Is Yoga Exercise?
Yoga postures have been around for fewer than 150 years. In the lifetime of yoga, they are fairly young. Yet they often get misinterpreted as the avenue to overall well being, peace, and enlightenment. Unfortunately, the postures alone don’t provide these benefits, but they are valuable in gaining flexibility, balance, awareness, and even strength.
So how did the postures become so popular?
In the late 18th to early 19th century, the emphasis on strong physical bodies began to grow as a way to strengthen a nation. Some notable practitioners had begun to take the practice of yoga and expand upon it by creating postures inspired by other strength training endeavors such as weight training, wrestling, and gymnastics. They simply had begun to rebrand yoga, if you will. The Indian government took note of these endeavors and decided to “back” these individuals to help revitalize the practice of yoga, which had diminished over the years. They took their show to the road and displayed the strongest of physical asanas (postures) as a means to show people the new, cooler way to yoga. So the trend began and eventually made its way to the United States.
So what does this mean for yoga today?
Yoga has greatly evolved since its induction into the United States in the 1950’s. In the past 70 years, more and more postures are being added to yoga sequences all over the country. I attended a class not too long ago and we were in yarn pose, egg pose, and many other postures that I have never seen or heard of in my mere 15 years of practice. As more and more people explore their bodies, the more shapes show up in classes everywhere, and then on Instagram, Facebook, and the cover of Yoga Journal. How the postures became popular 150 years ago is still alive and well today—copying the movements and reformatting them creates a method which allows them to be presented as new and different.
Although that may initially sound disappointing, it actually brings great power to our practice. The originators of our strong practice were trying to accomplish three things: 1. Strength – to become a stronger nation, 2. Balance – equal effort on both front, back, and side bodies, and most importantly 3. Draw individuals back to the original spiritual practice. The innovators of the postures were strong meditative and spiritual practitioners as well. They did not forego the original intention of yoga, but created a way to bring more individuals back to spirituality by incorporating asana.
So how do I know if I’m really practicing yoga?
Through mainstream media, the important spiritual and mindful components have gotten somewhat lost. In today’s yoga industry, there is a hyper focus on achieving full forms of postures, regardless if they are made up or “original.” If your main goal when doing your yoga practice is to achieve, then immediately you’ve missed the point of yoga. Yoga in its purest form is intended to expand your mind’s awareness. In order to do that, you have to focus. You have to look for what you haven’t seen before, not what you already know is there. When we take our body into a posture, the practice is not how far we can get or whether we can achieve the pose, but what we experience in each moment we change the shape of our body. What’s there? Do you feel pain? Or is it simply discomfort? Is it in your joint? Do you feel your hamstrings, your core, your shoulders? Are you breathing? What causes you to breathe faster? What happens if you shift this way or that?
Every exploratory moment that we take in our practice expands our awareness further. From our own experience, we begin to see what we haven’t seen before and that is true awakening. And luckily, the practice we do on our mat eventually trickles into our lives and you begin to see what you haven’t seen before elsewhere. You might realize that a friend may not be cheering you on because they have a deep fear of losing your friendship if you continue to succeed. You might see the person that you think dislikes you is actually deeply solemn and sad. You may find a way around an obstacle that has felt so big for so long. You may suddenly understand the feedback your boss has been giving you and be able to make the change. There is so much more available when we focus and go deeper.
So, is yoga exercise?
I slightly cringe when I hear the question because I know it refers to some desire to improve the body only. And the answer is “Yes.”, yoga postures are absolutely a form of exercise. And you will have many physical benefits from practicing them.
But is yoga exercise??? Even if the question surpasses the physical body alone and we get into the root of yoga, we can see that it does parallel the purpose of exercise in the sense that it is practice. But it only becomes yoga when the focus shifts from the desire to enhance physically to the desire to just be and explore what’s in the moment, without agenda. Yoga is not a practice to entertain you, but to train you. If you are doing the work to look deeply, slow your thoughts, and breathe, you will gradually see life differently.
Wherever you are in your yoga journey, I encourage you to stick with it. Especially when you want to quit. It’s in the tired, mundane moments that we grow the most. That’s when we really start to see things differently because we surpass the novelty of the practice and can go deeper. Remember, it’s not here to entertain you, but to show you how beautiful life is.
PS – if you do want some info on how yoga can help your physical body, check out “Will Yoga Help You Lose Weight?” It covers practical suggestions on how diving into a yoga practice can help you attain a healthier lifestyle.