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Why Yoga Is neither Physical nor Spiritual Gymnastics

My teacher Mark Whitwell is fond of saying that, Yoga is neither physical nor spiritual gymnastics“, and is very passionate about explaining the reasons why this is so, focusing especially on the popular American brands of (Hatha) Yoga, and expounding the principles of practice and methodology of teaching that make Yoga what it really is: a devotional personalized practice and spiritual discipline of pleasure. Modern styles of Yoga that focus on Yoga postures, or yogasana, seem to understand (or rather don’t understand) Yoga as a form of physical gymnastics and knowingly or unknowingly reduce Yoga to mere (or predominantly) physical exertion. On the other hand, the so called “spiritual movements” originating from India or inspired by various Indian religions and/or philosophies often seem to be reducing Yoga to some sort of exotic or simplified spiritual gymnastics, almost invariably and quite arbitrarily connecting Yoga with all kinds of manipulative ideologies and confounding worldviews. All this, over the years, brought a bad name for Yoga (and, paradoxically enough, was instrumental in popularizing Yoga all over the world) and averted (as much as attracted) many people from practicing Yoga, which is so sad and so unnecessary. Not to mention thousands of unfortunate people who got hurt, physically or psychologically, through inappropriate Yoga practices or got exploited in all imaginable and unimaginable ways in the name of Yoga. In this article my intention is to show, as clearly as I possibly can, that Yoga is not any kind of body gymnastics, although some postural practices of Yoga do resemble some forms of gymnastics, and that Yoga is not a spiritual gymnastics of any sort, although Yoga has been associated with a wide variety of quite different and often conflicting ideas developed both in India and elsewhere in the world where Yoga took its roots. I think it is necessary to get the record straight and keep doing it as long as all these, or at least the most dangerous misconceptions about Yoga are uprooted and “the greatest gift that India gave humanity” (T. Krishnamacharya) is actually given to all interested people, as well as to those already practicing the extremes of either “postural Yoga” or “meditative Yoga”.

1. Why Yoga Is Not a Form of Physical Gymnastics

Most of Yoga practiced today anywhere in the world looks like a specific form of gymnastics and the other way round: some forms of gymnastics, both of Western and Indian origin, look a lot like Yoga. The overlapping of the two in some of the modern amalgams of Western gymnastics and Indian Yoga, or even Indian gymnastics and Western Yoga, or any similar combination, can really be confusing even to an expert in the field of Yoga and physical culture, let alone a lay observer or a naïve consumer of these “Yoga products”. Of course, most people don’t care about such “subtle” differences and are more or less happy with their routines or practices, whatever their name is. And surprisingly enough, most Yoga teachers are not even aware of it. However, a distinction, no matter how indeterminate or insignificant it may appear at first sight, must be made because the quality, methods and purposes of doing Yoga, and the benefits it gives are quite different from those connected with gymnastics, regardless of how it is conceived and practiced.

Let’s start by defining gymnastics in the broadest sense of the word: gymnastics covers a wide range of physical exercises performed in many different ways and for many different purposes, sometimes as a preparation for some other practices and sometimes as an end in itself, but the basic idea of gymnastics is some type of body development or body fitness in terms of stamina, strength, health, agility, flexibility, dexterity, coordination, balance, endurance and the like. However, not one form of gymnastics, however complex, “spiritualized” or evolved it may be, includes the element of devotion (unless the cult of a perfectly shaped or perfectly trained or perfectly strong or perfectly healthy or perfectly supple or perfectly capable body is considered devotional), not one of the existing systems of gymnastics structures the body movements around the breath as its central feature and none of the multitude of the gymnastic exercises is spiritually oriented, although some forms of gymnastics or “physical culture” do talk about “glorifying God” through the development of the human physique, encourage team cohesion, advocate “harmonial development” of personality, some ethical values and healthy life-styles. Furthermore, almost all forms of gymnastics are highly standardized systems of physical exercises, and most of them are very aggressive, competitive and goal-oriented. Unfortunately, the same is true of most of the circus called “the yoga industry” that is going on in the globalized modern world, in which the Indians are now importing American Yoga brands and practice Americanized versions of „Yoga“ as part of their on-going westernization: they are adopting Western gymnastics (or their own Indian gymnastics mediated by the Western one) in the guise of “Yoga” losing any sense of Yoga being part of their cultural heritage and missing the deep benefits of authentic, truly effective Yoga. The Westerners, on the other hand are totally confused about the real meaning and purpose of Yoga. It seems that nowadays almost nobody understands the simple facts that Yoga must be continually adapted to the practicing individual, that Yoga is not a narrow standardized physical practice, that it is a holistic approach to the mystery of Life, that progress in Yoga is made slowly and judiciously, that it is breath-centered, that it’s never goal-oriented, but primarily relaxing, that it secures good health, vitality and longevity, and that it essentially consists in appreciating the beauty and depth of Life, including and especially devotion (religious or spiritual).

My extensive personal experience in competitive artistic gymnastics, traditional Japanese martial arts and Yoga as I have learnt it from Mark Whitwell, a student of Krishnamacharya’s through his son T. K. V. Desikachar, convinced me that there are important differences between artistic gymnastics limbering exercises and martial arts warm-up exercises on the one hand and Yoga practices on the other. Furthermore, I had been doing “Yoga” in a gymnastic way for more than ten years until I met Mark, who explained clearly to me that the essence of Hatha Yoga is (stationary) pranayama, whereas asana is basically dynamic pranayama. This means that body movement in Yoga is used to enhance the breath in a way that is the most appropriate for each individual practitioner. In this way the body movement and the breath movement become one unitary process of ever increasing self-awareness that deepens into meditation. So, asana, if carefully chosen and properly adapted for a particular practitioner, synchronized with the breath, modified to accommodate the natural elasticity of the body, practiced with the idea of relaxing into one’s limitations and performed with complete attention, is meditation in movement. This meditation simply deepens through stationary pranayama that in time deepens into meditation proper or dhyana. The regenerative power of Life generated through the practice of Yoga then spontaneously overflows into our everyday life contributing significantly to our relational life in society and our sense of connection with the Whole of Life, whatever That is. So, the “technical” principles laid down by T. Krishnamacharya and taught by Mark that unambiguously distinguish Yoga from any form of gymnastics or “Yoga” gymnastics for that matter, are the following:

1. The breath movement is the body movement, and the body movement is the breath movement, which means the whole body, especially the torso, must be engaged and participate in the process of breathing.

2. The breath initiates and envelops the body movement, which means that both the inhale and exhale are initiated slightly before the movement is started and they are finished slightly after movement is finished.

3. The inhale is receptivity from above, the exhale is strength from below, which means that we inhale softly into the chest, and exhale strongly from the base of the body.

4. Consistent use of the (hissing, throat) ujjayi breath establishes a central focus for asanapractice and prepares for pranayama; it calms the organism and helps the practitioner coordinate the breath with the movement.

5. Asana creates bandha, and bandha serves the breath. Namely, the three most important bandhas (jalandhara, uddiyana and mula bandha) channel life energy into the core of the body, tone the internal organs and make pranayama fully effective.

6. Asana allows for pranayama, and pranayama allows for meditation. This means that mediation naturally arises when the power of breath clears the mind and softens the Heart.

7. Asana, pranayama, meditation and life are one seamless process, and so Yoga is direct participation in the wonder of Life that we utterly are as autonomous living beings in our total interrelatedness with Everything.

Yoga simply cannot be done in a gymnastic way or vice versa. Something is either Yoga orgymnastics (or anything other than Yoga), and it depends mostly on how the postures are done, no so much on which postures are chosen; it primarily depends on the ethical motivation, psychological subtlety, spiritual orientation and actual result of the practice, which is, quite distinctly, a truly harmonious development of the whole human being, not just the body or any other fragment isolated from the whole, usually at the expense of the whole. So, my recommendation is to be clear what it is that you really want to practice; a form of gymnastics or Yoga, and then make sure that what you are actually practicing really is Yoga. And that basically means finding a good teacher. The rest of the text can therefore serve as a reliable practical guide in that direction.

2. Why Yoga Is Not a Form of Spiritual Gymnastics

In the first part of the article we have defined Yoga in relation to gymnastics, and now we will define it in relation to what is called “spiritual philosophy” or “Indian spirituality”, and will get closer to giving an answer to the four fundamental questions: 1. What is Yoga (really)? 2. How to practice Yoga (effectively)? 3. Why practice Yoga (at all)? 4. How to teach Yoga (properly)? The very first thing to be realized is that there are many big holes in the history of Yoga and we don’t really know what traditional Yoga was or how Yoga was actually practiced before the beginning of the 20th century. We now deal only with various modern Yoga practices that were all developed during the last century all over the world and can only speculate about the origin and nature of Yoga as we have it described in the extant Yoga scriptures and artifacts. Of course, the knowledge of Yoga has been transmitted orally from teacher to student (guru shishya parampara) and many old practices have survived to the present day owing to that transmission, but a great many practices were lost for ever and many lineages broken, so Yoga seemed to be almost extinct at the end of the 19th century, the fragments of Yoga were scattered all over India and so it was consistently practiced in its totality only by a few. What we do know for sure is that there isn’t one single Yoga tradition, that Yoga has always been a spiritual discipline aiming at self-actualization, however understood, that generally speaking Yoga has always been different from numerous ascetic traditions (tapasya), which, unlike Yoga that mostly relied on moderation and introspection for achieving its spiritual goals, relied primarily on self-torture and self-abnegation. Yoga was essentially a practice (sadhana), not just an intellectual viewpoint or philosophical worldview (darshana). We also know, in spite of the apparent Yoga elitism prevalent both in orthodox (smarta) Brahmanism and heterodox Tantric communities, that virtually all segments of Indian society practiced some Yoga techniques from time immemorial for all kinds of purposes; men and women, ascetics and householders, the elite and the poor alike, that it was strictly individual, quite secretive and often connected with various religious cults. We also know that Yoga in some of its multiple forms was used by almost all major Indian philosophies and religions, including Vedism, Brahmanism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Tantrism, Indian Sufism, and even Sikhism, excluding only vulgar materialism (carvaka or lokayata darshana), and that Yoga in its classical form, as expounded in the most systematic work on Yoga, in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, was already an amalgam of possibly the oldest Indian philosophical system known as sankhya darshanaand various Yoga practices that had been developed in India up to that time, that is in the first centuries AD. You can see, (Hindu, Buddhist and Jaina) Yoga has had a very complex history, especially after the ensuing Tantric revolution and Islamic intrusion, and went through all kinds of transformations until it was rediscovered some 150 years ago by the Indians themselves, who were building their national identity while they were resisting to the British colonial rule. And although the Westerners made their first significant contact with Yoga when Alexander the Great reached India with his army in the 4th century BC, or more precisely his entourage of philosophers and scientists, it didn’t take its roots firmly into the Western soil until the year 1893 when Swami Vivekananda brought the public’s attention to Yoga again, first into America and then into Europe. And this was the beginning of transplanting Yoga into the West and its spreading all over the world that mainly happened through an intense production of Yoga publications and an endless array of Indian teachers who started coming to the West, and an equally endless array of Western students going for “a search in secret India”.

Over the years, financial and sexual scandals and exploitation of all kinds, either alleged or proven in court, and often committed in the name of Yoga, and the “higher” goals of enlightenment or God-realization, have followed almost all the Yoga organizations like a shadow, and their often authoritarian charismatic leaders turned Yoga, or what they believed Yoga was, into a very suspicious thing and the very word “guru” is now bearing mostly negative connotations. The gullible followers and naïve students of various cults associated with Yoga and Yoga schools have fallen victims of many deranged “gurus” and their crazy ideas, ranging form inappropriate touching while teaching postures to all kinds of physical, verbal, emotional, psychological and sexual abuse, and an unprecedented exploitation of the unsuspecting and suffering people looking for solutions. Most of the aberrations are founded on the unrealistic and illusory ideals of spiritual enlightenment, which is the apex of this “spiritual” gymnastics. Yoga is supposed to be a solution to all human problems, from good looks to spiritual perfection, and it is often presented as a holy path to God that only the chosen ones can pass to the end, which is of course enlightenment, or some fuzzy future state of permanent happiness and omniscience.

The very concept of enlightenment, when closely inspected, is quite problematic from a philosophical point of view, and more importantly, from the point of view of common sense, however it is conceived. Anybody can say she or he is enlightened, can convince oneself she or he is enlightened and even be recognized by society at large as an enlightened person or saint, but it is always socially defined and is a cultural product, a premeditated state of “meditation”, not an authentic experience of being alive in the world full of mystery and unpredictable changes. Yoga is actually investigating if an authentic experience of Life is possible at all! Essentially, Yoga is a holistic human development of our natural resources (body, breath, mind, consciousness, emotions and relationships), not reaching a preconceived point; it is an adventure with Life, a spontaneous enjoyment of the flow of Life that we are, not fitting into a specific religio-philosophical pattern that is invariably politically motivated, and so by definition ideological and manipulative. Yoga is actually a careful inspection of our cultural conditioning and possibly going beyond it.

The important thing to understand here is that Yoga is a daily practice and it must be continually adapted to the ever-changing needs of each and every absolutely unique individual. Neither bending one’s body into a pretzel nor twisting one’s mind into a strange ideology will do the magic of Yoga. Imitating a teacher or conforming to a standardized system of exercise or belief won’t do the trick either. However, making our practice more subtle and becoming more sensitive to our own needs and the needs of the people we come in touch with will strengthen our practice and our character. Contrary to what most Yoga people believe, Yoga practice is intensified by subtilizing the breath and movement or by concentrating our cognitive powers on an object or activity of our choice. Yoga is not bodybuilding; it is character building through the awakening of our intuition and deepening our emotion. Brands, styles, schools, sects and organizations of Yoga simply are not Yoga, because there is only one Yoga, our personal Yoga practice, our own Yoga that is right for us, and therefore truly effective. The fitness industry of producing an artificial state of being fit and slim, strong and flexible, successful and good-looking is nowadays practically identical with the Yoga industry, a 10-billion-worth business only in America (and 42-billion-worth business internationally) with more than 20 million Americans practicing some form of Yoga plus who knows how many more in India and the rest of the world! It should be perfectly clear to everybody that Yoga is not any kind of exhibitionism or public performance; it’s neither contortionism nor hyper flexibility. It is respecting the limitations of our natural flexibility, or relaxing into our own body and letting the intelligence of the breath bring us closer to our Heart, our inexhaustible power of human emotivity, and so spiritualize us as cosmic beings through and through. The dignity of Yoga lies in the purity of our Heart, not in the superficiality of a distorted body shape or a sophisticated mind control. Yoga is very delicate and difficult to unravel; it is impossible to define it once and for all, and oversimplifying it as an accessory to Vedic ritualism, a pagan (Tantric) sex cult or a Neo-Hindu trick to sell itself all around the world or a disguised religion or progressive self-hypnosis or even self-induced psychosis is totally misguided and obviously wrong. The author’s personal experience in practicing and teaching Yoga (of Heart) as presented by his teacher, Mark Whitwell, is a living proof attesting to the enormous transforming potential of Yoga understood and practiced as a “discipline of pleasure”, a greater intimacy with oneself and the badly needed revitalizing power of male-female mutuality as the natural and actual care for all forms of Life on Earth.

3. What Yoga Really Is and How It Can Be Practiced and Taught Safely, Joyfully and Effectively

Now that we have cleared out that Yoga is not what most people think it is, namely a type of physical training, a form of mental acrobatics or an exotic Eastern religion, let us ascertain, with utmost clarity, what it really is. Based on my immediate experience of it, I can say that Yoga is simply the organic unity of everything with everything, the all-encompassing interrelatedness and connectedness of all things. It is the source of all creation and human inspiration to live a life to her or his full potential. Yoga is the union of opposites that constitute the intricate fabric of our existence. It is Life Herself, the rhythmic pulsation of the breath within, the primordial vibration reverberating through the whole of existence. Yoga is the exhilarating discovery of one’s Heart, of one’s true nature as a unique and sensitive being in relationship. It is the human touch and the inexhaustible human capacity to feel and be truly alive. Yoga is Nature as a Whole, the invisible spirit behind the seen and our groundedness in us as individuals, our centeredness in the midst of everyday turmoil and suffering. It is our tenacity to persist and survive, as well as our susceptibility to the incomprehensible all-pervading mystery of silence. Yoga is peace as such, the quietness beyond all the worldly clutter. To be firmly encored in reality and yoked in goodness is true Yoga. It promotes self-awareness, livingness and independence; it is freedom through and through. In short, Yoga contains everything and everything is contained in Yoga just as we are One and everything is in us as One. Above all, Yoga is love and intimacy between two human beings, the closeness with oneself that awakens the feeling of connection with another, with the entire Universe in all its complexity, subtlety and vastness. And, of course, Yoga is a personal practice, or more precisely a highly personalized living practice that has nothing to do with either body-shaping gymnastics or pseudo spirituality.

The three basic principles of practicing and teaching Yoga that make sure your Yoga is really your own, perfectly safe, deeply joyful and fully effective are the following:

1. Practicing and teaching Yoga must never cause any kind of injury.

2. Yoga that we practice and teach must be really effective.

3. To achieve maximum effectiveness in practicing and teaching, it is necessary to establish, maintain and develop one’s/student’s daily personal practice.

Let’s clarify all three of them. The appalling fact is that unfortunately many people get hurt (and some probably even die!) as a direct consequence of practicing “Yoga”, and this fact must be fully recognized and properly dealt with, since almost every Yoga enthusiast hurt herself or himself at some point in their Yoga practice. Why? There are many reasons and each case is specific, but it seems to me that those who injure themselves most frequently and most seriously are the so called “over-ambitious over-achievers” and “misguided followers”, usually attending over-crowded group classes in which inappropriate practices, ideas and ideologies are indiscriminately applied or imposed upon them in an inappropriate setting. I used the clichés on purpose to highlight one very important point when it comes to injuries caused by improper applications of Yoga. Namely, we are bound to hurt and be hurt, physically and/or psychologically, if we approach ourselves, our student(s) and our teacher(s), and Yoga itself in the wrong way, namely if we practise/teach a Yoga that is not right for us or our student(s). So, what is the right Yoga for me/my student(s)? The simple answer is: the one that makes me and my student(s) better, happier and more independent persons. Inflicting injuries and pain upon ourselves and others certainly is not the right step in that direction. That is, in fact, what we had been doing until we turned to Yoga, and Yoga can and should help us get rid of this unhealthy, deeply engrained habit. To stop hurting ourselves and others is the very essence of Yoga, isn’t it? So, those who are hurting themselves and/or others through “Yoga” are missing the point; they are misusing and abusing Yoga to continue in their (self-) destructive ways, and they are merely, and unfortunately, wasting their lives in a more or less “fashionable”, “exotic” or “original” way. True, injuries can be very helpful in correcting ourselves, but isn’t much safer and much more productive and time-saving to avoid them altogether? In order to succeed in Yoga, or any human endeavour for that matter, we must be realistic and practical, proceed slowly, step by step; we must give ourselves some time to mature, grow and reflect. We should approach Yoga realistically, preferably with the help of a trustworthy teacher, determine our immediate and long-term goals based on what we actually are at the starting point, choose the most appropriate means to reach them safely and without haste, and then move extremely carefully towards them constantly correcting and closely watching ourselves all along the path. In this way, injuries will be minimised or completely avoided because there will be no inappropriate goals and we will non-obsessively and harmoniously develop as human beings at a pace that is suitable for us. It is, therefore, imperative that we first learn how to listen to our body, our breath and our mind, for they are continuously telling us something useful for our well-being. By doing so, we will become sensitive to our real needs and then we will not be obsessed with or addicted to our practice; we will not cherish misconceptions about what the “right” practice should be; we will move in the right direction applying the most appropriate techniques; we will recognise and give up all unrealistic and unnecessary goals and expectations; and we will carefully transcend our limitations, and perhaps have a glimpse of the immeasurable throbbing beyond the boundaries of our heavily conditioned minds.

Another strange fact is that many people who practice Yoga don’t get its (full) benefits, that is their practice may not be hurtful to them, but it also isn’t really or fully effective. It may be somewhat useful or even enjoyable, but no real Yoga benefits are reaped no matter how long or how hard a person is trying. Such people may as well do something else and have the same or even greater positive effects than practicing this ineffective “Yoga”. Reasons for that are numerous. Mechanically repeating one and the same arbitrary routine day in and day or going to a Yoga studio once, twice or a few times a week so that some instructor/teacher could guide us through a set of prearranged exercises certainly is not what Yoga is about. Of course, being led through some Yoga exercises from time to time, or even on a regular basis, spending some time in a pleasant environment surrounded with the like-minded or attending Yoga workshops, seminars and retreats can be very instructive, useful and beneficial, but that is not all there is to Yoga. On the contrary, it is only a surface, a possible beginning and/or a (hopefully) safe context for many Yoga aspirants and enthusiasts to get some inspiration, acquire the necessary information and develop their personal practice. If recreation is all that we need or expect from Yoga, all this is fine, but no deeper or lasting benefits of Yoga can be expected and experienced in this way. Practicing some form of gymnastics, competitive or recreational sports or any other type of physical activity such as walking, swimming, jogging, hiking, cycling and the like can yield similar, equal or even better results. And probably with lesser risks of injury, knowing how aggressive most of the modern Yoga styles actually are. So, a good idea is to ask oneself what we want from Yoga and why we are practicing Yoga, both at the very beginning and continually as we take to practice, and see if Yoga is what we need. Then, good decisions can be made and the right course taken. Until that happens, our Yoga will simply not be truly effective; it will only be dabbling with Yoga at best.

The most important fact about Yoga is that it cannot give us all its benefits to the full if we don’t develop and maintain our daily personal practice. This is natural context for your Yoga to bloom and give you all that it can possibly give you. If you don’t know how to do your Yoga on a regular basis in the actual context of your home and your day to day life, you are not really practicing Yoga. So, no deep and lasting benefits can be expected and accrued. The benefits of Yoga are basically threefold: 1. immediate benefits of feeling better during and after the practice, 2. short-term benefits of feeling oneself and other living beings better and 3. long-term benefits of deeply feeling Oneness with the totality of existence. All of them can be had, and infinitely more, if we practice Yoga that is well-adapted to our ever changing needs, abilities, aspirations and circumstances. This means our Yoga must change as we change, or even effect the changes we need in order to develop our full human potential. So, our Yoga must be pliable, it must be in service of our actual life and our deepest requirements. It can never be mechanical or repetitious; it must be rich, alive and pulsating. Practicing Yoga is actually making love with Life. And since we are that Life, whatever That is in Her infinite vastness and depth, we are actually making love with ourselves. So, Yoga is supposed to give us the courage and ability to be intimate with ourselves, to be compassionate with others and to be attuned with the Universal Whole of which we are part. Teaching Yoga is sharing that love to others, or teaching them how to be in love with Life. True, gymnastics, either merely physical or even “spiritual”, can make us feel happier and make us feel better for a while at a certain level of our being, but only Yoga can give us true and lasting satisfaction, which is the power, the depth and the intensity of a unique life lived straight from the Heart, for the Heart. Soft-heartedness or hearty softness is our human and cosmic essence, our divine birth-right, and Yoga helps us (re)cognize that and gives us the strength to develop our infinite capacity for love and freedom. This is the ancient promise of Yoga, and our personal practice, if it really deserves to be named Yoga, must be the fulfillment of that promise.

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