Yoga's power to relax and heal inspires many of its 22 million followers in the United States. But for Jennifer Ziel, 16, the art of bending, breathing and stretching is not just about flexibility and balance. It's about winning.

Ziel took first place in the youth division at a Regional Yoga Asana Championship near Boston last month. Next she'll travel to New York City to compete in the National Asana Championships on March 2.

Ziel just took up yoga last summer, and her quick study has impressed Teri Almquist, owner of Bikram Yoga Merrimack Valley, the studio where the teenager trains.

"We joke that her spine must be made of rubber bands and bubble gum," said Almquist, whose studio has five members who compete.

Ziel said she discovered yoga when she was searching for an exercise to take up when school sports were finished and it was too hot to run outside. At the time, Ziel said she wasn't sure she could keep up with yoga beginners, let alone compete.

She watched as someone did a pose called the guillotine, which involves bending while moving one's hands behind the thighs, until the person's head emerges through their legs.

"I saw a picture of it, and I didn't understand how it was possible for someone to do that," said Ziel.

But with experience in dance and gymnastics, Ziel discovered she had some of the flexibility she needed.

Competitive yoga has been practiced for more than 1,000 years since beginning in India, but its popularity has only recently surged. Each yoga competitor has a three-minute routine, similar to gymnastics, and is judged on criteria including execution, style and grace. Routines must meet certain benchmarks, and competitors lose points for not holding poses, for example, or facing the wrong way.

Stephanie Beaudett, 54, who also practices at Almquist's studio and finished third at regionals, barely missing out on qualifying for the national championships, said competitors don't place too much emphasis on wins and losses.

“One of the goals of competitive yoga is to get yoga out there in the world,” said Beaudett, a school nurse by day who began practicing yoga to improve her sciatica. “If more people were doing yoga, we would have happier and healthier bodies.”

Almquist agreed and said she hopes to leverage Ziel's success to recruit more younger people.

"If we get them hooked by the competition when they are young," she said, "they can do yoga for the rest of their lives."

Training for competition can be intense, involving hours of practice, and the rewards are great. If Ziel places at next month's meet, she'll qualify for am international competition in Los Angeles in June.

But, no, even competitive yoga isn't stressful, said Ziel, who notes her friends "all think I'm crazy."

"Yoga is about the fullest expression that you yourself can do," she said. "So stressing over not being ready shouldn't really affect me."

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Alex Lippa writes for The Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, Mass.