a big difference. Now, when I stop practising my joints really seize up. I can't even turn the handle of a door."

But why do it competitively? "My doctor told me I would be in a wheelchair by the end of my twenties. Since doing Bikram, I don't even use a walking stick any more. So my teacher said I should do it to inspire others, and to show you don't have to go into hospital all the time. It has completely changed my life."

It's certainly not for everyone, and the chances of it becoming an Olympic sport are, everyone admits, pretty slight. But maybe the flamingos are on to something.

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