Is yoga just a workout?

There has been a lot of debate lately about what yoga is and what it is not. Some seem to say that practicing only asana (postures) is not yoga, others seem to hold on to asana and dismiss all the rest. What I practice in the morning when I do an asana practice, is exercise. What happens after a few months of observing my body day in and day out as I come to my mat, that begins to be something else, the elusive yoga perhaps?

For me, sometimes yoga is just a good workout, over time it is so much more than that. I think that the practice of ‘asana’ holds the entire potential of yoga. My mind is restless and my body is in knots, I suffer constant pain in my joints and tight muscles. The daily practice of asana has taught me that it is when my nervous system is out of control that I get the most cramps and electrical shooting sensations in my joints. I’m not always terribly inspired when I wake up stiff from a restless night and come to my mat. Doing the 90 minute session of ashtanga sometimes seems out of reach when I start the practice. I manage it about 3 to 4 times a week, an the rest of the days I  do a lighter practice. I drag my weary bones to the mat and I delve into asana, having faith that it will heal my body, trying not to think about it, just doing it. In that process of just doing the physical work, don’t think just do, is where I’m finding something else. Sometimes it happens, heat rises and my body starts to unfold taking my mind along with it, sometimes it doesn’t happen; it is still good exercise. 

Observing that process day after day brings me new awareness about myself. My body uncurls and heals, only to get knotted again while I sleep, and off I go stiffly to the mat in the morning. It is a process of doing and undoing, releasing and tightening. I think a daily practice of asana brings with itself this gift of awareness, and the key to go deeper into it. Learning how to focus strength, learning how to allow the body to move deeper, those are the gifts of asana. The physical practice is demanding, it requires, nay encourages, the mind and spirit to follow along. Observing how my body evolves over time, and how situations in my life affect my practice I gain much knowledge about myself.

I had a friend who would get angry at me for ‘sneaking 20 minutes of yoga’ before dinner. I had a hard time understanding his anger; my back was aching, my nerves feeling raw, yoga is so soothing (it prevents indigestion for sure).  He never did explain why it made him so upset, I think he thought I wasn’t taking it seriously enough. He holds it so dear that he he doesn’t like to see it done out of a reverent contex. Perhaps, this is where this separatist conversation in the yoga world is coming from. Those who have felt the ‘otherness’ in yoga cannot imagine not feeling it, and indeed will not practice if they don’t feel spiritual at the moment. Me, if I didn’t practice when I don’t feel spiritual I would almost never practice. I just blindly jump into asana hoping that the inspiration and spirituality will come, with time. In the meantime I’m enjoying the health benefits I’ve gotten so far, I begin to see that it is possible to heal my achy body.

I really think yoga is good for everyone, the ones that practice with intention, and the ones that don’t. The ones that want to have intention and just don’t know how just yet. The ones who are in a deeper path and the ones who just want to relax. The ones looking for therapy for their muscles. The ones looking for therapy for their spirits. Asana by itself, as a purely physical exercise, when done regularly and with discipline,  brings unbelievable gifts to the practitioner. Even the reluctant practictioner. 



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