Yoga Isn’t Exercise.
But It Can Make You Fit in More Ways than One.
This blog is partially adapted from an article I wrote some years ago for an online magazine. It seems increasingly relevant to my teaching now.
Years ago a woman came to one of my classes. She was tall, pretty, and considered herself overweight. "I need to lose fifty pounds,” she announced, “so I’m taking five yoga classes a week. Do you think that will help me lose it? “ she asked, hopefully. What I thought was, “You’ll lose something but it won’t be fifty pounds. Probably your mind when nothing much happens.” But of course, I didn’t say that. I explained that while yoga has many health benefits, it isn’t in and of itself, a weight loss method. What it might do, I told her, is reduce her stress level and heighten her awareness so that she would be less inclined to eat unconsciously and know when stress is a trigger for eating when she isn’t hungry. I saw the disappointment in her eyes—just before they glazed over.
Like so many others, she had the idea that yoga could be lumped in with other forms of familiar exercise like Jazzercise, Zumba classes, or running. She was unaware of the deeper, more subtle but profoundly beneficial aspects of yoga.
There are myriad reasons why students are drawn to yoga. When I started doing yoga back in the '70s I really liked the peaceful vibe I felt when I practiced. It would be years before I delved into the spiritual and philosophical teachings that explained my experiences. But it isn't necessary to have more than an open, curious mind to derive the many benefits of a yoga practice.
I have always felt that it is important to find ways to introduce some of the spiritual and philosophical aspects of yoga into my classes without overwhelming students. I leave it up to them to inquire more deeply if they're inclined. So many classes have been stripped of everything but the physical poses, to the detriment of the practice.
Yoga is derived from the Sanskrit word “yug” which means to yoke or unite. Yoga is meant to unite the mind, spirit, and body. The purpose of the practice is to let go of the “self” and embrace the “Self.” If you’re in a yoga class and find yourself sneaking a peek at someone who seems to be effortlessly doing a pose you find difficult and you feel envy, that’s okay. Recognize it as a teachable moment. There are big questions to be asked and answered. Since yoga is never a competition, why did jealousy arise? This is an opportunity for self-inquiry. It’s also a great chance to practice not judging yourself.
Self-awareness and harmony are two of the true gifts of a yoga class that teaches more than just a series of poses that makes feel like you got a good workout. It is a fact that an
asana practice can enhance one’s physical well-being, but yoga is not meant to be a “workout.” Yeah, I said it. When I want a workout I go to the gym and lift weights, go for a walk, or a bike ride. Yoga also isn’t meant to feed your ego. I read an article once where the author praised her yoga class for giving her ego a boost because she could do a pose better than someone else. A more yogic experience would have led to self-inquiry about her need to have her ego boosted, and to an understanding that her reaction was anathema to inner harmony.
The asanas (poses) practiced in Hatha Yoga are a gateway to greater self-awareness, a greater sense of inner tranquility, self-compassion, and inner joy. There are thousands of years of philosophical and spiritual teachings and seven other branches of yoga that underpin and support what is learned in a one-hour yoga class. Having even a basic understanding and appreciation of these teachings will greatly enhance your yoga experience.