Welcome to our new section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus.) We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.
Yoga is a place where I come to my mat to activate my body, to guide my movements with breath, to find some sense of stillness amidst chaos. I’ve been practicing yoga for almost nine years, and over time my expectations of the practice and its meaning have greatly shifted. Yoga studios were places I used to be dragged to as a child while my mom dedicated an hour of her time to sweat and meditate, while I patiently waited in the lobby, reading or finding other random activities to occupy my time with. She encouraged me to practice with her, but naturally, I was stubborn and refused to do so, until she eventually persuaded me to despite my reluctance. It’s difficult remembering exactly how I felt about being the only 9-year-old in a yoga class that was filled with adults, attempting postures beyond my ability. As a kid, I never saw the benefits of meditation, or even really its purpose. However, something must have clicked in me to continue the practice on my own, by choice, throughout middle school, high school, and now college. Yoga’s teachings are multifaceted — it has taken a spiritual hold on my world, helping me learn to slow down and guide my actions with the awareness of my breath. But it has also improved my physical body, increasing my flexibility, balance, strength, and coordination, helping me become a better athlete in high school and a more physically fit adult in college.
Although I’ve practiced for almost a decade, it wasn’t until recently where I gained awareness of how yoga is portrayed in the West. Studios now are accompanied with a mini pop-up apparel shop, profiling pricy workout clothes that cost the equivalent of three or more yoga classes. Conversations prior to class focus on how to replenish the workout — “Will a $16 juice press suffice?”, or, “Are we feeling more of a bottomless mimosa vibe? I guess splurging on champagne is justified, since we already worked out for the day.” Despite the great benefits that can be achieved by practicing yoga, the West paints a convoluted picture of its purpose, clouding the true essence of yoga. What’s troubling about this reality is how obtusely it deviates from its genuine historical significance, and even more so, how most people, including myself, fall victim to this glamorized misrepresentation of yoga.
Travel back to India over 5,000 years ago. This is the birthplace of yoga. Fancy classes, polished studios, and social media trends did not exist. Yoga was simply a spiritual practice that originated in one of the oldest, most sacred texts: the Vedas. The Vedas were a collection of texts, songs, and other artifacts used by Brahmin priests in India. Eventually, the documentation of yoga appeared in the Upanishads, an ancient work containing hundreds of scriptures. The most renowned of these scriptures is the Bhagavad Gita, which documents stories of ancient Gods in Sanskrit, emphasizing more of a moral philosophy rather than a physical practice.
The word “yoga” technically means union, a way to unite. The goal of the practice is to attain “moksha,” meaning liberation, or freedom. According to the Yoga Sutras, there is an eight-fold path that leads to liberation, also known as the Eight Limbs. Think of it like this: What the Ten Commandments are to Christianity is what the eight limbs are to yoga. Follow these eight limbs, and you’ll achieve enlightenment, a heightened sense of self, and a heart full of love, gratitude, and fulfillment.
Ask any average person who is semi-acquainted with yoga about the key elements of the practice, and you’ll probably find an answer along this line:
“The poses. You know, warrior 1, warrior 2.”
However, there is only one limb among the eight, called the Asana, which actually focuses on the poses themselves. The rest refer to ways in which humans can lead a fulfilling life through various principles, such as meditation, Dhyana, placing an emphasis on breathing, Pranayama, practicing non-violence, Ahimsa, and being truthful, Satya, as well as many others. The irony here is that Westerners place a heavy significance on the physicality of yoga, using the postures as a way to understand the practice and judge whether or not they’re capable of practicing yoga, when in reality, only one of the essential features of yoga (only one of the eight limbs) is actually about the poses. Take away the Asana, and you have a whole laundry list of the essential philosophical proverbs of yoga that don’t seem to make an appearance in the Western world.
What has made an appearance in the West, instead, looks like a misbranding of the practice. Modern day yoga has been warped to capture consumers by slapping labels onto the practice as the “next best workout class,” heavily emphasizing its physical features yet neglecting to focus on the key philosophical and meditative elements. This shift in attention gravitates Western yogis towards the physical postures rather than the importance of breath, moving with gratitude, and meditation. This focus falsely informs others about the archetype of the exercise, leaving the impression that yoga is a kind of workout that can’t be done unless one is granted with pristine flexibility.
Look at any fitness magazine, any fitness Instagram model, any average person on their way to a yoga class. Thin, white models twisting their bodies in exotic shapes and poses plague the cover of magazines. Blonde, tan girls in bikinis gazing off into the sunset in Warrior 2 certainly makes for an aesthetically pleasing picture on the Instagram grid, but what more is this supposed to offer? These images constantly send messages that distort the philosophical nature of the practice, implicitly suggesting that those who “practice yoga” must fit a certain niche.
Two areas of tension arise from the reality of social media’s portrayal of yoga. One concerns the misrepresentation of who is allowed to practice.
“If I can’t do this posture, then there’s no point in coming to class.”
The true teachings of yoga, however, emphasize that yoga is for all, and can be practiced by anyone — flexibility should not be a deterrent. Social media, yoga teachers, and Western studio culture ultimately are responsible for propagating this misrepresentation.
Perhaps, though, the issue at hand is not being misinformed. Rather, some people may simply just not like yoga. Problems with the practice here seem to dive deeper than simple intimidation, suggesting that the underlying trouble may be more than just the media’s wrongdoings, and possibly may even transcend the inappropriate behavior of wearing a t-shirt printed “Namaste Bitches” on it.
Consider the power of the delivery of the practice, the agency it holds in shaping one’s attitude towards yoga. More often than not, it’s the delivery of information that excites people, rather than the content itself. How the teacher presents the information, structures the way its taught, and delivers the information is what makes all the difference. Here, maybe the turmoil arises from the delivery of the yoga teachers, placing power on how they shape their students’ experience of yoga. Finding a balance where teachers are aware of the appropriative elements of yoga in today’s society, while constantly looking for ways to de-appropriate their own practice, while engaging their students in a non-judgmental environment is perhaps what teachers should strive for.
There is another phenomenon that points towards why one may feel unwilling to practice yoga. Here is the irony: Yoga can technically be practiced on one’s own, without the need for attending classes. However, the creation of yoga studios does incentivize people to practice yoga, but theses studios are simply a business that operate in our capitalist society and must profit to stay alive. As a business, these studios cannot implement and teach the core values of yoga without charging a price, thereby attracting those who are able and willing to pay for a class.
But despite the expensive labels yoga has attracted in the West, the pure existence of spaces where yoga can be practiced can still serve people with immense benefits. Lifestyle diseases are one of the leading causes of death among Americans, which results from engaging in negative health behaviors due to everyday stresses and anxieties. Practicing yoga is a positive health behavior, suggesting a variety of health benefits such as improving physical strength, balance, coordination, posture, and flexibility. This is still valuable, even if modern day yoga could do a better job interweaving spirituality and meditation into the branding of the workout. Additionally, improving one’s physical health is closely linked to a general pattern of improvement in mental health regarding how to cope with anxiety and stress, which deserves attention. After all, yoga is rooted in the foundation of boosting spirituality and well-being, and if we can get there today through the channel of physical exercise, that is still better than nothing.
And even if yoga classes have now taken a hybrid shape, featuring pilates movements in classes like “yoga-lates,” some still believe that all yoga is good yoga. If this holds true, then the appearance of yoga in the West can still be thought of as a positive service. Maybe the fact of the matter is that the culturally appropriated elements of the practice are inescapable. The athleisure fashion trend will not go out of style anytime soon, yoga will still be paired with lunch dates, and some may prioritize exercise benefits over meditation from their expectations of a yoga class. And that’s okay. This reality isn’t wholly terrible. While higher-end athletic clothing brands are expensive, they are comfortable and versatile. It’s also not necessarily wrong to want to grab a meal with a friend after a workout, and it would be foolish to find harm in others deriving physical benefits from yoga.
What must be done now is to work towards bettering one’s understanding of the practice — not only is it on the yoga teachers to de-appropriate their practice and help communicate the true teachings, but it’s on us as consumers and yoga practitioners. It’s on us to educate ourselves beyond the physical postures; it’s on us to be aware of the cultural appropriation that exists and hold ourselves accountable to that knowledge.
The next time you go into a yoga class, think about your intention for the practice, and what you hope to gain from being on your mat. Whether that’s purely physical or not, also be aware that yoga surpasses physical gain. Flow with the knowledge of yoga’s historical richness. Be aware of how the West may exploit certain aspects of yoga, and trust that yoga offers more than just a pretty Instagram post and comfortable workout clothes.
Subscribe here for all the latest news on how you can keep Thriving.
More on Mental Health on Campus:
What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need
If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help
The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis