This is the last championship follow-up post, and then I'm moving on to other things!
A few people have been asking about how someone becomes a yoga champion. How much of that skill comes from hard work vs. natural ability? How do people chose their "optional" postures? How do they train?
I can answer all of the above with two words: "It depends."
The choice of optional postures really depends on the competitor's experience level. If you're a student who is new to competition, you can pretty much depend on your teachers to suggest a few optional postures for you. They know your practice, they know your strengths, and they know which postures will show you off the best! If you're more experienced - you've done the advanced series for a while, you've been around the block a couple times - then you'll already have an idea of which postures work well on your body (though you can always ask a coach for advice).
It's good practice to work on more than 2 optional postures - maybe 4 or 5 of them. You can choose 2 postures that you're already good at, along with 2 other postures that are challenging but possibly achievable. When the competition comes closer, you make your final decision. This year, people could (and did) change their optionals at the last minute. Word from the judge's clinic (thanks Libby!!) says that in the future, competitors will be required to commit to 2 optional postures before they go on stage.
The training for competition can be as simple as going to a couple advanced classes for coaching and spending an extra 10 minutes after class to run through the routine... or it can be as extensive as going to a 2-week long championship training retreat and spending hours a day on extra practice. It really depends on the individual - their level, their goals, their time commitment, etc. There are some teachers - Mary Jarvis, Esak Garcia - who really specialize in preparing yogis for competition and who teach lots of extra exercises, such as backbends down the wall and other "homework." I don't know too much about it, having never participated in one of these workshops (yet!), but a lot of medalists have been involved in these trainings and these techniques clearly produce results! On the other hand, many competitors do very well by sticking to their basic 26 and 2 plus advanced classes and feedback.
What about "hard work" vs "natural ability"? I'll tell you one thing right now: NO ONE is winning championships based on "natural ability" alone. It's true that there are some people who are naturally very flexible or very strong, but the championship judges are specifically looking for a balance of strength and flexibility that can only be achieved through really hard work. I've seen some champions who had incredible natural range of motion, but those people worked for years and years to gain the elements of strength, technique, and control that are necessary to harness that flexibility and produce a truly excellent yoga demonstration.
I also want to mention Joseph Encinia (hi Joseph!), who has been the U.S. gold medalist and international silver medalist for the last two years. Besides being an all-around sweet guy, Joseph is a true Bikram yoga success story. He was very unhealthy as a child - he was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and had a heart attack at age 13 - and came to Bikram yoga totally out of shape and overweight. And then he just practiced. Class after class after class. Now his postures are some of the best in the world and he's in great health. It can be done!! Practice, and all is coming.
You can watch his routine, along with all the other top routines, at the Yoga Cup website. I'm so glad that they've updated the page with all these great videos! I could watch them over and over...
After all this inspiring competition talk, I need to mention one thing. Competition training is great and amazing, but it is not the most important part of our yoga. The most important thing is health. Always. I talked to a friend over the weekend who owns one of the newer Massachusetts studios. Her studio has been open for a couple years and has not produced any yoga champions yet. Maybe it never will. But my friend doesn't really care. That's because her students are all getting healthier, sometimes to a miraculous extent. She has a 73 year old student who "couldn't kneel on her own knees" when she started coming to the studio. Now this lady comes to class every day, has no problem kneeling on her knees (or doing the rest of the postures), and is recruiting all her friends. It's hard to imagine a greater reward than that!