Does The Term "Power Yoga" Really Mean Anything?

Recently, I innocently tweeted:

“I don't really know what ‘Power Yoga’ is but apparently I'm teaching it at 12:30 today. Let's figure it out together!”

As someone who has been teaching for over a dozen years, I thought it was obvious that I was joking and most of the responses reflected that.

There were, however, a few people who felt inspired to give me advice, seemingly oblivious to the fact that I was being facetious about not knowing what power yoga meant. (Their advice was along the lines of, "lots of held planks.")

Looking back, though, I’ve wondered, what exactly was I joking about? My guess is that I was probably poking fun at how the phrase "power yoga" is both overused and under-defined.

So what does the term mean? On the simplest level, I suppose that power yoga is basically any practice that’s an ashtanga derivative, emphasizing movement and athleticism without the same series of poses being practiced each and every time.

But the phrase has a history now, having been bandied about for over 20 years, first coined by Beryl Bender Birch and Bryan Kest in the late 80s, and power yoga certainly creeps into countless titles of yoga DVDs ranging from the likes of Rodney Yee to Baron Baptiste and Shiva Rea, to Tara Stiles (these yogis often add a softening word, like "flow" or "fluid," to the title).

On her website Beryl Bender Birch says that the phrase, "power yoga," came to her in a dream “as the perfect way to let people know that the astanga practice was a WORKOUT for the body, unlike much of the yoga being taught at that time in the United States, as well as the mind.”

So, the phrase “power yoga” is meant to make clear that the physical practice of yoga is athletically demanding, and therefore serious (at least, as a workout). In other words, yoga is not something just for wimps (however spiritually advanced they may be).

I’m the first person to admit that I love a physically challenging practice. Even if the asanas are designed mostly to prepare for the demands of sitting in meditation, I suppose it’s also good to know that theoretically they can help you kick someone’s ass in a bar fight.

In some ways, though, the term "power yoga" sells the side-effect (namely, fitness or physical strength) of a yoga practice because that side-effect is usually the thing that students are truly seeking.

I can’t tell you how many students have begun a yoga practice because of a physical goal –– whether it’s to loosen tight hamstrings or relieve lower back pain –– who fall in love with the greater sense of well-being and connection that yoga offers. That’s why people end up sticking around, and that’s where real transformation occurs.

If the word "power" combined with the word “yoga” gets people in the door of the studio (or to put the DVD in the player), then perhaps it's allowable as a necessity of modern day marketing which, after all, frequently requires a “sexy” label. They do have to call the class SOMETHING. (A decade ago I once sat through a meeting at a now defunct studio devoted entirely to how management should label the spring schedule, wondering how I’d drifted into an unpaid focus group.)

The funny thing about the term “power yoga,” though, is that I still feel it has a small sense of apology about it. It seems to indicate a residual tinge of embarrassment about yoga, conveying a need to stress that the practice is “hard core,” “strength building,” and “challenging”–– that it’s not “just stretching” or suitable “only for skinny granola ladies.”

In some ways, this reminds me of the kind of scene I’ve watched in countless sitcoms over the decades, from Fame’s dance-off between the school’s dancers and the football players, to Glee’s Kurt joining the football team after being caught dancing to Beyonce’s moves.

Each episode’s comedic punchline is always that yoga/ballet/modern dance reveals itself to be just as demanding, if not more so, than traditional athletics. In the end, the joke’s always on the jocks (probably because nerds end up writing most of the shows!).

The irony for me is that yoga really is about all about power –– but not of athleticism, per se. What’s truly POWERFUL are not the amount of calories burned or muscles strengthened, but the incredible internal transformations that come about through the physical practice.

I’m talking about the power that comes from facing one’s fears while mastering an “impossible” pose. Or the power that grows from developing a steady practice over time, the power of persistence. And with heart-opening poses, another kind of power develops: vulnerability. As Brené Brown says, “Vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage.”

In the end, I’ve found that there’s no great conflict for me with those who think that power yoga only means a lot of held planks and an extensive series of standing pose to generate heat. Those things are definitely going to happen in all of my classes.

Yet I'm confident that ultimately it’s the willingness to transform, rather than willpower and pushups alone, that connects people to the only power that matters in yoga or life: that which lies within.

Ready to learn more about how to unlock the power of food to heal your body, prevent disease & achieve optimal health? Register now for our FREE Functional Nutrition Webinar with Kelly LeVeque.

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