What makes yoga different from any other form of physical exercise? Is it the quiet satisfaction which one gets from an hour’s worth of stretching out one’s body? Or the way everyone exits a class glowing, regardless of whether they’re drenched in sweat or not? Or is it the near-incomprehensible jargon that the teachers spew out during class? Here are five reasons why yoga is different from other physical exercises.
1. Yoga respects you and your body. In my experience, a good yoga teacher does not push you beyond your physical capabilities. He/she will be able to guide you in a way that doesn’t overwork or over strain your body. Even you do not feel like continuing your practice, you are more than welcome to rest on your mat in Child’s Pose until you are ready to re-join the class…or not.
If yoga was only about stretching to become flexible, then it might as well be called ‘stretching class’ instead of ‘yoga class’! Yes, yoga looks like a lot of stretching; what makes it different from just regular stretching is that it is not about touching your forehead to your knees, but more about what you learn along the way down. And yes, it may take weeks or even months, but remember the famous saying, ‘the journey is more important than the destination.’ During those weeks and weeks of practice you will learn a lot about not only your physical body but also yourself as a whole.
And you will know you are in good hands when your yoga teacher pays equal amounts of attention to safety and alignment. Sure, yoga is all about ‘the feels’, but it is also important to practice within our unique body structures and limitations to avoid unnecessary injury. A good teacher will be able to provide variations or modifications in the poses to accommodate the various physicalities of his/her students.
2. Yoga is time for yourself. Very often you will hear the teacher saying, ‘Focus on your breath’ or ‘Feel the stretch on your hamstrings/quads/*insert muscle of choice here*’. There is always some cue or another to bring your attention back to yourself.
For years I shied away from yoga because I was afraid of looking stupid in class. But at the end of my first class, I realized that I was so focused on myself and what I needed to do, that I completely forgot about everything else! Somehow, the rest of the world melted away during that one hour, and I was not even concerned about how I looked like or what others thought about me! And I loved it!
I like to emphasize this ‘Me Time’ in my classes, especially during my Yin Yoga classes. I feel that, throughout our life we are always listening to others, talking to others, paying attention to the needs and wants of others, thus neglecting ourselves. To me, it is very important to care for ourselves every once in a while, and the practice of yoga is a very good time for us to just be with ourselves in silence.
Besides that, focusing on your breath and your physical body is the easiest way to train your awareness. While doing a pose, one needs to be aware of one’s alignment, breath, as well as how his/her body feels at all times. As you continue to go deeper into your practice, you will find that this awareness extends out to all parts of your life as well. Your actions and interactions with others are all suddenly very clear to you, so you are much better equipped to navigate through life.
3. Yoga is a safe space. In yoga there is a saying, ‘as on the mat, so off the mat’. While practicing acceptance of ourselves and others in our physical practice, we also practice acceptance of ourselves and others off the mat. In a world where there is so much negativity and comparison, there is a dire need for places where and people with whom you can feel safe around. Safe in the sense that you are free to be 100% you, flaws and all. You do not have to hide your imperfections, and no one will judge you for them. Everyone accepts each other in their uniqueness.
4. Yoga is not a competition. Every now and then, a student will approach me with a question about a pose, and when I explain it to them and we practice it, they look in the mirror and exclaim, ‘But, it’s not the same as in the picture!’
As we discussed earlier, each person has his/her own level of physicality. For example, a beginner practitioner will definitely not have as supple hamstrings as someone with 5 years’ worth of practice under their belt. So how to say that there is a ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to yoga poses? Everybody is growing at their own pace, whatever level they may be at in their practice. So although we may be practicing in the same class, there is no competition amongst each other. It is not even a competition with yourself – as Sri K. Pattabhi Jois said, ‘Do your practice, and all is coming’. Just turn up and do your best, without any expectations.
5. Yoga, done correctly, provides healing on not only the physical but emotional and mental bodies. Each pose has been designed to affect a particular physiological system or energy center in the body.
More importantly, a proper yoga practice has its foundations in the breath. When the breath is disturbed, the physical and energetic bodies are affected. Have you ever noticed your breathing pattern when you are sick or in pain? Even a slight change in your everyday posture affects your breathing pattern! With this in mind, yoga also aims to restore correct posture to the practitioner so that the breath flows freely into the body, thus restoring the physical and energetic bodies back to optimum health.
Today we have just skimmed the surface of how yoga differs from other physical exercises. So, what are you waiting for? Put those yoga pants on and get to class, pronto!