Asanas Aren’t Spiritual (and Other Yoga Misconceptions). ~ Brandi Reynolds

Via on Jun 6, 2011

As a newly minted yoga teacher and certified yoga therapist, I still have a lot to learn about this practice we all call yoga.

Photo: Lululemon Athletica

After all, I haven’t even begun to delve into the nuances of teacher/student relationships, nor how I’ll manage a larger class versus a smaller one. I’m still figuring out my style of teaching, but thanks to my wonderful teachers and training experience—along with years of personal practice—I’ve discovered some common misconceptions about the practice I love so much that I’d like to clear up here, once and for all!

1. You can’t get hurt doing yoga.

Oh, yeah you can. Yoga may be low impact, but you are still working your muscles, joints and connective tissue. This means that if you twist a little further than you ought to, come out of a pose too quickly or just miss a landing when attempting an arm balance, you can hurt yourself. The rule of thumb I’ve always been given is that discomfort (ex: your muscles working) is a good thing; pain is not. If you feel pain, especially anything sharp or searing, come out of the pose.

Photo: Lisa Picard

2. Doing asanas (yoga poses) is spiritual.

Saying what I’m about to say may make me a yoga rebel, but I don’t think there is anything inherently spiritual about doing a yoga pose. It’s just moving your body into a form and holding it there. The spirituality comes from you—from your intention and mindset, from meditating and breathing, from your attention.

3. Yoga is just doing poses.

Furthering the point above, yoga is a way of life. It is a system of philosophy and ethics that can become a path to wholeness. Asanas are only one of the eight limbs of yoga. Other limbs include meditation, breath control and development of personal ethics.

Photo: Ron Sombilon

4. Doing yoga is beneficial if you have an injury.

I was assisting in a Vinyasa (breath synchronized movement) class during my teacher training and noticed a student who seemed to be forcing herself into the poses. One of the first rules of assisting and adjusting is not to pick on people, so I made what I hoped were a few helpful suggestions and adjustments but otherwise backed off and just kept my eye on the student.

Our teacher told us after the class that the student was recovering from shoulder surgery and insisted on doing the class as part of her recovery process. I winced upon hearing this.

Yoga can be immensely beneficial in the recovery process from an injury or surgery, but only if it’s the right kind of yoga. Gentle, adaptive (chair assisted) and restorative practices are all great forms of yoga to help your body heal. Pushing through pain is still pushing through pain, even in a yoga class, and you can end up hurting yourself even worse. This leads me to our next misconception…

Photo: Lululemon Athletica

5. A yoga class is a yoga class is a yoga class.

Nope. Adaptive yoga is all about gentle movements done in a chair. A power yoga class is all about strength, endurance and crazy arm balances. And there are a myriad of types of classes in between. So if you try a yoga class and it doesn’t work for you, don’t be discouraged! There is a style of yoga out there for everyone.

6. You’ll lose a crap ton of weight doing yoga.

Maybe. It all depends on the class. A Bikram class that is full of strenuous poses in a heated room? Heck yes you’ll lose some weight! Adaptive or gentle? Not so much. What I’ve learned in my nine or so years of practicing is that each type of class provides unique benefits to my body and mind. After a restorative class, I feel like I’ve gotten a massage. And after a power class, I feel cleansed and strong. I highly recommend a mix of styles so you can experience a variety of the benefits you get from each class.

Photo: Sean Hagwell

7. The one who does the most complicated arm balance wins.

Wins what? Where’s my yoga prize? I believe that ultimately, what a person wins is more confidence in themselves, a better understanding of who they are and more inner peace. More importantly, I think those benefits can be achieved without ever nailing crow pose.  Again, it’s all about intention and what you bring to the practice.

How can I sum this all up? By saying that a yoga practice is what you make it and that if you’re open to it, that’s all there is to it. And I so hope you’ll be open to it.

________________________________________________________________________________________________

Brandi Reynolds is a certified yoga instructor that encourages authentic living and joyful movement that connects body, mind and spirit. She shares her life with a cute guy she met in a bar and three rescued furry souls that drive her nuts half the time in a suburb of Dallas, Texas. You can visit her on her blog, send her electronic kisses or Facebook friend her.

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19 Responses to “Asanas Aren’t Spiritual (and Other Yoga Misconceptions). ~ Brandi Reynolds”

  1. JR in SF says:

    Great piece. I'd add that (as you imply) it's equally a misconception to think of asana practice as not-spiritual, or, as one often hears, "just preparation for seated meditation." To privilege any limb over the others is always to miss the point, though at times we may feel more deeply connected to one or another.

    • John says:

      What JR said. In fact, I'd say the popular misconception is "asana is not spiritual". A practice designed to access the mind via the body is naff all use if you have to bang on and on and on to your students about the mind while they do it….

      Oh, and (7)… you're just another sore loser. I win.

  2. Tiffany says:

    I was ready to come in with all guns blazing but it was a really sensitive and cute post and you put your learning out there. Thanks for that. Of course, saying you’re a ‘newbie’ at anything on any website is going to get you a lot of people telling you HOW to do it better, and HOW you can improve.

    Peace out, and peace in.

  3. brandi says:

    JR and John, good points all around though I actually see quite a few people in my practice, in my teacher training, and at studios who think they are being spiritual just by doing a pose. I agree that ALL limbs of yoga are equally important-I just don't think you get the full benefit of yoga practice just by doing poses and thinking that's being spiritual. It isn't just about that. And John, I can do one hell of a crow pose so I wouldn't be so quick to grab that prize. ;-)

    Tiffany, thanks for your feedback and open mind! I realize I may open myself up to constructive instruction but, hey, it's the the truth. I AM a new yoga teacher and I think it would be irresponsible to think that I know everything. However, I'm not a new yogi and this article was more about what I've seen in my practice over the years and in my teacher training.

  4. dan says:

    I think asanas are inherently spiritual, because being in a particular pose forces one to recognize breath, and so too (eventually) rhythm, how you relate to the world, and spirit. They also effect, and are designed to effect, the nervous and glandular system (or nadis and manas, not that they’re equivalent), opening, connecting and repairing them in a way just striking any pose or gymnastics or pilates does not.
    Which isn’t to say asanas are some guarantee, or that an asana automatically focuses a person on the present and not the product, or even that I disagree with item 2. I may just have different takes on ‘spiritual’ and ‘inherent’.

  5. brandi says:

    Dan…that is an excellent point! I think we may just differ in the word 'inherent' as I know for myself-I had to consciously link my breath with movement and tune into why I was doing the poses to have a spiritual component. There have definitely been times when I have done the poses for the sake of doing the poses-not really connecting at a deeper level with them-and I certainly benefited from doing the poses, but I didn't get a sense of spiritual connection that way.

  6. julz says:

    Interesting how she mentions that yoga poses aren't spiritual and yet achieving the most difficult arm balances gives you confidence and an understanding of who they are. That's spiritual my friend. Have you not ever cried doing a yoga pose or burst into laughter? Just saying if we keep trying to divide ourselves into sections- "Yoga" will not be achieved. It means Union not division.

    • yogiclarebear says:

      What is the definition of "spiritual"?

    • brandi says:

      Hey Julz, actually in that last point, I was saying that when practicing yoga, a person can gain confidence in themselves…not that it comes from doing arm balances. I was addressing the misconception I have seen where someone can nail al really hard arm balance and think they have achieved some sort of yoga award. Whereas, I think gaining confidence, etc that you get from a yoga practice is the actual award.

  7. Great article, Brandi.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

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  8. pau says:

    great piece. Another huge misconception is that yoga is "green".

    case in point, buying a "green mat"…. the most sustainable thing you can do is, if you don't own a mat, never buy one. Always use the communtary ones in the studio. And if you already own one, use for the rest of your life.

    Also, Bikram is a major energy hog, not only in the participants, but also in gas, or coal used to heat the room.

  9. Connie says:

    Great article Brandi!! I always like to say that asana is NOT yoga, but rather a place to practice yoga….and in fact, if you research the history of where the asanas actually come from you will find that most of the asanas that are considered "yoga postures" were actually calisthenics taken from the British army–knowing that really puts the practice in perspective.

    BIG Hugs!

  10. Lisa says:

    Beautiful Brandi! Great points to address…often lost in the "pursuit" of yoga.

  11. brandi says:

    Pau…I have had one yoga mat in my life…I plan on using it until it falls apart in my hands ;-)

    Connie…YES, exactly! And the fact that asanas were incorporated much later into the practice of yoga doesn't mean they aren't beneficial or can't be spiritual…I just think that the spirituality doesn't ONLY come from doing the poses…we have to be mentally, emotionally engaged. (imho)

    Lisa…thanks!

  12. Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

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  13. [...] spirituality comes from you — from your intention and mindset, from meditating and breathing, from your [...]

  14. [...] down to it, we are all the same. Find this connectedness and teach from there. Save your show-off-asanas for when Yoga Journal comes [...]

  15. greateacher says:

    why use "crap ton" ? While I get your intent or meaning, I think, or maybe.. I am put off by the slang and tjarring tone of the words.. Do you mean 'substantial"?

    When people jump back an dforth with good thoghts and slang, jjarring expressions I am less desirous of wanting to read further work.

  16. Katherine says:

    As a yoga teacher I enjoyed this quite a bit. Especially the point about doing it with an injury and losing weight. I've known many people get frustrated over not losing pounds instantly, regardless of how flexible they've become or any other difference they've decided not to notice.

    I do understand your views on asanas not being inherently spiritual. However, being someone that works a lot with Chakras and energy flow I find yoga postures can make a difference in ones spiritual goals. For instance, the camel posture helps to open up the chest, etc, but if you translate that to energy points it opens up the Anahata Chakra (heart Chakra) as well as the Vishuddhi Chakra (throat chakra), opening/healing/rejuvenating these portals of love and communication as well as all the physical attributes attached to them (blood vessels, organs, etc), leading to spiritual balance.
    Although it is just as easy not to view the postures this way. It all depends on your preference.

    Looking forward to reading any future articles! :)

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