Using Yoga to Stretch the Mind

It’s nice to be strong and flexible, but it’s more important to try, with practice, to see yourself more clearly.

Nuno Silva/500PX Prime

There are no flashy outfits or fancy postures on display at my Tuesday morning yoga class. No handstanding selfies being posted to Instagram. Just a handful of curious students, of all shapes and ability levels, gathered around a thoughtful teacher in a tiny, backyard studio.

Our teacher guides us through a few minutes of chanting and recreation, a series of asanas (postures) and a lengthy Savasana (also called Corpse Pose or deep relaxation), before we sit for meditation. During the active part of class, we move with precision and quiet concentration. Occasionally, we discuss how the poses affect us—one woman notices that a gentle leg stretch has released tension in her hips. Another finds that a long stay in Downward-facing Dog Pose has soothed her anxiety. I discover that a simple visualization practice—imagining the exhale expanding from the base of my skull around the sides of my head toward my temples, the inhale traveling from my forehead into the center of my head—instantly quiets my mind.

The class is demanding, but not in the way of the strong and sweaty vinyasa classes I sometimes enjoy. The challenge here is to refine our awareness, to focus our minds, and to soften our hearts. Again and again our instructor asks us not to push our bodies to do more, but to quietly attune ourselves to their needs, to adapt our postures to create more ease. Our mission is to be gentle and kind to ourselves and to simply experience “being” while sitting and while moving. This invitation to become intimate with oneself, to experience a steady mind and a compassionate heart, this is the essence of yoga as I know it.

It seems odd, then, that a deeply satisfying class of this sort is not all that easy to find, even in yoga-saturated Northern California where
I live. This quietly attentive, inward-facing practice feels, in fact, like a refuge from much of the contemporary yoga scene, where workout-type classes—pulsing with music and impossibly tiny, flexible bodies wearing next to nothing—exude a subtle pressure to push harder and to achieve ever-more advanced poses. These yoga classes often feel like another venue for challenging and judging myself, setting goals, and measuring progress, rather than one in which to step away from all of the striving I already do in life so that I might see and accept myself as I am.

This quietly attentive, inward-facing practice feels, in fact, like a refuge from much of the contemporary yoga scene, where workout-type classes—pulsing with music and impossibly tiny, flexible bodies wearing next to nothing—exude a subtle pressure to push harder and to achieve ever-more advanced poses.

“The reality is that, as yoga grows as an industry and a commodity, there’s one BIG thing that is being lost: Yoga,” says New York City-based yoga teacher Alanna Kaivalya, founder of the Kaivalya Yoga Method. “The actual state of yoga, which is union and manifests as self-confidence, independence, and self-empowerment.”

I met Kaivalya a few years back when she was a rising star on the traveling-yoga-teacher circuit and I was editor-in-chief of Yoga Journal, a media company dedicated to all things yoga. Today, she is finishing a Ph.D. in mythological studies and “trying to stir things up,” she says, with social media posts asserting, cheekily, that “yoga is broken—let’s fix it” and suggesting that modern-day yogis would be better off demonstrating the beauty of their practice not with images of their kick-ass asana on Facebook, but through personal transformation making them noticeably more content and easy to be around.

She is one of many teachers I know who are questioning how “yoga,” which is traditionally defined as a state of mental steadiness or the union of body, mind, and spirit, has become synonymous with a butt-beautifying workout, and who would like to help more of the 20 million Americans currently practicing discover the full spectrum of yoga’s benefits. “I see a lot of glorification of the body, a lot of ego-reinforcing. Yoga is meant to lead you deeper,” she insists, “not stop at the surface.”

After having a front row seat for the mass adoption of yoga as a feel- good, look-good lifestyle—a popular perception that’s helped turn a once-obscure Eastern practice into a $27 billion Western “industry”—I’m thrilled to see Kaivalya and others celebrating yoga as an awareness practice.

Yoga has the power to transform yes, perhaps our bodies, but definitely our moment-to-moment experience of life.

A physical education

It wasn’t too long ago that American yoga suffered an entirely different identity issue. Considered a pastime of hippies and an esoteric spiritual practice taught by Indian gurus in ashrams, yoga was perceived by many to be uncomfortably foreign and woo-woo.

Then, in the 1990s, yoga in America started to boom and I discovered a physically challenging brand of yoga, with lots of “yoga push-ups,” handstands, and ab-toning poses that punched up my endorphins at the end of hectic days as a tech editor at Wired News and Salon. A hip, mostly young crowd packed into my regular studio, 50 at a time, creating an exhilarating buzz. The experience was light-years removed from the slow-moving alignment classes I was used to, but I loved this athletic practice, the community and, vainly, the look of my newly-toned body. I, along with millions of other Americans, had embraced an experience of yoga that was fueled by strength, speed, and sweat.

“The flexibility plus strength plus breath of Power Flow Yoga undoubtedly makes you feel good,” says Dina Amsterdam, a San Francisco-based yoga teacher who once led fun, sweaty, flow classes. She has since founded InnerYoga, an approach that incorporates traditional yoga and other modalities into a self-care practice designed to support students in all aspects of their life. “In a culture that is so sedentary, these fast-moving, joyful, aerobic classes serve a huge purpose. They get students back in their bodies. But it’s a bit of a misnomer to call it yoga,” she smiles. “Yoga is the union of awareness and embodiment.”

Man stretching
Nuno Silva/500PX Prime

No limits?

A strenuous yoga practice can be fantastic. There is something undeniably seductive about becoming more physically capable. It’s fun to challenge yourself and to feel your stress melt into a sweaty smile. Plus, the strength and mobility you gain with practice means you’re soon able to do more than you ever thought possible. When that happens and you suddenly find yourself touching your toes instead of your knees, or flying up into your first handstand, you feel alive in the best possible way—inspired, empowered, transformed.

For many of us, that physical transformation comes with a powerful revelation: Your perceive