Why Yoga is Not a Workout

I did it too. I signed up for my very first yoga class because I wanted to be in a heated room, sweat, and feel physically challenged. I was looking for a kind of ‘workout’. I was quickly hooked. I went almost every day and that’s when I started to witness the changes practicing yoga was bringing forward. The first changes I noticed were purely physical, much like my original intention of taking a yoga class. My flexibility increased, my balance improved, and I got stronger. But then I started to witness the deeper affects yoga was having on me. I began practicing yoga in a Bikram-style studio, so almost every class I attended went through the same 26 yoga postures. Early on in my practice I used to feel dread, panic, or sometimes excitement when I knew a particular pose was coming up. Over time I became more patient, taking the physical cues and poses as they came. I must say, I am not a patient person, so this was a huge shift in my character. It was dozens of classes until I took a real ‘shavasana’, or final resting pose. Just like most of the other poses, I just did them without really thinking about why.

Over years of practicing more layers started to peel off. I vividly remember other shifts, moments of unraveling and “ahas” both physical and mental. Then one day I was leaving class and overheard the teacher say, “That’s the trick. Even if you come for purely physical reasons, you are left with the mental and spiritual impact of the practice.” Looking back, I couldn’t tell you which of my beloved teachers spoke those words, which I think is so symbolic, because it doesn’t matter. Just like my original wants and intentions of what I wanted out of yoga never mattered. Yoga is so much more.

I dove straight in. I worked at a yoga studio during college and eventually took a teacher training course to deepen my practice and explore the possibilities of guiding others through yoga. I learned, although I somewhat knew this to be the case, that yoga, thousands of years ago, was designed to be an entire lifestyle and way of living. The idea for yoga was organized into eight branches or ‘limbs’ as they are often referred to by sage Patanjali, in second century, B.C. Of the eight branches of yoga, only one of them mentions the physical postures we practice in studios today. The branch of yoga that refers to physical poses is called Asana, and it explains that the asanas were practiced to help yogis ready their bodies for meditation, which is far more talked about in the practice of yoga than the physical shapes.

So, there you have it. Yoga as we know and practice it today was never intended to be purely physical. It’s been a journey - to say the least - for me to figure that out on my own, but it was and still is one of the most profound things I have ever learned. Yoga is not a physical workout. It is a physical representation of the mental and spiritual you-ness. The thoughts you have while holding a difficult posture are the same thoughts you have when you’re doing something difficult off your mat. The physical breakthroughs you have, like being flexible enough to reach your toes in a forward fold, are the same breakthroughs you have in other aspects of your life like your career, relationships and others. I hope the next time you step onto your mat you see that yoga really is a physical representation of how we live our lives off our mats.