Yoga Without Yoga is not Yoga

First, context. I am not a Yoga teacher or even a regular daily practitioner. I have not done any special training or read a lot of source text. I’m just a woman, living in Canada who likes Yoga. I ascribe it no magical powers. I don’t think it will cure something that actually needs antibiotics or chemotherapy. Neither do I treat it as a way to attain some perfect form of the body. It is not an aesthetic. It’s a movement, breath and meditation practice in some combination, as far as I can tell, and I’m pretty sure most of the lovely women who have been my teachers over these last years have not taught me anything particularly “authentic” as far as Yoga is concerned. I accept this, and I still like it a lot. I like it more and more as time goes on and I take the time to deepen into what it does for my body. I like the subtle shifts and the non-obtrusive miracles of movement that I only notice year over year.

In order to write this post, I did do some research around the origins of the meaning and practice of Yoga. It’s hard to know what to trust without approaching it in a more scholarly way. I know it has to do with a Union of parts of our being and that this is attained through different practices, postures, breathing, meditation and other kinds of disciplined behaviour. I arrived first in the postures, stayed for the breath and then eventually started to explore more than that. It’s an ongoing process in my life that depends on where I am and who is teaching me.

Like many of my fellow bloggers, Adriene is a favourite teacher. She is simultaneously, kind, inviting, irreverent and full of spirit. She takes it easy and then blasts you with challenge. She sneaks in breath work and meditation in ways that suddenly open an awareness, just when you least expect. I really discovered the benefits of her ways after a brutal break up, when I realized all her blabbing about love was so necessary for me in that moment. I wanted her to keep me company while I contemplated my existence and breathed into a Warrior series. I know that in the pandemic, many have found solace in her quirky short practices.

I have also tried to be community minded and signed up for a local studio’s live stream offerings. I have really enjoyed these. I like that they are a full hour, which allows for a fuller practice in many ways. I discovered that I am really digging something they call Yin practice. I have no clue if that is a real Yoga thing but it involves holding a pose for 3-5 minutes and really exploring what it is and what my body does with it. It’s an intensity with subtlety that totally appeals to my interests and I am very sure it has stabilized my mood in some tough times. It’s the closest I have come to grasping a Unity of mind and body as my mind is forced to focus on where my body is in space. It feels like I can finally anchor my brain in my head. I even don’t mind that one of the teachers talks a lot about chakra channels and then mixes in some Chinese medicine stuff for good measure. She is Eastern European originally so it’s quite the mashup. I’m just breathing and embodied and trying not to fuss myself about the mixed metaphors of her headlong flight from Cartesian splits. I get it. I don’t want to be bifurcated any more either. I just want to be one damn thing. It’s less to keep track of.

But to my point here. . .today I signed up for a Hatha class. It’s supposed to be just poses in a series. It’s not meant to be too hard but also it isn’t the slow pace of the Yin. I had never worked with this instructor before. In all my other explorations of Yoga, there has been some kind of guidance if the class is led by a person. They speak the physical cues and the breathing cues. They pause and yammer a little, sometimes too much, but they are in charge of the rhythm of the thing, like a conductor with an orchestra. “Take a breath in *while you do this movement* breathe out *while you do this one* pause here for 3 breaths, hold for one more then *do this other thing*” This person did none of that. She called out a pose, then another, then another. She gave a few positioning cues but no breath cues at all. She spent to time preparing us, she spent no time with intentions or invitations or mindful cues. She just kept calling out poses “Next we do *this pose* now move into *that pose*”.

It slowly dawned on me that this was a horrible experience.

I have practiced without leadership before and it’s lovely but this wasn’t me practicing alone, following the flow of my energy and breath. This was just poses, stripped of breath and mind, empty of all meaning, merely movement. It was not any Yoga that I want to do. I left the session, found a short Adriene video and finished my practice with my online friend, relieved to hear her cuing and coaching me to pay attention, creating a rhythm, conducting something that was clearly more than asanas strung together one after another.

I know that we have appropriated Yoga and there are corners of the Yoga industry that make me feel gross, particularly the ones that focus on the “look” of Yoga. Yet this experience taught me that fully stripping it of its breath, meditative and spiritual aspects is a worse affront. It felt dead, dangerously adrift from its moorings. We owe it more than that.

A woman sitting in half lotus on a tree stump looking yogic. Photo by Mor Shani on Unsplash

5 thoughts on “Yoga Without Yoga is not Yoga

  1. So true.
    I struggle with yoga teachers a lot. I hope when I teach that people feel the invitation to quiet and return to self.
    I mostly teach yin. I think we all need more stillness and peace.

  2. I’ve mostly encountered this attitude with yoga that’s more athletic in approach. Your thinking about it helped me see what’s so annoying about it. It’s not yoga. Maybe it’s good for you for other reasons, strength and stretching maybe. But without the kind of guidance you talk about it it’s not yoga really.

  3. Damn I love your posts Susan! They always make me smile and leave me thinking.

    I have Been There in these practices; as Sam says, they are the yoga classes for women (*and some dudes, never have I seen someone overtly non binary but I’m just one observer; mostly it’s young or middle aged women) who want to ‘work out’ at yoga, maybe lose weight at yoga, and the instructors apparently want to be aerobics instructors. I realise I’m fully overgeneralising but I’ve done many of these classes in several countries and this is ALWAYS the vibe. (Ask me about the Gumby guy at virgin active Clapham Common.)

    The thing about yoga is that there are many, many yogas; each strand comes from a different guru. My guru/strand is BKS Iyengar, who passed a few years ago but whose practice continues to be taught via the yoga centre he and his family established and maintain in Pune. Iyengar yoga focuses on alignment; it uses lots and lots of props so that literally any body can practice the poses safely. It is breath-focused, like all good yoga: the notion is that we can align our bodies, minds, and spirits by focusing on meditative breath work and taking the asanas from there. In practice, what this means is that we listen to our bodies as we work, and the ultimate goal is solid mobility as we age, so we can get off the toilet easily when we are 75. That is a literal quote from Sue, one of my teachers at Yoga Centre London.

    I really dislike the hatha stuff; Hatha is not a school, but a kind of western yoga brand. When you sign up for hatha you can get literally anything depending on the teacher, but it will always be a flow of familiar poses, more fast than slow. If you know how to do yoga the breath-forward way you can manage to turn that into a workable practice, or choose to leave as you smartly did. If you don’t already know yoga and you did not want a gym workout you’re fucked, and you will leave saying you hate yoga. That was me in grad school.

    I’ve written a post about your post! Sorry about the length. You inspired me to think. FYI I think if you like yin you will love iyengar; yoga Centre London teaches exclusively online right now and are excellent; there’s also an iyengar yoga centre near you in Oakville, and spirit loft near cate offers great iyengar classes (look for Terrill).

  4. The thing is, a lot of people start yoga with gym yoga, with the most fitness-oriented classes. They need the bare bones, striped-of-any-spiritual element classes to feel comfortable enough to try it out, and once they do they then try other classes as well that they may once have shied away from. so the class you describe could be a gateway.

    Having said that, there is a way to teach that still invites mindfulness and awareness of body and breath without any spirituality or philosophy, in the same way that you can do lots of physical activity with awareness. As a teacher, I think it is really important to include that invitation in class, because, like you say, it’s not really yoga without it.

    There is now some research showing that yoga helps to promote health engagement- essentially helping us be more actively involved in our health, which drives better outcomes. For me, that’s a really powerful result but I fear that a class like the one you describe would not offer that.

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