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. Rachel says:

    Thank you, friend. That means the world to me. Truly. Just because you're an equanimous yogi doesn't mean you're not allowed to have passionate, edgy thoughts. Or so I say! 🙂

  2. Rachel says:

    Hi Lynn. Thanks for the recommendation on the book. I'll check it out. Just because I don't endorse mindless abs routine doesn't mean I don't believe in a very strong core. As noted, above, I use the abs example as a greater means of expressing the ways in which I see the "yoga industry" veering toward gymnastics, and this is concerning to me. As for the swearing, I believe in being real. I grew up a preacher's kid (yep), so I know all about being disciplined, don't get me wrong. And a great gift of the yoga practice has been teaching me to loosen up, soften, open, and be real, and less rigid. There's a lot of very safe yoga writing out there, and I aspire to risk a little edge in service of honesty. Thanks for your thoughts.

  3. Rachel says:

    Thanks, Jason. I love your last sentence. That's a really great way of looking at core work. And as I wrote above in response to warriorsaint, I've been leaning toward Forrest for some time now because of how inspired I've been by the friends and colleagues who teach Forrest-style core work. You give me hope that abs don't have to be mindless. Thank you.

  4. Rachel says:

    Really lovely and well-said, Heather. Thanks for your feedback. I hear you.

    As I mentioned in some comment replies above, my hyperbole with the "abs" example and the swearing that some folks are reading as angry or a "divisive attitude" are really just my attempts at finding a grounded way of getting at the greater point about meditation. If you want to do abs in classes, cool. Some of my friends teach amazingly ab-focused classes. And if that works for them, right on. But as I wrote, my heart lies in the meditative aspects of this practice that are really at its base, its foundation, and I believe we can really help students by sharing those aspects with them, as well, and not simply reducing the practice to a workout. I have great sorrow at the trajectory I see the "yoga industry" moving as it heads more toward the gymnastic and away from the other crucial 7 limbs that round out this practice that so many of us know and love. As a teacher, I know there are plenty of places that students can go to get great ab workouts. I'd like my work to really help people find stillness and peace, even in the midst of a hard physical practice, yes, but not to the detriment of the meditation. There is a place for righteous passion when it looks to serve others, and while there are a lot of yoga teachers out there who say very "safe" things and believe it's best not to ever become passionate, I turn with great reverence to one of my literary idols, Audre Lorde, who wrote: "Your silence will not protect you." Among so many other gifts, yoga has taught me how to be authentic, to find my voice, to be real. And from the shocking numbers of folks who seem to have connected with the sentiments here, I can't help but think it was worth the risk to say these vulnerable, edgy things out loud. I feel greater union because of that, and so many people have told me how connected they feel to this, too. And my heart beats at the beauty of that yoga. Peace, my friend. Keep on teaching with your heart — I can tell you love it!

  5. Rachel says:

    Thanks for reading, Kim. I don't disagree with you that ANY kind of moving the body is a good (great!) thing. However, this isn't "my" form of yoga. It's the yoga that goes back to Patanjali, who wrote down the orally-transmitted yoga sutras WAY back in the day. The "yoga" that we know now in the West is very much a gym hybrid of a psychological, meditative practice for watching the mind. There's nothing bad about a "nice flat tummy" per se; however, we who study culture in a serious way know that all things happen in context, and the cultural context that encourages yoga as a means of achieving a "flat tummy" seems to me stilted and not necessarily life-giving. As other folks have said, the meditative and emotional benefits of a yoga practice can often come unknowingly through a physical practice. Acceptance without critical thinking is a dangerous thing. We who love the practice and who have found ourselves transformed by it (and in many cases, have found our lives SAVED by it) owe to to ourselves and to one another to call out the truth and the hypocrisies in this latest contemporary American manifestation of the practice. I love it too much to let it be co-opted by the workout industry. Thank you for your thoughts. If you'd like to learn more about the philosophy behind the practice, Michael Stone and Steve Ross both have awesome books out on yoga philosophy that really cracked my heart open in the best of ways. Happy yoga-ing.

  6. 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!

  7. Rachel says:

    Which is exactly why sometimes we practice a few places. I'm currently juggling a melange of sweaty vinyasa (LOVE) and home practice (quiet, but I miss the sweat) and Bikram (yes, I'll admit it, I will always hold a place in my heart for that practice). We do what we need to do….and somehow, somewhere, we end up nourished.

  8. Rachel says:

    "Commercial yoga scene" — ugh, amen, sister! Commodification can suck it. Yoga's not something to be bought and sold. It's a beautiful lineage of teachings to be shared with anyone and everyone……..!

  9. 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…

  10. 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

  11. angie says:

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

  12. Rachel says:

    Thank you, Tanya! So appreciate your support. Love that a space like this exists where we can speak outside of the yoga box. Looking forward to more myself!

  13. Rachel says:

    Amen, baby. You nailed it.

  14. 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.

  15. Rachel says:

    Thank you, Angie. That means the world to me. Love.

  16. Rachel says:

    Great points, my friend. As I noted in a few comment replies above, much of what I've done with this piece is relied upon a fair amount of hyperbole to make my point. The body being a corpse wake-up call reminds us of that Buddhist Noble Truth of impermanence: that all things arise, suffer change, and fade away, including even our very bodies, which most of us have been taught to cling to by the current pop culture attitudes toward youth and beauty. If we can accept that our blessed time in these sweet bodies is indeed brief, we can better live well in them sans self-destruction of the kind that some of us have relied upon in the past. Waking up to our passing lives can help us to live more fully in the present. And there's nothing WRONG with core work. I do core in every class, and teach it via other methods that feel a little less gym-centric. The point is, there's so much more to yoga than a workout. Many people come to the practice for asana and end up staying for all the other holistic benefits, but as the industry gets more and more commodified and co-opted by the workout craze, it's incumbent upon those of us who love it and have been transformed by it to call out what feels false or dangerous or un-life-giving. Thanks for your feedback. I appreciate it.

  17. yogijulian says:

    your measured, honest and non defensive response to all this feedback says a lot about you rachel!

  18. 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?

  19. Rachel says:

    Great article, Hannah. Thanks for the heads-up. It's an interesting question. I too came from the Bikram style background (and before that, dance classes where the teacher definitely isn't doing the moves with you), and one of the foundations of my vinyasa training has always been to learn to speak so clearly and confidently as to move throughout the room rather than ever practicing alongside folks. This changes according to setting, of course; in classes of two or three students, sometimes I think it can be appropriate to practice a bit more so they don't feel like I'm just staring them down the whole time. (I know as a student, that feeling is a real hindrance to my ability to lose myself deeply in meditation). But I've gotta admit, sometimes when I'm teaching 16 classes a week and don't have the usual time to practice in my own body, sometimes I feel sooooo jealous of those folks stretching up into a beautiful Trikonasana! The more I teach, the more I realize how very crucial it is for us to "fill up our gas tanks" by scheduling in time to practice ourselves. It only makes sense. Thanks for sharing.

  20. elli says:

    amen good stuff

  21. Rachel says:

    Thanks, Elli!

  22. Heather L. Ash says:

    The problem lies with her putting her self worth in the shape of her tummy. I hope that we women in particular but all people can learn, through yoga, that our physical appearance and/or abilities cannot be depended on to make us feel good about ourselves in the long run because there comes a time in everyone's life that our bodies are beyond our control.

  23. 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.

  24. I don't get any anger either. More of a wake-up call for those who are trapped in harmful thinking about what their bodies need.

  25. 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!

  26. 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.

  27. 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).

  28. Vision_Quest2 says:

    And thus, with punishing cleanses, guilt trips and eating disorders lain upon us (someone's anorexia trip could serve as a reproach to we who have arrested compulsive eating disorders), punishing, self-mortifying workouts … another misogynistic diet/fitness industry is born …why should I be paying for this?

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

  30. Rachel says:

    Hi Lauren. As my bio above states, I live in San Francisco, which is admittedly as far away from "normal" America as you can get. I grew up in the Great Plains, however, so I know the Heartland, and I know that while what you wrote about QVC is very true, what I experienced in that very Heartland was also very, very common. From the comments I've received after sharing this piece, I know it was not an isolated experience. So no, I did not intend this reflection on death, impermanence and bodies to be a direct attack on anyone. I'm sorry that it read that way to you. The writing came from my own experience in the yoga world, watching this meditative practice be turned into yet another workout craze. I love this practice so much, and I believe that we who love (and have been transformed by) it owe it to ourselves, to one another and to future generations to keep it rooted in the mindful principles underlying its modern, contemporary, pop culture co-option. Thank you for reading.

  31. Rachel says:

    Thanks, Kate! That's what's kind of amazing, isn't it? So many of us came to yoga for the workout, and stayed because we found ourselves emotionally and spiritually changed. Powerful stuff, that. Thanks for reading, and for your sweet support! Love.

  32. Rachel says:

    Thanks so much for all your feedback and support, Holly. It means the world.

  33. Rachel says:

    Love this, Jessica. Thanks so much. It's funny, one of the unexpected graces of writing this piece has been that I've learned so much more about how to integrate mindful core work into my teaching via various methods outside my usual vinyasa style. What a gift that's been. Although I used a fair amount of hyperbole about abs here to illustrate my point, I've been grateful to be reminded of the power and potential for core work to be so very mindful. Thanks for your feedback.

  34. 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.

  35. 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.

  36. 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.

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

  38. Kristin says:

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

  39. Jess says:

    I feel like if you are connected to your body, you can exercise your abs just by breathing effectively and moving from your center, your 3rd chakra which is the seat of willpower and determination. Having also had 3 births, I resent being made to do ab exercises in yoga. I think the point is that you can do them….but it's not what yoga is about as far as being a workout.

  40. Paige Held says:

    I agree with you Mary 100%.. I am a yoga teacher for 13 years and have been practicing for 17years and doing abs in a class can feel good and make your back stronger.. No big deal…

  41. Jerald Wirfs says:

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

  42. I love how you did not engage in some of the harsh criticism… now THAT is yoga – abs or no fucken abs.

  43. hjcotton says:

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

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

  45. 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

  46. […] 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 […]

  47. […] 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 […]

  48. […] 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 […]

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