The Yoga Fitness Bug
Getting fit with yoga
As yoga continues to increase in popularity there has also been an increase in yoga fitness classes that offer postural based yoga or hybrid yoga focussed on burning calories. Yogasize, power yoga and yoga fit classes are becoming a staple offering of many gyms and fitness studios. While these classes offer a calorific burn they often steer away from any self exploration and meditation, stripping away the mysticism and spirituality associated with yoga. But without a spiritual or meditative grounding can they still be referred to as ‘yoga’? In order to answer that we first need to ask ‘What is Yoga?’ Which is a very big question in itself!
Patanjali’s definition of yoga
According to Patanjali, who lived around the second century BC and wrote the Yoga Sutra, considered a guidebook for yoga practice, yoga is “yogas citta vritti nirodha’ or in plain english: yoga is the removal of the fluctuations of the mind or stilling of the mind. Yoga is therefore a method of quieting the mind through practice.
yogas citta vritti nirodha
Patanjali refers the ego’s sense of ‘I”, “me” and “mine”, to our desires, ignorance, aversions and attachments. It is of course impossible to remove the fluctuations of the mind but regular yoga practice, in whatever format it takes, can serve as a meditative tool to help us step back from our thoughts, so that we can cultivate our inner witness in order to recognise their transient nature and hopefully not be quite so attached to them.
A yoga class may be broken down into breath work, physical practice of the yoga poses and spirituality, all of which can take time to communicate. However, limited time and scheduling conflicts in yoga studios and gyms can mean that yoga for fitness classes are often limited to 60 minute slots. Typically any meditative aspects are kept to a minimum, if included at all to maximise the workout time. The focus is on yoga moves and variations that make you feel like you’re physically working hard with little guidance about how to relax the mind.
Yoga stands out against other forms of exercise because of the combination of breath and movement. Movements are co-ordinated with the inhalation and exhalation helping practitioners to find greater ease in each of the yoga poses. This in turn has an impact on calming the nervous system and this is still very much the case in yoga for fitness classes (for more information on the positive effects of yogic breathing please read: Flight or Fight: The Modern Stress Response).
I see my yoga practice as one in which each pose is a moving mediation ultimately leading to the final blissful pose of Savasana. I have a very overactive mind and if I tried to lie down and relax in Savasana at the beginning of the class it wouldn’t work. My mind would race and any benefit of practicing yoga would be lost on me. I actually find that an intense yoga practice helps me to clear my mind to better effect. This is somewhat like squeezing water out of a sponge, every pose squeezes out a little more water. Every pose helps to ‘remove the fluctuations of the mind’ until finally when you come to savasana the mind is ready to relax. I have attended yoga for fitness classes that finished with savasana and I found I was able to achieve the same level of relaxation. My preference is for more spiritually led classes, but that is just personal preference and of course everyone is different.
While there is much talk that yoga hybrids or yoga for fitness classes have diluted the spirit or soul of yoga there is an equal argument to say that they have their place in modern yoga. Such classes have opened the door for many people who would otherwise have avoided any kind of yoga practice. Rather than being a complete practice these classes could potentially be a first step in making yoga more palatable for a larger number of people so that it is no longer resigned to fringe status. As a yoga instructor I see that as a very good thing. Yoga has a habit of pulling people in with a hunger to learn more, and hopefully that will also be true of yoga for fitness classes.