The sweat dries, your breath slows, cool air rushes across your face. You step out of the room, mat in hand, cracking a giddy smile. “Good class” you muse. Reaching for your shoes, your mind slowly begins to wake. Yoga high still reigns and you can’t help but feel good. This is why you practice.
Yoga is not like other athletics. It is different from the gym, and in some nontangible way, different from everything else we do. The practice physically kicks your butt. Yet, it does something even more to your mind. Perhaps you cannot exactly put your finger on it, but after a good class, you know what I mean.
New students frequently come to my class to get a “Yoga Butt”. Seriously, that’s what they say. We live in a material culture, and as the iconic singer said, “I’m a material girl.” In my case that would be a material “boy” (or old man depending on how you look at it).
In our externally dominated culture, this is the impetus to practice. The methods, terminology, and goals of yoga have changed. What used to be a spiritual tradition is now a workout. The classic definition, “stopping the fluctuations of the mind” (yes, that is the actual definition of yoga), has been converted to some form of physical skill. No longer are we judged by the clarity of our mental peace, but instead by the double jointedness of our elbows. Stick your legs behind your head and balance on your hands: Poof, you are a yoga master.
With yoga so externalized and the tradition so pitifully lost, why am I writing an article about the positive effects of the practice on body and mind? The answer is simple. Yoga still works… and it works in ways that many students never notice.
What we now call yoga, that is the postures or yoga poses, are traditionally called asanas. A Sanskrit word defined as a “comfortable, steady, posture.” Short definition huh? Interesting that nothing in this definition suggests putting your foot behind your head or balancing on one arm. If you are the kind of person that likes to see things for yourself, take a look in the classical Yoga Sutras. There are about one hundred English translations. This definition is straight forward, yet so far removed from what we practice today that it takes some creative writing just to make the two blend together.
In days long past, yoga was solely a spiritual practice. There was no concern with getting a yoga butt. In fact, it is a little wrong to even call yoga a practice. Traditionally, yoga was not something done, but something to be achieved. The term yoga was meant to describe a state of calm bliss that could be achieved via a specific method. You worked hard at your practice to develop the experience of yoga. And with the definition “steadiness of mind and emotion,” it seems that yoga would be a pretty great thing to experience. I can’t even count how many times my mind has wandered just while writing this short paragraph. Steady calmness sounds wonderful.
Every morning, before sunrise, I unlock the doors at the yoga center, turn the heat to 100 Fahrenheit, and welcome the students to another morning practice. Class is hot and it is hard. The sweat quickly builds. Grunts and sighs resonate from all corners. Lift here; push there; lean forward; more weight in the toes. This is a great workout. These students are getting in shape. For little more than an hour this group of students is poked and prodded into a world of continual challenge, and just a little agony. “You touched your forehead to your knees. Good, now pull your bellybutton to your spine.” “Your balance is improving. Now lift the leg a little higher.”
Finally, the clock runs down. Class is over. The students let out the final sigh of relief. Resting on their backs, bodies relax and surroundings fade away. There is no movement. The welcome tiredness of a hard workout settles in. The mind wanders and a few doze off to that little land somewhere between wake and sleep. Time is up.
From the outside perspective, and for many years from my own perspective, this kind of practice can hardly be called yoga. This physical practice of sweat and muscular tension was so far from my ideas of yoga I nearly walked away. Yet, the truth is, this is exactly yoga.
Bad balance, muscle fatigue, tight hips: walk out of class with a clam heart and a smile on your face.
Feel bloated, embarrassed by the ridiculously flexible person next to you, remember you were supposed to pick up dinner: walk out of class with a calm heart and smile on your face.
Pass gas (seriously, why does wind removing pose need to be so embarrassing), wake up snoring during shavasana, realize you are a level one student in a level three class: walk out of class with a calm heart and a smile on your face.
With each class, you struggle through the practice. You face your weaknesses and insecurities, and yet you leave with a calm heart and smile on your face. Yoga is steadiness in the face of a storm; a calm mind in the midst of a wavering world. Expect it or not, that is exactly what this new yoga brings.
As you walk out the studio door the experience goes with you. And with just a little bit of repeated exposure something amazing happens, the calm steadiness goes with you as well. This new yoga still works.