Image: Competitive yoga
Caroline Woodham  /  Getty Images stock
We persist in kicking each other’s asanas because we’ve convinced ourselves that exercise, which is not about fixing the world but about fixing one’s abs and thighs, is a higher form of truth.
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updated 12/7/2008 2:01:04 PM ET 2008-12-07T19:01:04

For years, a good friend had been singing the praises of her quirky, charismatic yoga teacher. Eventually, I agreed to go to a class with her, primarily because she was there so damn often, I was worried I’d never see her again. I’d taken various forms of yoga before, but within minutes of unfurling my mat, I was bewildered, then annoyed. First off, the instructor barked out the names of the poses in Sanskrit. (Confusing!) Worse, he immediately began singling out students to critique their form (not in a nice way). He even mocked one woman for bringing her own mat. (Apparently, communal mats loaded with sweat and bacteria are somehow more yogic.)

Yet I found myself going back again. For one thing, I liked spending time with my friend. I also liked the way yoga made me feel: clearheaded, tall, strong. I even got used to the grouchy instructor. Before I knew it, I’d learned those Sanskrit words; I felt my body changing; I was becoming more fit and focused.

Along the way, however, my own snarkiness bloomed like a lotus flower. When I saw a fellow student desperately trying to push her heels down at the expense of keeping her shoulders rotated back and her thighs pulled up, I sneered inwardly: Newbie!

Not that I’m alone in my more-yogic-than-thou snobbery. Yogis who chant and chime tend to mock those who practice in silence. Ashtanga aficionados sneeringly dub Iyengar, with its props and bolsters, “chair yoga.” Iyengar-ites dismiss Ashtanga as “gym yoga” because of its rapid movement from pose to pose. Those who love Bikram, or “hot yoga,” think their version is the most challenging; those who don’t, think Bikram studios smell like sweaty gym socks.

A substitute for spirituality
More and more, I’ve noticed that people who practice yoga — which literally means “union” — are anything but united. They’re divisive and persnickety. Take one yogic experience I had in New York City several years ago. I was new to town and decided to check out a class offered a few blocks from my home. I walked in and headed for the studio when a guy snapped, “Excuse me,” in a tone of voice that clearly suggested I was the one who needed an excuse. Staring pointedly at my sneaker-clad feet, he said, “We don’t disrespect the earth by walking on it in our shoes.” I whipped mine off, but inside I was thinking, How the hell was I supposed to know?! Then I thought, Jeez, is it yogic to be so snooty to a newcomer? And disrespecting the earth? Puh-leeze. It’s linoleum.

Why would an activity that’s supposed to be noncompetitive and inward-focused turn people into such judgmental loons? My theory is that our culture has gotten so cutthroat that even spirituality has become competitive. And because many of us don’t belong to a tight-knit religious community, yoga has become a substitute for spirituality, a word thrown around like a medicine ball. Feeling spiritual used to mean more than simply treating one’s body like a temple; it suggested a call to social action, the determination to be a better person and, in some cases, to be closer to God.

Now there is only the body. And we persist in kicking each other’s asanas because we’ve convinced ourselves that exercise, which is not about fixing the world but about fixing one’s abs and thighs, is a higher form of truth.

I’m not saying everyone needs to practice religion or believe in God. That’s a personal choice. But too many yoga students in this country have taken a tiny piece of a wider Indian worldview, one that isn’t just about exercise, and turned it into a new kind of self-absorption. Exercise is not sacred, much as we want to pretend it is. Worse, some yogis have internalized only the most negative aspect of religion — the tendency to think that outsiders are bad and wrong. The dark side of faith is when it turns on others.

What we really want is ... a yoga butt
Yoga instructors who talk about nourishing the spirit, who promise enlightenment rather than a yoga butt, only compound the problem. And we students know we’re supposed to want cosmic awareness and are drawn to those who promise it. But in our dirty heart of hearts, what we really want is ... a yoga butt. If that comes with a side of enlightenment, that’s awesome but not essential. But rather than admit that, we disparage others for their equally impure motives, especially the deluded practitioners of The Wrong Exercise (aka Not What I Do), accusing the sorry treadmillers and boring swimmers of the sin we despise most in ourselves.

More innocently, perhaps, when we natter on about the revelations of yoga, or any exercise fad, guess what? Everyone wants us to shut up. Because when you imply that there’s one correct way to do something (or when your husband goes on about the only way to clean one’s keyboard, not that I’m naming names) or you boast endlessly about a personal discovery (the way Tom Cruise raves about the virtues of Scientology), listeners cannot help but get hostile.

So here’s my confession: I do think yoga can be different from many other kinds of exercise. There’s something about the combination of stretching, breathing and strength training, about the need to concentrate enough to control one’s quivering limbs, that can result in both laser-beam focus and floatiness. But I also think hiking and biking and, yes, even running on a treadmill (which, for me, comes even closer to pure meditation than yoga does) can make you feel simultaneously buzzed and peaceful and challenged. So do yoga if you like yoga. But let’s stop proselytizing about it, not to mention fetishizing the damn wardrobe. Let’s shut up about how long we held our Eagle or Tree pose or headstand. Let’s not sneer at other students or other kinds of exercisers, except those sweaty “hot yoga” idiots. (Kidding!) Because, ideally, yoga isn’t about yelling at someone who hasn’t taken off her shoes; it’s about going inward in a good way, being kind to others and making the world a nicer place. And it’s about admitting that a perfectly held pose has nothing to do with a perfectly lived life.

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