September 2, 2015

When did Yoga become Gymnastics?

child beach yoga handstand

I was 18 years old when I attended my first yoga class.

These days, that’s a common age to begin a yoga practice, with some even going on to attend yoga teacher training. But, when I was 18, attending yoga classes was kind of a strange, esoteric thing to do at the time.

The yoga class I chose to attend wasn’t at a fancy studio or even at the YMCA. Instead, it was in an apartment belonging to my friend’s mom.

At that time I was recently back from an exchange program in Thailand where I had cut rice, eaten adventurous foods and discovered that Buddhism was a more appropriate path for me then the Judaism I had grown up with. When I returned home, I was feeling kind of lost in Canadian culture and wondering where to go with my new-found spiritual beliefs.

Luckily for me, while I had been gone, all of my friends had started attending weekly yoga classes at the aforementioned apartment. So, I traipsed along with my friends to Michelle’s apartment, having no clue what I was going to discover at this so called yoga class.

You see, I wasn’t really a relaxed kind of person. I was pretty uptight and nervous. Even when I went for massages, the masseuse found it difficult to get me to relax. Lama’s mom Michelle, my first yoga teacher, noticed this about me right away.

Right from the beginning of my yoga experience, even when I was just 18, yoga never seemed to be about the poses. It never seemed to be about how far I could push or transform my body. It always seemed to be about my inner experience.

At first, the entire yoga practice for me was just about teaching me to breathe.

Michelle taught a lot of pranayama during her classes, alternating nostrils, breath of fire—all of that. But I started at a much more basic place. I started with just breathing in for a count of four and out for a count of four while placing my hands just below my ribs. And I found this hard. For me, breathing and counting was a challenging yoga practice. It was perfect for me. It was exactly where I needed to be, at that moment.

This is where my relationship with yoga began, at the beginning of life, with a simple breath.

My relationship with yoga over the last 20 years hasn’t been smooth. I come back to the practice in fits and spurts. I get a home practice in place and then just as quickly, it falls out of my routine. I find a class I love and then somehow it gets canceled. I travel the world and drop in on classes wherever I might be.

The most contact I have with yoga in my life these days is seeing it represented in social media—and what I see doesn’t seem to equate with the internal experience I know yoga to be.

Handstands. I see a lot of handstands.

And of course I have had teachers explain to me the power of inversions in the yoga practice and the benefits they can bring to our lives. But still, handstands? Is this yoga or is this gymnastics?

My most recent foray into yoga has been yin yoga. I joined a yin yoga class at a time of great personal need for healing and I brought my entire self to the practice. I brought my body and my mind, but also my intentions and willingness to work with a higher power to my yoga practice.

I left all my resistance behind.

I used the yin yoga poses, and the opportunity of holding them for three to five minutes, as a means of self-healing. I went into my body through visualization while doing the yin yoga poses and found where there was pain, trauma and congestion in my system, I pulled in universal support and I shifted what needed to be shifted.

This was my yoga. It was self-healing through asana. It was using asana as a means to bring intention straight through to manifestation.

So, of course, I wonder: are we cutting ourselves short when we look at yoga and we see physical form?

Even when we see a little more peace in our minds or a shift in the shape of our bellies, or more patience or more physical flexibility from yoga, still—are we missing out on the larger picture of what a yoga practice can bring to our lives and the planet?

When I was 30 years old and had just returned to Canada from a seven month trip to Europe, I got involved with yoga again. I had two young kids, a frustrated mind and an out-of-shape body. I knew I had to press the reset button. While we stayed at my parent’s house before flying back to our northern abode, I took advantage of the childcare available to me and I went to yoga daily. But I didn’t choose my usual preference of a spiritually oriented yoga class. I needed something close to my parent’s house so I went to a more sports style Ashtanga yoga class.

It kicked my a**.

The Vinyasas and the plank poses and the multiple sun salutations—it was tough for my post-partum body to manage. But I stuck with it, and I felt transformed. Even though I wasn’t being guided to be mindful or to go to my inner self and see what needed to be healed, I was still transformed.

I was just doing yoga. And it worked.

Yoga works.

The poses transform us.

The intention alone to be involved in yoga has its own momentum, sweeping us into a new place in our lives. And that is why, in so many ways, I couldn’t care less that yoga often looks like gymnastics. If thinking that yoga will make us calmer, slimmer and sexier brings people to the yoga mat, then hooray, because in the end yoga transforms us.

It doesn’t matter the style of class, the teacher or our reasons to practice.

I want our Western relationship with yoga to go in a loving direction, because of its power, not despite its power. And because yoga has the power to transform, I hope that transformation looks like increased empathy, caring and compassion for ourselves and all beings, even if it is done with a handstand.



Does Yoga = Exercise?


Author: Ruth Lera

Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Diana Robinson/Flickr


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