Yoga Or Calisthenics: What is the purpose of a yoga practice?
I recently attended a yoga class led by a lovely person who was built like Popeye, who spoke with the ease of a radio-show host and led a class that by all appearances was enjoyed by everyone. The session met the promises of its website description: breathing techniques that stimulate the nervous system (think, consuming half of your morning coffee), challenging and vigorous movement, and a soundtrack of slow 70's hits.
I dug the music.
But I didn't feel the yoga.
I was doing the poses. I was breaking a sweat. But I wasn't finding what I've come to know as a way inward. A way to settle my mind through the body. A way to know where I stand with myself in a given moment. I didn't get to acknowledge how I felt at the beginning and compare notes with sensations that had shifted or a mind that was more settled than when I walked in the door.
Perhaps this is better illustrated through an experiment. First notice yourself sitting on the seat where you are now. Truly notice your body touching the surface of the chair or stool. Now move your legs quickly. Or your arms. Or both. Do you still notice your sitting down-ness? Where did your mind go while moving? Now try moving one foot very slowly off the floor. Can you stay mindful of where your body meets the furniture and lift your heel, then your foot? Now ask, how mindful can you be when you are moving quickly from task to task? (Some of you who will say you are very focused when you move quickly. Or when we do something rote, we are focused. This is possible. And we can cultivate it. Focus and mindfulness can intermingle but are not interchangeable.)
More questions: If there is steady dialogue and music going on during a class, is it possible to bring your attention inward? Is your mind grasping at the next cue, which follows directly on the heels of the last? How much does this replicate the constant stimulation of the rest of your life? (Task, task, task, phone, task, phone)
I’m thinking this through in my own practice: Do we turn to yoga to cultivate something different in our experience? Do we want to counteract the frenetic, fast-paced, visual, auditory, and sensory bombardment of our lives?
With so much yoga happening all around us, we should all be blissed out, super self-aware and have compassion emanating from every pore. Anxiety, stress, and mental illness should be on the decline. It should all be peace and love. But that's not the news I'm hearing.
Reflecting on my recent experience in class, it’s worth reiterating that people were satisfied with the class as it fit their definition or understanding of yoga. As the American College of Sports medicine says:
"A Hatha Yoga practice may be used by anyone as a way to increase fitness, improve health, attain or restore greater balance and connectedness of mind-body-spirit, and develop mental focus and discipline."
William Broad, who wrote The Science of Yoga: The Risks and The Rewards, puts into perspective exactly how much "fitness" can be achieved by yoga alone. The science to back up physical fitness from yoga is not substantial. No matter what your personal story or perceived results may be, the encyclopedia Britannica's definition is complementary and clarifying:
"Hatha Yoga has grown in popularity in the West as a form of exercise that develops strength, flexibility, bodily relaxation, and mental concentration. Its true object, however, is to awaken the dormant energy (shakti) of Shiva that animates the subtle body but is concealed behind the gross human frame."
To be clear, in our sedentary society, taking to heart the mottos of "self-care" or "listen to your body" as well as moving your body at all are big wins. We do, generally and as a public, need to move more. We need to sleep more. And we need to cultivate how to listen to our bodies.
We could also be missing a major point:
Yoga in its entirety has many limbs or areas of study. The physical practice we see in the West tends to focus on a single aspect. The aim was to use the poses to be ready and able to meditate. To sit still. To observe the mind. In my foundational practices, I was guided to slow down, observe, be still and be curious. The faster I moved, the more difficult it was to stay present. Eventually, and occasionally, my mind settled and unbeknownst to me, I was learning beginning meditation on the mat. Later and through seated meditation, I could see more clearly my emotions, thoughts, narrative drivel, and inspiration. I could be a more present and mindful parent, partner, and friend. I noticed my anxiety, depression, and obsessions and did something to help myself. Here, if anywhere, is the hidden ace that yoga practice can hold if we look for it.
I am not here to tell you what yoga must be for you, but rather to ask, how does yoga serve you? Do you sleep well? Do you have fewer aches and pains? What about anxiety and mental health? Do you have a long or short emotional fuse? Do you suffer from a need to have things "just so" and therefore are limited in your plans? Are certain situations overwhelming or does yoga help you feel centered no matter the circumstances?
If your honest answers left you wondering whether doing (only) yoga is the best self-care, I advise the following:
1) Research your instructors. Find instructors with a deep background in movement, anatomy, and physiology. Find instructors that seem mentally well and physically fit. Observe a class. Resist doing everything the instructor says just because they wear the microphone. Find a teacher who delivers fresh ideas to keep you engaged rather than a barrage of orders. Be curious with instructors who want to teach you about your body and mind.
2) Slow down. I'm not suggesting Yin classes. We can find challenge in moderate, safe movements while also cultivating the quality of the mind. If the class feels a little slow, is it because you know the information (boredom) or that you can’t stop moving? Challenge yourself to stay present.
3) Mix it up. At one point in my life, I only did yoga. I was in teacher training for 5 years: many group learning hours and many solo practice hours. Then there was a period of teaching a lot of yoga classes. My cardiovascular health suffered. Maybe my mental health suffered some. I was only using my body in one specific way. Lucky for me my mentor was already on the path toward a yoga style that doesn't ruin one's body. Find a cardio activity you like or two or three. Meditate. Try Pilates and lift some weights. You will only feel more amazing on the yoga mat.
I'm grateful I stumbled on the path of yoga and have seen first-hand how the practice- when well-guided- illuminates my struggles and victories and has transferred from on—the—mat concentration and observation to off—the—mat changes in behavior. I still lose my cool, I have small and large emotions, just as we all do, but I hope that at my best I'm seeing, introspectively, the thoughts, emotions, creativity, and sometimes idiotic chatter for what each of those experiences are: a chance to practice yoga in the deepest sense of the definition.