Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
So much of the way we think and talk about yoga focuses on the aesthetic. Someone says the word “yoga,” and most people probably envision a fit man or woman contorted into a challenging posture, the physical shape as the thing itself.
The problem with this is that these shapes are not really yoga. I’ve recently come to understand that the distinction between a posture and yoga itself is significant and often overlooked. After practicing yoga for a decade and teaching it for half of one, I’m still grappling with this realization that yoga is not actually the poses.
If Yoga Isn’t the Poses, What Is It?
A collective message from several top instructors at this spring’s Yoga Journal Live event in New York City was the importance of seeking transformation through yoga’s internal, more esoteric yogic practices like pranayama and mindfulness rather than the physical asanas. The takeaway was this: If you want real change, you’ve got to do the inner work—flexibility isn’t yoga.
As Yoga Journal readers know, this idea that yoga extends far beyond the mat isn’t new. The longer I practice, the more this “other” part of yoga seems to matter. I now seek out teachers who are less about bicycle crunches and more about helping me tap into spiritual transformation. Still, I never questioned the necessity of a physical yoga practice. But after spending an entire weekend listening to the wisdom of master teachers, I headed home with my mat tucked under one arm and wondered, for a moment, why I even needed it. A piece of rubber certainly wasn’t going to help me achieve that coveted thing we’re truly after.
And what exactly is that thing? Rod Stryker called it the “limitless manifestation of energy” in his workshop mainly on theory, rooted in principles from traditional hatha yoga texts. Stryker explained that to tap into this limitless energy source we must work to dissolve our identities, attachments, and aversions. Only through mental clarity and learning to understand ourselves—not through asana—will we have the potential to access our limitless energy.
Coby Kozlowski’s workshop about the qualities of consciousness shed light on a similar phenomenon. The conference schedule highlighted Kozlowski’s two-hour class as a mix of lecture and movement, but after 10 minutes of introductory sun salutations, she told us to have a seat. “That’s enough moving for today,” she explained with a radiant smile. “Now we’re going to talk. We’re going to have my favorite conversation in the world.”
Kozlowski went on to describe how yoga is so much more that what we do on the mat, and how she arrived at this transformative understanding. “When I was in my twenties, I got an injury and had to stop my physical yoga practice for a while,” Kozlowski told us. “It turned out to be the greatest gift, because it was when I realized that my yoga was so much more than what I could do with my physical body.”
According to Krishnamacharya, the father of modern yoga, the purpose of yoga is samadhi, an intense concentration achieved through meditation. He said: “Yoga is an awareness, a type of knowing. Yoga will end in awareness. When the mind is without any movement, maybe for a quarter of an hour, or even quarter of a minute, you will realize that yoga is of the nature of infinite awareness, and infinite knowing.”
Kozlowski takes this idea and breaks it down to make “awareness” more accessible for the modern yogi, who may not have the time or discipline to sit down and meditate at length on a regular basis. Kozlowski’s definition of yoga is relatively simple but strikes a chord: “skillful participation with each moment of life.”
“Yoga is the path on which we come home to what is true and real,” she explained. “It’s learning to see the world clearly—beyond fantasy, fear, and distortion—and it provides infinite inquiries and experiments for each of us to dive into.” The physical practice of yoga is only one of the eight limbs that create the higher definition of yoga. And when Kozlowski was forced to pause her physical practice, her world cracked open. “It was an opportunity for me to discover who I really am, why I’m here and how I want to live,” she said. “I began to see that yoga is about making lifestyle choices to help me see myself and the world more clearly. Yoga is about savoring the rhythm of life—the fluctuation of rest and restlessness and celebrating all of life’s flavors from grief, sorrow, and sadness to bliss, ecstasy, and joy. When I stopped practicing on my mat, I started truly living my yoga.”
So Why Practice the Poses at All?
Despite the emphasis on asana in many modern yoga classes, movement was not a guiding component of the yoga in ancient India. Renowned yogi and teacher Mark Singleton took an intense look at yoga’s evolution after he discovered what looked like yoga postures outlined in a Danish manual called Primitive Gymnastics. The “yoga poses” were said to be exercises developed by a Scandinavian gymnast in the early 20th century, and Singleton became deeply confused, especially when he learned that Primitive Gymnastics had been one of the most popular forms of exercise in India.
Singleton delved into yoga’s history, scouring ancient texts like Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutras and the Upanishads. “One only has to peruse translations of texts like the Hatha Tattva Kaumudi, the Gheranda Samhita, or the Hatha Ratnavali, to see that much of the yoga that dominates America and Europe today has changed almost beyond recognition from the medieval practices,” Singleton wrote in 2011. “The philosophical and esoteric frameworks of premodern hatha yoga, and the status of asanas as ‘seats’ for meditation and pranayama, have been sidelined in favor of systems that foreground gymnastic movement, health, and fitness, and the spiritual concerns of the modern West.”
See also The Ancient & Modern Roots of Yoga
While it’s true that yoga has morphed into something its forefathers wouldn’t recognize, Singleton and Kozlowski both acknowledge that this evolution, though radical, is only natural and ultimately okay. “There are many doorways to reveal what is true and real,” Kozlowksi explained in our follow-up conversation after the conference. “There is no one path to truth. For some people yoga is doing an asana practice—using the body and breath as a portal into discovering one’s deepest truth.”
Singleton sees yoga as a vast and ancient tree, one with many branches and roots that continues to grow and evolve. And I agree—as long as we remember those roots and come to our mats to practice seeking the truth. Otherwise we’re just doing gymnastics.