Demystifying Yoga / What is Yoga, Really?

Akron Life Magazine. March 2016

By Maria E. Varonis

Is Yoga for You?

There are several reasons one might never choose to step foot on a yoga mat: everyone who does yoga drinks cult-y punch; only skinny people in sports bras do yoga; yoga is religious; yoga is contortionism.

For those who already practice yoga, it is a no-brainer why. The devout happily hit their mats before sunrise, or make their way to the studio straight from work, all because of how yoga makes them feel. And perhaps they can’t explain why—that intangible thing they love about the practice—but nonetheless, they do. And they keep at it. And that’s great for them. But what about for everyone else?

With studios all around the greater Akron area, and hashtags inundating Instagram (#yogaeverydamnday) is there room for those who don’t already practice yoga?


The simple answer is yes. The extended response is below.


What It Means

Yogic scholars and practitioners believe that peace and happiness exist within each individual, that this is the natural state of humans—one of joy and harmony. The mind creates barriers, however, as life comes to play, pulling the individual away from the tranquility buried beneath all the noise.


Yoga is a vehicle to get back to the peace within.


As a singular word, it most commonly translates to “unity,” but yoga is typically defined as a process. In its earliest form, yoga was developed as a science, a philosophy, a discipline, or practical guide to discovering ones full potential. The practice combines body movement, breath, and focused concentration to attain this awareness and control.


Maharishi Patanjali—the man said to have brought yoga to light through his text Yoga Sutras—describes yoga as “the removal of the fluctuations of the mind.”


By cultivating strength over the wandering mind, individuals can reconnect with themselves, with others, and with the nature that pervades. Yoga is a reminder that each human holds this power, that peace can be cultivated from within, and that practice is the pathway toward finding it.


What It Does

Yoga is a holistic tool for health—physical, mental, spiritual, physiological. Many do yoga for physical strength, balance, flexibility, and agility. Others practice for relaxation, peace of mind, and a time to focus and breathe. Because yoga requires mindful concentration, the student is centered, grounded, and present. This brings clarity to the mind and body.


Through focused time spent practicing yoga, the body strengthens while the mind becomes more centered. This leads to self-discovery, acceptance, growth, and a deep awareness, or mindfulness, which translates into everyday life.


How it Happens/Surprise Benefits

Yoga comes in many different forms—some highly physical, some more meditative.


Physically, yoga places focus on the skeletal, muscular, and nervous systems; and on the joints, proper alignment, and the spine. The spine acts as a pillar connecting the body’s nerves to the organ systems throughout, and stems directly to the brain. If the spine is tense or misaligned, nerves cannot do their job properly and the whole body suffers. This invites weakness and illness. Yoga supports the spine and therefore promotes healthy body function, head-to-toe, while building strength, awareness, and confidence. 


Beyond the body, yoga is meant to tap into the functions of the mind. Yoga postures are psycho-physiological. This means when executed properly, they target the entire human system, mind and body, therefore producing a wider reach of wellness than many other forms of exercise. (Lifting weights, for example, targets the external body through muscles but does not necessarily reach the internal.)


A system created to achieve holistic wellness, proper yoga practiced regularly can:


  • Eliminate toxins

  • Realign the physical body (improper alignment can lead to serious injury)

  • Tone the body/build muscle

  • Boost the immune system

  • Promote proper digestion and organ functions

  • Lessen anxiety/promote a sense of wellbeing

  • Build confidence

  • Encourage restful sleep

  • Increase energy/respiration/metabolism/circulation

  • Lower the heart rate


Debunking the Misconceptions


Is yoga religious or a cult?


Yoga has roots in Hinduism, Buddhism and other Eastern religions. However, yoga in the West is typically Hatha yoga, which involves physical postures (asanas) and breath (pranayama), and is taught in a secular manner. While those people exist—the ones that love yoga so much it seems they worship it—this practice is whatever one chooses to make of it. Yoga is a private time to develop growth—physical, mental, spiritual, or otherwise. Generally speaking, yoga instructors do not set out to proselytize their students; they simply guide in movement and breath, and each student takes it from there.


Only super fit people who can do handstands can do yoga


With social media running rampant, more and more it seems yoga is associated with bendy-blondes in crop tops on the beach doing poses a “normal” person could never dream of. Looking at pictures like this, it’s no wonder someone might think twice before stepping into a yoga studio, assuming everyone will look and move like the bodies online.


Truth: bodies of all degrees can and do yoga successfully. These unrealistic photos only represent one very minor part of yoga—executing physical postures—which one does not need sculpted abs to do, anyway. What these images leave out is everything else: that yoga is different for everyone; that each day gives way to new progress—physical, mental, emotional—and that this is something which cannot be captured with a camera. With this in mind, most yoga represented on Instagram is not only unrealistic, but also not the point.


I tried it once and hated it


Every yoga instructor, studio, and style of practice is unique. Some are upbeat, high energy, fast moving; others are silent, meditative, restful and relaxing. If yoga is something of interest and once didn’t cut it, perhaps try again in a different environment.


Where To Find It

Yoga can be practiced anywhere—it is a private journey for each student. Developing a home practice is valuable because this means the individual is not bound to a studio schedule or costs, and can begin to feel relaxed with the practice in the comfort of their own space. However, there are immense benefits to a group practice; moving and breathing with others can be very motivating and powerful. With this, yoga studios are a wonderful place to start as they offer more than just practice—they create community, host workshops and retreats, and promote new experiences that open the mind and build confidence. 

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