A friend of mine recently had a falling out with yoga.
“It’s no different than spinning,” she says, “especially power yoga classes, why should we act as if yoga is somehow special? Its just another form of exercise!”
Now, I am no yoga-only purist. I love running, playing soccer, weight training, riding the cardio bike and getting into some serious push-ups, pull-ups and crunches. But I think yoga is different for reasons that have made it my mainstay practice for the last 20 plus years.
How is yoga different?
Well let me start off by saying I am not going try and make some vague statement about how yoga was handed down from Lord Shiva and is the perfect way to burn through karma, dis-identify with the illusory material world and find God.
That’s just straight-up mythology, which is perhaps interesting as a metaphor but tends to fade in the sunlight of honest inquiry.
It also turns out (according to the deeply researched book Yoga Body by Mark Singleton) that what we know as asana practice today as inspired by Krishnamacharya traces back a mere 80 years and is basically a hybrid of Indian exercise regimes, Scandanavian gymnastics and YMCA fitness training.
This hybrid physical practice created and refined in the 1930’s for the Indian royal family was then after the fact grafted onto the roughly fifteen-hundred year old Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, which in fact is much more of an instruction manual for a type of meditation with a particular religious metaphysics than a guide to what we know today as asana.
So a lot of our beloved notions of asana practice as an ancient and sacred art form are based in modern privileged American romanticism. But stay with me, because I think that realizing this is actually a good thing!
The “Correct Alignment” Conundrum
I am also not going to say that yoga is a superior system because its alignment principles keep your body in perfect health when applied correctly.
Turns out there are as many approaches to “alignment” as there are schools of yoga in the modern market place. But look at photos of Krishnamacharya and you’ll see a radiant old man doing the kind of apparently sloppy postures that would get him corrected every two minutes by a newbie Santa Monica mid-day community class teacher —and this is the grandfather of modern posture practice!
This has not stopped American systems (or brand names) of yoga from claiming that not only are they teaching the correct asana alignment principles, but that these are part of a supposedly unbroken lineage from mother India that goes back thousands of years.
An interesting need we have to claim authority and validity based on the ancient and the Eastern, huh?
Turns out that millions of Americans are actively engaged in regular yoga practices following divergent principles that in some cases are quite contradictory with regard to say, the placement of the pelvis, shoulder joint, knees or neck—all of which seem to work just fine for most people while tending to injure others!
My sense is that people who most benefit from certain approaches tend to end up in those systems after having tried some of the others that were not beneficial for their particular bodily needs. Everyone thinks they have found the superior or perfect system, but what really happens is that groups of people with similar body types or genetic tendencies tend to find one another and follow yoga systems that are selectively beneficial.
Of course, all approaches to yoga can also have blind-spots—and I find it essential as a teacher to be willing to refer people to bodywork, chiropractic or physical therapy when an injury or pain syndrome in their bodies is not being resolved through yoga alone.
But here’s my pitch—I think yoga can be different from other forms of exercise when it combines four key elements: stretching, strengthening, breath and mindfulness.
For me, yoga provides a unique opportunity to work with both stretching and strengthening the body while training the brain to be mindful and using breath to regulate the nervous system.
Further I think that when mindfulness of body and breath coincide with a supportive community space that invites people into authentic self-exploration, yoga becomes a way to drop beneath the surface and work with mental and emotional habit patterns in ways that can be deeply healing and life changing.
This requires that the physical asana practice be intelligent and non-dogmatic, striving to meet the student where they are and empowering them to listen to and learn about their own bodies. It also requires that the teacher learn how to provide the kind of environment or micro-culture that makes it safe for students to let down the defensive shields we all have learned to hide behind.
In this kind of environment the brain states that attention to breath and moment-to-moment awareness evoke can blossom into being truly beneficial and substantively transformational.
So for me, one of the key ways yoga is different is that it can be an arena for inner work that uses the external practice as a dynamic platform for meditative curiosity about where each of us is at on our journeys through life. Through this kind of practice we get to see how we deal with our emotions and find out what is most beneficial to our bodies and minds.
There is another key distinction I find essential here: yoga is different not only from other forms of exercise, but also from forms of spirituality or religion that do not involve interior experiential practices.
It is one thing to buy into a metaphysical belief system, supernatural faith or set of superstitious talismans, quite another to spend regular time in the kind of contemplation for which yoga and meditation set the stage.
Now, of course many people engage in yoga as if it is all about an outside-in embrace of quasi-religious beliefs, and an adopting of another culture and its vocabulary, way of dress etc. This kind of surface pretension is a hard trap to avoid—but my sense is that we can move deeper.
When we approach yoga practice as a living tradition that transcends culture, religion and time-period, we start to see that it is about the very universal human process of cultivating self-awareness.
The human body is the common denominator and transcendent ground of the practice. Yoga presents a unique opportunity to be more engaged in and conscious of our lives in our bodies.
We are working with our nervous systems and brains, and what I think of as the “sacred biochemistry” of our neuro-endocrine systems. We are leaning to stay present in the face of our experience as it unfolds, and cultivating kindness toward ourselves and others as we observe the dance of shadow and light, struggle and grace to which none of us is ever immune.
We are working with the same muscles, bones, and fascia in the same organizational structure that all human beings share and this can take center stage over cultural fetishes, metaphysical crutches, Sanskrit jargon or ideological dogma.
This makes space for genuine inquiry into how it feels to be this human being on this planet in this moment. Inquiry into what matters to us, what feels good, what we are struggling with and how to best be with and move forward in our actual lives.
The practice-oriented experiential nature of yoga makes it possible for us to go beyond overt religiosity into a very naturalistic, down-to-earth exploration of being human, of our suffering and our bliss, our capacity for compassion and gratitude and the need we all have for spaces in which to grieve, vent and celebrate with supportive community.
While spinning (and the other fun and beneficial activities I mentioned above) may create an awesome endorphin rush, trim waistline and great cardiovascular health–and may even be an experience that for some people is quite healing, I will personally always come back to yoga as a unique and powerful multi-leveled way to work with mind/body awareness, strength and flexibility.