Certainly a lot of people come to yoga for exercise. If we poll our students, a lot of them would mention that they come because something hurts, they’re “stressed out” or they just need to move around a little bit. Good valid reasons for coming to yoga.
The really interesting question is what makes people continue to come back? Not just for a month or two but year after year. The answer may be that there’s more to yoga than just stretching or exercise.
When you start to look at the ancient tradition of yoga, we often study the Yoga Sutras and in the Yoga Sutras there are what is called the “Eight Limbs of Yoga.” An example of this is when one looks at “Ashtanga Yoga” this day and age one thinks of an intensely physical and athletic style of yoga. In reality, what the word Ashtanga means is “eight limbed yoga.” Continuing on with the ancient traditions, this might mean that the postures that are done on the mat are only one part or one eighth of a yoga practice.
Looking at the history of yoga, we see that it is somewhere about 3000 years old. Not really a fad. There are some studios out there that offer things like goat yoga, naked yoga, hot yoga, swing yoga, paddleboard yoga and my favorite, beer yoga. Could these types of “yoga” be considered fads or are they the real thing? Hard for me to tell. Could be nothing more than exercise but I guess there could be a portion of mind/body connection that is taught and that can be traced back to the Yoga Sutras in some way.
Going back to the ancients yogis, it was believed that one could use the body (postures) to calm the mind. I believe this might be one of the big reasons why Westerners are drawn to yoga and yoga practice. We all know, that we live a great portion of our time right here in our heads. Yoga allows us to get out of our heads a bit and into the body. This in turn helps us “unwind” from the stress of our lives and also it may allows us to understand our bodies and minds a bit differently. So maybe there’s some small portion of “self exploration” going on here that is attractive to the many folks who start a yoga practice.
There are some forms of exercise that achieve this mind/body meditative state. Long distance runners and cyclists are the ones that come to mind. Meditation in motion. Yoga does this all the time but it does it with a different intention. The premise may be that when one comes to practice that you come as a whole and complete being. You’re not here to fix or change anything. It allows us to hold a whole lifestyle in our hands. We explore the sensations in the physical body, energy body, breath and mind. We are to do this exploration without any or a least little judgment. Yoga is not a competition. Yoga can be a lifestyle, especially when one looks at the other seven limbs and it can be for just exercise.
If we’re only doing yoga as exercise, doing just the postures (asana), ignoring all the other aspects of yoga, then we might want to call it something different. Folks can still benefit from just doing the postures and we see this in the classes that advertise “better backs” or look to help with some other physical ailment but again, “yoga is more than stretching” or postures. There is so much more.
When we come on to the mat and close out the busyness of our day, we begin to let go of the “chatter” of the mind. The quieting of the mind is in the Yoga Sutras. It doesn’t say anything about stretching our hamstrings. The ancient yogis knew that this quieting of the mind was how we got into this deeper level of our being, our humanity. Turning inward, focusing on the body and the breath, allowing the body and breath to brings us closer to the higher limbs of yoga which in turn may brings us closer to the “divine” whatever that is for each individual.
These deeper levels of awareness and understanding are what make yoga different than just exercise.