It’s Time to Redefine Yoga, Folks.

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I recently returned home to Dublin from teaching yoga and living between Bali and Sri Lanka for the past 14 months.

I studied and taught the teachings of Tantric Hatha and Yin yoga in depth, making such incredible connections with other like-minded human beings that looking back on the entire experience even just a few weeks after my return feels like a dream—except I know that it wasn’t. Because I have this newfound strength and self-belief and true understanding that transcends any petty irritation that I used to let get to me.

In short, I feel healed. And yes, in a way, this is due to yoga.

But it’s not the kind of yoga most of us are used to seeing. It’s not the post-workout gym class or “hot yoga” sweat many people in the West are only just coming around to trying. It’s not the extra-bendy, break-my-back-trying-to-do-Wheel-if-my-life-depends-on-it kind of yoga—because in my experience, and the experience of generations of lineage-based teachings backup to support me, that’s not really yoga at all.

My first Tantric Hatha training in Bali was back in 2016, and if I’m honest I entered into it none the wiser about just how much of a contrast there is between what I had previously practiced and called “yoga” before that.

Because here’s the thing: too fast, too slow, too much, too little—most modern yoga classes actually enable the hectic and extremist lifestyle of the west that we are constantly subconsciously struggling to balance out.

If the argument (as many of my non-yogi friends have stated) is that “yoga helps me to calm down and relax,” then I really feel like the classes we are providing to these stressed-out, caffeine and cortisol-fueled students should actually address these issues, instead of fueling feelings of inferiority and goal-oriented practice. Yes, well done, Susan, you did a headstand. But do you really need to stimulate your brain and udana energy right now at 9p.m. on a Wednesday night? Didn’t you come here to relax?

Tantra is so much more than this. It’s a spiritual practice, it’s a practice of self-remembrance, and, ultimately, it’s a practice to help us manage our prana—our energy. Like the ancient practitioners of qigong in Chinese medicine believe, energy must be mastered before we can hope to achieve greatness or to live more empowered and fulfilled lives. All of this must be done with a healthy attitude of cultivating harmony between mind and body. Learning how to recognise and manage our own unique afflictions and fluctuations of energy is the most empowering way to take back control of our mental and physical health.

Because the physical body does play a role, it’s easy to see where the confusion has arisen. Asana is used to move the body in order to access these channels of life force energy within. We use the breath as a bridge between body and mind to access and slow it down.

The brain activity involved in forcing ourselves into uncomfortable poses and trying to achieve a deeper backbend is actually more closely linked to the “fight-or-flight” responses of the sympathetic nervous system, a place where cortisol lives and thrives on your feelings of imperfection and dissatisfaction with the present moment. It has nothing to do with the cultivation of a calmer state of mind.

That’s why yoga classes as we know them often leave students feeling a little frazzled or disjointed, or, at worst, anxious and overstimulated. The common stress and anxiety afflictions of the Western workplace are (largely) due to overstimulation, overachieving, and the strain to always be improving—issues which stem from a lack of familiarity or acceptance of the mind/body relationship as it truly exists in the present moment.

As teachers, it’s important to know who we are teaching and what their individual struggles might be, in order to address them accordingly. We are not, for example, going to teach a class of stressed-out exam students how to stand on their heads and backbend their way into hyperactivity in the brain when they already have enough to sift through up there. It’s just counterintuitive.

These imbalances can then easily spiral, manifesting  in the form of mental and physical disease and illness—and I don’t need statistics to tell you that mental health disorders have become the plague of modern times. Since returning home, I’ve noticed that workplaces, schools, colleges, and even households are breeding grounds for imbalance, and it’s only by cultivating introspection, self-awareness, and slowing down that we can hope to begin to combat this.

Redefining yoga

That’s why I believe we need to redefine the way we view yoga in the western world. There has been too much emphasis placed on the physical aspects and the dynamism of most classes—again, this merely feeds our existing imbalances and inability to still the mind. We might feel great briefly in the knowledge that we have worked out, but the true value of yoga practices lies in the internal work it provides us.

It’s also a tendency of the human condition to be drawn to that which keeps us out of balance, so the more heavily we lean on any one kind of thing out of habit, the more out of balance we’ll become.

Don’t get me wrong here, exercise and movement definitely have their place and benefits, and I’m all for staying fit and healthy, but I feel that yoga as a rule should not be included under the “fitness” umbrella.

By focusing on introspection, promoting a balanced mentality, and cultivating awareness in all aspects of our lives, I have direct experience with the truly transformational qualities these practices can foster, which I feel I am ready to share with the world. For anyone struggling with confidence, anxiety, or simply seeking a little bit more clarity and alignment in life, the Hatha and Yin teachings truly are medicine for the modern world.

Empowerment and awareness

I believe that yoga holds the power to return us to the present moment in a way that not only fosters a more grounded, balanced attitude to life, but also one which cultivates body awareness and acceptance like nothing else I’ve ever encountered (and I’ve tried it all!).

We need to start viewing the physical benefits as just a bonus.

What I try to impart through my classes and sessions is that inner awareness and strength will take you much, much farther in life toward manifesting your dreams than any fitness regime ever will.

author: Jenny Russell

Image: YouTube

Editor: Kelsey Michal

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Cindy Thorn Jan 6, 2019 6:28pm

Thank you, Jenny! I agree. My yoga practice is inspirational as well as physical. I am loving and embracinging my life better and accepting my body more. After reading this my intention is to become more relaxed in my practice, instead of pushing myself physically. When I do this my practice is both meditatively and physically beneficial. No stress, pure joy.

leannepetro Jan 4, 2019 7:48am

I don’t usually post my opinion because let’s face it…that’s exactly and ONLY what they are. But this article actually moved me. So when I read Marcs’ OPINION, I felt compelled to share mine. I’m not quite sure where the “contradictions” were. This article is so true, and has completely removed any anxiety I ever had about practicing yoga, including both Bikram and Hatha/Yin yoga. It reminded me that doing (practicing) yoga is just that…a PRACTICE. We are not perfect, at ANYTHING, and never will be. Acceptance of that fact and yet doing our best is all we can ask of ourselves. That is all the universe asks of us. Thank you Jenny.

    Jenny Russell Jan 10, 2019 1:33pm

    Leanne – thank you so much for your kind words! I’m glad it resonated for you. It’s often hard to move away from our own stubborn beliefs of things, even if we know it on some level maybe isn’t authentic.. I have definitely experienced this with yoga anyway (thinking it was something it wasn’t for a long time!) – but you’re right, the practice is this a gradual process of shedding layers and letting that go… <3 thanks again! Jenny

Jenny Russell Jan 3, 2019 4:51am

Hmmmm, so how would you recommend responding to mixed comments?

Mark LaPorta Jan 2, 2019 8:39pm

Many contradictions, internal and external. That’s a problem with such mixed articles.
You know what came to mind?

Shut up.
Shutting up is good for you,
especially when your motives are surreptitious.

And correct me if I”m wrong, but yoga is definitely fitness. Physical and spiritual.Many contradictions, internal and external. That’s a problem with such mixed articles.
You know what came to mind?

Shut up.
Shutting up is good for you,
especially when your motives are surreptitious.

And correct me if I”m wrong, but yoga is definitely fitness. Physical and spiritual.

    Mark LaPorta Jan 2, 2019 8:42pm

    I tried to fix it:

    Many contradictions, internal and external. That’s a problem with such mixed articles.
    You know what came to mind?

    Shut up.
    Shutting up is good for you,
    especially when your motives are surreptitious.

    And correct me if I”m wrong, but yoga is definitely fitness. Physical and spiritual.

    Overall I liked it. Too bad this isn’t clarified as people start. Too bad people don’t learn Yama/Niyama/8limbs of The Essence of Yoga & Meditation – Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali right from the beginning. That would probably fix it.

      Jenny Russell Jan 3, 2019 4:52am

      Hmmm, so how would you recommend responding to mixed comments?

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Jenny Russell

Jenny Russell is an Irish singer, writer, and Tantric Hatha/ Yin yoga teacher. Ravenclaw.