Yoga Interview - Part Two

Written by Sarah English.

Last article, Yoga Interview: The First Time - I presented an informal interview that I'd conducted with someone at the very beginning of yoga practice. I'd wanted to know what it was that had kept him from trying yoga before, how he felt now that he had begun, and what he felt would be important in order for him to continue with his practice. His answers were candid and revealed what I think is an underrepresented issue in North America - the way in which yoga is perceived by the general public.

men doing yoga

I've heard my interviewee's sentiments expressed before, and with enough frequency that I believe that they're fairly generalizable. There are multiple inaccuracies floating about in the public ether with regard to yoga, which I feel has much to do with the fact that, in the West, yoga has been largely ripped from its original context. We've been introduced to yoga-as-workout, with many of us associating working out itself with 'box' gyms and the titanic spectres of Schwarzenegger, Reeves, and Zane.

Related expectations regarding traditional fitness have naturally been extended to yoga - that it's competitive, that it needs to be painful in order to be worthwhile, that it has to be regimented, and that it's largely concerned with aesthetics. It's truly unfortunate that the 'eightfold path' has gone largely ignored; it contextualizes physical sadhana such that aesthetically focused competition becomes a bit of an oddity. When asanas are viewed correctly as tools to be used along with other disciplines in order to achieve a healthier, more conscious lifestyle, it's nearly impossible to approach yoga class with a sense of personal inadequacy or insecurity.

It just simply can't be about measuring up to someone else, because the most important work to be done in, and benefits to be had from, total yogic practice are internal; they simply can't be witnessed by, or compared to, anyone else. Similarly, if one understands that the asanas are designed to augment mental/emotional work, the success of which is based not upon extremity but upon delicate balance, then pushing oneself to the point of dislocation (I cringe every time I hear the saying 'no pain, no gain' applied to yoga) becomes truly inappropriate. It seems to me that a greater awareness of the 'hows' and 'whys' of yoga would help to loosen the unfortunate perceptual tie between gym-based fitness and yogic practice, and would encourage more reticent beginners to learn more.

I should make it plain that I've worked in gyms for many years as a trainer and that I pursued non-competitive body building. I would be the first to insist that there is enormous value in gym-based fitness, when approached with basic education and respect for one's body. My own life improved exponentially when I became involved in strength training, and I've seen it change clients' lives. That being said, there are preconceptions about this sort of fitness that, as far as I'm concerned, are a bit anachronistic. They apply in only a limited sense nowadays to 'regular' workouts, and not at all to yoga.

There is the idea that grit-toothed, red-faced agony is a prerequisite to success. There's the belief that weight-training is the rightful purview of men, and aerobics that of women, because the aesthetic results of either set of activities are appropriate for one sex but not the other. I'll avoid a long digression here, and say simply that these ideas derive from faulty information and poor understanding of human physiology. In many ways, these ideas apply to the physical, aesthetic outcomes of gym routines, and not to overall health.

It is very important to understand the practice of asanas in its rightful context - as an aid to overall personal development, and not to appearance alone. It seems important to me to introduce the public to the differences between 'traditional' workouts and yoga practice; the intimidation of the former has unfortunately crept into the latter, and has kept many individuals from participating in a form of comprehensive wellness from which everyone can easily benefit.

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