Yoga as Spirit or Yoga as Sport? ~ Jessica Avila

Via elephant journal
on Jul 15, 2012
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Something is happening in yoga studios all across America, and it is polarizing yoga practitioners in a way that only an East meets West sort of showdown can.

Yoga asana is an ancient system with the aim of physically preparing practitioners to sit for extended periods of time in meditation. While the myriad physical benefits and resulting wellbeing have always been noted and appreciated, the true focus was on achieving a calm, quiet mind so that one could attain enlightenment, true bliss and union with the Divine (known as Samadhi).

Fast forward to modern day American yoga, especially in studios dedicated to more athletic styles, and there’s a good chance that at least half the students rolling out their mats have never sat for meditation a day in their lives, nor do they possess any awareness of yoga’s origins.

Padmasana, or full lotus pose, is treated as a seated posture that one takes to show off their open hips and healthy knees, not necessarily a posture to be held while opening your third eye and cultivating a healthy spirit.

As a teacher who is trained in Sivananda yoga, a school of yoga tied to a strong, monastic lineage that places a very heavy emphasis on the spiritual, philosophical and metaphysical components of the practice, I struggle at times when I see vinyasa and power yoga teachers who never so much as chant “OM” or incorporate Sanskrit into their classes. Not that these are tantamount with addressing yoga’s origins and original purpose, but it does at least offer a sense of connectedness with the deeper meaning of the practice when they are integrated.

As a lover of vinyasa and power styles of yoga, I frequent these classes, and even teach them too. Nothing gives me a physical high quite like sweating out my stuff in a 98-degree room, mat to mat with other Type A’s while we twist and push ourselves toward ever expanding edges in our physical practice.

Finally “mastering” an advanced pose that I’ve worked on absolutely feels like a reward, even though I am aware that it is “unyogic” of me to have attachments to the outcome, especially the outcome of my physical practice.

The other day while taking a fantastic vinyasa class much like I described previously, I lowered my fully lengthened torso over my bent right knee, forehead to the mat, opening my hips into , or pigeon pose, ready to release and relax.

I love this particular asana, as I don’t have the most open hips by nature, so I appreciate the opportunity to stretch just as much as I appreciate the chance to work through the energetic stores that reside in that area of the body. So imagine my surprise, or better, disdain, when some aggressive rap song starts pumping through the speakers.

Maybe it had an uplifting message, but I couldn’t hear it over the angry beat and harsh tones of the track. I literally plugged my ears with my fingers and held the pose for an extra minute so I could at least partially drown out the unwelcome noise until that song gave way to another more mellow track.

This was the exact moment that really got me thinking about sport versus spirit in yoga.

I felt so conflicted as I tried to enjoy the meditative aspect of my physical practice but struggled to let go of my judgment, in itself a form of attachment, toward the music and the decidedly non-spiritual style of the teacher whose class I had chosen to take.

On one hand, isn’t it a teacher’s responsibility to set a positive and nurturing tone in his or her class and share the teachings of yoga with integrity and reverence for their origins? On the other hand, isn’t it my responsibility as a student on a spiritual path (who is fortunate to be schooled in the eight limbs of yoga and many other lessons that could serve me in these moments) to focus on practices such as pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses, and dhyana and dharana, concentration and meditation, no matter what is going on externally?

Answering this question is not all that dissimilar from taking a stab at the time old “What came first . . . the chicken or the egg?” conundrum.

Yes, a student is ultimately responsible for himself or herself. However, if he or she can’t rely on teachers to guide him or her properly through the practice or yoga, it becomes a challenge to take on that responsibility. I suppose, going even further, one could say that the student could just find a different teacher, and that would be a fair enough statement.

I firmly believe that yoga is a system that can, and moreover, should, be adapted to modern society.

We do not live in a time or place where going off to a mountain cave for a few months for deep contemplation and silence is the norm for the majority of people. We do live in a time and place where life is busy, the pace is fast, we are often over-stimulated and over-extended, so we look to practices such as yoga to provide a balance, a space of refuge amidst it all.

Instead of treating yoga like any other work out and incorporating a competitive edge, blaring music and a harsh, disciplinarian tone of voice to even the most physically demanding and powerful styles of yoga asana, my hope is that more and more teachers will strive to find ways to include yoga’s origins and most meaningful lessons in ways that are relevant to the time and place we find ourselves in.

Teachers, please don’t underestimate your ability to share these gifts with your students. Students, please don’t underestimate your ability to receive and appreciate them.

Even if spiritual growth was not what brought you to yoga in the first place, somewhere deep inside you are probably open to it and actually seeking it, or you would have chosen any old sport.

Yoga is not sport; it is spirit.

Let’s all take a moment and a deep, meditative breath to remember that.


Jessica Avila is the founder of Ocean Om standup paddle yoga, as well as a Sivananda and vinyasa yoga instructor in Fort Lauderdale, FL. For her writing, like yoga, is a practice in spirituality, self-discovery and self-healing. Reach her at [email protected] and visit for more on yoga or for more on what she has to say.



Editor: Cassandra Smith

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14 Responses to “Yoga as Spirit or Yoga as Sport? ~ Jessica Avila”

  1. cathy says:

    I like everything you said til almost the last sentence. I came to yoga as an aging athlete and stay with it for physical strength, rehab and flexibility. I have found and practice spiritual growth in many ways. I get upset when my athletic or power yoga is confused with a teachers litany of ´change your view so you change the world´stuff. I need and want and come to class to hear cues and reliable careful instructio on the poses. Yes, I am ok with a few monents ot breathe, to go inside' in actuality we do this in other sports. I am ok with a soft saying at the end and with ommming and much breathing. I choose my classes with care by teacher experience and knowledge and chose to nto select one who pontificates.

  2. Guest says:

    Not everyone is looking for a spiritual path. I consider myself atheist. I'm not looking for god, spirituality, etc. I practice to breath, relax, train, and to ease physical pain in my hips, back, and knees. I never chant in my classes and that does not make me any less of a yogi than you. Not everyone is on the same path while doing yoga and I think that is something we need to remember. Not everyone wants Sanskrit jammed in their faces either. Let's just appreciate that fact that there is a teacher out there for everyone. Yoga is amazing in that anyone, anywhere can practice the way THEY want to, not the way you think they should.

  3. Heather says:

    Yoga is an art, subject, spiritual discipline, sport, holistic practice, exercise, meditation and living, breathing path. Reading BKS Iyengar's work soon reveals much of what we try to do, which is place YOGA in one box only.

    If anything, Teachers should teach to those who come to them….some want Sanskrit, some not, some like chanting, some don't, some like exercise, others wish to meditate….The path looks different for each…but in the end is going the same way.

    The challenge for teachers is to not just give students what they want but what they need. This takes skill and many may resist it….but again BKS Iyengar advises that teachers should address the 'needs' of their students…not only what they want so they grow as full individuals….

  4. HJCOTTON says:

    I take Mr. Iyengar's approach in In my yoga practice, and only recently did I start to understand the Sutras and all the classical textbooks plus the eight limbs as my asanas practice got stronger. He was a seer in his approach to studying yoga. He himself started yoga to improve his physical health, and it took him years before he could do pranayama and seague into the spiritual realm. What I like about Iyengar yoga is that don't start teaching the spiritual aspect of yoga unless the student is ready physically and mentally, and even in teaching asanas, they proceed from the gross to the move refined aspects of the asnans.

  5. Vision_Quest2 says:

    Yoga's importance to me, in that order:

    1. Cultivate beginner's mind/middle path
    2. Looking for a centering practice each time
    3. Ease and rejuvenate an aging body (but not like an "old dog in search of new tricks")
    4. Healing MIND as well as body …
    5. Immersion in traditions/rituals
    6. Doing yoga with my eyes closed ….

  6. Lauren says:

    I'm also an atheist, and I take from the piece that yoga can be for the mind as well as the body. It's distracting to have music blasted, or to purely consider the movements. I meditate – not to reach any god (remember, atheist here), but to turn inwards and calm my chaotic mind.

  7. JessAvila says:

    Cathy, I'm glad that the majority of the article resonated well with you and very glad you have found teachers to guide you toward growth in a practice that meets your needs. The latter is most important. Ultimately my feelings are my own and they stem from the belief that taking spirituality out of yoga altogether, which some but not all teachers do, is akin to taking language arts out of basic education. It is fundamental and essential to the system an yoga, not because I say so, but because that is what yoga's origins dictate. Of course, how much spirituality students seek and teachers offer is a personal choice.

  8. JessAvila says:

    I agree not everyone is looking to walk down a spiritual path. I am simply reflecting on the fact that the system of yoga was not designed for purely physical purposes, but as a holistic system with spiritual "goals". My feelings and opinions, which are my own, stem more from reflecting on the distance and disconnect modern yoga has from the origins of the practice. I would never presume to tell anyone how they should practice, and if you felt that was the message I was sharing, you must have misconstrued my intent. The beauty of a forum such as this is having an open exchange of ideas, some different from our own, some similar. I appreciate you sharing. Namaste.

  9. JessAvila says:

    Well said, Heather! I appreciate your commentary and absolutely agree. Yoga is many things to many people, and to limit it by one narrow definition is unrealistic and unfair. It is definitely a teacher's responsibility to give students not just what they want but what they need, and it is my opinion that staying true to the essence and origins of the system of yoga while placing it in a modern context is important and necessary. That is the gist of what I hoped to convey in this article, and I very much appreciate you adding to that so succinctly. Namaste!

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