A Yoga Teacher's Identity Crisis, Part II: Defining a Yoga Class

Yoga classes today are wildly variable to the degree that a current question in the yoga community among students and teachers alike is, “Is that yoga?”  I believe this is largely due to the fact that yoga’s origin and history are so complex, because there are minimal regulations on the industry, and likely a dozen other reasons.  My whole current identity crisis revolves around the fact that I found myself asking this very question about my own classes. I am committed to the idea that there is at least one defining element that makes a yoga class a yoga class, however, I haven’t completely worked it out (I do plan to tackle that idea in a future post).  For now, I have to just speak about yoga as it relates to me personally—and this was so much harder than I could have imagined. What I’ve come up with is a product of hours of thinking about this, having some conversations, and writing about it. I’m still not fully convinced that this is the final product, because at any moment I might come up with a new objection to my own thoughts! But alas, today, this is what I have.

In my last post I wrote that for me, yoga boils down to “awareness during movement in a safe space.”  I should expand.  For me personally, a yoga class is:

“ A movement class in which I feel like I’m home because of the space and the ritual and that incorporates specific components that invite me to experience a deep awareness of my body and breath to the extent that I might access a state of flow, and after which I feel re-set.”

Let’s break it down.

A movement class:
Yoga’s origin is ancient and philosophical, and in its ancient context there is no mention of a physical component.  This alone invites a giant conversation that is too big for my scope to write about.  I am interested in yoga’s current popular form, and today, in 2018, yoga is practiced primarily as a movement discipline. I use the word “class” rather than “discipline” in my definition because yoga as a discipline, like any, can have a cumulative effect on a person. My intent for now is to define what a single yoga class has to offer me.

in which I feel like I’m home because of the space and the ritual:
In general (plenty of exceptions), yoga studios tend to be environments that invite a calming effect the moment you walk in. Such calming environments help activate the parasympathetic nervous system, psychologically cultivating a sense of safety where students can let their guards down more easily. I find this naturally invites and holds space for introspection. The very nature of introspection is deeply personal and assumes a sense of honest inquiry which may be the closest we can ever get to ourselves: an “inner home.”  In addition, there’s a bookend-like beginning and end to the class (which I’ll detail further below) that gives it an element of ritual. I find this to evoke a feeling of intimacy, creating a personal relationship to the experience and giving it the intangible value of met expectation, comfort, assurance, dependability—all qualities we might associate with being home.

that incorporates specific components which invite me to experience a deep awareness of my body and breath:
One can definitely find each of the below components in other movement disciplines, but I find that yoga tends to incorporate many of them all in one class making it easier for me to access such a deeply personal experience so quickly.

  • Space. For the same reasons mentioned above, the environment itself that most yoga classes inhabit lends to opportunities to be more aware of oneself.  

  • There are no mirrors.  In general (again I’m aware of the exceptions) yoga studios don’t have mirrors, suggesting the idea that a feeling of one’s own body rather than an external reference is the focus of the experience.  

  • Focus on the Present. it is widely accepted that the physical practice of yoga originated with the intention of preparing the body for seated meditation.  While we don’t often sit in meditation at the end of classes, there’s an underlying focus on staying in the present moment. 

  • Breath Awareness.  I think it’s safe to say that across all yoga disciplines, breath is an underlying element.  Regardless of techniques and varying opinions about how and when breath practices should be performed, a foundational principle exists: the breath is a tool to maintain awareness in the present moment. The breath is present, so if we are aware of the breath, we are in the present.  

  • Coming to Center and Savasana. I think it’s also safe to say that every yoga class has a few moments, if not a few minutes, to “come to center,” at the beginning of class—this amazing opportunity to transition our attention from external sources to internal ones, a conscious transition into presence.  Every class also includes Savasana—the practice of laying on your back and actually resting at the end of class, or between poses in some practices.  Both of these elements are specific invitations for taking one’s awareness to a deeper level, beyond the outside world and into the abyss of the self.   

  • Language. Yoga is sold as a healing practice (both physical and spiritual). Whether that should or shouldn’t be the case is a can of worms for another blog post. But healing is a deeply personal and intimate journey no matter who or what or how, bringing us naturally into a state of self awareness.  The language used in a yoga class is a direct reflection of this idea. Yoga teachers use specific words, ideas, tones of voice, even pace of speaking to curate an experience suggestive of and conducive to healing inside and out.  

to the extent that I might access a state of flow: The “flow state” is a concept coined by Hungarian-American psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in 1975.  It’s described as “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.  In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one’s sense of space and time.”  Csikszentmihalyi’s research has shown that accessing the flow state boosts overall happiness possibly explaining some of the physiological effects of a yoga class.  This flow state mimics a meditative state and may explain the “yoga high” that I and many others associate with a yoga class. This concept and more details will heavily influence the next post, so stay tuned!

and after which I feel re-set: between the distraction of technology, the intensity of politics, the load of work schedules, the overwhelm of environment (living in urban cities especially), and the emotional drama of everyday life as a human being, there is no fuel left in the tank for me to keep going at full speed without something like yoga.  Spending a whole hour + of time focusing on myself, my body, and my breath means I’m not focusing on all of the above. There are countless studies that show how focusing one’s awareness on breath and body (such as one does in meditation) has innumerable benefits to our brains, stress levels, and overall happiness. So I am re-fueled, leaving a class with even just a little (if not a lot) more grounding, perspective, and calm than what I walked in with.  

So what’s the crisis??? Stay tuned for Part III . . .