May 7, 2015

What a Yoga Class is Actually For. (Hint: It’s not just “Movement.”)

yoga class

One of the most common things I hear in my office at Back Bay Yoga Studio is “I was going to come to your class, but I just need to move today.”

Upon hearing this ​I​ usually shrug it off, but there must be a split second where the person “needing to move” must catch the truly confused look on my face. To this day I don’t really know what people mean by this, but I have a few ideas.

First and foremost I think this sentiment points to a confusion about what a yoga class really should be—­yes I am going to take an absolute firm stance on this one.

An asana class is where you learn to practice yoga, not where you actually practice.

The practice of y​oga asana takes place on your own mat, alone. It is there that you get to process everything that your favorite teachers have taught you over the past weeks, months or years and intuit what your body needs. More importantly, you have an opportunity to directly experience your own body and mind.

One of my favorite parts of the week happens on Wednesday morning, recreating (without any notes) the class I took with my teacher on Tuesday afternoon. Sometimes I remember and practice it pose for pose, other times I end up taking a detour based on some insight I had during the class. It’s this personal exploration and thought that defines the yoga practice for me.

I think the “I just need to move” mindset also points to a feeling that yoga should be a workout.

From personal experience and the anecdotes of my teachers and colleagues who have practiced far longer than I —this is a bad idea. I have actually made it a point to stop using the phrase “workout” because for me it conjures up an idea that I need to fix or punish my body. This sentiment has always led me down the road of injury and overuse or misuse of my body.

Another potential meaning of this phrase is more psychological. The addiction to “flow” is a subtle form of escapism. When our emotions and neurosis seem overwhelming, we often take the approach of exhausting ourselves into a seemingly ​blissed­-out s​tate.

​I actually don’t think this is a bad tactic—sometimes it may even be necessary. However, it isn’t great to take this approach while simultaneously moving our joints into the end­range motion required in most modern postural yoga classes. My preferred method of shaking off the baggage of the week is to go dancing with some friends or singing at the top of my lungs in the car­—and both are absolutely necessary some weeks.

Part of the reason I teach at a slower, more deliberate pace is that to me, the practice of vinyasa i​s rooted in its direct translation: to place in a special way.

This implies that we have to pay attention… t​o everything. ​We have to pay attention to our collapsed arches, we have to pay attention to our clenched jaws, we have to pay attention to the fact that we are completely exhausted most of the time and we have to pay attention to how we f​eel.​ Most importantly we need to acknowledge through the practice of y​oga asana t​hat we are humans experiencing a full range of emotions, thoughts and experiences all that can be balanced, understood and embraced by the practice of hatha yoga, meditation or any number of other practices.

We have to be gentle and precise in our approach in order to make this practice a sustainable one for years to come.

With all that said, I also think it’s completely possible (and sometimes necessary) to be 100% mindful and aware while cranking up your stereo, getting on your mat, moving fast and sweating it all out.

No matter how/when/where and in what style you choose to practice it is helpful to continuously re­examine our reason for practicing, learn from the best teachers you can find and at the end of the day figure it out for yourself.


Relephant Read:

Why Yoga’s Not a Workout.


Author: Ryan Cunningham

Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Army Medicine/Flickr

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