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  • Gayle Fleming

What is Yoga Really Supposed to Teach Us?


A few years ago I was all but ready to stop teaching yoga. I had become so disillusioned by what I saw as the highjacking of yoga. Even today there are those who want to hyper-monetize a more than 2000-year-old system for universal well-being and strip it of all but its most superficial benefits. The joy I had always derived from offering the myriad benefits of yoga had lost its luster.


But having been an activist all my life, I felt I would be remiss if I let the hijackers and usurpers win. I want to teach my students how to use the ancient practice of yoga to enhance every aspect of their lives. When I tell people that yoga isn’t exercise I often get quizzical looks. “ Excuse me?” their eyes say. “Of course, yoga is exercise.

Westerners spend so much of their lives encased in shoes, cars, and chairs, and are generally stuck in the same position for hours on end. The freedom of movement that yoga offers can be life cWhat hanging all by itself. Our minds are constantly busy. We are bombarded with a never-ending stream of anxiety-producing information. The relative quiet of a traditional yoga class can be a balm for our minds.


So the very first thing a yoga class should teach us is how to slow down so we can become aware of our bodies, our minds, and our breath. Our bodies hold onto all of the accumulated stress of our days. Listening to and feeling our bodies is the first step toward being able to relax and become friends with our bodies again. Learning to calm our minds by using the built-in tranquilizer of our breath is the ultimate self-care.


It isn’t necessary to immerse yourself in the myriad texts that make up thousands of years of yoga philosophy. But it is helpful to know that the ancient sages of yoga codified a wealth of wisdom on how to live a joyful, useful, productive, and healthy life. Because it was understood that the health of the physical body is intrinsically connected to the health of the mind and spirit, the asanas (poses) that are done in a yoga class are meant to facilitate a more holistic approach to life.


It was in the early 2000s when yoga became, what I consider a fad. Prior to that, many of the people doing yoga were either middle-aged professionals needing a way to destress and ward off the aches and pains of their aging bodies or younger people who were turned on by the spiritual aspects of the practice. It is perfectly fine for students to come to a class with the sole goal of stretching their aching bodies and calming their scattered minds.


What is taught in a good yoga class is that yoga is never a competition with anyone including not with ourselves. What is taught in a good yoga class is that the present moment is the only real moment. What is taught in a good yoga class is that taking one’s time to really feel what happens in each aspect of an asana can teach us so much about ourselves. The body is a tool, a laboratory instrument that helps us to find a sense of balance and equanimity in our lives.


The physical benefits of yoga are undeniable. We can definitely become more flexible, stronger, and alleviate a myriad of the common aches and pains of everyday life. But if that is the only goal, regular massages, physical therapy, or a stretching class could fit the bill.


When I go to my mat each day to practice, I am very aware of how my physical body feels. I tune in to the various aches and pains, the tension, etc. But as I move through my daily 30 minutes of yoga, the balance of mind, body, and spirit becomes the ultimate goal and the ultimate satisfaction from the practice.


As a yoga teacher, it is my job to impart the deeper benefits of yoga in a way that even students who only think of yoga as an exercise routine, can experience the more profound teachings of this ancient tradition.