Recently I was part of a dialog about the appropriate place on a university campus for yoga to be practiced. For many reasons, a fitness center could make sense, if it was accessible to all, and the yoga was taught with regard for its ancient roots.
But how does one argue that without making it sound too “woo”; that is, without mystifying those roots, thereby making yoga less accessible?
The answer came to me in a physical therapy session. My sessions are in a big room with other patients, and the therapist was working hard to explain to someone a particular movement she wanted him to make. While her knowledge of anatomy and movement were far superior to mine, she struggled, as we yoga teachers do, to explain to him how to move.
In addition to clear instruction, our training may have focused on helping our students to develop body awareness. This is arguably connected to mindfulness practices, which are gaining greater acceptance in the mainstream medical community. Further, we empower students to develop an awareness of the aspect and orientation of their own bodies in space, “from the inside out,” possibly to cultivate greater awareness of the orientation of their whole selves to their lives. At least, this last, greatest cultivation might be an incremental effect of continued practice. But we try to shift ownership of that awareness from the instructor to the student. I don’t think that an instructor–centered yoga is in the proper spirit of these practices.
I don’t know enough about fitness training in various styles to claim that they don’t cultivate body awareness and empower students to own it. My impression, which you are welcome to correct, is that few practices are as holistic as yoga in the cultivation of this body awareness. In any case, fewer others are offered as a means of taking this awareness to other aspects of one’s life: for example, how we stand in line at the grocery store, how we respond to and approach people in our lives, and how we extend the kindness we show ourselves into compassion we show for others.
My view, in short, is that yoga is more than a workout simply because activity shares a place with awareness. Even if we take that awareness no further than our own bodies, that’s still a “value add” for yoga. We can state this with conviction without getting into debates, as valuable and interesting as they might be, over yoga’s provenance.