On the surface, a room full of people practicing yoga looks like any other exercise class, with maybe a little more emphasis on long held stretches, and a lot of noisy breathing. Apart from being really old, what else makes yoga different than just stretching?
Yoga: A Real Workout
What I often hear from new students after their first time in a yoga class is, “Wow – that was harder than I thought it was going to be!” We all have this image of yoga left over from the seventies of people in flowy clothes, bending over and sighing, and then heading off after class to drink some wheat grass juice. But yoga has evolved since then, and it has many different aspects: a class might hold you in a pose for a long time to build strength and make you sweat, or it might emphasize constant flowing movements, or easier seated poses. By using your body in all these different ways, you wake up and strengthen different types of muscle tissue called fast twitch (for fast movements) and slow twitch (for slow ones). In addition, in those long holds, you’re building bone density: when stress is placed on a bone, after a certain period of time it begins to lay down calcium deposits to make the bone stronger. Can your stretch class do that?
Find Relief From Stress
When you’re in a yoga class, your teacher will probably talk at least a few times about your breathing and may even give you specific breath practices to do (called pranayama) to achieve a desired effect on the body. The teacher may also take a few minutes at the beginning or the end of class for a meditation, or simply a moment of acknowledgment of the gathering of people in the room. This hints at the underlying goal of yoga, which is to practice being present in the moment. When yoga was created, the purpose of all the bending and stretching and sweating was to unkink the body and get rid of aches and pains so that we can more easily be present with ourselves.
Yoga’s Real Goal
Ultimately, what makes yoga different than just stretching is that we’re looking to let all that sweating, holding poses, relief from stress, and breathing translate into relaxation that spills over into the rest of our lives, so that we can interact with those around us with grace and ease. A dedicated yoga practice might lead us to be more mindful while driving (and more willing to let other drivers in front of us!), friendlier to our dry cleaner, and a more centered and peaceful presence in our friends’ and families’ lives.