The Conversation With National Yoga Champion Andrea Nikki Ortiz

In this signature espnW column, Allison Glock sits down for a candid Q&A with a remarkable person. The aim is to cover topics high and low, deep and less so, to present a fresh look at folks we think we know and meet some others we wish we'd known all along. Welcome to The Conversation.

Who: Andrea Nikki Ortiz, who won the national yoga Asana championship earlier this year.


Allison Glock: You're 26 years old and you just won the national yoga Asana championship, and yet, your first opinions about yoga were not so positive.

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.

AG: This year you entered the competition with a different mindset.

ANO: Yes. I used to think you shouldn't do it if you fall, that you weren't ready. But people fall all the time. That's one of the biggest things I learned: You can't make it about yourself. You have to get out of the way and let your body do what it knows how to do. Treat the routine like an offering. This time I just wanted to show something beautiful.

AG: And now you are the best in America...

ANO: [laughs] I guess so. It was very unexpected. I see all these amazing people and I ask myself, Why am I doing this? Compared with them, I'm not nearly as good.

AG: Here's a non-yoga question: What do you win?

ANO: Nothing major. There's no money. It's a labor of love. Yoga is a way to remind yourself that everything is connected. The second you start thinking about what you are doing in the pose, the union is gone. And you fall. That's what happened to me last year. You can't let yourself get into your own head. Yoga isn't really about you.

AG: Did you call you mother this time, after you won?

ANO: She called me. She watched me on live streaming and said my routine was beautiful. I felt proud, but more than anything, I felt very grateful. I had an overwhelming feeling of appreciation.

AG: Why was that?

ANO: Yoga is so personal. When you compete, it can feel as if you are showing your soul to a group of judges. To watch so many people go up there and do it anyway is beyond inspiring.

AG: Do fans in the crowd cheer?

ANO: It's silent during the routine. You can sense people holding their breath. What if she falls? The whole room gets tense and nervous. You feel that energy from the crowd. When you're there, you get to witness what humans are capable of doing when we work hard for it, when we ditch the excuses and realize there's always more to give. You watch the routines, and you come away with the sense that we're unlimited.

AG: Do you believe yoga is a sport?

ANO: Yoga has many parts, and there are so many styles. When you focus on the physical part, it is a sport. I also see it as an art. The line isn't that clear. The spiritual part is always very connected. But I don't like to argue with people about it. Yoga is a tree with many branches. And even people who don't label it as a sport can see that it requires effort, concentration and extreme physical demands. In a competition you see all these people who have worked so hard, and they are doing poses on a stage, and it is so nerve-wracking because you only get one chance. The rules are very specific: You get one try. In other sports, there are a lot of ways to cover your mistakes or save a stumble, but in yoga you either do it right or you don't.

AG: How do you manage to train for such an exacting competition and work a full-time day job as an interior designer?

ANO: It's hard to find time. I'm always running to a yoga class. After every class I have to do my routine whether I feel like it or not. I pack it in. But for me it's three minutes of not thinking, being suspended in time. Everything hurts, sure. The week before competition, I feel broken everywhere. I'm majorly sore. But I like challenging myself.

AG: How do you approach your practice when you aren't training for competition?

ANO: The mindset of being in a class is very different. It's kind of like having a coach. I always feel like I have something to learn. There is always something I don't see. There are so many variations, so many things to improve every day. You never get to the point where you are finished.

AG: That sounds like a nightmare to me. I like, well, winning.

ANO: [laughs] What I've found from yoga is that it requires you to go into yourself so deeply that you get lost in your world, and you stop caring about the person next to you and what they're doing. To be good at yoga you have to be super focused. I know people who are very competitive and it can be harder for them initially in class, especially when they see students doing poses they can't. But the more you do it, the farther you get into your own practice, you lose that reflex to compare. It took me over a year to do handstands. I would get so frustrated. (In rhythmic gymnastics I never did them. Inversions in general used to terrify me.) I would practice and practice and still fall. It taught me to be patient. And to not compare myself to other people. Everybody is so different. Everybody wobbles.

AG: Has yoga also changed the way you think of your body?

ANO: It's turned my thinking upside down, literally. As a woman, you often wish this or that were different, or you don't like what you see. During college I was a gym rat, exercising two hours a day, eating super healthy, but I was never happy. I think that's why I fell in love with yoga, because I started appreciating my body for what it was doing for me. My arms could support my weight. My back could bend into a beautiful shape. I started being thankful for what my body was and I stopped feeling like I needed to change the way that it looked. If I'm honest, yoga taught me to love my body for the first time in my life.

AG: Was this a gradual process for you?

ANO: Very. Women are way too hard on themselves about their bodies. With yoga, you're dressed in shorts and a bra and you're surrounded by mirrors and you have to look at yourself for an hour and half. When I started, it was torturous. But after a few months, that anxiety started to vanish. I was focusing on the poses and feeling strong and feeling clean. Class became about what I could accomplish. And I would leave thinking about that, instead of my weight.

AG: When do you feel your strongest?

ANO: Balancing in a handstand. Because never in a million years did I think I could do it. And now I can.

AG: How about your weakest?

ANO: When I start complaining. Saying, I wish this or I wish that. When I compare myself to other people.

AG: It seems like a big part of yoga is making yourself comfortable with discomfort.

ANO: Completely. And that's a huge lesson. Yoga mirrors life. It is hard to be uncomfortable and keep going. But that's how you grow. That's how you make progress. I was not into the spiritual part of yoga at first. I was there for the workout. But you can't separate them. It will get to you.

AG: So the physicality of yoga forced you to reevaluate your psychology?

ANO: It wasn't like I became someone new. But yoga taught me to be aware and open. And I let go of my conditioning about what is right or wrong, of my ideas about what is or isn't "for me." When you find yourself doing poses you once thought were impossible, then your concept of what is "impossible" starts to change. And maybe other things in your life that you never thought you could do start to seem possible, too.

AG: OK. You're selling me. Can anyone do yoga?

ANO: Yes. Yoga needn't be this precious, ritualized thing. You don't have to have the perfect mat in the perfect spot in the perfect temperature in the perfect outfit. I practice in the park. People stare, they throw balls. It doesn't matter. Yoga can help everyone put things in their place. There is something for everybody to work on: strength, flexibility, stillness. You get the benefits of trying. I tell people, "Don't be afraid to break."

AG: Good advice for all aspects of life.

ANO: Exactly. In yoga, everything is temporary. That concept really changed my life. Now I pursue things that actually matter.