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  • Sam Turner

Is yoga exercise?

Yes, and no. I would say it can be a form of exercise, and it is a fantastic reason to show up to the mat, but I know there is more to yoga than exercise. The easiest way to explain this would be that yoga is not the most effective choice if you are looking for a pumped feeling.

I feel the reason most people show up to the mat usually starts with an intention like “I want to be more flexible”, “I want an active rest day from the gym” or “I want to start introducing movement into my life again”. However, I think they stay because yoga gets under the skin and gets you to pay attention to yourself - something we all desire in our current lifestyles.

The format of a class varies massively depending on the teacher, however, I am going to talk from a generic angle. We tend to start with some form of deepening breathing, whether that is a mediation, a visualisation or pranayama. At this exact moment, we take a step away from the idea of exercise and turn inward to check-in with yourself. Whether you know this is what is happening, or not, when you start to deepen the breath you begin to listen. Within minutes, you will have an idea of where you are at that moment, whether you like what you hear or not.

We venture through an inward experience that can be challenging (just as demanding as lifting weights). Slowly the experience passes, and we introduce movement into class. This is the part where we reconnect with the idea of exercise. We start to warm up, followed by many different poses that focus on stretching or strengthening the body and end with some cool-down poses. I find that throughout the movement, you cannot unsee what presented itself at the beginning of class so as we move with the breath, we are continuing to tune into ourselves.

As we progress through the sequence, you realise that you are establishing a stronger connection with your body, and in turn, your mind. Your being is speaking to you and you can hear the responses as you move through the practice. These thoughts can vary greatly, whether it is a physical response, a mental response, an emotional response or the feeling of just experiencing the poses.

You take time to connect to what is going on inside, you allow thoughts to rise and fall with the flow of the breath, you realise how you are physically, mentally and energetically. You hear the feedback and have time to acknowledge these feelings, but equally, as you listen to the teacher, you do not have time to react to these feelings.

I think yoga is an experience of the nervous system, above all else. It is exercise. It is meditation. It is a balance of many different things. Generally, when you enter a yoga class you are working with the nervous system first and foremost. We take the time to switch from that typical fight and flight system and slow down into a state of rest and digest.

And this draws us to the final aspect of the class which steps away from the idea of exercise again. Relaxation. We pause for a length of time at the end of class to just exist on the mat and experience your version of relaxation. The experience will land somewhere between a leaded experience to complete silence with the intention of stillness.

I believe that whatever brings you to the mat is valid, whether this is the idea of stretching and strengthening the body, or finding a spiritual self where your mantra, chant and unblocking your chakras. Yoga can be called an exercise, and there are classes where I have sweated my backside off, however, I don’t think it is an effective use of the time if exercise is what you are looking for. I feel that yoga uses the body as a portal to our nervous system. We work the body, question the mind, listen to our experience so we can move our nervous system from our survival mode to our restoration mode.

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