I used to think yoga was just another type of exercise class my gym offered. At least, that was how I got into yoga. And that’s pretty typical, most of us first try yoga at the gym, wanting to broaden out our range of exercises.
Yet in 2018 when I undertook my first yoga teacher training in India, I came to see yoga as a holistic treatment and prevention for all sorts of stress-related conditions, as well as a tool for greater self-awareness and meditation.
7 key differences between yoga and exercise:
1) Origins: Different exercise forms have different origins. Yoga’s origins go back over 5000 years to the Ganges river in India, and predate major world religions! Patanjali wrote the yoga sutras in the 1st-2nd century AD, which documented Ashtanga Yoga, or the 8 Limbs of Yoga.
2) Practices: Exercise is mainly focussed on working out the physical body, whereas asana, or physical postures are simply 1 part of Patanjali’s 8 Limbs of Yoga, which lay out the 8 key practices or steps by which a person attains enlightenment, or perfect bliss. These include: personal and social values, asana, breathing exercises, sense control, concentration, meditation, and complete union with the divine.
3) Mindfulness: Exercise (not all) can tend to ignore the rhythms of the breath and the patterns of the mind in pursuit of physical training. Yoga instead works towards unifying the body, mind and soul through greater mindfulness of both the body (asana) and the breath (pranayama). In Hatha yoga, space is given between postures for self-observation which allows for greater inner awareness.
4) Strength vs flexibility: Exercise tends towards increasing muscle strength, and the stretching afterwards is optional (which a lot skip and then get really tight!) Yoga on the other hand emphasises increasing flexibility while at the same time toning muscle, which leaves the body in a balanced, healthy state.
5) Therapeutic purposes: Where sometimes exercise is available only to healthy people, there are some yoga asana that are specially suited to remove sickness and disease or reduce anxiety, and therefore provide a more accessible entry point to all, regardless of age or fitness level.
6) Heart rate and respiration: During regular exercise respiration becomes short and fast, but during yoga (depending on the type) it tends to become longer and deeper, increasing our oxygen consumption and lowering our blood pressure and heart rate. And they say, the slower the breath, the longer you live!
7) Stress hormones: During long periods of exercise cortisol is produced, which is a hormone responsible for our long-term stress response. However as our breath is deepened during a yoga practice, the vagus nerve is stimulated which ceases production of cortisol and puts the body into a relaxed, (parasympathetic) rest and digest state.
I’m not saying that exercise is bad, and yoga is good. It’s all good! What I love about yoga is that the practises increase my self-awareness and compassion, so that each day I follow what my body wants to do. Sometimes it wants to run or do handstands. Sometimes it wants to just roll around on myofascial roller balls. And usually it feels like doing some yoga asana.
I’d just encourage you to follow the innate wisdom of your body.
Mauri ora xx