Dear America: Yoga Is Not A Sport

Written by Dulma Altan

Yoga isn't about reaching a "There." It's not about how to learn to get your heels to touch the ground when you're in Down Dog. It's not about how to get into a Handstand without a wall. And it's not about mastering that lithe heart-opener that looks perfectly photogenic on the internet.

It's so much more than that, but only if you let it be.

I get it. I, too, have used my body, my so-called healthy lifestyle, and my yoga to build my ego. It feels good to be able to do certain flexible poses that the person next to you at your studio can't do. And it's easy to want to look like all the absurdly predominant photos of hot, young (usually Caucasian) girls who pose in yoga asanas in skimpy clothing.

I'm human, and these are my struggles as well.

But I also know this: for the past few years, my body has struggled with adrenal fatigue symptoms that get aggressive when I'm stressed. Any extra physical exertion or emotional stress simply tips me over the edge, and I get really exhausted and emotional.

I'm more or less done with lamenting how tragic this is. I deal, because it's my cross. 

But this also means that even though I teach (and sometimes live and breathe) yoga, I can't physically compete with the athlete-yogis whose toned muscles and freakishly flexible bodies render their practice a spectator sport.

I can't push myself through a Bikram class and not want to collapse. Luckily, the modern vigorous styles of yoga (that I've noticed are most popular in the States and not, say, in Paris where I'm living right now) aren't necessarily what "yoga" is. We often lose sight of that.

"Real" yoga is sweaty yoga, we think. And an "advanced" practitioner can put both legs behind their heads while hands are in anjali mudra and we're serenely chanting Om. 

No way. Yoga, in its essence, isn't even just physical yoga.

Hatha, or physical, yoga is just a vehicle for learning how to Be and how to Feel. It's a portal into presence, a tool for cultivating the awareness that will save your soul. 

It will bring you to that tranquillity that resides within to enable you to weather any kind of emotional storm from within or any life challenge from without.

THIS, my friends, is yoga.

It's taken me nearly four years of practice to arrive at this realization fully and to completely accept that my yoga is a poor tool for ego-building but an indispensable one for ego-shattering and soul-nourishing.

My practice builds itself patiently and I watch it—and my body—flower open with loving acceptance of each step of the journey. I've learned to stop trying to compete and start trying to relish every moment on my mat as a return to myself, the only true destination. Is my journey complete? By no means. But I'm in no rush.

Yoga practice doesn't need to be the kind of practice we do for ballet or football or basketball. There's no final ideal to strive for, no satisfaction to gain from a perfected pose.

Don't get me wrong: you should always strive to master alignment, gross and subtle, and to learn more about the intricacies of the science and art that is hatha yoga. And there's nothing wrong with building towards challenging poses over time, to build strength and become more flexible.

My only request is that we recognize that these things can and are often used as the means to the end of building the proud "I" whose egoic demands are endless. These achievements, neither good nor bad in themselves, can easily become goals to push ourselves toward, which result in all kinds of injury on the physical level and unhealthy fixation on the mental.

When we identify less with the body, its capabilities, and its appearance for the kind of ephemeral ego boost that's addictive but never enough, we use tools like yoga less as a means to an end and more as the spiritual meditative movement that it has the potential to be.

But the inverse is also true: when we give our yoga a chance to be a dance of form within the dance of life, when we engage in it for its own pleasure and relinquish all attachment to becoming "advanced" or "good enough", our dependence on the physical for fleeting happiness is replaced by a deeper joy, appreciation, and playful experimentation in a process as endless as the peace it can bring.

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