Why I Practice Yoga: It’s Not to Lose Weight, Get Buff, or Be Trendy

yoga-alainamcbrideMore and more often, I see articles, memes, and ads featuring yoga as some sort of cure-all. This isn’t to say that it doesn’t have some, or even all, of these benefits, but to me, these types of claims cheapen the practice. It’s so much more than just a way to lose weight, tone your abs, or show off your cute new stretchy pants.

Originally, I started yoga because someone bought me a pass and I felt obligated to try to give them their money’s worth by going to classes. I had wanted to try yoga for a while, but this was the kick in the butt I needed to get me to a class in the first place. Once I started going, I felt stupid that I’d put it off as long as I had.

Pain relief

I’ve had back, neck and shoulder pain for years. I’m only 25, so that’s kind of unusual. It’s not to the same extent that someone twice my age would have, but I blamed my bookbag. Then I blamed my mattress. Then I blamed my teachers for focusing on whether our shirts were tucked in more than whether we were sitting up straight.

Whatever the cause or causes of it were, yoga made it better. I became more aware of my posture, sitting, standing, and even sleeping, and it improved. I started noticing that that hunched over stance I had from carrying a heavy backpack around to classes for the past ten years was not, in fact, the natural state of my spine. And it started to hurt to hunch over instead of stand up straight. How great was that!

Weight Loss

I’ve never enjoyed physical activity. I enjoy reading, writing, movies, board games; outdoor activities, sports, and exercise were never as much fun by comparison. But when I started practicing yoga, I realized that exercise didn’t suck after all!

This was something that was my pace, my level of intensity, and I only had to push myself as far as I knew myself to capable. There was no gym teacher, no taunting from other students, nobody telling me to move faster, bend deeper, or try harder. Exercise was not a chore; it was a pleasure. Instead of feeling out of breath or getting cramps in my side, I felt loose, limber, and so relaxed.

While yoga has helped me become more active, it’s never been much help at weight loss for me. I wasn’t overweight to begin with, but I did want to be healthier and more active in the hope that some of the excess weight would fall off. And yet, I never got frustrated that yoga wasn’t helping me lose weight. It never made me want to try something else. I enjoy the way I feel after doing yoga, and that’s reason enough for me to stick with it.

So, it bothers me when I see so many people turning to it specifically for weight loss, and especially giving up on it if they’re not seeing results. There are so many other benefits to practicing yoga that I think people should stay with it if they’re enjoying any of the other benefits, even if those weren’t the reasons they tried it.

Getting Buff

Yoga can be a great way to build strength, and while I haven’t noticed much weight loss, I have seen improved strength in my legs and my arms especially. However, if you signed up for yoga because you want to look like a 100-pound yogi who’s all muscle, I think you’re missing the point.

I keep hearing “strong is the new skinny”. On the one hand, I agree strength is a better health goal than just looking thin. On the other, yoga is a mind and body practice. It’s not weight-lifting. If you’re in it just for the muscle tone, you’re missing out on everything else yoga has to offer. The attitude, the relaxation, and the awareness you achieve through yoga are all just as important and just as valuable as being able to do a free-standing handstand.

The spiritual or religious aspect

I never looked at yoga as a spiritual practice, and never understood anyone who thought they couldn’t practice yoga if they were Christian because there would be some kind of religious conflict. I believe yoga can be practiced by anyone, no matter their beliefs.

However, there is a sort of spirituality that you come to experience after practicing yoga for a while. It isn’t religious in the traditional sense of the word; rather, it has more to do with your connection and appreciation for yourself and feels spiritual on that level. You become more attuned to your body and your physical and emotional states when you practice yoga, and that’s important when we spend so much time and effort trying to distance ourselves from, well, ourselves. We can’t show our emotions, we can’t get sick now, we have to stay up to finish this presentation, etc.

You learn what your limits are in yoga. In today’s fast-paced world where we’re all expected to be superheroes—super-productive, super-attentive, super-multi-taskers, impervious to illness, ten cups of coffee to make it through the day and long into the night—knowing when you need a break or when you need to ease up is perhaps the most valuable skill we can learn.

So, I’m not buff, I’m not super-thin, I’m not interested in being popular. I do yoga because it makes me feel better. It relieves stress, physical tension, pain, and I always feel like a million bucks after I’m done.

Photo by: Alaina McBride CC License

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