Thursday 9 August 2018

So, I Didn't "Get" Yoga

My first experience with yoga was scarring.

I was running a corporate wellness centre, where weary IT employees would go to work up some good, clean, nerd sweat. I had been teaching all sorts of fitness classes, from step to cardio box to low impact aerobics, and even funk (because it was the late 90s, that’s why!). I had hired a yoga instructor to come in to teach weekly classes for a while, without participating myself, but decided that I should add it to my skillset, in case — god forbid — the funk thing was only a fad.

I chose a three-hour workshop as my starting point, a “yoga for fitness” certification. It was a terrible idea, I realized as soon as we started; I’d never tried the activity before, so why not destroy my soul by doing it for three hours straight? (It’s like the “box set” mentality: “I’ve never owned anything by this band. I think I want to own everything by this band!”)

It was agony, of course. The instructor “helped” me “go deeper” into various completely-unnatural positions, and talked about the meditation that is at the heart of yoga. Meditation? I gasped as my muscles and tendons screamed. How could I “meditate” when all I could hear over and over in my mind was, “How long do I have to hold this pose?” and “Why am I doing this?” These were, I suppose, a sort of mantra, but, I suspect, not the kind I was supposed to have.

As for the latter mantra, the answer to that arrived (eventually) in the form of the Best Part of Yoga, a.k.a. The Only Real Reason for Doing Yoga: corpse pose. Almost every yoga class has a five-minute nap built into the end. I’ve been told (repeatedly) that it’s not a nap, and I’m not supposed to fall asleep, but what am I, made of stone? They strain my body and mind for 60–90 minutes, then put me in a supine position to listen to soothing music. Ergo, I nap.
Image from

But, back to the meditation/mindful bit. Some of my instructors have started classes with inspirational quotes, or suggested a focus for the class, like “strength” or “peace”. Some have even pulled out The Big Om, asking us to sing/drone a nasal, atonal song together. After the first few nervous times, I now enjoy that bit, even as I find it uncomfortable. It’s the bringing together of different voices and tones into a single (ish) tone that is, well, symbolic. Yoga, after all, means union.

The focus on the ujai breath, an audible nose-to-back-of-throat way of breathing, is another way to stop thinking about the minutiae of your day, and instead to turn breathing — an unconscious, automatic act — into a conscious activity (or, a focus on how irritating the yogi on the next mat is, and how special they must think they are to be able to breathe that loudly).

But I digress again. Meditation. Right.

The poses themselves are meditations. It took me many, many years to understand that. How could it be a meditation when all of my consciousness was tied up in thinking inhale/extend the front leg…lift the chest…exhale…inhale/reach higher….exhale/ground the outside of the back foot…don’t forget that front leg again… Ohhhh. The very nature of a pose’s overwhelming requirement of full concentration on practically every part of my body meant that I was no longer thinking about needing to tidy up the house or book the kids’ afterschool activities, or work in another 45 minutes of cardio somewhere. I was fully immersed in the moment. My mind, despite racing furiously to “achieve” the yoga pose, was completely focused on the now: the shaking muscles, the straining to breathe. The pose is the meditation.

As a fitness nerd admittedly more comfortable with the physical than the mindful, and always wanting to know the expected results and the why of exercise, I offer my professional opinion: should you do yoga? What is it good for: building strength, flexibility, burning fat? Wouldn’t you achieve better results running, lifting weights, and stretching?

Well, as a cross-training option, it’s a very functional workout, and non-impact. The poses require you to lift, move and hold your own body weight through a series of uncomfortable, impractical moves. It’s not a progressive workout, per se, but you will see improvement if you keep it up. For strength, it’s good, but not great. It does strengthen your upper body and core, but other workouts do it better, and the specificity is limited unless your sport or life goal involves being able to wrap yourself into the eagle pose, for example. Flexibility improves with repeated practice, but again, a concentrated regime of progressive stretching is more effective. And as a fat-burning exercise, yes, sustained exercise at moderate intensity burns fat, but there are better workouts out there if this is your goal. 

Mentally, there’s a lot going for yoga. Throughout each session, you are training equanimity, as you force yourself to stay calm in (sometimes intensely) awkward and embarrassing situations (like holding in your giggles when somebody farts… and someone always will) and discomfort. If you have kids, a partner, or a job, equanimity is an important life skill. You also get an entire session of turning your mind off of everything else, which results in a feeling of mental refreshment at the end of the class.

With all that considered, I would recommend, without reservation, yoga practice as part of your fitness program, a cross-training workout that does improve strength and flexibility, burns fat, and leaves you feeling relaxed and floppy, sweaty and peaceful. It’s mentally and physically challenging and intense, while giving your brain a welcome break from the rest of your stressors. And you can do it anywhere.

If you need to ask yourself one more convincing question, might I remind you to ask this:
Wait, and doesn’t this workout also incorporate a nap at the end?

Why, yes. Yes it does.

This article has been cross-posted on and

No comments:

Favourite posts