EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

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February 19, 2013

Yoga with a twist

Turning exercise into competition

NORTH ANDOVER — Last June, 16-year-old Jennifer Ziel was looking for an exercise to take up her free time in the summer.

School sports had ended and it was too hot for her to run outside. She turned to something she had never tried before — yoga.

Little did she know, that decision would lead her to compete against the best the country has to offer.

The North Andover resident is involved in the grueling sport of competitive yoga. After placing at the regional championships last month, she will be traveling to New York City to compete in the National Championships on March 2.

“I didn’t even know there was competitive yoga when I first started,” Ziel said

She trains at Bikram Yoga Merrimack Valley in North Andover. When she started, she had little idea she would be able to hang with the beginners, let alone compete.

Ziel watched as a fellow competitor did a pose called the guillotine, where the person bends while moving their hands behind their thighs, until their head emerges through their legs. She initially thought there was no way she would be able to do it.

“I saw a picture of it and I didn’t understand how it was possible for someone to do that,” she said.

But with flexibility from previous dance and gymnastics experience, it only took Ziel a few weeks before she knew she had what it took to succeed.

She is one of five Bikram Yoga members who have moved on to the competitive level.

Her ability to pick up the sport so quickly amazed Teri Almquist, owner of Bikram Yoga Merrimack Valley.

“We joke that her spine must be made of rubber bands and bubble gum,” Almquist said.

Competitive yoga originated in India and has been practiced for more than 1,000 years. It has taken off in the past decade. Almquist said organizers are pushing to make it an Olympic sport.

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