The fitness confusion

Sitting in a cafe with two other mums I had only recently met the conversation came around to yoga friends, and by turn, yoga in common. I soon realised that the common ground of our practice of yoga was thin and scrubby though not unfamiliar. Neither of the other mums knew I was a yoga teacher until later in the conversation. I began simply by listening. I am always interested to learn what motivates people to try yoga, their experience as beginners, and what motivates hem to stick with it, or rather, to stick with a particular teacher.

There were three main motivating factors: to get fit, to feel great, and the observation that those who practice yoga radiate positivity. And, three main insecurities: not being good at it, not being flexible enough, and not being a naturally relaxed person. There was also an obvious tension between thinking that if you don’t go at yoga hard and strong then you’re not getting a good workout and the realisation, conscious or unconscious, that the teachers who pushed you the most were often the ones who “forced your body into positions that you weren’t ready for.” With those teachers who took their students slowly, bringing more sensitivity to the postures, there was the feeling that it was a cop out even though slow didn’t automatically equate with easy.

What is yoga? Is it a work out, a form of exercise to improve your physical fitness? Is it going to make you stronger and more flexible? Do you have to be good at yoga to do it? What if you’re a person who can’t relax?

Yoga is not a high-impact cardiovascular fitness workout, but it will make you stronger and more flexible in your body and – major added bonus – in your mind. You don’t have to be good at yoga to do it, either. That’s not the point. A sensitive teacher, and a sensitive personal practice, will encourage you to be where you are now, today, in this moment, with this body. When you accept your body and yourself in this way, you let go of comparison judgement and progress by scales. A practice that works is one that cultivates the qualities of lightness, aliveness and feelings of possibility and spaciousness. If leaving a yoga class, you feel lighter and more alive in your body, and more spacious in your mind, then you have probably found the right teacher. If you feel heavy and dense in your body, your muscles twisted, pulled and stretched, then you may need to try elsewhere. Find another way. This is taking responsibility for your practice, rather than handing yourself over to the perceived ‘expert’ without questioning the effect or valuing your own experience and intuition.

Yoga is a tool for living. I could run, dance, surf, garden all day. But, I couldn’t do yoga all day. I don’t need to. As one of my teachers, Gary Carter, says: “Yoga is a practice that enables you to live well into your life.” Yoga brings sensitivity and awareness to every aspect of your life so that, by listening, you can engage in ‘fitness’ (or any other activity that you love) in a way that does not harm, but instead works with your body in a healthy and whole way freeing you up to feel stronger and enjoy life for longer. You don’t need to be good at yoga to attend a yoga class, but you feel good from doing it.

What about this relaxation thing? I think confusion here arises from a general confusion about what relaxation is. We have the idea of relaxation as a kind of unproductive vegging out. This is a throw back to the cultural consciousness of the Industrial Revolution which viewed productivity as good, idleness as bad. Yet, it’s quite possible to be relaxed and busy. Rest is crucial, and our body needs it regularly. Relaxation is a choice. We can be relaxed even though we have a full schedule, and we can choose to relax even when faced with a challenging or stressful situation. Relaxation is a letting go, an allowing. It’s more a state of mind, which affects the state of our body, than the position we adopt – lying down on the sofa in front of the TV – or the conditions of our environment – a minimalistic spa with attentive handmaidens. We create the conditions within ourselves so that we can relax whenever, wherever. And, yes, this is a practice.

Vanda Scaravelli, in her inspired book Awakening the Spine, puts it eloquently: “To relax is not to collapse, but simply to undo tension… It is not a state of passivity but, on the contrary, of alert watchfulness. It is perhaps the most ‘active’ of our attitudes, going ‘with’ and not ‘against’ our body and feelings. There is beauty in acceptance of what is.”

My first premise is always to listen. In the future, however, my suggestion to those two beautiful new mums in the cafe would be – before you conclude whether or not a yoga class is a good workout, get clear about your intentions. What am I hoping to gain from this class? What is my intention for coming today? If you want to do something that is going to raise your heartbeat and make your muscles strong and hard, go for a trail run, join a buggy fit class in the park, swim, do a fast-moving activity that you love for the love of it. If you want something that’s going to enable you to workout faster, harder, for longer, and help you feel more relaxed, alive and loving while you’re doing it, then choose yoga.