Yoga's booming popularity has resulted in some classes that are called "yoga," but are actually just yoga-flavored exercise classes. Students learn yoga postures -- such as Warrior, Tree and Downward-facing Dog -- but get no instruction in the deeper teachings of yoga, about breathing, awareness, and cultivating a "non-striving" attitude. So rather than an authentic yoga practice -- which is a journey of self-discovery, healing and transformation -- these yoga-flavored exercise classes are just another workout where participants push themselves, compete with each other, focus on appearance and -- all too often -- feel like failures if they can't achieve a particular pose.
As a yoga teacher who specializes in working with people who have health challenges, I often hear unsettling stories about negative experiences in yoga classes -- being injured by an over-zealous adjustment from a teacher, feeling embarrassed by not being as "good" as others in class and -- most alarming of all -- being told that pain is good because it means you're breaking through to a new level.
Frequently, these kinds of experiences occur in yoga-flavored exercise classes, which are characterized by a Western, competitive fitness mentality and ignore fundamental teachings of the yogic tradition, including the instruction from the Yoga Sutras that "a yoga pose should be steady and comfortable," (sometimes translated as "stable and sweet"). Authentic yoga teaches people to challenge themselves, but never strain. If people are pushing themselves to the point of pain, striving to look a certain way or being told they are, in any way, not good enough, then they are doing gymnastics or calisthenics, but not yoga.
Those new to yoga may find it challenging to determine whether or not a class is rooted in the spirit and intention of authentic yoga practice, or if it's just another workout. Here are two questions to help you decide:
- Does the class focus solely on the physical body?
While yoga is often touted as a way to gain flexibility or a "yoga butt", the practice is actually designed to quiet the mind and connect with the spirit. As a holistic discipline, yoga recognizes that physical ailments -- such as back pain and heart disease -- also have emotional and spiritual components. Yoga is much more than a workout; it's a comprehensive system for uniting mind, body and spirit.
Postures are just one part of this practice. Equally (and arguably more) important are breathing exercises, meditation and yogic attitudes, including ahimsa (non-harming) and santosha (contentment). A class that focuses solely on getting a posture "right" is missing essential parts of the yoga practice.
Yoga's popularity has resulted in some classes being taught by exercise instructors who have attended a weekend yoga workshop. Consider asking teachers how long they've taught yoga, where they studied, and how long they've practiced yoga. Authentic yoga instruction is rooted in a teacher's own yoga practice, and the best yoga teachers live their yoga on and off the mat. At a minimum, an instructor should be a registered yoga teacher with the Yoga Alliance, or have equivalent experience. An indication that a teacher has extra training and interest in therapeutic yoga is membership in the International Association of Yoga Therapists.
Over time and with practice in an authentic yoga class, you'll learn much more than how to do postures. Yoga practice is designed to teach us about our own tendencies, habits and patterns, and guide us to healthier ways of inhabiting our bodies and dealing with life's challenges. Or, as one of my teachers was fond of saying, in the yoga practice, we put ourselves into complicated positions, then focus on doing our best to relax and breath, so that when life places us in complicated positions, we can draw upon this knowledge to relax and breathe. The result is learning more skillful ways to relate to ourselves, to each other and to the world.
Carol Krucoff, E-RYT, is a yoga therapist at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, N.C., and has practiced yoga for more than 30 years. She is the author of Healing Yoga for Neck and Shoulder Pain: Easy, Effective Practices for Releasing Tension and Relieving Pain.