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Shift Happens

Question for contemplation:

What brought you to yoga?

Chances are that it was the physical practice of asanas (loosely translated to postures/poses) - whether in a studio, or gym, or 17 magazines (me!) was your first introduction.

Follow up question:

What made you stay? OR What brought you back (if you ever took a pause)?

(Insert your own soliloquy about your yoga journey)

I remember a discussion in my 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training with my teacher Hollace Stephenson (over 10 years ago - meep!). We were talking about how big and old Yoga is, and how much of what is popular today is more fitness-based. And while this form of Yoga may be trendy, it wouldn’t likely last. Similarly to how humans fit on the timeline of the Universe’s existence - fitness-based yoga is just a small slice of the vastness of Yoga. (Read more of my words about the history of Yoga from a 2023 blog)

My takeaways - that have become even more true today:

  • People push too hard to achieve and would ultimately lead to injury. 

  • When teachers overemphasize challenging poses and create hierarchy, it often leads to feelings of inadequacy and comparisons laced with judgements. 

  • People decide that they are not  ______  enough for yoga.

These statements may help explain why there’s such a drop in studio numbers in February - but also New Year’s resolutions SUCK and are relatively unsustainable! 

One of my biggest injuries (and eventually its own teacher) came from me listening to a teacher instead of my own body. I had been having issues with my right hip and “should” have been more cautious with my choices. I attended a yoga retreat (my first!) and the teacher was offering a pretty complicated and deep twist. She was specifically looking at me, and cue-ing me - at the time my asana practice was rather strong and I remember feeling pretty special to be given such direct attention from someone I admired. Welp…I kept twisting until what sounded/felt like a gremlin being released from my “hip” area. My thought: I either really fixed myself, or really hurt myself…we will wait and see. And for the first time in my life, I couldn’t touch the floor with my hands when I folded forward. It took 3 years with every modality I could find to get my full range of motion back: bodywork, cupping, traditional massage, acupuncture, more yoga, less yoga, foam rolling, and finally my first trip to Esalen offered Transformational Kinesiology that had me frolicking, using healing crystals, and peering into my past and had the most immediate and obvious results. While it was a not-so-fun process, I do believe I became a muchhhh better teacher as a result of the injury and inability to touch the floor with ease.

I learned how to sequence via peak pose methodology, and even though my teaching style has evolved quite a bit since then - I still see the sequencing world through this lens. In its strictest sense - peak pose sequencing may create hierarchy and be overly focused on the physical layer - which may leave little space for the other limbs of yoga and layers of oneself. This type of teaching may cause exclusion, harm, and a general feeling of ‘not enough’ if one can’t nail the 1 shot at the pose - or if there is zero instruction/direction on some more complex shapes. 

For my Yoga teachers: 

Using words/phrases like

  • Full version of the pose

  • Modifications

  • If you are stronger…

  • If you are more flexible…

  • For those who can…

  • The end goal

  • The ultimate goal

  • The final version

  • If you want to challenge yourself

  • Advanced version

  • Beginner version

  • Where we are going

  • What are are trying to get to

May create a sense of exclusion if one’s practice doesn’t measure up.

I do believe that it’s possible to sequence/teach from this perspective AND still offer an accessible-ish practice for those privileged enough to take a community/public class. (let’s be honest - classes are expensive!! And studios are often built in exclusive neighborhoods with high rents.) 

I’m not flexible enough, or young enough, or fit enough etc… I’ve heard it all in my 10 years of teaching. And this false cycle of thought stems from everything I’ve been talking about in this post. I like to say that Yoga has an image problem and a quick google search of “yoga body” will reveal an obvious bias towards skinny, white women with hypermobility. #ImTheProblemItsMe 

Side note: The commodification of the physical postures has created a global yoga market that was estimated around $100 billion in 2023 (exact value depends on source). And this definitely is NOT in the pockets of the yoga teachers.

So back to my questions:

What brought you to yoga?

What made you stay? OR What brought you back (if you ever took a pause)?

According to a research study conducted in 2016 by Park et. al. both yoga students and yoga teachers reported that while there were physical reasons that brought them to a yoga practice (exercise and stress relief); a wide number reported that their reasons for staying involved a shift: spirituality being the most widely reported answer. 

You can download and read it for yourself here and/or keep reading for my more explorative summary. Protip for reading research papers: read introduction, conclusion, look at the charts in the results section (if you are a visual person),  then maybe read the methods section if you want to really go deep into their process), and then give the abstract a read as a nice little summary. 

The introduction offers a background on previous research that is relevant to the topic, gives a shout out to yoga’s more philosophical roots without actually naming India, and shares an overview of the benefits of a sustained yoga practice. The goal of this present study is to identify motivations for “adopting and maintaining a yoga practice”. The researchers are particularly interested in the shifts in motives as they are “an important aspect of health behavioral change, as people move from the immediate motives impelling them to implement a new behavior to the long-term sustenance of that change in the maintenance stage.” Previous studies on physical exercise indicate that when people commit more long-term there is a shift from external motivators to more internal sources. The authors cite Caronneuau et. al., 2010 with preliminary evidence pointing to the aggregated benefits of a sustained practice over time.

Hmm…seems like I’ve heard this somewhere before…

Yoga Sutra 1.14 sa tu dirghakala nairantarya satkarasevito drdhabhumih

Translation by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait Perfection in practice comes when one continues to practice with sincerity and respect for a long period of time without any interruption.

Ok back to the study…

A total of 542 participants were recruited for an online survey that included 156 yoga teachers (both full and part timers). The yoga teachers had an age range from 18 to 78 (how cool!)were 93% female and 94% white. The yoga students had an age range from 18 to 85 (super cool!!), were 84% female and 95% white - which mirrors the national samples of yoga practitioners (oof!). Participants were asked to complete a series of surveys online that related to their reasons for beginning, and continuing, a yoga practice. 

Question One:

“What was the primary reason you first started practicing yoga?”

Options included relaxation, stress relief, pain relief, weight control, flexibility, spirituality, depression/anxiety relief, deal with physical health issues (e.g. back problems or injuries), get into shape, get exercise, and other.

Question Two:“Have your reasons for continuing to do yoga changed/did you discover new reasons since you first started practicing yoga?” 

Answered either no or yes.

Follow up for those who said YES on Question Two:

“What was the primary reason you continued to practice yoga?” 

The same options in Question One were repeated. 

Participants were instructed to pick one primary reason, and then allowed a follow up opportunity to share other influences. Participants who chose “other” were given an opportunity to write in their answers.

Researchers also surveyed the type of yoga practice with Hatha, Power yoga/Power Vinyasa, Vinyasa/Ashtanga, Iyengar, Bikram, Sivananda/Integral, Kundalini, Svaroopa and Other as the options; and how long they have been practicing yoga, and the average amount of time spent practicing yoga per week. 

The Stats:

On average, students practiced 4 hours  per week in a yoga studio,  1.5 hours per week at home, and for 8 ½ years. The 3 most practiced types of yoga were Power yoga, Iyengar yoga, and Hatha yoga.

On average teachers practiced 6 hours per week in a yoga studio and 3 hours per week at home, and for 13 years. The 3 most practiced types of yoga were Power yoga, Hatha yoga, and Vinyasa/Ashtanga yoga. 

For both teachers and students, the most commonly endorsed primary reason for adopting yoga practice was exercise (20%), followed by flexibility (17%) and stress relief (14%). 

61% of students reported that their primary reason for practicing yoga had changed with ¼ of students citing newfound spirituality as the primary reason. 

86% of teachers reported that their primary reason for practicing yoga had changed with just over ½ of teachers citing spirituality as their primary reason. 

Yoga has grown from the ashrams to the studios to the offices of healthcare professionals. Millions are being poured into research with a wide variety of specialized topics to gauge the scope of Yoga’s benefits. It helps to understand people’s motivations and ways they may shift in order to influence practitioners to stick with their new practices.

So back to you, and me - did we also experience a shift in motivation? Did our goals move from external to internal? 

For me, I was in my mid-20’s and was already experiencing a lot of pain (mostly back and wrists)  from old injuries from cheerleading (and life). I did a lot of googling and went down a lot of rabbit holes. And while I wasn’t necessarily looking for a diagnosis, I did notice that no matter what I searched, yoga would be recommended as a potential natural remedy. I figured it couldn’t hurt anything any worse to give it a try. I walked into a hot power yoga studio without any awareness of styles or traditions. I remember getting my butt kicked by the sweet angel Johnna Smith, and what stood out the most to me was when she said, “you are not your crazy thoughts”. As someone who was pretty attached to (and convinced of) my crazy thoughts, I had NEVER heard anything like that before and I knew I wanted more. While I could write a whole dissertation on the ways that yoga has changed me, I currently declare that the biggest gift of my yoga practice has been my breath. As an asthmatic kid, I never quite learned to breathe properly. When I took my first YTT, I found the breath work to be challenging, and at times triggering. Learning to control my breath or to pause and take a breath in the midst of things have been GAME CHANGERS. I feel myself wanting to continue my love letter to yoga, and ya know maybe that’s a blog for another day. 

While my reasons for loving yoga may shift as often as my favorite song over my lifetime, staying connected to my WHY helps me when times get tough and I may lose my practice. When this happens, I refer back to folks that are smarter than me.

Yoga Sutra 1.3 The WHY according to Patanjali

Tada drashtuh svarupe vasthanam

Then the Seer becomes established in its essential nature (Joy).

Of course, we practice to remember our own joyous nature. Maybe we call it spirituality. Maybe we call it something different. As long as we continue to call it.  

Works Cited

Carbonneau N, Vallerand R and Massicotte S (2010) Is the practice of yoga associated with positive outcomes? The role of passion. The Journal of Positive Psychology 5: 452–465.

Park  CL, Riley  KE, Bedesin  E, Stewart  VM.  Why practice yoga? practitioners’ motivations for adopting and maintaining yoga practice.   J Health Psychol. 2016;21(6):887-896.


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