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What Yoga Is Not

Physical yoga practices are not meant to be a “work out,” in the sense that we Americans think of it. For anyone who has tried them, yoga is not the same as running, swimming, or bicycling. It’s far from Jazzercise, Zumba, HIIT, Orange Theory, Pure Barre, CrossFit, Boot Camp or Beachbody on Demand. Yoga is not a trip to the gym for Precor, Cybex, Bowflex or even Life Fitness—though that name is certainly appealing.

What’s the point of doing exercise that does not provide us with the things we love about exercise? Yoga occurs on a tiny mat, in a room of strangers, led by a teacher whose voice might be annoying. The instructions might be vague or impossible to achieve: Send energy out the sole of my foot? Breathe into my forehead? And if we were hoping to sweat, though there are yoga studios where this can happen, many yoga classes don’t help us produce more than a light sparkle of perspiration. We might burn more calories walking around the block.

And there’s the point: Yoga is not other things. Put simply, it’s a way to enhance other things.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells his protégé Arjuna that yoga is, among other things, “skill in action.” If so, then it’s fitting that our yoga experience begins on a 2x6’ mat. That space is small, safe, and in it we can explore what it means to be a living, moving, feeling person. When the class instruction involves challenge—twisting, reaching, balancing, or (hardest of all) staying still—we note not only the required effort but also the reactionary layers we might add when we do (or don’t) achieve the goal. Annoyance, avoidance, pride or frustration might appear, along with any number of other passing mind states. With even a slightly regular practice, we may notice patterns in these layers, which the Buddha aptly called the “second darts” of experience. Consider the possibility that whatever secondary layers we perceive during our mat experience also exist in our larger lives…and then, yoga becomes a lens through which we begin to see more clearly our own internal universe, the world around us, and our capacity to behave in it with increasing competence, finesse and grace.

So keep hitting the gym! Fly with your favorite field of athletes. Don’t give up the paddleboard, skateboard or surfboard. For that matter, don’t even think about reducing your professional passion for engineering, education, corporate sales or public policy. When you add yoga, you’re not adding yet another a work-out. Consider it a work-in, and you may find that it deepens your connection to everything else that you already love.

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