Alexandra Sturges slides into a split and stretches her taut, tattooed arms overhead. Muscles ripple on her upper back. Her coach, Marla Ceppetelli, nods in approval as Sturges leans forward over her front leg and rests there comfortably, as graceful and flexible as an elite gymnast.
But she isn't one. The 26-year-old Burlington woman is training for a national competition in a pastime that most people don't consider a sport at all: yoga. She'll represent Vermont in May at the 2016 USA Yoga Federation National Championship in Jackson Hole, Wyo.
To prepare, the part-time bartender and recent Champlain College graduate practices yoga at least eight times a week, usually in 90-minute sessions in the classic Bikram series, held in a 105-degree studio. Sturges has sworn off alcohol (not a big deal, she says) and sugar (a bigger deal). She's built plenty of sleep and healthy meals — lots of avocados, salmon and veggie juice — into her schedule.
Sturges grew up in South Hero and attended Essex High School, where she did team sports and later turned to long-distance running. After a bout with pneumonia in 2010, she wanted to rebuild her stamina; her doctor suggested Bikram yoga. The sweaty, regimented series of 26 postures was made famous by Los Angeles-based Bikram Choudhury, a former yoga champion in India.
Sturges was hooked. Within a few years, she was practicing almost daily at the Tapna Yoga studio on Pine Street in Burlington (formerly called Bikram Yoga Burlington). There, Sturges met Ceppetelli and began babysitting the yoga teacher's daughter and getting to know the woman who would become her coach.
Ceppetelli has trained numerous yoga students, competed herself and helped her sister organize competitions at the latter's Bikram yoga studio in New Hampshire. In March, she'll open her own studio, Queen City Bikram Yoga, on San Remo Drive in South Burlington.
Sturges was thinking of volunteering at the USA Yoga regionals in Portsmouth, N.H., when Ceppetelli suggested something else: Why not compete? So Sturges began training last August. Putting the words "yoga" and "competition" together initially flummoxed her friends and family.
"Most people I talk to haven't heard of it," Sturges says. "Even my mom and dad didn't really know what to think when I first talked to them about it."
The competitive yoga circuit is big in states such as New York and California, but Vermont has few competitors and no major competitions. Sturges only had to beat one local contestant in her division at regionals to qualify for Jackson Hole.
Still, she says, it was an enormous challenge to stand onstage in New Hampshire and work through her three-minute routine, striving for perfection, before a panel of judges and an audience full of strangers.
"If your focus falters, so will you," Sturges explains. "And so, more than anything, I was proud that I was able to stay focused and stay in each posture. And I managed to smile."
For her, competing is partly about spreading the power of yoga. But doesn't competition contradict yoga's mellow, meditative aspects?
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Alexandra Sturges and coach Marla Ceppetelli
Ceppetelli, who is familiar with that question, emphasizes that the contest is an asana (posture) competition and not a "'Who's the higher self?' competition." The comps are about pushing the body to new places, overcoming the fear of being vulnerable onstage, making friends and inspiring others, Ceppetelli says, noting that such events have taken place in India for hundreds of years. "Being competitive is a natural human quality," she adds. "It's part of who we are."
It's true that by focusing on asanas, the contests leave out the more contemplative lessons of yoga. But those aren't suited to competition, Ceppetelli suggests. "Do you want to watch a meditation competition? I don't."
Sturges trains with Ceppetelli at Bikram Yoga Stowe and practices mainly at Tapna or in her Burlington apartment. She sits in lotus position while watching TV, and she compares poses with other students and coaches using the cellphone app Hudl.
At nationals, each contestant will have three minutes to perform six poses — two optional and four compulsory. The poses demonstrate balance, flexibility and strength and include forward compressions, backward bends and spine twists.
At her recent practice session with Ceppetelli, Sturges works on the standing head-to-knee pose, demonstrating her natural strength — she jokes that she was built in a steel factory — and the flexibility that has been harder to achieve. She's somewhat shocked to find herself doing a split, but after practicing every day for three months, Sturges says, she's expanded her sense of what is possible.
Ceppetelli is impressed with her student's progress. "She decided to do it, and she did it whole hog," she says of Sturges. "She has not wavered."
The Trouble With Bikram
After 13 years in business, the first Bikram yoga studio in Vermont quietly rechristened itself Tapna Yoga in spring 2014, excising the name of the Speedo-wearing, Rolls-Royce-driving yoga guru. Why? Scandalous sexual assault and harassment allegations against Bikram Choudhury were too disturbing to ignore, says Tapna owner Kelley Lyons. "I really love the method, but I felt uncomfortable with his name on the door."
The studio on Pine Street in Burlington has sent some 60 Vermonters to Bikram's intensive nine-week teacher-training courses over the years. It continues to offer the classic 26-posture series popularized by Choudhury, along with variations, in a studio heated to 105 degrees.
Some other Bikram studios around the country had shed the yogi's name, and Lyons says she was advised to do the same. "I got a lot of emails from students who were like, 'I will no longer come to your studio because of this,'" she recalls.
Lyons still requires her teachers to be trained, but not exclusively at a Bikram course. "I was just really worried about encouraging people to go to his training," she says, noting that some of the allegations against Choudhury have come from his own students. He has denied all charges and hired attorneys to defend him in lawsuits that are now wending through the courts.
While some graduates view Choudhury's trainings as epic and memorable experiences, controversy around the sessions continues. Last fall, Choudhury abruptly changed the location of his autumn training session from Atlantic City, N.J., to Thailand, and delayed the start date from September 14 to October 3. Notification of the changes went out two weeks before the session was originally scheduled to start — way too late for Amy Newhouse, who had scraped together the $12,500 course fee and carefully arranged her schedule to do the training. The Stowe mother could not add the expense of a plane ticket to Thailand and didn't want to be that far from her family. "I have two young children," she says, "and for me to even leave for nine weeks is insane."
Newhouse immediately called Bikram headquarters in Los Angeles to ask for a refund and got a return call from Choudhury himself, who promised to put the refund through. He never did. Five months later, after countless calls and emails, Newhouse still has not seen her $12,500. "It's disgusting, and it's sad," she says. Especially because, like so many Bikram practitioners, Newhouse loves this approach to yoga and practices at Bikram Yoga Stowe six or seven times a week. "It puts a smile on my face every single day," she says. "It's what I love."
Newhouse says Choudhury owes other yogis around the country refunds from the fall class, too, and she's contacted a lawyer to look at options for recovering the money. These days, she says, she can't even stand to look at his website.
Meanwhile, Ceppetelli will use the yogi's name when she opens Queen City Bikram Yoga in March. The studio is not a franchise, and she has no business agreement with Choudhury. She also finds the allegations against him disturbing. "My goal is to use this method that works to help people," Ceppetelli says. "People at my studio will be safe and well taken care of."
She adds: "I am teaching the yoga, not the person. I think they are two separate things."
So far, her plans for the new studio have been positively received. "I mean, people love Bikram yoga," Ceppetelli says. "The method works. It's awesome."
The original print version of this article was headlined "Striking a Pose"