BECOMING WORLD YOGA CHAMPION
The Day of the World Yoga Championships
Here it is Sunday morning and we are up and out to take class and get ready for the big day. Both BYSJ teacher, Lee Dickensen, and Bay Area teacher, Gina Middleton, are in the top 10 of their division from yesterday’s successful competition (men and women ages 18-49). Today, my division (women ages 50+) and youth (men and women ages 11-17) are set to go first. Getting ready in our hotel room, Gina was face-timing two of my favorite people: Aiko and Troy, owners of Bikram Yoga Pleasanton, coaches to Gina, and classmates of mine from Teacher Training Fall 2001. Poignantly, Troy shares with me that today– December 2nd– is also my 17 year anniversary of teaching since we graduated from Bikram’s Teacher Training December 2nd, 2001! How cool is that?!
That morning, Ulises Calatayud from Mexico taught class at the Chinese Yoga Academy and it couldn’t have been more perfect as his tone was strict yet warm, and full of insights. How the breath helps us flow with our routines. How non- attachment to outcome is the real way to perform and live. I felt myself living in that stream of thought all day, as if I had received a massage for the mind. Thanks Ulises!
I was set to go on stage around noon, but the pre-opening ceremony ran longer than expected, with some unplanned speeches, including one from Rajashree. So we were quite behind in schedule- even the youth division had not gone yet!
So the day became a long one of waiting, which, in all honesty, can be the hardest part, and really a part of what makes a champion. Waiting forces you to accept that “it is what it is” and to use your yogi powers to navigate through it.
While waiting, the presentations–with special attention to Rajashree–were great. She was so elegant, yet on fire with her heart bursting at what Championships has become: 35 countries now active in the IYSF (International Yoga Sports Federation). Relative to all the other competitions, this year’s Championship was a giant leap ahead, leading us to higher levels. What a great feeling! (Please go to michelevennard.com and watch my interview with Rajashree. It’s so endearing to hear her giggle with childlike joy, and to hear how proud she is that a seed inside her has crystallized!).
By 2 pm, I’m in the warm up room going through my routine once or twice but mostly resting, listening to my music, and going over steps in my head. I, along with others before and after me, are clearly ready. It is at these times that we, competitors become friends. You can feel camaraderie as we realize that we’re all in this together. I had already done what I like to do and that’s pray. I also decided to dedicate my performance to all those that have influenced me, especially including BYSJ and our entire community over the last 16 years. I was super emotional on the days leading up to this day. My feelings couldn’t fathom the immense blessings bestowed in my life. I am so grateful BYSJ for your breath and life IN me!
Suddenly, Masha runs in to say, “They’re waiting for you!” No one had come in the holding area to get me per usual. It was all good though, I’m ready. Being on stage feels electric. They announce, “Michele Vennard from USA” and with lots of clapping, I find my “x” on the stage floor. I bow and then I’m asked to “Start, please.” My first pose is Standing Head to Knee pose- just like in class. I love this posture, and the moment that I pick up my foot, I feel at home.
In the past at competitions, my scores have reflected deductions for not holding the pose long enough. (To understand the full important of timing, check out this video on the role of the Time Judge.) Specifically, once an athlete is in the full expression of the posture, they must hold the pose for a minimum of three seconds and up to five for no deductions. So, three seconds is a one-point deduction, four seconds is a half-point, and anything less than three merits ZERO points. Yep – in other words, all that work you put in to do the pose means nothing if you don’t hold the pose at least three seconds!
This time, this year, I deliberately counted slower. As a result, Standing Head to Knee was a full five seconds or more of complete stillness. Then up and out I went. It felt good!
Next. Bow Pose fulfills the Back-bending requirement. I’ll be honest- I consistently push this pose to a pretty high level given my shoulder flexibility. In the moment, I recall seeing my feet, freezing, and counting to five in those seconds of stillness. Then I moved on.
There is joy in all of this. The mind ensures your toes are pointed, your eyes look up, your hands are in the right place, etc. Adrenaline can knock out your consciousness overriding what you are telling your mind and body to do, so you need to lock in to being present, otherwise the adrenaline will get the best of you….more on that below!My next pose was Upward Stretching, taken from Bishnu Ghosh’s Advanced 84 Posture Series. This pose allowed me to look up and enjoy a heartfelt moment as I held still for 1…2…3…4… and 5. Done.
Next was Full Spine Twist (also taken from the Advanced Series). It is always a challenge posture, but on this day it felt like the best that I have ever done in my life. I spiraled my head around and counted slow with delight in my being and then up and out to my chosen ‘optional’ postures: Crane and Dancer’s.
Crane is a dramatic pose. When performed correctly, using your arms as a shelf, you direct your body in an exact horizontal position about eight inches from the floor. Then, with strength, balance and TOTAL focus (no thinking), you push straight up–like a Crane would when coming up from below the water. The last step is to pick your head up and look forward and FREEZE. I recall holding but knowing my legs were swaying without my say-so. I thought, “Why are they doing that?” Answer: adrenaline!
So here we are in the last pose- Dancer’s Pose. I have been working on this pose in various ways, and especially in the last two weeks. I was so excited to show everyone– including myself. I recall holding up my left arm and picking up my right foot and seeing the wall ahead. I thought, “I’m so happy and excited to do this.” In that same moment, my right foot moved out of my hand and back down to the floor.
I “woke up” when I heard the audience gasp. I thought, “Oh no, where was I?” And realized that my mind was metaphorically off on Pluto so my nervous system checked out and said, “Okay, if we are no longer going in the direction of doing the pose, I can put my foot down.”
It was hilarious and terrifying. I just jumped out of the moment and now had to pay for it. In scoring, putting my foot downs counts as a second chance–which limits my top score to five (from ten) points.
To add to the pressure, you only get a total of three minutes for your entire routine. If you are not in the last pose and they call time, that posture is worth zero – no points! Now, all that time I spent ensuring the last five poses were long enough meant that I had no wiggle room in this last pose. I needed to hustle!
Up until this point, my adrenaline had been manageable. But now it’s in my throat and I’m shaking! What a mess! My bulldog determination and unwavering faith kicked in- I said, “You’ve got this”, and I did. I managed to get in and hold: 1…2…3 and then they called “Time!” I got the minimum hold, which means I could get the points.
I recall coming out, bowing, and then blowing a kiss to all as I knew they were hoping for me to get it right! Thankfully, it worked. Those minutes were a magical lesson is in the power of the present moment. More so, they were lesson to not give up. Nothing was over and there was no need to throw in the towel once my foot hit the floor. I had another chance, and that chance was enough to win! For me, it was God pointing out that I shouldn’t deny any options in front of me. Exhaust them all, do what’s being asked right then, and then– once truly done–let go and let a miracle happen. It did – we counted to three and the rest is history!Want to see it for yourself? You can watch my full routine here:
Waiting for Opportunity
This powerful story is one of many that we experienced in Beijing. BYSJ teacher Lee, came in 13th at Nationals! While only the top 3 were invited to Internationals, Lee never gave up hope. Since Nationals in June, he continued to practice, at times doing doubles when his tight work schedule allowed. He always did his “homework”–extra stretches and poses after class. Lee’s purpose in coming to Beijing was to help me, but in the 11th hour he discovered that several registered competitors had not shown up. .
Lee jumped at the opportunity to compete by heading over to the host studio. He pled his case that he should be next in line to perform if the others weren’t here to honor their responsibility. Lee’s boldness won!We were up and out the next morning, taking class and brushing up postures for his routine. There were several ways he could have gone, but in the end, we were all convinced that he should take any and all risks. It was, after all, for great practice–he was never supposed to be on stage in the first place, so he had absolutely nothing to lose!
He was the second to last of 40 men to perform and he nailed it! Lee has amazing presence on stage. In the past, I’ve seen nerves get the best of him, but on this day, he mastered his nerves and did some challenging postures flawlessly! His routine earned him a place final top 10, which gave him yet another chance to perform in the finals. This, too, is another great example that never giving up, staying the course you set, really going to the extent that you can, and exhausting all your options leads to more chances and sometimes even miracles!
Faith in Miracles- My Lost Purse
Speaking of miracles, on Friday we were heading to the China Yoga Academy to take class from Rajashree. On the way, we stopped at the supermarket just below the studio to get some fruit and water. It was then that I noticed my passport was missing! Not only my passport, I was missing my whole purse! My passport, my credit cards, my driver’s license, everything.
I felt crushed. I knew if my purse was truly gone, I was in for some daunting struggles. In retracing our steps, we luckily found our taxi receipt. The owners of the yoga studio contacted the police to help track down the cab. In the meantime, Masha and I headed to the US Embassy– I now needed to get a temporary passport and visa as technically I was not supposed to be in the country without a visa. Another mess!
But like the other adventures on this trip. I moved one step at a time, never giving up hope, and exhausting all options. After a few hours of calls, research, and advice, I got a text from the owner of the yoga studio that the taxi was coming back with my purse! In a few short hours, my purse was back in my possession. Everyone was incredibly sympathetic and helpful. It felt as if the entire team of competition participants were praying for the return of my purse and passport! I’m incredibly grateful, and felt the power of people pulling together to make something happen: such is the power of belief.
The dance of knowing when to push and when to let go is a constant in our lives, but it only works in our favor with another force in place: genuine belief. Yoga teaches you to know your body and to know your mind. Those two may be battling or in harmony. Either way, the strength of your belief is the biggest factor in your outcome.
Situations that are far outside our comfort level– like yoga competition– really test the amount of knowingness you hold. It’s easy to believe when things are going smoothly, or when the risk or value of what you’re doing is minimal. But when you’re vulnerable and totally invested and watch “knowingness” be the only thing that matters! It’s really an assertive act of faith, this knowing that you’ll finish Dancer’s pose on time, that your passport will return to you, that your presentation will succeed, that you will conceive a child, that you will heal from this illness, that your child will persevere even with his special needs, and more. Without belief, your power and the power of the universe stays dormant, and life can become hard and overwhelming. With it, life is full of adventure and you’re at ease in it because you trust a knowing that All is Well despite the right and left turns you will take! Just believe!
This is a perfect message as we enter the holidays. This is the season of believing! Believing in the goodness within all of us, and what that spirit in you can do individually and collectively: make dreams come true and bring countries together.
Coming Together in Beijing
Beijing, thank you for all the hardships– our struggles to get to places, how to order, what to eat, weathering the cold and the pollution. It was in those moments that our vulnerability was in your hands and you showed us the way. And in so doing, we shared smiles, giggles, and an insight to the Beijing way of life.
28 countries, represented by over 100 human beings from around the globe, all united by yoga. In taking class, this common thread was visible–all of us kicking out in Standing Head to Knee, holding in Standing Bow. This group, regardless of language, color, religion, size, or height, valued the same essentials: integrity, acceptance, joy, and the pursuit to be our best as human beings. Yoga has no boundary, prejudice, or exclusivity. It embodies the highest belief that you are born of a power that, when harnessed, make your life the fullest expression of your uniqueness.
For me, I’ll use my victory as a platform to share how yoga transforms, because it knows who you are. Bikram Yoga has shown me me. It can show you you. It KNOWS. Believe.
I invite you: Come celebrate my success– our success–at BYSJ’s 16 year anniversary on Saturday, January 19th. I can’t wait to proudly demonstrate my routine at our evening party. Save the date!