To the uninitiated, yoga can easily seem like just another exercise fad. After all, we’re moving quite a lot in an asana class. It takes strength, balance, flexibility – a lot of things you could also improve in an old-fashioned aerobics class, in this millennium without the French-cut leotards and elastic headbands.
But to those that have experienced yoga through steady practice, it is clear that yoga is so much more than a good workout.
In Sanskrit, the word for exercise is vyayama. Vyayama is any physical activity that – if indulged in – will exhaust you. You can of course use yoga poses in a way that will exhaust you, if that is your only intent. In fact, that’s what a lot of cleverly marketed classes can do. They take place in the same studios where fitness classes are taught, they have pithy names that often involve the word “power,” and they’re marketed to those looking to exercise… and maybe lose a few pounds.
The act of using asana (the postures) as vyayama is not a bad thing, per se. To be honest, I not only take athletic yoga classes, but I also teach them. I love a good, sweaty kitchen-sink kind of class, whether the room is heated or not. And asana-as-exercise is infinitely safer than most group sports or classes, when it is taught with safe alignment and sequencing.
However, to ethically call my class “yoga,” I need to teach for something besides – or in addition to - a good sweat. Otherwise, my class is not a yoga class at all, but just a class using the tools of yoga to exercise.
So with all the hybrids, fads, and hip-hop vinyasas out there, how do you know you’re getting the health benefits that actual yoga can bring? Here are some powerful indications that you’re not just sweating to the hits:
- Asana is taught to balance you, not just to exhaust you.
Asana chikitsa is the application of asana to improve health and achieve mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual balance. In Yoga Therapy, we specifically choose and modify asana for that particular student on that very day. In a group class, a teacher can’t always be that precise.
However, the teacher can apply asana to balance the season, to adjust to the time of day, to address trauma from tragic public events, to counter the cultural tendencies that lead to disease, to counter competitive tendencies that can lead to injury – the list goes on and on. A yoga class should facilitate balance.
- There is an opportunity for the relaxation response to occur.
Your yoga class should not be wall-to-wall action, but should offer your nervous system a time and means to relax. Is savasana taught? What about meditation, chanting, or pranayama? Does the teacher devote any time to being in a flow or experiencing a pose without crowding you with chatter or loud, distracting music? Here’s a barometer: If you walk out of class feeling more rattled then when you came in, you didn’t go to a yoga class. You went to an exercise class that used asana. A yoga class should facilitate ease.
- There’s an opportunity for mindfulness.
The phrase “mind-body connection” can be confusing to those raised in the East, since it is more generally understood there that no differentiation between mind and body exists. In the West, we are still joining “that which has never been separated” - the body and mind. To cultivate this union, we must hone our mental focus in class.
Is your teacher inviting you to feel your way into a pose? Is she offering an intention, a theme, or a mantra to center your thoughts? When alignment is taught, is it coming from a place of being right, or of being conscious, safe, and aware? Clever teachers will find a way to teach mindfulness in the most athletic of postures. A yoga class should facilitate union.
- Your class encourages you to be more flexible of mind.
If you get curious about where the above experiences occur in class, you may deepen your practice by working on what challenges you. I remember the first time I attended a master teacher’s class, only to discover – to my indignation – that class didn’t include savasana (the rest at the end of class). Intrigued by my heated reaction, I returned to give it another try. The teacher was so brilliant at healing through asana chikitsa that I not only incorporated her classes into my practice, but into our yoga therapy trainings as well.
Although we may not have the same methodology, this teacher’s playfulness and intelligence has deepened my practice in a way that my knee-jerk reaction never could.
- When in doubt, trust your experience.
Yoga is experiential by nature. Although it has precise techniques, these formulas are always interpreted through your understanding. As a student, you’ll relate more easily to certain teachers, just as they related to certain lineages and techniques in an organic way.
Get curious about what lies beyond that preference. Check in throughout class with how you feel. Is this experience what your body needs today? Are your ego-based impulses to “do more” or “be the best” in check? Always rest if you can’t breathe, and go slow enough to listen to your body.
It’s OK if that second set of core work was intense: The true benefit of a class is usually felt at the end of it. If you can feel better, or rest easier, focus better, heal mindfully, roll with change, just be – then you’ve got yourself a yoga practice. Headband not included.