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

Via on Oct 31, 2011

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. Dhyanbir Kaur says:

    Oh my. So much…passion. Obviously, you have not tried kundalini yoga! It's a workout! But the kind of workout that fries your subconscious mind. Ahhhhhhhhh….peace. Sweat, stretch, mediate.

  2. Noelle says:

    Wow, Jane in modified boat pose?
    Thanks for the reminder of what yoga is really about.

  3. cathywaveyoga says:

    you end with how yoga is serene and soft, yet your vocabulary,"fuck that shit" "take your crunches and shove them".
    What have you really learned? What are you practicing? Serenity? Projecting anger?

  4. cathywaveyoga says:

    I would never want to take yoga from one who publicly says "fuck that shit" about others' yoga practices or purposes.

  5. Lisa Stets says:

    I agree. A slow, non-workout form of Yoga may be your thing, but not everyones. It doesn't matter how hard you are working, it's all Yoga. Some people need the hard work to even get introduced to the practice. The ab work, well you need that if you want to do arm balances, and whos to say that you can incorporate spirituality into that. I certainly do when I teach. A stable core is important, and some people don't go to the gym. People come to Yoga for many reasons and find the practice that's right for them. Harder vinyasa type Yoga brings some people deep into embodiment and deep into their Prana. Yes, we will all become a corpse and Yoga teaches us that. But, it doesn't teach us to just become a corpse. It teaches us to become a corpse with as much connection to the source as possible. Oneness. Their is a shedding of layers that get's us there through hard asana. You can also shed layers in a slower practice, or with mantra or breathwork. It's all Yoga. Sounds like you have a lot of shedding to do and that with your harsh judgement of other people's Yoga, you are just starting on the path. Do you think all asana in India was easy? You should do some research..sometimes they literally torture themselves to go into Prana. You should dive a little into your own Prana and quit judging everyone else.

  6. Lisa Stets says:

    I just want to add that Yoga meets you where you are not the other way around. If you are a workout queen or king, yoga will meet you there. If you don't ever workout, Yoga will meet you there. When Yoga finds you, it will be there in just the way you need it to be. Hard, practice, soft practice, a little of both, years of practice, a few months of practice just mantra, just seva, just bhakti to the goddess, etc.. It's literally about the journey to oneness not the destination, and everyone starts on that journey in a different place, thus the many, many forms of Yoga out there, are there for a reason. The universe is doing its job and you should trust a little more in that.

  7. eatingasapathtoyoga says:

    Thank you!

  8. @onlyoga says:

    For starters this article is very poorly written, very poorly written! The writer should do some research into the adamantine body as it relates to yoga. She would also benefit from thinking about how important a strong abdomen is for sitting up straight and BREATHING deeply. Those of us who take our pranayama and meditation practice seriously, know the importance of having a strong foundation that starts with the abdominals. This article is a great example of maladaptive psychology mixed with lots of hyperbole and sprinkled with profanity to be "edgy." – the result is a poorly written, poorly edited article that makes one question Elephant Journal. If you have or had an eating disorder, go see a professional, but please stop berating those of us who don't have an eating disorder for taking care of this body which allows us to reach deeper into our experience with every crunch, sit-up, curl, handstand and backbend! Some people LOVE to work hard because it brings them over the threshold into a liminal state into transcendence = YOGA!

  9. RidgiesPidgies says:

    Awesome! Couldn’t agree more. The more you practice living your yoga, the practice spills into your life and even though you may attain them through asana…. the abs just don’t seen to matter anymore. Surely a different path to that point for all

  10. Adam says:

    This displays a basic misunderstanding of other forms of fitness and smacks of elitism. Golfers will regularly tell you that their opponent isn't the other player, but themselves. Runners and bicyclists and mountain climbers and – yes – even weightlifters, will tell you that they have to overcome their own doubts and fears to accomplish that next mile or rep (hence, the success – because it rings true – of Nike's "Just Do It" slogan). No matter what form of workout you engage in, it's ALL about overcoming obstacles, getting past "I can't" and to "I did". It's not about the perfect abs, but what someone puts into getting those abs – the discipline, the sacrifices, the time and energy. It's a feeling of accomplishment, but knowing that it's a process, an evolution, and an appreciation that these abilities are finite – which is why you keep coming back, to whatever form of so-called "yoga" you do.

  11. erica says:

    thank you for this Rachel–I am also dismayed the direction of the yoga "industry" has been going–I would like to see someone include in this dialogue the excessive "heated classes" that are popping up everywhere under the guise of "detoxifying" but really for dropping pounds. Vigorous practices being given in studios that are 90 or more degrees–i have been calling it sweataorexia. I enjoy teaching my classes in moderate warmth so the muscles can relax but concentrate on using the breath to create heat in the body. These excessive heat classes are (like Yoga Journal) using marketing techniques similar to the weight loss industry. Anyway thanks for you article!

  12. Laurisa says:

    Thank you for voicing the reasons why I quit teaching asana at commercial yoga studios

  13. Jill says:

    And you teach at Urban Flow???

  14. Brad says:

    Thank you. Thank you for saying something that is real. Unlike most articles on elephant journal, this one is going the right direction. Yes, yoga is not what we have out there. The more we let anyone become a yoga 200 hr teacher, the more we bastardize the entire thing. Asana ain't yoga. and it isn't gonna get you enlightened either. Won't even make you a good person. Doesn't burn karma except of the physical body, and that is when it is done correctly and those teachings have been pretty lost. No swing it together asana class has anything to do with yoga. No template same thing every time has anything to do with it either. Read the damn ancient texts. Learn. Grow. Not by a little but by a lot. Turn the lights on, stop playing in the dark.

  15. […] I came across classes offered by the lovely Carolyn Weatherson at her school, Maha Pura Yoga, which happened to be right down the street from my work. I remember my first class vividly—what a great workout! At the time I was seeking a good workout and nothing more, but boy was I in for a treat! […]

  16. Rachel l says:

    Well done! Love this! I want to puke when ‘traditional’ yoga style classes talk about how much they lost weight and work on their ‘core’ or ‘abs’. Chant for crying out loud! Lol!!! Our soul remains after the physical body dies. Woop woop!

  17. Peter Tarsio says:

    All very true but why dwell on the downside which is inevitable. Yoga in the truer sens is about union with the self and to think that the body is who I am is one great mistake, the mind and so on where without the breath none of this takes place. Yes, I agree that the body is treated like a machine and that yoga as it is taught today in the USA is corrupted in that the emphasis is in the wrong place where many think that it a form of exercise which it could be depending on how one practices but then we know that it isn't that at all and to be able to relax is one chief component in what we do on the mat and in life. In the meantime I see the meditative and spiritual aspect left out completely and that is because many people are not interested in the philosophy behind yoga which is beyond their time constraints to learn or even care about. I see many people getting hurt because they are trying to contort themselves into the poses as they are incorrectly called and the word asana is obviously the opposite of what is intended.

    Peter Tarsio

  18. Peter Tarsio says:

    All very true but why dwell on the downside which is inevitable. Yoga in the truer sens is about union with the self and to think that the body is who I am is one great mistake, the mind and so on where without the breath none of this takes place. Yes, I agree that the body is treated like a machine and that yoga as it is taught today in the USA is corrupted in that the emphasis is in the wrong place where many think that it a form of exercise which it could be depending on how one practices but then we know that it isn't that at all and to be able to relax is one chief component in what we do on the mat and in life. In the meantime I see the meditative and spiritual aspect left out completely and that is because many people are not interested in the philosophy behind yoga which is beyond their time constraints to learn or even care about. I see many people getting hurt because they are trying to contort themselves into the poses as they are incorrectly called and the word asana is obviously the opposite of what is intended.

  19. Mr Tang says:

    Loved this from start to finish. Thank you XX Namaste Rachel x

  20. Angela says:

    For the record, I was in a room with Jane Fonda last week and that woman looks AMAZING! She was also incredibly genuine and nice. I hear ya on the breath, I'm with ya on breath is #1. As a dancer, I need the abs too, otherwise I can't perform a lot of choreography (physically, not costume wise). But, I don't look to yoga to give me "cut" abs. That's just silly. That's like taking a pointe class (ballet) to improve your hip hop style performance (not gonna happen).

  21. Joanna says:

    Love this! Thank you! From the girl who teaches yoga with a belly!

  22. smcneil62 says:

    Thank you for this. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Namaste and amen. Keep on preaching (and practicing)!

  23. Bridget says:

    Thank you Rachel. What I got from it included a beautiful retro-advocacy for the health of the teenage girl who couldn't defend herself, and her body. I didn't read it as an attack on fitness. Everybody perceives things differently, right? Thank you for your passion and wisdom. Namaste.

  24. Guest says:

    You are expending a great deal of energy; my yogic practices has been about conserving energy. Best wishes to finding what is going to give you some peace and clarity.

  25. Guest says:

    For me….Yoga is providing the experience of my body in balance while finding the pose/posture, and on …to acquire and maintain the balance in confidence and comfort It takes muscle …it takes patience…it takes awareness ( truly a gift and a pleasure..) specially to discover my body is not doing what my mind thinks it is doing …..and how so much grace comes with
    getting my head on straight"

  26. Jenny says:

    This is AMAZING. People have been making me so angry using yoga as just another form of exercise program and I want to slap them and tell them that's not the point!! Where is the spirituality!? Thank you for writing this.

  27. Cecile Raynor says:

    Great article! Refreshing honesty Women in India or Africa carry heavy weight on their head while carrying their baby on their back and grocery bags in each hand. They have an amazing strong core they develop by using their body as a whole, no push ups, no isolated abs work, no pulling the shoulders back, no squeezing and lifting of body parts. That is the way to go! Function as an integrated being and focus on what is really important in life! http://offthematyogablog.com/

  28. Iván Barba says:

    I Woody never to to a yoga class from a person who swears so much. Yoga is about balance, I don’t understand whynyou you have to make a statment by cursing so much.

  29. Guest 1 says:

    Great point, but why so much profanity? Your message has merit, but lost in the dirty words. The cursing sounds like a desperate plea to be relevant. This aggressive tone doesn't convey yoga.

  30. Rachel says:

    Yes, friend. Strong core = not an acid test. Love that. We are not goal oriented, right? But we would like to feel better, more healthy, more present, more agile in our bodies, eh? Sometimes the philosophy is exactly why we go to collective classes. Because we need to practice remembering those things until we're better able to tell ourselves that "you are not your tight hamstrings" and "you are exactly where you need to be." We can be at once strong and present and critically-minded and thoughtful. I don't believe that to be yogis we have to noddingly accept every platitude that comes our way. Love! Keep practicing!

  31. Rachel says:

    Amen, baby. You nailed it.

  32. Rachel says:

    We can be at once vibrant and alive and present and kind to ourselves in this practice, and that's what I love the most. It's about learning what is the most life-giving, and driving ourselves into the ground (as most of us are pretty great at doing) won't do much for that. Keep the fire — the prana — the breath, and trust that you will be exactly where your body wants to be, as long as you keep putting one conscious, loving foot in front of the other. We can build a strong core to support us in ALL aspects of our lives on and off the mat without having to get stuck in old-school "workout-style" yoga. Cheers, sister. Keep it up.

  33. Rachel says:

    Hi Jenna. Please read the whole article before you comment based on the first few lines. It begins (quite deliberately) with hyperbole and ends with poignant ruminations on breath, impermanence, and authenticity. I believe it is possible to be at once passionate and compassionate, especially as yogis, but also as people. Thank you for mindfully reading the entire piece.

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