NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. (AP) — 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 in January, she will be traveling to New York City to compete in the National Championships on Saturday.

"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.

Each competitor has a routine, similar to gymnastics, and is judged based on how well they perform. The routine must match specific baselines and must be three minutes long.

Competitors are judged on execution, style, gracefulness and movement among other factors. If competitors don't hold their poses steady or face the wrong way, points are deducted.

One of Bikram's competitors is Stephanie Beaudett, 54, of Hampstead. A school nurse in Lawrence during the day, Beaudett started practicing yoga to help improve her sciatica. But she has seen other facets of her life improve, too.

"It helps me sleep better, it helps me be less depressed and anxious," she said. "The more you do it, the more it carries over."

Beaudett finished third at regionals last month, barely missing out on qualifying for nationals. But competitors don't place too much emphasis on winning and losing.

"One of the goals of competitive yoga is to get yoga out there in the world," she said. "If more people were doing yoga, we would have happier and healthier bodies."

Almquist agreed with Beaudett.

"I refer to it as competitive with a small C, and yoga with a big Y," she said.

Training to compete is no joke. Beaudett said she practiced in the studio for two to three hours a day leading up to the regionals in January.

For Ziel, preparing to compete in her first national tournament may sound stressful. But, when the ultimate goal is to relieve stress, it isn't as big of a factor.

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

Ziel is one of the youngest studio members practicing competitive yoga. Almquist hopes to recruit more high-schoolers after Ziel's success.

"We'd love to have more," Almquist said. "We want to use the competition as a springboard to get kids to do yoga. If we get them hooked by the competition while they are young, they can do yoga for the rest of their lives."

Ziel said her friends at school were stunned when she told them about competitive yoga.

"They all think I'm crazy," she said.

If Ziel places at nationals this month, she will qualify for international competition in Los Angeles in June.