Why Yoga Is More Than Just a Physical Workout

Last week, I had the misfortune of taking a class with a new yoga instructor who, despite her well-meaning intentions to challenge the class, misunderstood the purpose of yoga.

Initially a kickboxing instructor, this fitness-lover seemed to think of yoga as just another muscle-sculpting, fat-burning workout. During the hour session, she allowed only one ten-second child’s pose and continued the stressful “don’t be a disappointment” speech even during savasana.

I left the class that day feeling robbed of my yoga routine, or practice.

Yoga allows me to celebrate the trinity of mind, body, and spirit that constitutes my being. 

Instead of feeling rejuvenated and whole by the end of the session, I sensed my mind and spirit had just sprinted an hour-long race against my body -- and lost. Torn apart into competing forces, my being’s unity violated.

I shared this incident with a fellow yoga enthusiast. Surprisingly, she too, had many similar stories. For example, in one of her classes, the instructor set “getting a beach body” as the goal.

Again, just as with my teacher, I do not doubt the good intentions of this “beach body” instructor. I picture this teacher as a dedicated fitness guide who wants to encourage students as they strive to reach certain health objectives.

However, creating physical aspirations without considering the spirit and mind prove more detrimental in yoga than helpful.

In both of these scenarios, students gained the physical benefits of a challenging workout. However, classes that incorporate the unity of mind, body, and spirit reap better long-term results than classes that focus solely on the body.

Why?

Consider someone exercising to achieve and “ideal” body weight.

Focusing only on dissatisfaction with the body, the spirit suffers under the self-defeating claims that part of the being is inferior. 

This division produces resentment and stress. Disrupted sleep patterns, abnormal eating habits, headaches, ulcers, anxiety, and other manifestations of stress eventually damage the body, invalidating or lessening the “progress” gained from the initial single-minded focus on the body.

By contrast, if an individual approaches the practice with a mind/body/spirit approach, that person will have better long term benefits, even though the outward appearance of progress may seem slower.

When incorporating mind and spirit while doing a challenging pose, the focus becomes less about fighting the body and more about using spirit and mind to instruct and encourage the body. This positive way of supporting oneself during poses makes performing the physical part of yoga easier and more efficient.

Working with the unity of mind, body, and spirit also creates more long-term benefits because the universal nature of mind and spirit allows one to practice yoga almost anywhere. 

For example, a driver cannot drop into a “downward facing dog” or “pigeon“ while in a car. However, the yoga elements of breathing, meditation, and mindfulness prove accessible in any situation. Trying these elements on and off the mat will help one delved deeper into a yoga lifestyle and, therefore, gain more from his or her practice.

When I first started taking yoga classes, I thought of yoga as merely a sport. Trying to compete, or at least catch up with, the other members of the class, I would stretch myself beyond my limit.

The instructor would speak about breathing throughout, but often, I found myself more concerned with checking in the studio mirror to make sure my shirt wasn’t riding up or that my poses were configured correctly.

Not until I delved into the practice of meditation did I gain the most from yoga. 

More mindful of my spirit and body, I now reconsider before I overcommit myself to new projects and try instead to focus on loving those around me and myself more deeply.

Savoring each moment, now I am thankful for my body as it helps me accomplish the intentions my mind and spirit direct me toward. Less distracted, I find myself both more still and mindful; meditation comes easier. Meditation focuses attention on the true being. Yoga practices align the true being correctly.

Only by attending to the mind, body, or spirit, can one shine their light brightly to illuminate the path of mindfulness for other spiritual sojourners and oneself.

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