In praise of gym yoga

The yoga world can be snobby about “gym yoga”—that is, yoga taught at a health club instead of a studio. Gym yoga isn’t real yoga, some hardliners insist, because it’s only about fitness. Devoid of all of the spiritual bells and whistles you might find at a yoga studio—the chanting, the incense, the Rumi quotes—gym yoga is just a trendy, Eastern-flavored workout. And the gym-goers who do it aren’t practicing for the “right” reasons.

I don’t think that’s necessarily true. And if it is, who cares?

I’m totally OK with gym yoga. I’m also completely OK with people who practice only because they want flexible hamstrings or strong abs. To me, it doesn’t matter why or where you get your yoga, because you’ll probably learn something inspiring and philosophical along the way.

I started my own practice at a local Y for an unspiritual reason: I was having shoulder problems, saw physical therapy in my future, and hoped yoga would get me out of it. The classes at my gym were conveniently scheduled and included in the price of my membership. If I’d had to commute, pay extra or feel like an outsider in an unfamiliar studio, I never would have tried it.

A few months of gym yoga fixed my shoulder. To my surprise, I also absorbed some of yoga’s subtler lessons. I remember in one class having to hold Warrior II, a pose I still find “challenging,” which is yoga-speak for boring, annoying and painful. The teacher made us stay in that deep lunge with our arms outstretched seemingly forever. She said, “Note whatever emotions come up.”

I noted that the emotions that came up for me were, My arms are killing me and I hate this pose.

Then my teacher said to the class, “Now, take another breath.”

That helped. In breathing, I forgot for a second to fight Warrior II.

She said, “Soften any muscles that you don’t need to hold the pose.” I realized I had been clenching my jaw and stopped doing that, which made me slightly less uncomfortable.

As we continued to hold the pose, I realized that although I didn’t at all like what I was doing, it would end, and I would get through it. Furthermore, there was no shame in making any aspect of the experience as easy as possible; I didn’t have to use unnecessary energy. It was a revelation, and I understood its importance even at the time. I get fidgety and anxious in emotionally or physically unpleasant circumstances—intense arguments, boring dinner parties, desk jobs. I think I’m trapped here. I can’t leave and start to freak out a little.

But enduring that Warrior II reminded me that no moment is permanent, whether the moment is happy or sad, comfortable or uncomfortable. Even if I have no control over a situation, I can at least decide how I react to it.

Eventually, I graduated out of gym yoga and joined a studio; I wanted to try more challenging poses. But I learned some of yoga’s most important lessons at the gym, right off of the cardio room.

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