RANT: Yoga is not a workout.
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.
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.
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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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