We practitioners all find and resonate with yoga for unique reasons. Some of us are attracted to the strength and mobility aspects of asana, while others connect more with the philosophies espoused in class. Some come to yoga to find a sense of belonging and connection through community, while others want to explore the psychological inquiry (svadhyaya) facilitated by the somatic journey of movement, breath, and awareness. And perhaps others, like me, were attracted to the mat for a mixture of all of it.
I stumbled into a yoga class at age 18, feeling relatively weak and disconnected from my body, my power, and many aspects of my identity. I had a brief stint of working out at a gym the summer before I left my hometown to attend acting school in Los Angeles, but really had no prior experience with any sort of fitness protocol.
As a young man, I was certainly motivated by a desire to see my musculature grow and become more defined, and I was eager to step into my sex appeal, which would certainly give me a useful advantage in the entertainment world. Shortly after moving to LA, however, it became clear to me that if I wanted to be able to pay my rent, a gym membership was out of the question.
In response to my financial restriction and fitness goals, a friend of mine dragged me along to a donation-based power yoga class, and I was instantly hooked. The class checked so many boxes for me: It was one of the most demanding physical experiences I’d ever had, and the mental clarity and alignment I felt afterward seemed to position me for greater success in my life and pursuits. Power yoga was really hard, but I loved how it made me feel—especially afterward.
Sometime early in my exposure to yoga I was presented with the idea of yoga being a superior, more virtuous form of physical exercise than traditional aerobics or weight lifting (the website of the studio where I was practicing had a write-up from the main teacher saying as much). I was told that being able to leverage and support the weight of my own body was not only sufficient, but healthier and more functional than cranking out reps in a gym.
I liked the notion that I was self-sufficient to my own health and fitness goals and that by limiting my strength practice to my yoga mat and the occasional prop, I was engaging in a more sustainable and respectful relationship with myself. There was also the notion, or judgment, that people who lift weights are motivated by external validation, while a yoga practitioner’s satisfaction and well-being is sourced from within. I was fully satisfied by my yoga practice—almost from the very beginning—and I embraced the idea that it would fulfill all of my physical and spiritual needs in this lifetime.
In spite of doing it all “right,” I was still suffering.
It wasn’t until about eight years into my practice that I really considered the benefits of weight lifting. The satisfaction of manifesting new shapes and possibilities in my body through asana was starting to wear thin. At that time, I was experiencing a particularly difficult time in my body. I was engaging in a very restrictive detox to address hormone imbalances, which led to a loss of vitality and libido and a resulting mental fog.
On top of this, I was already on a raw vegan diet and trying my best to practice what I considered to be non-violence in my food choices and lifestyle. In spite of doing it all “right,” I was still suffering.
I remember sitting huddled on the floor of a studio, propped up by the wall, instructing an energizing vinyasa practice to a room full of eager students, while I lacked the energy to even stand up. My students and friends were even starting to notice my decline in strength and stamina and reflected their concern to me. My initial response was to ramp up my yoga practice by performing extra chaturangas, longer holds in my lunges, and more intense core sequences to fortify my body. But it wasn’t working. I was becoming overwhelmed, weaker, and losing the essence of what I had initially loved about yoga.
My friend Alex, a then-avid Ashtanga practitioner, had recently joined a gym and was enjoying what was for her, the novel and stimulating learning curve of adopting a weight lifting protocol. I confessed to her that yoga was no longer helping me achieve my wellness goals and that I was tired of trying to get everything out of my asana practice. She encouraged me to give the gym a try again. Feeling desperate for change, I downloaded a workout protocol online that promised great results, and I signed up at my neighborhood gym.
Similar to my initial experience with yoga, I was pretty instantly enthralled with the process of weight lifting. I experienced so many of the nuanced muscular actions and joint articulations I had been exploring on the mat with greater feedback and efficiency when I loaded them with external weight. As a bit of a prop nerd in my yoga practice, I found myself incredibly stimulated by the playground of equipment options available at the gym for me to explore.
This curiosity coupled with a sort of beginner’s mind surrounding the process focused my attention in a way that felt brand new, which was refreshing. I would often warm up with sun salutations and end my workouts with more passive stretching. And much to my surprise, I didn’t find that adding muscle to my frame impacted my mobility, even though I’d been told it would. I also found that the process of seeing my body transform evolved my personal power and deepened my relationship to my own masculinity—and even my sexuality. I was feeling my vitality return and looking forward to this new endeavor each day.
Yoga as it’s taught today often seems to have contradictory messages. Some teachers offer practices that ask us to turn away from the external world and toward our inner landscape, while others encourage us to invest most of our awareness into the exploration of our physicality. It took me some time to recognize the value of both trajectories of attention and that my gym workouts were no less “spiritual” than my mat practices.
Both yoga and weightlifting asked me to invest my full attention in what I was doing, increase my capacity to tolerate and manage stress and discomfort, and to deepen my relationship with myself through learning how my body operates, functions, and adapts.
Most importantly, I had learned from my yoga practice that the process of transformation, however uncomfortable it can be, is made more beneficial and sustainable when motivated by self-love instead of self-hatred. I was committed to carrying this perspective into my gym workouts by practicing deep appreciation for the incredible cells of my body with each rep and set of my exercises.
I had learned from my yoga practice that the process of transformation, however uncomfortable it can be, is made more beneficial and sustainable when motivated by self-love instead of self-hatred.
I will admit I went through a temporary yoga identity crisis after some time weight lifting. I had become so committed to my gym workouts that I felt like a bit of a fraud teaching yoga when my classes did not reflect much of what I was doing in my own movement practice anymore. It took several years to reconcile these two worlds, but as my interest in other forms of exercise (namely calisthenics) and areas of study (biomechanics and tissue adaptation) increased, I started to view my practices in a new light.
I was beginning to have “aha” moments of recognition between the exercises I was doing at the gym to load certain muscles and to strengthen certain movements and the shapes and actions I was teaching in my yoga classes. I could see the similarities between sun salutations and a calisthenic burpee, for example, and between a straight-leg deadlift and the transition to tadasana (mountain pose) from ardha uttanasana (standing half forward bend). My vocabulary was also expanding to include new and useful ways of conveying instructions and contextualizing movements for my students, and the positive feedback I was getting from them was certainly validating these new choices and discoveries in my teaching.
I was still following various online workout protocols, and one such program led by a biomechanist bodybuilder named Ben Pakulski made a significant impact on my understanding of just what I was doing in the gym.
His advice encouraged that instead of attempting to move heavier weights through space, I consider the weight a feedback mechanism to help me increase neural drive and tension to my muscles. This was taught through what he called “intention,” or what we might call “action” in a yoga class. I found that these simple action cues not only increased my muscular engagement, they also sharpened my focus and benefited my yoga practice. This, coupled with my newfound curiosity around human movement sciences, cracked open a treasure trove of possibilities for how my gym workouts, home calisthenic practices, and yoga asana practice could co-exist and benefit one another.
I say often that our cells don’t know the difference between yoga, Pilates, dance, running, weight lifting, or hiking. Our cells are responding and adapting to the forces that are present both biomechanically and through the power of our intention and emotion. I am grateful for the context in which my yoga practice initially took place. The music, the studio, the mat, the incense, the Sanskrit pose names, and the mythic stories all set the stage for me to go on a transformative, somatic journey of self-realization and actualization. I am even more grateful to have now expanded the context of my practice to include other forms of movement and psychological inquiry, areas of study, and perspectives.
Our health and well-being are intrinsically linked to our adaptability and functionality. And it is within the playground of our life experiences that we can continue to adapt in diverse and functional ways.
What all my practices have in common is the person engaging in them: me. As I continue to integrate my experiences and the understanding that comes from them into all that I do, the boundaries of my yoga practice become more and more blurry. Yoga is no longer something I do, but a mode of attention I apply to whatever it is I’m participating in—including writing this article. It is this skillfulness in action that was introduced to me in my first vinyasa class and strengthened throughout my years spent in the gym. It is this embodied skillfulness that I intend to manifest in every activity.
Our health and well-being are intrinsically linked to our adaptability and functionality. And it is within the playground of our life experiences that we can continue to adapt in diverse and functional ways. Our yoga practice is worthless if it doesn't help us live, breathe, think, and move in optimal expansive ways. Our work on the mat expands as we apply the mindfulness and awareness we've cultivated into other areas of our life.
In that way, it all feels like an extension of yoga to me.