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DeBary man earns national yoga medal

Winning form — Mitch Watkins demonstrated the tiger asana, or pose, after leading a yin class in September at Yoga De La Sol in DeLand. Watkins earned a silver medal in his age category at the USA Yoga national championships in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The tiger was one of six poses Watkins demonstrated for the judges. 

Winning form — Mitch Watkins demonstrated the tiger asana, or pose, after leading a yin class in September at Yoga De La Sol in DeLand. Watkins earned a silver medal in his age category at the USA Yoga national championships in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The tiger was one of six poses Watkins demonstrated for the judges. 

BEACON PHOTO/ERIKA WEBB

At 53 years old, Mitch Watkins was a committed non-athlete.

In August, Watkins, now 63, became a national yoga champion.

Watkins earned a silver medal in the senior division of the United States Yoga Federation National Yoga Asana Championships at the State Games of America. The games were staged in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

He’s been a Florida state champion for two consecutive years. 

Ten years ago, Watkins was middle-aged, physically inactive and quick to anger.

Today he feels better and moves in more directions than he did at a much younger age.

His journey started casually with a once-a-week Hatha Yoga class at the Orange City YMCA, where an instructor suggested Watkins might enjoy bikram, or hot yoga. 

Finding his way to bikram yoga in Lake Helen proved to be not only enjoyable but life-changing.

The studio owned by Melissa Basso that Watkins found back then has since moved to DeLand and was renamed Yoga De La Sol.

Bikram is a series of postures designed to balance and rehabilitate the entire body, which systematically works every muscle, tendon, ligament, cell, organ and gland, according to the studio’s website.

Watkins experienced devoted instruction and a leisurely progression.

“At the start of doing these postures, I was learning to be more flexible, have balance and mind control,” Watkins said. “The more I did, the better I got. The more I practiced, the better I got.”

“Not to mention the health benefits,” he added. “The key to a healthy body is a flexible spine.”

Again, an instructor took notice.

After a workshop in St. Augustine, the teacher asked Watkins whether he’d ever considered competing.

“I looked at her like she had seven eyes,” Watkins said, laughing.

Watkins was already motivated by sheer enjoyment of the practice, and Basso’s encouragement propelled him into training mode.

“It was mostly her interest in where I was and where I could go,” Watkins said. “She’s just that intuitive. She saw something I could do that I didn’t even think I could do.”

First, Watkins had to asana (pose) his way through state and regional contests.

At the national level, Watkins was among 14 senior-division contestants. Each chose a three-minute routine that included six compulsory and optional postures.

Performances were scored by a panel of judges evaluating flexibility, balance and strength.

By the second day, Watkins was competing against six finalists. 

“I never expected to get second place,” he said. “Those guys were pretty good.”

Drawing on yogic philosophy of non-comparison, Watkins handled his nerves by challenging only himself.

The idea, Basso explained, is that “everybody’s competing against the best version of themselves.”

“The goal is to do your best and perform better than the last time,” Watkins said.

More than happy with second place, his plan was to retire from competition.

“I thought I would just sit back and enjoy my yoga,” he said. 

But the top two achievers in each category are invited to compete at next summer’s international competition — destination to be announced.

“It’s between Vancouver, Canada; China and India,” Watkins said. 

He’s hoping for Vancouver.

Next year’s national contest will be close to home, in Orlando.

“I can’t say I’m gonna retire now,” Watkins said. “It’s part of my path now.”

Yoga practice has become the path. 

“I considered myself, in the past, to be a real hothead,” Watkins said. “That’s over. It’s done. I can just breathe now. Instead of getting that fight-or-flight, open-mouthed breathing, I focus on breathing deep and slow. My body’s not just automatically breathing for me.”

Morning meditations get him through the day, Watkins said. 

Before yoga, single and living alone, he opted for fast food instead of cooking. 

That’s changed, too.

“You also find yourself wanting to eat better,” he explained. “I haven’t gone vegetarian or vegan, but I’ve cut out sugars, dairy and eat very little bread.”

He drinks coconut water and is surprised that he likes it.

“Some things you didn’t think tasted too great taste great now,” he said, chuckling.

His first instructor was right; Watkins loves bikram.

“A lot of people just don’t want to get hot and sweat,” he said. “But the heat is so therapeutic.”

The practice also benefits him professionally.

“I’m a handyman, and it’s helped me in my job,” he said. “I’m up and down ladders a lot, and I can do so much more now.”

Recently, Watkins became a certified yin instructor.

In yin yoga, the poses are held for three to five minutes, to stretch the tissue around the joints and foster mental calmness.

Watkins has observed yoga’s healing power in competitors who have had injuries and other physical limitations and afflictions.

“They’ve had car accidents and other problems, but I see what they do on stage now, and it’s incredible,” Watkins said. “It’s all about the spine; it really is. And getting the hips open.”

USA Yoga wants to see yoga become an Olympic sport.

“When a sport is in the Olympics, kids will start doing it,” Basso said. “And the younger people start practicing, the better the world will be.”

- Erika Webb, erika@beacononlinenews.com

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