Andrea Nikki Ortiz: [laughs] It’s true. I danced growing up. And I did competitive rhythmic gymnastics when I was in junior high. Comparatively, I thought yoga would be so boring, this passive thing where you stretch a little bit. But then at a friend’s recommendation, I tried one class and it was much more challenging than I expected. There is this misconception of yoga that it has to be this gentle, take-it-easy practice. But the old masters in India, they are crazy strict. Students have to work until they get a pose. Keep trying over and over. There is this whole mental toughness side of it.
AG: You became a devotee very quickly. You’ve been practicing now for almost four years.
ANO: After that first class, I kept coming back every day. I couldn’t explain why at first. It was just such a different feeling than other workouts. After yoga class, everything is unstuck. Because I’m so flexible some postures came easy, but others did not because I lacked stability. A push-up was impossible for me in the beginning. I was bendable, but weak. My intention was never, I’m going to compete. But my teacher suggested it. He said it would be good for me.
AG: It seems yoga is primarily viewed as a spiritual pursuit. Isn’t competition antithetical to the philosophy of yoga?
ANO: I do hear that a lot. Many people are like, “Wow, a yoga competition is so wrong.” And ask, “Why are you showing off onstage?” Or they joke, “What do you do? Go out there and meditate?” It’s a controversial topic. Mostly because people expect that it’s a bunch of us displaying how good we are, or trying to prove we’re better than the rest, which isn’t true. No one is trying to show off. We’re just aiming to choreograph something like art, and hoping not to fall out of poses we do every single day.
AG: How do you respond to the criticism?
ANO: Every form of movement has competitions, like dance teams, for example. Why not yoga? I think competition is inspiring. When I did rhythmic gymnastics, I liked working toward an event, a deadline, because you push yourself much harder. You only have so much time to get it done. It’s amazing to me the progress you can make when you push yourself to compete. You can really see what’s possible. And the people you meet at yoga events are very special.
AG: In what way?
ANO: Unlike other competitions I’ve been in, with yoga everybody is trying to help each other succeed. Last year at an event in Texas, the night before the finals, all of us were in the same hotel room giving each other advice and encouragement. We genuinely tried to lift each other up to be the best we can. No one in a yoga competition ever wishes someone else will lose.
AG: For those of us unfamiliar with competitive yoga, what are some of the specifics of competition?
ANO: You do seven poses in three minutes. Five are required: split, forward bend, backbend, inversion, arm-balancing pose. And then you have two optional. You have to hold each for three seconds. Every pose has a range of points, the maximum score being 10. Very few people can do any of those. The judges look for stillness, how you come in and out of the pose. They check for clean exits and entrances, no shaking, and that you are done on time. You have to go at the right pace. If you fall out of a pose you lose half the points automatically.
AG: In 2014, you fell during your routine.
ANO: I was extremely nervous. It had been a really long day. I flew in two hours before competing, and I remember there was one pose — standing bow — I was worried about. And I fell on that one. Halfway through I could tell it was going to happen. I just kept thinking, I can’t believe I’m falling, I can’t believe I’m falling. After my routine, I went backstage and cried. I hadn’t realized how much I cared about doing well. It was like wow, this matters to me. I felt like I had disappointed my teachers, which of course wasn’t true. I called my mom and she gave me the best advice ever. She told me she’d rather hear me cry and get upset and keep going. “Never do anything you don’t care about,” she said. Continue reading >>