Thursday, January 16, 2014

Is Yoga a Practice or a Race?

What is yoga to you? Is it deep long stretches and plenty of "ohm"s in a candlelit room? Is it Sun Salutations on top of Sun Salutations and intense arm balances and headstands? Is it slow, flowy movements?

A good practice for me is one where I feel my body become warm through movement and my muscles have that soreness that comes from strengthing asanas and stretches that feel oh so good. My mind becomes clear and focused on my center of gravity. My thoughts stop flitting around and begins to ease me through uncomfortable positions. It's a balance between motion and stillness. Where my savasana, final relaxation pose, becomes the most important part of class. 

However, some people prefer a practice where they end up heaving over in a puddle of sweat, practically crawling to their cars afterwards. While I love a good exercise, there's something that disconcerts me about doing twenty spiderman push-ups in the middle of a yoga sequence. 

This has been a little tough for me to write because I'm conflicted. I want to uphold the philosophy of yoga and what I'm about to express isn't going to be very "yoga" of me. It may be judgmental, it might be harsh, but this is how I feel.

I've had the opportunity to take a few classes here in Columbus. Some of them were fantastic, guided by instructors who clearly had a handle on their sequences, and I felt wonderful when I went through them. But then, I got to experience the other end of the spectrum. I've been lucky enough to have gone this far in my practice without encountering a teacher that fell a little bit short of expectations.

I don't want to say they were bad. But I certainly did not feel safe doing their classes, nor did I feel connected to the idea of yoga. Yoga is the union between mind and body, and when you're in plank bouncing left and right on your hips, it feels a lot more like a cross training workout than being mindful of your breath and body on the mat. 

I felt like there was a lack of respect for the asanas. Instead of easing your body into the poses- holding, breathing, flowing- it was a race in how many Sun Salutation Bs can you do in under a minute. I know that there is a very popular opinion that yoga is a form of exercise. And it is. It is exercise. You are moving your body, increasing your heart rate, building strength, growing more flexible. I, myself, held that opinion when I first started practicing yoga. 

However, the more I practiced and the more I learned about the philosophy and purpose of yoga, the more I realized that it is so much more than an exercise for the body. A well-rounded practice includes an exercise for the mind. My mind is infinitely calmer. I'm much more conscious and mindful of my body's movements and to a lesser, but still growing, extent, of my thoughts. It is a lifelong practice that reaps benefits for the whole package.

So when I left these classes with my body feeling out of whack from trying to cram in as many chairs as possible, I had a sour taste in my mouth. It was more like a sub-par boot camp workout than a one-hour flow. Sure, I was sweaty and my arms and legs were guaranteed to be sore the next day, but all I could think of was: That was not yoga.

I am the last person to judge what is and what is not yoga. I am by no means any sort of authority despite being an instructor. In my classes, I don't teach, I guide. Yoga is within you, I just help you through it. But I can feel a difference between a true yoga class led meaningfully by a teacher with real intentions and a yoga class led by the resident group fitness instructor at the local rec center. 

Go ahead, move your bodies. But move your mind too. Respect the asanas. Take time with them. Sun Salutations are not a race. They are a practice in bringing together your mind and body through your breath. King Lizard isn't only meant to stretch your quads, it opens your heart and sends your mind on a journey of endurance, patience, and tolerance. Breathe in positivity, breathe out negativity. View your sweat as toxins being eliminated out of your body. Yoga is a practice, a whole-listic practice. 

I hope that as yoga spreads, the story of yoga does too. That more practitioners will start following the philosophy behind it instead of just the trail of sweat behind the person in front of you.

What is yoga to you? What has been your favorite class and why did you love it so much?

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