Why Yoga’s Not a Workout. ~ Rachel Meyer {NSFW}

Via elephant journal
on Oct 31, 2011
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RANT: Yoga is not a workout.

Yoga is not “abs.”

Yoga is not mindless push-ups.

Yoga is not “cardio.”

Fuck that shit.

Yoga is a moving meditation. Period. Amen.

Yoga means unraveling. Yoga means letting go. Yoga means undoing. Yoga means getting out of your goddamned chattering head for even a few seconds and letting your mind take a break. Yoga means stopping giving a shit what the lady in front of you is wearing or what the dude behind you thinks of your ass or what your colleague said on the phone over lunch that really rankled you, because you are so lost in your breath and your body and your present moment that all of those thoughts fly out the window, and you are reminded that you are alive.

This body will be a corpse.

You will not find 72,000 stomach crunches in my class. You can do crunches at the gym. Crunches do not equal vinyasa. For reals.

I love teaching, love it so much, but I’ve always had a hard time instructing core work that feels mindful. Forcing folks to huff and puff through endless rounds of ab exercises always makes me feel dirty, like a two-bit Jane Fonda pushing people through awkward 1980s exercise video routines that they don’t want to do in the first place and passing them off as a meditation, as yoga, as something graceful and elegant and wise.

Standing up there barking out instructions, I’m rushed back to memories of bad legwarmers and a made-up, perfectly-coiffed Jane urging us on through perpetual core work in deja vu Groundhog Day-style nightmares of the old video I used to do in high school, day after day, barefoot — because the sneakers were too heavy to lift, you know — as an anorexic 16-year-old with wobbly Bambi legs who was convinced that her 98-pound, 5’5″ body was obese.

And it makes me wonder: who else in that room hasn’t eaten in two days?

And, as a teacher, am I shepherding those students well, am I really doing my job — ahimsa, baby — if I pummel them with some robotic core workout routine that’s devoid of purpose beyond sculpting a six-pack, that fails to connect the breath or slow their minds or bring them more deeply into their bodies?

Because, guess what? Your six-pack will pass. One day it’ll be there. The next day, it won’t. Things change. Bodies change. You’ll eat Cheetos. You’ll find a new lover and stay in bed and skip yoga. You’ll have a baby. You’ll get old — if you’re lucky.

Skin stretches. Skin roughens. Skin slips away.

This body will be a corpse.

Your breath stays. Your breath rises. It falls. That’s yoga. Nothing else.

I — like so many I know — spent too many years starving myself, too many years driving my weak, underfed body into the ground, too many years being that empty vessel with the big dead eyes and chiseled chin and delicate size 2 frame, trading my life, my spirit, my fire, my prana, my very being for that “perfect body” — that “perfect body” that just wanted to die, that wanted to throw in the towel, that wanted to quit the fuck-all project of being alive and just disappear.

And in that perfect body, I did a lot of sit-ups. A lot of them.

50 crunches at 5 a.m. before going out the door; 50 crunches before and after dance practice; 50 crunches before and after musical rehearsal; 50 crunches at 2 a.m. before going to bed. Toes tucked under the armoire to keep myself from cheating. Living on an apple and 2 cups of coffee all day. Functioning on 3 hours of sleep because the hunger kept me from actually ever sleeping.

You can’t sleep when you’re starving. Though it gives you more time to work on your abs.

I don’t live that way any more.

And I do not believe that yoga would have us live that way, either.

And as a teacher, I will not facilitate that faux “yoga.”

I can guesstimate how very many — half, two-thirds? — of the other bodies in the yoga classes I take, and teach, have been in that same place at some point in their lives. Have starved themselves for days, living on water and Diet Coke; have feared that they’d pass out in Tree Pose because they hadn’t eaten a meal in a week; have wound up lying on the bathroom linoleum, faint, heart thudding, wondering how long it’d take for someone to find them if they died there. And they’re in class for the abs, for the workout, for the cardio, for the bullshit. I know, because I’ve been that person.

And I won’t be a part of it. Even though, more and more, that’s where I see the “yoga industry” going.

90 minutes of abs do not a yoga practice make. 90 minutes of watching the breath rise and fall, maybe with a twist or a balance or an arm to the sky to help us do so, does. And if we are lucky enough to live until we’re old and decrepit (65-75% of us willbedisabled at some point in our lives, you know this, yes?), someday we’ll look down at our sweet, tired, wrinkly, bent, well-lived-in bodies, and we likely won’t be able to do a forearm plank and we most certainly won’t be able to do 3 backbends in a row and we definitely won’t be able to do 200 sets of crunches.

But we’ll be able to breathe. We’ll be able to watch the chest rise with the inhale, and fall with the exhale. And therein will lie the practice that has followed us, anchored us, strengthened us, softened us, all these years.

So you can take your crunches and shove ’em. You won’t find them in my class. I’m not here to give you the “perfect body” or the “ultimate core workout” or even a general ass-kicking. I’m here to get you out of your head. To slow down that monkey mind for even one breath, or two, or — imagine that! — maybe even three. To help you remember that in spite of all numbness, you are alive. For a flash, just this tinylittleflash, you are alive.

This body will be a corpse. 

Knowing that — we practice this little death every day in Savasana, don’t we? — why the hell would you waste your few precious breaths in this onewildandpreciouslife on getting really sweet ab muscles? Fuck the abs. Yep, I’ll say it again, once more for good measure: fuck the abs.

They won’t make you happy. I promise. You’ll just have a nice belly. And the same old racing mind, and the same old unsettled, hungry heart.

Yoga is so much more than body-sculpting. Don’t let this ancient, beautiful, soft, strong, serene practice turn into yet one more fancy gym exercise. Be in it. Let your heart stop its racing. Let your mind slow for even a second.

The abs will come. And go. (Trust me, they’ll go.) And what’s left?

The breath. That one wild and precious life. Yours.

With great thanks to TheInterdependenceProject for

their inspired, subversive t-shirt design.

Rachel Meyer is a San Francisco-based yoga teacher and writer with roots in musical theater, theology and the arts. When she’s not jumping around in leggings and chanting in Sanskrit, she loves a good foggy wander up and over Nob Hill in search of cocktails or used books.  You can find her bio and teaching schedule here, and further ramblings on yoga, the arts and more at her literary practice mat here.


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141 Responses to “Why Yoga’s Not a Workout. ~ Rachel Meyer {NSFW}”

  1. Amanda says:

    Preach it sister! Love this, love you.

  2. Jeri Senor says:

    Not sure your yoga is working for you… lots of anger, excessive judgment, negativity bein' preached here. Perhaps a dose of Thich Nhat Hanh would do a person good.

  3. Amanda says:

    Printing, re-posting, recommending, liking, doing all I can do with this. I love everything about the article, even the anger and grown-up language. This is a real f'ing problem, and I'm grateful that you're talking about it! You're an inspiration. Thanks for shining your light and dropping the f-bomb along the way! 😉

  4. Leesh says:

    After giving birth to three beautiful boys, two of them twins, I see ab work as a way to strengthen my core muscles to bring stability and strength to my body, something that I need when carrying two 20kg toddlers (pounds?) around each day! I see your point, but remember that strengthening abdominals is not all about appearance!

  5. Sounds like you've had some bad experiences with exercise and body image.
    You need a body to breathe. So I don't know if it really makes sense to write about the importance of the breath and knowing you're alive while denigrating the body.

  6. Vision_Quest2 says:

    Dear Self-Mortifying Mind-Body Practices—

    This is mostly directed to one or two yoga studios I've already been to, but ANY profit-making mind-body school could be the culprit. I would sooner Occupy the gentrified "Main Street" outside the home of your "Loving Yoga Community" with a picket sign that I am one of the 99% (or actually the 92% of frequent yoga practitioners in the U.S. who, for varying reasons, do NOT attend a studio frequently).

    Your walk-in prices in the current economic climate point up to the fact that in light of the possibility of being the solution to the problem – or being part of the problem, you know which side you have been on all along …. see this link: There is an Elephant in the Room and it ain't Ganesh http://themagazineofyoga.com/blog/2011/10/26/ther

    Moreover, the way you teach yoga to the classes I could attend on weekends only: suffice to say, the '80s called, and they want their aerobics back.

    I refuse to be associated any more with the embarrassing greater metro New York City commercial "yoga scene" … like babies, you like to make scenes.

    Now, STOP IT.



  7. […] News excerpt from: Why Yoga's Not a Workout. ~ Rachel Meyer | elephant journal […]

  8. Mary Boyd says:

    I find this article negative and judgmental. If you don’t want to teach or practice abs, don’t. But why get so bent out of shape if someone is? Just because you are strengthening your ab muscles doesn’t mean you are some sort of idiot asshole that doesn’t understand what yoga is about. In your condescension you say more about you than those who you proclaim to be ignorant. Look in yourself and ask why you feel the need to preach to and judge others? Mind your own business I say.

  9. Silvia says:

    Doing hard intense work physically on the mat reminds me of my strength within. I can. I am capable. I can overcome. I can breathe through anything that life offers, especially when I feel like giving up. This body, this ego, this personality, these sensations will all disappear (love the t-shirt by the way) but for now they here to teach me what I need to learn. We are all on a different path which is perfect.

  10. Carol Horton says:

    I find the writing here strong, passionate, and arresting, but not angry, condescending, or negative as some have suggested. Of course it can be a good thing for many reasons to strengthen your core, and there are ways to teach and practice "abs" mindfully. (They can in fact be used to counteract all the cultural baggage pointed out here. But that's another story.) But there is a larger truth, which is that meditative awareness is infinitely more valuable than six-pack abs. Blurring that distinction out of existence isn't helping anyone. I for one love the no b.s. tone of this post!

  11. Jen says:

    Beautiful! I remember myself as a teenager with a severe eating disorder, lying on the floor doing thousands of crunces after not eating all day. Then I started doing yoga, and the crushes slowed down. I started eating again. I felt so connected to the practice, at first because I was in a 90 degree room burning thousands of calories. Over time, I began to feel connected to myself. Today I teach yoga. Yes I teach power vinyasa, yes, I include crunches, but they are not a way to fight against the body but to connect to it.

  12. catnip says:

    I think that if people respected their bodies and accepted them as they ARE, with all imperfections, the world would be a better place. Having said that, I do feel healthier and more energetic when I am fit (fit and still sexy-curvy, as I will never ever be a skinny gal, even on one apple and diet coke a day). But i also think that not only can yoga be a workout, but it’s ok if you want that kind of yoga! I do! I’m lazy enough on my own. I can sleep in Savasana. But I think a Bikram class is a workout (hell, it changed my body as well as my mind, breathing, and posture) and I also think an Ashtanga class can be a workout. It’s ok to want a gentle yoga class. It’s also ok to want a challenging one. And breathing IS essential in both types, as you said! Alexa M.

  13. strawberryem says:

    Thank you! For having the balls & the passion to say this!

  14. JoMo says:

    Beautiful article, love your openness. They come and they go….

  15. SaraHuntie says:

    Loved this. Loved it times, like, a thousand at least! What I loved most was that you kept it real- no airy fairy stuff, none of the making a statement and then semi-backpedaling. It was real, and it spoke to me, and now I’m going to pass it on to my friends. Thank you.

  16. matthew says:

    Nice. You know, before class, my (awesome) teacher always asks if there is anything anybody wants to work on in particular. ALWAYS someone says: "abs". Then we do "yoga crunches" and I realize I am in the wrong class, the wrong studio, the wrong life, perhaps.

  17. Great article! So true and after spending a week in a Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy training yoga is indeed much much deeper and more powerful than just another workout, something I already knew as an instructor but now have ingrained in every cell of my body!

  18. Thanks for this great piece, Rachel. Honest and exactly right.

  19. warriorsaint says:

    Hey Rachel: I sure can appreciate your passion. However, a strong core is still important in injury prevention in many of the more advanced yoga moves. This really hit home with me when I took a workshop with Ana Forrest a few years ago. She noticed when she worked in a few core strengtheners her students had less injuries. Check out her book "Fierce Medicine."
    p.s. Stomach crunches went away a long time ago.

  20. yogini3770 says:

    i simply enjoyed reading a passionate edgy yogis thoughts. rachel, your writing is so that i feel i am reading your journal. keep writing.

  21. Lynn says:

    Although I get your point, using such strong language including the Lord's name in vain sort of deflates your point. Dropping the EF bomb repeatedly doth not a great article make. Asanas are very much about disciplining not only the mind, but the body as well. So just like cranking out situps doesn't make a great practice, dropping the EF bomb repeatedly in a article doesn't make it more legitimate or accurate. People these days do not have strong enough core muscles to properly excrete the poisons and bile from their organs causing an array of health issues including depression and numerous gastrinal intenstinal problems. The Spriritual Philosphy of Kriya Yoga by Goswami Kriyandana goes to great lengths to explain the importantce of a strong core. Om.

  22. Jason says:

    Glad warriorsaint already brought up Ana Forrest. I've also felt frustrated by the lack of mindfulness during ab work in vinyasa classes I've taken but the ab work that Ana teaches is mindful and focused. There's nothing I enjoy teaching more. You mentioned unraveling, letting go, and unraveling. To me, part of what makes ab work so powerful is its ability to do these 3 things to an area that so many of us have numbed out.

  23. Heather L. Ash says:

    I agree with this sentiment on some levels, but for those of us who are teachers we have to be careful to not define what yoga "is," thus opening the doorway to define what yoga "is not." The word yoga simply means union. And there are many who argue that classical suns, and backbends, and headstands aren't "true yoga" either. The first limb of yoga is Asana – or pose. Simple as that. There are seven other limbs that are not physical, but the point is the first and most basic limb IS physical. But it isn't defined much beyond that. It is just the physical preparation we do to clear our minds and ready our bodies for deeper states of meditation.

    I don't practice yoga for the physical benefits in my own life, but some people start out that way and then the deeper significance seeps in to their being. I believe our place as teachers of yoga is to offer space for people to be whomever they want to be and discover that however it is going to come to them. Yoga seems to me to be like a love relationship: Sometimes two people are best friends for years before romantic love blossoms, sometimes people are chemically, romantically drawn to one another, fall in fascination first and the friendship flowers slowly over time. Yoga is, for me and others a spiritual journey first and foremost from the start. For others that I know, they have to exercise open their bodies and find a little stress relief first before their spirits start to speak to them on the mat. So abs, while not important in the grand scheme, when taught wisely, are an amazing way to improve the ability to stand tall. When we can stand taller we can face our lives with a little more bravery. Abs work also gives us a chance to connect with the breath when it is at its most challenged, and even more so with the mind when it is at its most resistant.

    I feel like it is a disservice to characterize abs work in a yoga class so limitedly. Some of the most spiritual teachers I have had teach abs for the very reasons I have mentioned and not one of them has a clearly visible six pack. As a teacher, I don't teach a lot of abs, it isn't my niche yet. But I appreciate the physical, mental, AND spiritual benefits that can be gained from any yoga pose or series of movements in the hands of a capable teacher. So, as a student, I would beg my teachers to teach what resounds with their own spirits, but release the door closing, judgemental defining of what yoga is and/or is not.
    If yoga has taught me anything, it is that the world is full of paths and doorways to get to the same place of peace and love and bliss. Saying that yoga IS this or IS NOT that is like saying you ONLY get to heaven by believing in Jesus and all other ways lead to hell. A dangerous and very divisive attitude to say the least…

  24. Kim says:

    Any health practitioner with their head out of their ass will tell you that exercise in any form is a good thing. While your form of yoga is a wonderful thing, it isn't everyone's thing. We're all different. That's what makes the world such a beautiful place. As far as I'm concerned, if having a nice flat tummy makes a woman feel good about herself and reflects the great care she takes to stay healthy and fit, where's the bad? How about a little more acceptance, and a little less judgement?

  25. Rachel says:

    Thanks for all your feedback, y'all. I dig folks who want to have real conversations about this kind of thing: impermanence and yoga philosophy and bodies and commodification and all of it. You rock for reading. Now, where did I put my legwarmers?

  26. yogijulian says:

    wow a lot of mixed messages. honestly i wonder of some of the eating disorder extremism is still at play here?

    the body will be a corpse? yes, but then you keep coming back to it being able to breathe…

    if the body will be a corpse and so therefore we shouldn't do abdominal work, then why should we stretch or breathe or meditate?

    last i checked strengthening the abdomen also had to do with supporting the low back and building a strong core that was key to every other physical activity. what makes core work so lame and unspiritual and caturanga so sublime?

    the body will be a corpse – so are we practicing yoga for the after life or something? we are alive for a brief moment as you say – but that is also a good argument for keeping as strong, flexible and enlivened as possible for our limited time….. sure we will all grow old and gain weight etc – but i am confused as to why this is an argument against non-yogic physical activity but not against yoga…

  27. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Rachel, I'm in love with your honesty and openness and even more so your energy. So glad to have you here. Looking forward to more!

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

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
    Join us! Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
    Follow on Twitter

  28. angie says:

    wow wow, loved this article. so passionate, so wonderful. It brought fiery tears to my eyes. thank you for this.

  29. I wrote a similar article on this a couple months ago.. .http://www.elephantjournal.com/2011/09/the-yoga-teacher-workout–hannah-siegle/

    Is teaching yoga a workout?

  30. elli says:

    amen good stuff

  31. Lauren says:

    Just curious. Where do you live? Probably not America. More than half of us are overweight. There are so few that are 98 pounds and wasting away, worried about their abs. Most Americans are fat, on a couch, and watching QVC. This sounds like a directed attack on a few women who drive you crazy. A little humility goes a long way. Let it go. Chill out.

  32. LOVE this Rachel!! I originally sought out yoga as one more workout, but turned out it did far more to sculpt my heart and soul than my body. <3 thanks so much for writing this!

  33. Holly Meyers says:

    Brilliant. Thanks for sharing so frankly and poignantly. The first time you wrote "This body will be a corpse," I immediately thought, "Every Asana session ends in a little death." I can't just practice yoga on a mat, it has to translate into every part of my life. So when I lie down for Savaasana, I can reflect – I just practiced 60 minutes of healing and growth. And when I lie down to die, I want to think – I just practiced 100 (!) years of healing and growth.

  34. Jessica says:

    I teach mindful movement and meditation classes that incorporate a blend from my studies of Pilates (therapeutics), Feldenkrais technique (awareness through movement) and hatha/restorative asana (depending on the needs of the given group or student). I agree with C.Horton that there is a distinction to be made, and currently core and accessory exercises that can really enhance awareness are being integrated without encouragement to explore experientially.

    There is a mindful quality available in all we do, and going to our deepest muscles can take your practice to new heights (not to mention it provides more material that lends more modifications to asana making them ultimately more accessible and safe at any level).

  35. […] Why Yoga’s Not a Workout. ~ Rachel Meyer […]

  36. gymnastics says:

    Heya i’m for the primary time here. I found this board and I to find It truly useful & it helped me out much. I hope to give one thing again and aid others such as you helped me.

  37. Kerri says:

    Yoga is one of the hardest things I have ever done, but there's a love there, for how it makes you feel. Time to get back to it.

  38. […] ‘yogacising’ phenomenon fits really well into our go-go culture. For most of us, we think that sitting still […]

  39. Kristin says:

    As someone who struggles with an eating disorder, this post is beautiful.

  40. Jerald Wirfs says:

    great website!! You could start many more. I love all the info provided. I will stay tuned.

  41. hjcotton says:

    I feel i need good sustenance in order to do my yoga effectively especially in inversions and backbends.

  42. […] she began rattling off her response, I felt disheartened. Her list of answers included “sweat”, “work-out”, “toned” and […]

  43. ashki says:

    1) white girl is correct, its not a workout… its about hinduism at its core. you will be dumb to call it otherwise.

    2) westerners dont know jack about real yoga… go find a ashram in india to get the real deal. Make sure you commit.
    I will never trust a westerner who thinks " it will make me more bendy" and disregards the true meaning.

    3) We made it as 5000 years ago, as a total mind and body system with the end goal being enlightenment.
    Not "something you do just because Angelina jolie does it"

    4) Christians, kid yourself all you want.. but this is hindu spirituality at its base.
    I dont think your god will like that, we being "Pagans" and all. There is no such thing as "christian yoga"

    5) Angry?, Curious?… good. Learn the truth and enlighten yourselves :http://www.swamij.com/traditional-yoga.htm

  44. […] had heard of any of the “other” yoga teachings; they just knew and taught Hatha yoga as an exercise class. This is not unusual, but hatha is only one aspect of a rich and expansive system and these […]

  45. […] challenging, and yes, I understand that certain styles honor the rigorous and meditative origins). Personally, I enjoy sweating with a few dozen friends in a humid room. Workout aside, what we’ve lost in transition is the mirror that we need to hold up so that we can […]

  46. […] challenging, and yes, I understand that certain styles honor the rigorous and meditative origins). Personally, I enjoy sweating with a few dozen friends in a humid room. Workout aside, what we’ve lost in transition is the mirror that we need to hold up so that we can […]

  47. Sorry, but I use yoga as a workout, along with spinning, trailrunning and swimming. My spiritual life is my business! If it is your spiritual practice, that's wonderful (as is running for some people). But saying yoga shouldn't be regarded as a workout is at best forcing your ideas on others, and at worst, straight-up prosteletizing your spirituality – which is just as offensive as when Mormons, Christians, or others do so, and which I find totally disgusting.

    UGH, I would never take a class from you, or anyone who forced their ideas of what a spiritual practice IS or IS NOT on me. That's just plain old rude.

  48. akreimer says:

    Love that! Thank you!!!!

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