I did not start taking yoga classes because I wanted to. Instead, I started taking yoga classes because I was a bad ass, amped out athlete who had injured myself.
At the time, I thought yoga wasn’t “real” exercise.
I don’t remember which sports injury it was, anymore, the one that took me back to the sports rehabilitation doctor’s office on one particular day, but on the day, I met a nurse who would change my life. He told me I needed yoga classes, that if I didn’t start taking yoga classes, I would simply keep re-injuring myself until I was no longer able to perform athletically. (I was athletic, but far from flexible. Hence, the injury.)
I resignedly asked him how many times to go. “Three times a week,” he replied, “at least.”
It felt a little like punishment. However, I was willing to do it, thought of it as a kind of physical therapy to get me back on my aggressively athletic feet.
In spite of the fact that I was both an athlete and a person with a deep spiritual practice that included a daily meditation (yep, I was super good at compartmentalizing, but that’s a story for another day), it never occurred to me to practice yoga.
It simply seemed like it was going to be, well, boring.
My first yoga classes were at the local gym where I was already a gym rat. Sometimes, they did bore me, as I was looking at yoga simply as exercise. Yoga, after all, is not white water river rafting, nor is it competitive tennis, but it certainly can be weight training, as I quickly learned. I loved that part: the strength and endurance. Meanwhile, I also started developing greater flexibility, and with it, more range. This was new. And I liked it.
In time, though, I began to recognize a certain spiritual energy that would sometimes land, reminding me of my meditation practice. As that started to happen more frequently, I begin to seek out yoga studios to see if I could get more of that. What I wanted was to feel the space of meditation, and yet to move. Was this even possible? I was on a quest to find out.
To you spiritually-oriented yogis, the answer is obvious.
To me, it wasn’t.
So, what are some of the overlapping experiences one might have in sports jock yoga and what I thought of initially as “woo-woo” yoga? For starters, I learned that those stereotypes are (duh!) quite limiting. In my gym yoga classes, I sometimes had spiritual, meditative experiences, even visions. Not always, but sometimes. I also began to learn more about the importance of relaxing and letting go of thoughts when moving, instead of only during a daily meditation for a limited period of time each day. In woo-woo, or what we will call sacred yoga, I learned that it was not all that woo-woo, actually: that it could be challenging, fun, energizing, and that a person didn’t have to follow a yogic belief system, believe in God, look overly peaced out, or have an affinity for spirituality or religion in order to have deeply meaningful, sacred experiences.
Nevertheless, there are some key differences. I’d boil them down to the way the teacher holds the space, the amount of time spent moving, and the music.
In sports yoga, the teacher may not always hold space; instead, he sometimes simply teaches a class, like any other athletic class one might take (spin classes, weight training, or something like that). This is not “bad,” but it is different from the vibe in sacred classes. In sacred yoga classes, when a teacher has it going on, a space lands, and we as students are suddenly and completely held in this incredibly impervious bubble, protected, in some such way, from the average, everyday surface level of life. The experience defies simple explanation but feels deep, safe, connected.
And how about movement? In sports yoga classes, it almost never stops, save for a brief savasana at the end, during which a couple of people almost always leave. I fought that temptation myself when I started, by the way, as in, “What is this pointless lying around? I came here for a workout! I have things to do!” In sacred yoga, there is often more stillness, not only in savasana, but via the incorporation of breathing techniques (pranayama) or meditation. I have never experienced a sports yoga class that incorporated more than 5 minutes of stillness, and after all that hard-pumping music (details forthcoming) and sweating, the stillness typically felt odd and long. A pranayama might occasionally happen at the beginning of class, lasting perhaps 1-2 minutes, but there rarely was one. Meditation? Same.
The music, however, is perhaps the difference that’s easiest to notice. Sports yoga often uses energizing, popular music, and this music, for me at least, feels designed to motivate me to move fast and to try harder. Moreover — and significantly — it invariably engages my mind. I am thinking and I am doing, along with this music. In contrast, the sacred yoga experience has distinct music that facilitates the above-mentioned space: typically mantra or some incredibly spacey 417Hz type music that takes me out of my mind. I am being, and while there is some doing, the doing seems to happen more organically, not from a pushing, striving place.
As it turns out, yoga teacher training has the same dichotomy: it can be purely physical, teaching future teachers about anatomy and motivating students; or it can have aspects of those physical components but under the space-holding umbrella of, well, space holding: it is also teaching future teachers to hold space, to allow space for their students to have (or not have) sacred or spiritual experiences, and to go deep with-in while they work on the with-out.
In my case, by the time I was ready to take my yogic practice deeper and begin yoga teacher training, I had finally come to realize that there could be a deeply enriching spiritual component to yoga, much like my well-developed meditation practice, that combined two of my favorite things: meditation and exercise. I also learned how wound up I was (who knew?!), how much I had compartmentalized stillness, and how much I needed to step out of the bad-ass athletic persona that had pushed me to injury in the first place, and learn how to relax, to just be. It has been a life-changer on so many levels for me.
Basically, yoga met me where I was. And this is what it does for everyone.