What defines yoga?
Some might say it’s deep long stretches and meditative “ohm”s in a candlelit room. Others might insist on cycles upon cycles of sun salutations with intense arm balances and headstands. Or maybe it’s mindful flows and slow burning holds.
A good practice for me is when my body becomes warm through meaningful movements, my muscles have that familiar soreness from strengthening asanas, and stretches that feel oh-so-good.
My mind becomes clear and focused on my center of gravity. My thoughts stop flitting around and my breath helps ease me through uncomfortable positions. It’s a balance between motion and stillness. Where my savasana, final relaxation pose, becomes that sweet cherry on top at the end of practice.
However, I’ve noticed that some people prefer a practice where they end up in a puddle of sweat, their chests heaving as they practically crawl to their cars afterwards. While I love a good exercise, there’s something that disconcerts me about doing twenty spiderman push-ups in the middle of a vinyasa.
I am aware that not everyone’s yoga is the same. I make a point to tell my students in class, “This is your yoga. Make your pose your own and move the way your body feels like moving.” So I almost feel like a sort of hypocrite when I come away from a yoga class with a less than positive opinion. Kind of like I shouldn’t even be entitled to an opinion. However, the new yoga ‘trend’ as exercise concerns me.
I’ve had the opportunity to take a few classes here in my town. Some of them were fantastic, guided by instructors who clearly understood the process of a practice, and I felt wonderful when I followed their guidance. Then, I got to experience the other end of the spectrum. I’ve been lucky enough to have gone this far in my practice without encountering a teacher that fell a short of expectations.
I don’t want to say they were bad, but I certainly did not feel safe doing their classes, nor did I feel connected to my idea of yoga. Yoga is the union between mind and body, and when you’re in plank bouncing left and right onto your hips, it feels a lot more like a cross-training workout than being mindful of your breath and body on the mat.
I felt like there was a lack of respect for the asanas. Instead of easing your body into the poses—holding, breathing, flowing—it was a race to see how many sun salutations you could do in under a minute.
I know that there is a very popular opinion that yoga is a form of exercise.
And it is. It is exercise. We are moving our bodies, increasing our heart rate, building strength, and growing more flexible. In fact, I, myself, held that opinion when I first started practicing yoga.
However, the more I practiced and learned about the philosophy and purpose of yoga, the more I realized that it is so much more than an exercise for the body. A well-rounded practice includes an exercise for the mind.
My mind is infinitely calmer. I’m much more conscious and mindful of my body’s movements and to a lesser, but still growing, extent, of my thoughts. It is a lifelong practice that reaps benefits for the whole package.
So when I left the aforementioned ‘hardcore’ classes with my body feeling out of whack from trying to cram in as many chairs as possible, I had a sour taste in my mouth. It was more like a sub-par boot camp workout than a one-hour flow. Sure, I was sweaty and my arms and legs were guaranteed to be sore the next day, but all I could think of was: That was not yoga.
I am the last person to judge what is and what is not yoga. I am by no means any sort of authority despite being an instructor. In my classes, I don’t teach, I guide. Yoga is within us, I just help people through it. But I can feel a difference between a true yoga class led meaningfully by a teacher with real intentions and a yoga class led by the resident group fitness instructor at the local rec center.
Let’s move our bodies, but we must remember to move our minds too. We need to respect the asanas and take time with them. Sun salutations are not a race. They are a practice in bringing together the mind and body through the breath.
King Lizard isn’t only meant to stretch our quads, it opens our heart and sends our minds on a journey of endurance, patience, and tolerance.
Breathe in positivity, breathe out negativity. View sweat as toxins being eliminated out of the body rather than a sign of a workout. Yoga is a practice, a whole-listic practice.
I hope that as yoga spreads, the story of yoga does too. That more practitioners will start following the philosophy behind it instead of just the trail of sweat behind the person in front of us.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Assistant Editor: Zenna James/Editor: Catherine Monkman