Physical Fitness Was Never the Purpose of Yoga

May 9, 2017    BY Jaimie Epstein

Given that the gym may now be the first place someone takes a yoga class, and that gyms are associated with fitness, building strength, and getting heart rates up (I doubt many people join a gym to become enlightened!), it’s probably not surprising that some confusion has developed around the purpose and benefits of yoga asana. And all the cross-breeding between yoga and other physical disciplines—yogalates, yoga tone, or cycle yoga, anyone?—has only added to the confusion.

Considering these hybrids and the extent to which multitasking has become a fact of life in our go-go-go, do-do-do culture, it’s no wonder that the New York Times recently reported on a University of Miami study designed to answer the question, Does Yoga Qualify as an Aerobic Workout? The study’s answer: no, at least not as it is generally practiced. If the answer had been yes, yoga could be seen as a kind of two-for-one deal, offering both cardio and enlightenment. And lots of busy-busy-busy bees could then delight in being able to double-dip, as it were.

There would be less confusion if those who are teaching yoga hybrids were more honest—that is, if, rather than trying to capitalize on yoga’s spiritual bona fides (and trendiness) by seducing people into thinking they’re practicing yoga when they’re probably practicing just one watered-down limb (i.e., asana), they simply called their more fitnessy classes “stretch ‘n’ strengthen” (instead of “yogalates”), “weight-asana” instead of (“yoga tone/sculpt”), or “pedal ‘n’ pose” (instead of “cycle yoga”)—if, to be totally blunt, they nixed the word “yoga.”

To me, asking whether yoga is exercise, let alone aerobic exercise, is like asking if an apple is an orange or an orange an apple, though admittedly that distinction isn’t made by everyone—my mom included. I used to be a competitive cyclist, so when I visited my parents in Los Angeles, I took advantage of the nearby mountains to pound miles and build muscle. When I’d come home from a six-hour training ride, my mom wouldn’t ask how my workout was—she’d ask how my ride was. Yet when I return home from a yoga class in L.A., she’ll ask how my workout was, no matter how many times I’ve told her that “yoga is not a workout!” To give another example: If the weather where I live in Boulder prevents me from riding my single-speed bike around town or hiking or skiing for days (hey, it happens), I’m apt to bemoan my lack of exercise to my bestie, who will say something like, “But you go to yoga every day”—as if yoga were exercise!

To me, asking whether yoga is exercise, let alone aerobic exercise, is like asking if an apple is an orange or an orange an apple.

Is it or is it not? Even if it’s not typically aerobic, which is what I equate with exercise, it’s still technically exercise. It just depends on what you mean by exercise and what your intention is when you practice yoga as to whether it’s exercise for you and what kind of exercise it is. If exercise is defined as “something performed or practiced in order to develop, improve, or display a specific capability or skill,” then, yeah, yoga—pranayama, meditation, asana, etc.—qualifies. But another definition of exercise (the one that may have inspired the U of Miami study) is “bodily exertion for the sake of developing and maintaining physical fitness.” Traditionally, physical fitness, although perhaps a welcome by-product of the practice, was not the purpose of yoga.

As Georg Feuerstein so eloquently and succinctly put it in this magazine:

There is nothing wrong with fitness and health; they are simply not final objectives of traditional yoga, not even the now so popular hatha yoga. Few followers of so-called contemporary hatha yoga, in fact, know that the system that they purport to practice originally aimed at a complete transmutation of the physical body into a ‘diamond body’ (vajra-deha). This diamond body is a thoroughly transubstantiated body that is endowed with all kinds of paranormal capacities—the kind of body that Christians know as the ‘Body of Glory’ and the Tibetan yogis as the ‘Rainbow Body.’

If we practice yoga merely for health reasons, we will be able to improve or maintain our health, fitness, and flexibility. The yoga postures and breathing indeed work wonders. But if we practice yoga as mind training or as a spiritual discipline, we can definitely grow toward the freedom that traditional yoga authorities hold up as the highest goal of human existence.

So why settle for a work-out when you can have a work-in? Intention determines result: The more you ask of your yoga practice, the more you’ll get out of it. Why settle for only gladiator triceps when you can also become more compassionate and more connected to the world around you—more, well, enlightened? 

I have long had a ginormous jones for physical activity, and that is probably one of the reasons yoga first appealed to me. I love being in my body, using my body, expressing myself through it, seeing what it can accomplish. Although I do yin about once a week, fairly vigorous vinyasa is my daily practice. It creates a lot of heat: I sweat and sometimes breathe hard; it stretches me physically. But I don’t for one second think about, say, how many calories I’m burning, or how high my heart rate is, or whether I am building aerobic endurance. I don’t confuse apples and oranges.

If time is limited and you need to get your cardio on in conjunction with your yoga, may I suggest that you do as I do and ride your bike to the studio?

Jaimie Epstein
Jaimie Epstein is an 800-hour Advanced Certified Jivamukti Yoga teacher, vegan food foodie, and Sanskrit geek. Nada, sound, is one of the five tenets of the Jivamukti Yoga Method (the other four tenets being ahimsa, scripture, meditation, and bhakti), and so crafting wicked-fun playlists has always been part of her teaching process. She finds it just slightly ironic that she now practices ashtanga daily at a Mysore studio, where the only music comes from the constant rhythm of ujjayi breath.... Read more>>

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