Yoga: exercise or cult?

(actually, it seems really fun and relaxing)
It’s cool to do yoga at a beach.

The first time I heard about yoga, my vague idea of it was a strange spiritual practice for hippies.

Nowadays, just about everyone knows what yoga is. Yoga studios are popping up everywhere in the western world and are a staple class at gyms, and is still becoming increasingly popular. There are clothing lines dedicated entirely to yoga (iconic Lululemon comes to mind) and expensive certifications you can attain to become an instructor. Yoga terminology has become almost its own language, most of it in ancient Sanskrit – “asana” (pose), “practice,” “om” – and here’s even an online yoga dictionary.

Though yoga has religious roots, Western yoga has embedded itself comfortably into popular culture and subsequently a business. Some yoga practitioners preach purity and cleansing of the mind alongside vegan or vegetarian diets – a holistic way of healing. They talk of illuminating and “finding your inner spirit” and “divine being” (insert more spirituality buzzwords here). It’s the cool thing to do. Somehow, in the midst of all the commercialization, yoga has become a very personal matterInstead of praising an external god, it focuses on a sort of self-praise  – how you are divine, special, and can attain a sort of spiritual nirvana. The appeal comes from a focus on the self. It’s hard to not see the appeal of something that really is all about you, which is something of a theme in our “ME ME ME” generation. It seems that doing yoga has become something of a class symbol – all the backlash on this article and ridiculously expensive yoga clothes has made that clear. Then, we typically think of yoga practitioners as extremely fit, skinny, bendy, young, white, and female. Especially female. Just as I am used to being the token female regularly pumping iron, male yogis are probably used to being the token male in a yoga class.

I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with this perception. It has become almost cult-ish – the cult of self. It has almost become more about being showy and perfect and less about why yoga is actually good for your body. When articles like this and this come out, I find that the image of yoga is tainted. I worry that yoga is becoming more about perfection and narcissism – a fun way to stroke your ego.

It helps to take a step back and looking at the tangible benefits and the reasons why yoga still has a place in your fitness routine. I have done a number of yoga classes at a few different places – gyms, studios, inside my own home. I’ve found that slowly moving my body into various yoga poses (with adequate warm-up, of course) has helped me strengthen my core, improving my balance, and  increase my flexibility. Because you alternate between tensing your muscles and relaxing them, the overall sensation is relaxing, and when the instructor is constantly telling you to clear your mind and relax, chances are you would probably at least try to if you’re taking the class seriously. The greatest benefit that I’ve gotten, though, is what they call “opening up the body” – over time, your body becomes accustomed to being in odd positions, and your body adapts and becomes more bendy.

Let’s be honest. There is no magic trick to the skinny, fit body – that comes from your diet and strength training exercises. Yoga won’t make you skinny. To put it bluntly, it’s really just a glorified stretching routine with some strength training thrown in. It is an exercise, and it can be tough on an untrained body, so it should be treated as an exercise (so yoga will not wreck your body!).

How can we avoid propagating the stereotype that has yoga on the brink of culthood? Will stripping yoga of its spiritual roots offend purist yogis? At the very least, can we stop yoga from becoming a purely ego-stroking activity for females?

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