Yoga

More Than Just This Body

In this Q&A, Rodney Yee talks about yogic stereotypes, yogic ideals and why yoga works.

Photo by Michal Venera

Rodney Yee, one of the biggest names in yoga today, was a dancer with the Oakland Ballet when he decided yoga would probably help his flexibility. Today he teaches yoga workshops across the globe, has been featured in more than twenty instructional videos, and has co-authored two books, Yoga: The Poetry of the Body and Moving Toward Balance. Here Yee offers his thoughts on the power of yoga to bring us back to what’s truly important in our lives and, in so doing, to transform both body and mind. 

Why does it feel so good to do yoga?

Rodney Yee: Most people have habitual patterns. They do different activities, but really they’re doing the same internal actions. So with the energy always running in exactly the same way, they become stagnant inside. When they do the postures, they break habits. Think about an everyday person who doesn’t do yoga. They’re either sitting down, driving a car, or walking. That’s the extent of it. How many people even reach their arms above their head in daily life? We don’t use our bodies—our shoulders, hips, or knees—not like animals do. So yoga gives us the happiness of moving our bodies in new patterns.

Do you have a meditation practice?

Yes, yoga and pranayama [yogic breathing] brought me to the doorstep of meditation. They prepared me to sit quietly and go inward.

So you began yoga before you began meditating?

Yes, but in some ways yoga is meditation, because it focuses the mind. The first step of meditation is concentration—a one-pointedness. That means in some ways there is no separation between meditation and yoga. I’m so happy there are people like Thich Nhat Hanh who emphasize walking meditation. Meditation isn’t just seated.

In the past ten years, yoga has become really popular. Why?

Because it works. So much in our lives is focused on the future. Can I acquire this? Can I become that? Only for a small part of the day are we really just here now. Yoga allows us to come back to the present. Yoga shows us how to be a child again, looking up at the blue sky—having the whole day without a schedule. Yoga is, as Iyengar says, “the ultimate freedom.”

Do you think yoga’s popularity has had negative effects on how yoga is perceived?

Yes, yoga is falling into a stereotype. People don’t understand how many different practices it actually incorporates. People take it as a physical exercise, when it’s actually an amazing spiritual practice. But I don’t mind that some people just do it as a physical exercise, because in some ways I don’t believe that’s possible. You can’t leave your mind and soul at home like an American Express card. You’re integrated already and the more you realize that—and yoga helps you to—the more you understand who you are. You’re a lot more than just this body.

Why do you think more women practice yoga than men?

Gender stereotyping pushes men into other forms of exercise. They usually want to go to the gym but generally, once men have done a couple of yoga classes, they say, “Why haven’t I been doing this?” It’s just a matter of getting them to the door, getting them past the idea that they’re going to be the worst one in the class. Lots of men think, “I’m not flexible. I can’t do yoga.” But in reality, flexibility has nothing to do with it. It’s about going inwards.

Do you think the fact that so many women practice yoga has a negative effect on how yoga is perceived by the general public?

Stereotypes are a bad thing, period. But, for the most part, it’s great. Women are open. They’re willing to go into their emotional state, into their own minds. Whether it’s men or women, let’s go in that direction.

Historically, when an activity has been dominated by men, it has had prestige. But if, over time, that activity has begun to be dominated by women, it has lost its prestige. I worry that is happening to yoga.

Hopefully not. Hopefully, this is a trend toward women finding their real voice. I can’t help but think if women go inward—if they have the practice of meditation that yoga brings—they’re going to be more powerful in the world and for good causes.

Do you think yoga, if taken up globally, would make a positive impact on our political situation?

Sometimes I visualize everybody on earth practicing yoga for half an hour a day. For half an hour, we wouldn’t be doing anything detrimental or utilizing lots of resources. For half an hour, we’d be doing an activity that allowed us to be a little more peaceful all day long. Think of the social, political, and environmental impact that would have. It’s huge.

But yogic ideals are hard to live up to.

Yogic ideals aren’t just for Gandhi. We’re human. We don’t have to achieve yogic ideals to some ultimate sense. The ideals are just a direction. If you’re going to walk across the country, it’s a long way. But if you point yourself in the wrong direction, it’s even longer. I, for example, believe in nonviolence, yet I’m still a violent person. I’m not murdering people, but my lifestyle isn’t perfect. Still, if I walk in the direction toward peace, that’s what counts. Mother Theresa said, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”

Any advice for people who are just starting yoga and looking for a teacher?

I’d say go to a bunch of different classes—see different styles, different teachers. Then find a teacher you have an affinity for and a style that’s going to help balance you. If you’re already an Olympic runner, don’t go for a yoga style that’s going to make you do more Olympic running. Ask yourself, what do I need to balance my life? Do I need quiet yoga? Do I need energetic yoga? What makes me grow up? What makes me look at things differently?

How can new yoga practitioners start and maintain a home practice?

In order to add something, you have to subtract something. So find out what in your life is unnecessary—what’s not serving you—and carve out at least thirty minutes a day for yoga. I’d do it at the same time daily. Having a routine is important because we all find excuses not to practice. But you’ll find a home practice when you realize how important yoga is. Yoga helps you do everything else in your life—raise kids, work, play, make music. Whatever you do, yoga helps you do it better.