Philosophy corner three: Why do you practice yoga?

So this blog was started by an innocent question from a friend of mine. He casually asked one day: ‘Why do you practice yoga’?

On the surface it was easy for me to list the obvious things; I think it’s good for my body, it helps me feel calm and centred, its nice for me to be part of a wonderful community. But actually yoga in it’s fullest expression has an incredible depth and richness that goes far beyond those things. The truth is that yoga has profoundly shaped how i see the world and it helps me view my thoughts, words and actions with clarity.

However I recognise that when i teach yoga that room full of people in front of me will all have their own individual answer to the ‘why do yoga’ question. For some they will have stumbled across the practice at a gym or nearby class and not really think about why they like it. Others will have been recommended it by a professional as a tonic for everything from anxiety and depression, to sciatica and high blood pressure. Then again the person on the next mat along may see yoga as a profound spiritual practice and care little for the physical benefits of practice.

So with all those different ideas in the yoga studio how does a teacher cater to everyone’s needs? Well actually i don’t aspire to cater to absolutely every possible yogi aspiration. For lots of reasons a student might suit a different type of practice to what i teach. For example its not appropriate for pregnant students to attend a flow based class in a hot studio. Equally some students might find they are in a class that doesn’t feel dynamic and challenging enough for their needs.

My regular students will know that I like to start classes by asking students to spend a moment or two reflecting on what their aspiration, dedication or intention is for that day’s practice. If you’re confused about setting intentions there is a lovely blog on this subject by Kathryn Budhig here. As students stand side by side in tadasana at the start of the class they may look similar from the outside but their individual experience can be infused with intentions that make the practices completely different.

Yoga is personal to each individual. Last week I had a magical day when I watched a child with autism engage in yoga helping them with their sensory needs and to make sense of the highly confusing world around them. On the same day I discussed with a student who works in the police how she feels yoga helps her in difficult confrontational situations. Worlds apart but valid and useful in both contexts.

There is no right or wrong answer to ‘why do yoga’ question. For me I don’t think there is a hierarchy of aspirations that makes spirituality for example, any more worthy than the goal of physical fitness.  As Max Strom says everyone must “start where you are, with what you have, do what you can”. We might also find that aspiration shifts from day to day, or in bigger ways as months and years go by. Whatever intention you use, knowing why you’re on the mat and what you want to get out of the practice will give you a different experience. It might be your reason for exploring that asana a little bit deeper, having a go at a difficult pose or simply not just hanging out in the pose whilst the mind drifts elsewhere.

One of my favourite teachers Katy Appleton used to talk about ‘IKEA yoga’ like flat pack furniture we might sort of follow the instructions we’re given but without being present to what we’re doing maybe we end up with something a bit half hearted, that is not quite right. It’s not necessarily about finding that picture perfect pose, but rather by working with a clear intention, we use our mind’s fantastical power within the practice of yoga.

I’d love to hear your thoughts… why do you do yoga? what is your experience of using intentions?   

setting intention