Ashtanga Blog

Is Yoga a Workout?

The reasons why Yoga is much more than a workout according to its ancient texts.

Tania Kemou doing Raja Kapotasana Pose

Let’s face it. Yoga has become a huge industry. 

All around the world gyms, wellness centers, yoga studios and resorts market Yoga classes in the same way they advertise any other physical activity. 

Just like you can choose to go to a spinning class or CrossFit, you can also choose to join a Yoga class. It’s all the same anyway, right?

The truth is: most Yoga classes do indeed fall under the definition of a workout. What is a workout? It is any recreational physical activity done with the intention of exercising the body and getting fit. That’s it, not more not less. Most Yoga classes offer exactly that. 

Is it then wrong to say that Yoga is a workout?

In my opinion the answer has to do with the intention behind practicing Yoga. Every practitioner might have a different intention when showing up on the mat. 

Let’s also clarify something else: for most people practicing Yoga means practicing asana. And there is nothing wrong with that. But to equate all Yoga with the practice of a few asanas would be to overlook what Yoga really is and its evolution over the years.

The roots of classical Yoga: Patanjali

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (YS 1.2), written in the 2nd century BCE, we are reading that “the cessation of the mind fluctuations is Yoga”. In other words, we practice Yoga to calm and master the mind, enter in deep meditation and reach higher realms of consciousness.

Asana is the third of the eight limbs of Ashtanga or Patanjali Yoga. The practice of the eight limbs leads to liberation and spiritual accomplishment. The limbs are constructed in a way that each limb is built on the basis of the previous one. We start by ethical principles, then come asana and breath control (pranayama) and then progressively we move towards concentration and meditation.

Even though asana is one of the limbs, there is very little said about it in the Sutras. The root of the word asana (“as”) means to sit, to be steady. 

The Sutra 2.46 reads: “A steady and comfortable posture is asana.”

So any posture that brings steadiness and comfort is considered an asana. For Patanjali, the goal is to be able to purify the mind so we can meditate. 

Asana is just one tool for purification, not a goal per se. 

The next two Sutras (2.47- 48) read: “By lessening the natural tendency for restlessness and by meditation on the infinite, posture is mastered. Thereafter, one is not disturbed by dualities.”

Through the body, we can put a brake on the mind. By practicing asana for years, we become more grounded and less restless, therefore meditation becomes possible. The fruit of this practice is the fading of all dualities, preferences, desires and aversions and the development of equanimity. We are not defined by our desires anymore. Asana therefore is a tool for mind control.

For Patanjali, how many asanas one performs and how proficiently is of little relevance as long as one can sit steady and comfortably and become absorbed in meditation. 

That being said, we should keep in mind that Patanjali Yoga was not meant for “householders” (= normal people). It was the Yoga of the monks and called for renunciation of all earthly desires. 

The influence of Tantra: Hatha Yoga Pradipika

In a much later text that belongs to the tradition of Tantra, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (HYP), there are a lot of descriptions of asanas, instructions on how to perform them and their health benefits.

With Tantra, a school of Yoga that appeared in India around the 8th century CE, for the first time we start to see a more embodied practice. 

HYP is a medieval scripture written in the 15th century. The meaning of Pradipika is “to cast light”. This text is a guiding light to the mystic world of Hatha Yoga (what is understood today by physical Yoga). Hatha yoga purifies the body by means of asana, bandha, mudras, kriya, pranayama. Its aim is to make the body healthy and free of toxins.

This text focuses on the energetic work performed through asanas and what it does to the body. It talks specifically about the rising of the Kundalini energy through the central channel that runs across the spine. 

When nadis (small energy channels around the body) are purified and granthis (blockages) are released through asana and breathing, the stagnant energy is released and runs towards the crown of the head. 

Once the energy channels are cleared, the yogi stills the body in asana and stills the mind through meditation, the ultimate path to Raja Yoga. Therefore, liberation is achieved and once again the body is just a tool. 

HYP 4.78-9 reads: “Those ignorant of Raja Yoga merely perform Hatha Yoga. I think these practitioners are denied the fruit of their efforts.”

So the goal of both texts is not the practice of asanas for their own sake but as a preparation to something greater.

Asana without meditation and spiritual evolution does not exist. Asana for the sake of a healthy and fit body only was not relevant back then.

So even though this text is much more specific on asana than the Yoga Sutras in the end it comes back around to Classical Yoga when it comes to the goals of practice: disembodiment and absorption in Samadhi (ultimate state of meditation). 

Modern Yoga: The legacy of Krishnamacharya

Modern Yoga started at the beginning of the 20th century and Sri T. Krishnamacharya is considered its father. 

His teachings and innovations drove the evolution of Yoga, making it accessible to a large part of the population and helping many reestablish health and vitality through asana practice. 

The body stopped being just a tool for its transcendence but became a part of us worthy of care. 

Krishnamacharya’s students Jois, Iyengar and Desikachar carried on his legacy, brought Yoga to the West and placed asana in the center of people’s interest. The Yoga of the monk became the Yoga of the householder. Still, those great masters ensured - both through their books but also through their work with their students - to pass on the history and origins of Yoga and give it the respect it deserves.

The popularisation of Yoga - as much as it did good by bringing this ancient practice to the people - is also responsible for its vulgarisation in many cases. Many teachers nowadays don’t talk about Yoga history and philosophy and many students don’t care to listen. 

Yoga is becoming yet another commodity and things like goat Yoga, beer Yoga, CrossFit Yoga or naked Yoga win the interest of modern consumers. These are not Yoga but pure entertainment.

And just like that, in many people’s minds Yoga came to mean nothing more than a workout, often combined with other recreational activities that make it easier to market.

Is this an inevitable sign of our times or something we need to correct?

A paradigm for a new era 

Nothing ever stays the same. Everything evolves and Yoga is not an exception. The world has changed and the vast majority of practitioners do not seek liberation or a desireless life every time they step on their mat. Modern practitioners have lives, jobs and families and do not wish to become renunciates. 

For many, asana is a workout just like any other. They want to become flexible, strong and fit. Is there anything wrong with that? Absolutely not. Is this Yoga? Not according to its ancient texts.

Others wish to go a bit deeper and achieve more clarity, awareness and groundedness in their everyday life, along with a fit and healthy body. These people, if they stick to the practice, have a chance of experiencing a bit of the true essence of Yoga along the way.

And then there are those who, convinced that there is something more out there apart from the mundane, cannot help but seek. Asana then becomes a tool of exploration of the depths of our minds, why we act the way we act and how we can change ourselves and the world. 

In our era, a spiritual life does not need to be led in a cave away from the world. We do not need to become monks to be spiritual. 

Yoga practice and asana in particular can show us how our physical and mental parts can join, taking us further than we initially were meant to get.

The ancient texts are still of relevance in that they show us the vastness of knowledge and wisdom we can have access to. They do not need to be taken literally to be of value.

And this is why, if we don’t want to reduce Yoga to a workout, we owe it to ourselves and this ancient discipline to study its roots, learn what it is really about and see which of these fragments of wisdom can still be of relevance, not just to ourselves but our fellow humans.