Yoga was once a spiritual, noncompetitive activity. Then it hit Los Angeles . When you put a bunch of high-powered professionals in a room and ask them to stand on their heads, competition, it seems, is inevitable.

In 2003, cutthroat yogis finally got the chance to duke it out to see who had the best downward dog when the International Yoga Asana Championship (Bishnu Charan Ghosh Cup) debuted at the Los Angeles Hyatt Regency. The competition has exploded since then, with regional finals now held around the world. Recent winners have hailed from Barcelona , Beijing , and Dubai .

Competitors have to complete a sequence of seven “asanas,” or poses, in three minutes. Five of these are compulsory – standing head-to-knee, standing bow, bow, rabbit, and stretching -- and two are chosen by the competitor from among 84 asanas approved by the World Yoga Foundation. The routine must be fluid, with contestants stopping only to announce new poses. Judges adhere to strict guidelines. Organizers compare the event to a gymnastics competition.

Yoga purists are not enthusiastic about the idea of yoga getting mixed up with competition, but contest organizers counter that yoga contests have been held in India for 2,000 years. Others suggest that the contests aren't really competitions but, like the practice itself, a sort of spiritual experience. John Shellhamer, who represented Kentucky at the Ghosh Cup USA finals in 2005, said that he saw the event as “a tool used to push the competitors to their maximum level of oneness.”

“I was moved,” Shellhamer notes, “just by being in the same room as so many other men seeking to achieve the same oneness that I was seeking,. . . each of us doing what we could to help our fellow competitors be at their own personal best that day, no one wanting to be better than anyone. The judges only declared a few of the competitors as winners, and I wasn't one of them. But I sure felt like a champion.” In the future, it may be harder for everyone to go away a winner. Some yogis are clamoring for yoga to become an Olympic sport.