Why do I practice yoga?

Published on April 20, 2012 by      Print
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By Louis Cortese 

I’ll try to answer this question as honestly as I can. I don’t want to subconsciously regurgitate platitudes. I will try instead to delve deeply, with raw honesty and without any self-consciousness, into the real reasons why I continue to practice yoga. As I do, depending on my particular state of mind or mood, the answer is either cynical or idealistic.

Let’s start with the idealistic version first.

I find the physical movements of Hatha Yoga to be graceful and magnificent. Witnessing someone going through the movements of a vinyasa can be very beautiful and lissome, balletic, but there is an internal aesthetic that`s perceptible to me as well. The more absorbed I am in asana, the more apparent this becomes. There is a corporeal elegance that is immanent in it and yet also transcendent as ever more subtle nuances are endlessly being uncovered.

It is an internal and eternal adventure of discovery: A previously inexperienced lengthening, a twist, ease, or a glimpse of that which feels true and unencumbered. The travel is at a slow speed with unpremeditated direction.

There is also a feeling of liberation as though all tethers have been cut, a busting out from the shackles of the physical body. Yet paradoxically, a keener sense of body cognizance occurs, a more intimate relationship with the body phenomena and a deeper familiarity, an exploration with sentience. The longer one has practiced, the deeper the relationship and the more effortless the expression. Yoga is transformative; ossification evolving into malleability, effort surrendering to stillness. It’s wide open, it`s focused. It’s liberating… but not as an escape from something, just pure freedom.

There is also the possibility that yoga can instill a speck of the unknown into the mundane, at least be a pathway to such or even an answer to the larger existential questions. I’m not so sure about that, but that’s a whole other discussion.

Now for the cynical, sneering, scoffing viewpoint.

Yoga is nothing more than a glorified exercise routine. It’s a way to get a workout, similar to Pilates. The difference is that we apotheosize a few Indian practitioners like Sri T. Krishnamacharya, B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois, and we apply rock star status to their more modern versions: Rodney Yee, Richard Freeman, John Friend, Vinnie Marino, Kathryn Budig, Shiva Rea and many more. It is marketed like soap or fancy automobiles and attempts to appeal to people’s egoistic and materialistic tendencies. I could go on, but you know the spiel.

I myself wonder sometimes about my motivations for doing yoga. Are they as pure as the idealistic version described above? Chances are, not totally. It’s probably more likely I am driven by the challenge of achieving a more flexible, stronger, fit body. But then, why don’t I lift weights, or practice Pilates, or ride a stationary bike, or a myriad of other exercise? Could it be that I am drawn to yoga because it carries a certain new age cachet? It is five thousand years old and it evolved in a country halfway around the world. It is in the mix of esoteric Eastern thought as opposed to the crass Western way of life.

Yoga is, after all, being presented and practiced more and more with the Western style ethos. Baron Baptiste has a “boot camp” yoga class where you are tested to your physical limits. Rodney Yee has videos promising stronger abs from yoga. John Friend licensed his name to a yoga mat. Katherine Budig is photographed performing acrobatic hand balances as a model for Toe Sox. (I thought you’re not supposed to wear socks when doing yoga?)

There are all kinds of yoga fashion. It’s getting to the point where Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana will probably soon start a couture line of yoga clothing. Super model yoginis will soon be doing sun salutations on the runways in Milan.

It’s too damn confusing. Is yoga an internal exploration of the Self, or an outward expression of my aggrandized ego?

Today I felt guilty all day because I couldn’t get out of bed at 5:30 in order to do my practice. Why? Because I think if I don’t practice diligently on a regular basis I will not (dare I say it) improve. Don’t all esteemed yoga teachers, from Pattabhi Jois on down, tout a consistent daily practice? Doesn’t that imply improvement, placing emphasis on achievement? But isn’t all that the stuff of ego building? Confusing.

It seems yoga practice as I approach it, as most people approach it, is just one more example of living in the material world.  It’s a world that rewards performance. We are conditioned to strive. This is the paradigm under which we operate. But yoga is supposed to be about being with what is. The cliché goes something like this: “Everyone is at a different level and the level you’re at is perfect.”  But the hierarchy that is such an inherent part of it is unavoidable. The Ashtanga tradition has ever-progressive difficulty levels categorized as series 1 through 6; One Iyengar teacher certification level is Intermediate Senior Level III, another is Advanced Junior level. Don’t ask me which is considered more advanced. I think the reason it takes such a long time to become certified in the Iyengar School is because you need to spend months learning the confusing myriad certification levels.

Why is every demonstration of a particular asana by a student in an Anusara class praised with applause?

If achievement is not in the lexicon of yoga practice, why do we place the star yoga teachers on pedestals and shower them with fawning adulation? Aren’t these contradictory messages that are being sent?

Why are sexy nubile yoginis always on the cover of Yoga Journal? (not that I’m complaining) Why isn’t someone like Aadil Palkhivala ever on it?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I am not even being critical of what seems to be a bit of hypocrisy. I am just pointing out that these conflicting notions rumble around in my head and they remain unreconciled.

In the meantime, I continue to practice more intently and more drawn to it than ever, still not sure of my motivations. Sometimes I think though, that the very finality of settling on an answer is limiting. Staying with the question, instead, leaves the door open for wider potentiality of insight.

About Louis Cortese

Lou , in his life, has been a precocious young boy in an anachronistic town in the mountains of Sicily, an immigrant at the age of 8 arriving by way of an ocean liner to the shores of the west side of Manhattan, a guido from the Bronx, a hippy, a Zen Buddhist, a businessman, a yogi and a conventional family man with three sons and two grandchildren, among other things, none of which describes his true self and all of which in the aggregate do not give a full account of him. If his story is not he, then what is? He’s still looking.

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  1. Feists says:

    I practice to keep my mind and body fit. I want to be strong and flexible mentally and physically well into my 80s and beyond, Shiva willing. Plain and simple! ; )

  2. OmChantress says:

    I *LOVE* rolling around on the floor.

    This topic has been on my mind a lot recently. I did a training with Paul Grilley and he was saying that, if you are looking at the yoga postures as something to achieve, you are missing the point. He said that sooner or later, every pose you practice will be limited by your bones. You won’t be able to advance any more. You need to be prepared for that time, and ask yourself … Why are you practicing yoga?

    Like I said, I like rolling around on the floor. But there is so much more to the practice than asana. Guess it just doesn’t make a good pic for YJ though.

    • Vision_Quest2 says:

      Internally rotated hips in the house!

      The teachers near me are fairly dogmatic … and all classicists … I gently remind them that if potential to get into lotus were a prerequisite, you would lose half your business.

      So keep your mouth shut about lotus and don’t try to proselytize a newbie within my earshot …

  3. Leah says:

    I go over this question in my head ALLLL the time, and have yet to come up with a consistent answer.

    Generally, I do yoga because it feels good and gives me some perspective.

    But there are days I go to class because I ate too many sweets. Other days, because I need a safe space to explore what’s at the root of my stress (and to hopefully eliminate it). Some days I need to expend all of my effort in a yoga class in order to find some peace. Some days I can only find my inner peace by being still as a rock.

    I could go on and on about my lack of a definition and a “why,” but I keep going because it feels SO good :) I’m hoping this not knowing is part of reaching enlightenment.

  4. Gayle says:

    Your description of the motions of yoga are beautiful.

    I understand your feeling of conflict as I’m there, too. What got my brain spinning is meeting people who were assigned a “yoga” name in training, and the requirement that they wear a particular color. Their guru, who seems to be a compassionate and wise man, from a respected yogic lineage, also is elevated and wears robes.

    This is in direct conflict with my learning that we should let go of our attachments, particularly our personal labels (smart, short, blonde, flexible, etc). I have enough work losing my attachment to the labels I already have, why is my teacher giving me more for my ego to cling to?

    That’s just one example. Much to think about.

  5. Joslyn Hamilton says:

    I started doing yoga a long time ago because it felt like a good way to unwind and maybe squeeze in some exercise. Gradually yoga became a holistic lifestyle choice and I felt like I was on a PATH. This lasted for years and included the requisite teacher trainings, kirtan sessions, wheatgrass colonics, eight limbs lectures, silent meditation retreats, and netti pot fixation. I am happy to say that I’ve moved through all that. Now I’m back to doing yoga because it feels good to stretch my body and counter all the hiking I do outside. I used to feel guilty when I’d opt to go for a hike instead of going to a yoga class. Imagine that? To feel guilty spending time outside in nature? Crazy, right? That’s the shaming effect the yoga world had on me. Like Louis mentioned above, there’s something about yoga culture that makes one feel guilty if one does not get up at 5 every morning to practice. I’ve let go of all that. I sleep until 9 most days, and I dare say I’m a much happier, more balanced person now.

  6. Jenifer says:

    Reasons for practice: Depending upon the day, i practice for different reasons. Sometimes I practice to feel comfortable in the body. Sometimes to calm my mind and chill out. Sometimes because I want to look good while I age. Sometimes because it’s just a habit. Sometimes just because.

    Levels of practice: I do have students who move into more advanced versions of postures, but I move them slowly so that they can continue to get the benefit of the stretch. Alignment is important. So, I align the bodies into specific modifications so that they can get the benefit of the pose. When that modification is “easy” — then the benefits decrease, so we “deepen” the posture so that they can feel the stretch/strength/whatever of the movement again.

    So, it’s not really a hierarchy as a simple process of — to get the benefit, this is the alignment that you need.

    It is the same in my own practice. I’ve been practicing since I was a little kid. My practice is very different all the time. About 10 years ago, my teacher started me on astanga level 3, which is pretty cool. But today, because my right leg is bungy, I’m practicing level -12. I just work the right alignment and get my legs working, my hip opening, etc. I’m also getting massage to help with the bungy-ness. I’m sore today because of the massage, so the yoga was really soothing-like and long holds and props and stuff.

    Thing is, yoga is whatever it is for you that day. It doesn’t have to be anything specific, and I find daily practice (at least 5 minutes per day which includes usually at least 1 minute of meditation) to be helpful for a lot of things. It’s nice.

    And I don’t get up before 7 unless I absolutely, positively have to. A gal’s gotta know her limits.

  7. Trina says:

    Because I’m a f-ing nut ball if I don’t practice. :-)

  8. Vision_Quest2 says:

    I am really ready for you people.

    I am ready to recover. Not that I am giving up my yoga practice. I’ve got the IKEA effect going on with THAT one. I’ve had to build a home practice from the ground up, myself. Classes had become too expensive and I would not consider yoga teacher training.

    But I am lessening my involvement with yoga. I don’t give a damn about what other forms of physical movement do to my hip flexibility (for yoga). I’m not in this for “advancement” … I had to give up much in the way of inversions … again. Real unity of opposites. I started out a regular practice avoiding them. And now they are moving out of my repertoire again.

    So, I’m ready!

    Take THAT–all the yoga teachers in my locality who have ever tried to make me something I am not!

    Why? I can (and I have) the means to get mindful in many other ways.

    I’m the one who used to meditate two hours a day every day, for about seven years.

    I still will meditate anywhere from a half hour to an hour many days. Not including my yoga practice. Though all this stuff gets old, and I sometimes download guidance and music.

    I actually subscribe to the notion that there is no “there” there …

    • Jenifer says:

      Yay! :D

      One of my teachers, who had been practicing forever when I met her, once said to me “you know, just because there are about 60,000 yoga postures doesn’t mean you have to practice all of them. One or two should do.”

      She right. I have about 3 that I do without fail. All the rest of them are just whatever I feel like. My favorites? Downward Dog, Cat stretches (also cat/cow — maybe that’s two), and “fire log” or sometimes called “double pigeon” (misnomer if you ask me).

      After that, whatevs. It’s all for fun.

  9. Tori says:

    I practice because I want to hurt less.

  10. Joe says:

    At 60 I’m in good health by am gradually starting to feel creaky. When I last visited my daughter she had recently started yoga and showed me a few poses. It made me feel good. When I got home I scouted out classes and lucked out to find a no-BS class in a tiny studio just down the street. I do child, dog, plank, cobra, plow (not too far), a sitting side twist, warrior 2, and what I call “airplane 3″ (warrior 3 barely leaning forward and wobbling about with my arms stuck out to my side for balance) first thing in the morning. Not out of a sense of discipline but because I feel better afterwards and feel more like starting the day. And I’m starting to feel less creaky.

  11. Stephan says:

    About the Yoga Journal front page – I hear you :-)
    I always wonder myself, why there is so little space for the less beautified images of Yoga (pictures that look more like myself in front of the living room TV). That is why I want to provide a space where every yogi(ni) can show what their actual Yoga practice looks like. Who knows, maybe if there are enough of this kind of pictures out there, the covers of magazines will discover that less ego and more yoga will attract a whole new level inside of people. Especially yoga practitioners.

  12. patrick nolan says:

    a few thoughts here: i was skeptical for a long time myself. a lot of yoga people did seem like dicks at first. the pervasive sanskrit struck me as pretentious, vegetarianism seemed unnecessarily austere, and the notion of actually going all the way to india was an absurd pipe-dream available only to the affluent or the deluded, or the deluded affluent. but i kept at it and gradually things begin to stick and make more sense. now, i am a a devout, dyed-in-the-wool, six-time-a-week practicing ashtangi. but it didn’t happen over night. i advocate coming to the full-time thing very gradually. even if yoga turns you on a great deal from the first class, jumping right into the deep end of full commitment is a recipe for burn-out and resentment. hold back. leave yourself wanting more at first. if you keep at it and you find yourself asking the “deeper questions,” then great. if you don’t, also great.

    my teacher r sharath rangaswamy, has said that even if yoga is only ever a glorified exercise routine (an incomplete exercise system, at that: it does next to nothing for anaerobic fitness or for the fast-twitch muscle system) for a given student, it is still amazingly beneficial. i agree. it’s important to remember always that we weren’t put on this earth to do yoga, or practice islam, or do crossfit, or whatever. all these things were conceived to make us better people and help us live better lives. if yoga doesn’t do that for you, then leave it alone. go only as deep into it as you feel and don’t let anyone push you or try to make you feel guilty.

    now: a word about progress and “improvement.” i’m going to risk sounding like a pretentious smarty-pants here and offer that the issue of progress in yoga is what’s know as a dialetheism. a dialetheism is a type of paradox in which two opposite things are true at the same time. in this case, then, it both is and is not important to continue striving and improving in our asana practice. effort at self-improvement is what it’s about. if you give effort, your physical body will improve. but that improvement has to remain a by-product of the effort, not the reason for the effort. it matters that you never give up, and that you devote the fruits of your efforts to god or whatever thing other and greater than yourself, but it absolutely doesn’t matter if you never can get into full lotus.

    i can sum up my reasons for practicing yoga by paraprhasing the bible: “whether or not this stuff is actually some way to commune with the divine and all that i can’t really say. all i know is i’m a happier and better person now than i was before.”

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