Recreating Recess: Meditating on the meaning of yoga

It’s a Sunday night in October, but I am too hot.

Seated cross-legged on my mat, I feel the heat from the generator massaging my body as the sound of bare feet slapping the floor comes and goes with each person entering the room.

The calm voice of the instructor then tells us to start meditating. I close my eyes and begin the yoga practice.

Why do people do yoga? Aren’t most yoga classes for really rich people? What kind of workout is it really? These are the types of questions people ask me when I say I go to yoga classes.

Up until now, I have not been able to provide a sufficient answer to them. But a good place to start the answer would be to first explain what yoga is, and what it is not.

So what is yoga?

To the once-a-week yogi, such as myself, it is something you do to combat the lower back pain that comes from spending all that time hunched over studying. To the more devoted yogi, it is a form of physical exercise and an enhancer for mental health. To the yoga teacher, it is the practice of sharing extensive knowledge on body and mind to your clients through daily classes.

To the guru, however, yoga is associated with a deeper meaning. A meaning with ties to religion and philosophies that date back thousands of years.

Yoga, in essence, is a Sanskrit term and a school of thought in South Asian philosophy that views life as an illusion due to ignorance.

In this way, yoga is meant to transform this illusion into reality by transcending ignorance, so a person can experience a union between the individual self and the cosmic self, which is referred to as the Truth.

Does this mean that the devoted yogi, the yoga teacher and other yogis like myself are missing the point when it comes to explaining why we do yoga?

Actually, our reasons for doing yoga are different because we practice what many people call “modern yoga.”

Whereas the yoga that originated in South Asia is built on the foundations of philosophy and religion, modern yoga is a term used to describe the result of Western ideals changing the idea of yoga to associate more with physiology and physical fitness.

As a result, the Western-raised yoga teacher and yogis are more inclined to view yoga in terms of its health benefits rather than its deeper spiritual purpose.

There is no place where this distinction is clearer than Vancouver, the birthplace of Lululemon. Lululemon apparel has become synonymous with yoga, but this yoga is more modern than it is traditional.

The clothes and apparel are designed to promote active living and physical fitness, but rarely is there any type of reference to the principles of South Asian philosophy and religion. As you can see, this is why there is no universal answer when it comes to describing the meaning of yoga.

Yet as for why I do yoga, I believe my experience has taught me to view it as a way to achieve mental and physical fitness and not as a practice with religious or philosophical implications.

Still, it is worth mentioning the health benefits that yoga can provide.

From my experience, yoga is especially helpful for reducing pain from tight muscles. Yoga positions can target back pain, a common occurrence for the typical college student as well as other areas that get tight from sitting in class or in the library all day long.

One key recommendation is to make sure that you understand the yoga class before you sign up for it because each class features different postures — called asanas — and paces.

For example, yin yoga is a more relaxing class where you hold the postures for extended periods of time, while hatha yoga has a faster pace where you are almost always in movement between positions.

Another important health benefit of yoga is its positive effect on mental wellbeing. Yoga has been shown to be an effective way to decrease the body’s response to stress, and one possible reason could be its emphasis on breath control, called pranayama.

As you move through the postures, the instructor will remind you to keep your attention on your breath. At first this may be difficult, but eventually you will get to the point where your attention will be diverted to your breath instead of your thoughts.

Isn’t yoga just for women?

Absolutely not. I highly recommend yoga for everyone because it can provide the many health benefits mentioned earlier. And if you are a traditional yogi, it also acts as a place for philosophical or religious practice.

Around campus, there are lots of options for yoga classes. There are even free classes at certain student residence buildings, so make sure to ask the front desk staff if you are interested.

Is there a problem with being a modern yogi?

In the end, it is important to know that yoga was never meant as a fashion show of athletic apparel, but rather as a school of thought that was later adopted and altered in the West.