The Difference Between Yoga and Exercise
Posted by admin on October 29, 2012
boasting about their new found yoga practices. There is a certain irony to the fact that only recently has yoga has been granted the hashtag stamp of popularity. Yoga is one of the oldest forms of exercise known to mankind, dating back thousands of years, originating in the far East. Unfortunately, as with anything that becomes popular amongst todays media-driven society yoga has fallen prey to commercialization. Large corporations dedicated solely to offering the practice of yoga have popped up all across the States. These corporations flaunt their carbon-copy class schedules, which offer mutant-like fusions of yoga classes with other kinds of exercise. New classes such as yogalaties, dance yoga, power yoga, and acro yoga are becoming all the rage. Popular gyms offer these mutt-yoga classes as way to draw people into classes- worried that yoga in its own right wouldn’t attract those who are exercise hungry.
Don’t get me wrong, I think it is brilliant that yoga has garnered such a following amongst the Western society’s masses. Some of the corporate studios offer some really wonderful and authentic styles of yoga for eager students to learn. However, as with anything that penetrates the innermost circle of trending media, the heart of yoga and what the practice is all about is beginning to get lost amongst the shuffle of hashtags, tweets, and over advertised studios. With more and more frequency I hear people haphazardly referring to yoga as a weight loss tool, a way to sweat off their day, and a means in which to achieve body perfection. While yoga does in fact offer all of the aforementioned results, it is not, as so many are beginning to regard it, an exercise.
In Costa Rica we are somewhat sheltered from the storm of popularity yoga has achieved recently in the States. Part of the beauty of coming to a learning vacation school such as ours revolves around our ability to maintain an authenticity in everything that we teach. Spanish class is taught with the incorporation of Costa Rican Spanish culture; surf class paddles out amongst local surfers who were riding waves long before they were riding bikes; photography class captures the wonders of mother nature whose natural vibrancy of color would put instagram mediums to shame; and yoga in an environment where exercise is still regarded as merely a side effect of the practice.
Many times we remind our yogis to breath during their practice, lightly joking with them that if they are not using their breath in their practice they are not doing yoga, rather they are simply exercising. Every now and again a student will sigh exasperatedly, bemoaning that they had been under the impression that yoga WAS an exercise. They are not wrong. Yoga is an exercise, but referring to yoga as an exercise is like calling the Bible a book. Just as the Bible is so much more than just a book to many people, yoga is so much more than just an exercise.
Yoga, loosely translated means “to unite” and in yoga we aim to unite the mind with our body by using our breath, which is referred to as “Prana” or life force. What we commonly refer to as yoga in the West is technically Hatha Yoga. Hatha Yoga (ha=”sun” tha=”moon”) achieves the union of mind-body-spirit though a practice of asanas (yoga postures), pranayama (yoga breathing), mudra (body gestures) and shatkarma (internal cleansing). These body centered practices are used to purify the body and cultivate prana and activate kundalini, the subtle energies of the body. Modern Hatha Yoga does not emphasize many of these esoteric practices and focuses primarily on the physical yoga postures. Thus, in yoga the “end goal” if you will, is to cultivate the mind-body-spirit during practice, differing from the majority of exercise practices whose goals can be measured in quantitative means such as pounds loss, body mass index, and muscle gain.
Often, people scoff at the notion that something as seemingly simple as breath practice during a yoga class can affect their mind-body-spirit development any more than “traditional” forms of exercise can. Skeptics beware, as the differences between yoga and exercise can be measured scientifically! Firstly, the manner in which a yogi is taught to breath (in and out through the nose) leads to reduced oxygen consumption during practice, whereas cardio heavy exercises result in greater oxygen consumption in the body. Additionally, in traditional exercise the muscles receive the majority of the nutrition and oxygen at the expense of the organs (commonly resulting in those pesky cramps) where as in yoga the muscles receive minimum nutrition and oxygen while the organs reap the benefits. This one distinction is what makes yoga a distinctly different practice for your bodies organs in comparison to conventional exercise. In fact, every single asana in yoga has a list of muscular benefits, internal organ benefits, AND psychological benefits.
Psychological benefits? Why yes, that feeling of mind and body calmness after a good yoga class is something more than coincidence. The mind-body calmness that emanates from yoga class is two-fold; chemically, during yoga the parasympathetic nervous system is stimulated (for those of you who skipped out on Biology class, this is the nervous system that calms your body down taking care of whats known as “rest and digest”) while most conventional exercises stimulate the sympathetic nervous system (simply, the part of your body responsible for the fight or flight response). Therefore, as you end a yoga class your body and mind are reveling in the calming effects from the stimulation of your parasympathetic nervous system.
Additionally, human beings have energy centers stored through out their bodies which are called Chakras. Much like the heart’s valves are susceptible to blockage when we practice poor diet habits, our Chakras can experience a blockage in energy when we practice poor emotional habits. Our bodies store our unaddressed emotions very similarly to how we store unused fat. It is unhealthy and ultimately impedes upon our well being. Two “hot spots” for emotional energy storage are the chest and the hips; the practice of yoga specifically structures its asanas (poses) around the opening of the chest and hips as well as other parts of the body where energy is stored. By coaxing these blocked energy systems open the body releases tension in a way which cannot be accomplished in convential exercise. The release of energetic tension creates a calmness in the mind that is fertile ground for clarity. This kind of clarity is a mindstate which differs greatly from the way you feel after running a marathon. For those who might find the idea of storing emotion in the body to be a bit hard to swallow think for a moment where you feel intense fear, happiness, greif, or lust. There is a pretty good chance that you thought of different part of your body, and many times where you feel that emotion, it stays. This is why daily yoga practice leaves so many with a feeling of calmness and peace when they are done.
It isnt as though devout yogi’s claim that the practice of yoga superseeds that of conventional exercise, aerobic activity has many benefits which cannot be replicated elsewhere. Rather it seems that as yoga continues to grow in its popularity it has begun to fuse into the vastly wide category or exercise. Exercise is a facet of yoga, but labeling it as such does injustice to the root of the practice because yoga not only enhances your physical being, but your spiritual one as well. Luckily, here at the school we practive authenticity in everything we teach, yoga being no acception and while our teachers may kick your “ass-anas” they will also help you connect your body and mind. Namaste.