While you may see an array of different yoga classes on offer at your local gym, an hour of traditional yoga will have very different effects to an hour of pounding on the treadmill. Over time, fitness and yoga have become virtually interchangeable in the Western world, despite the huge differences between the two practices.
With its growth in popularity over the years, it’s no wonder that gyms and fitness gurus are taking advantage of the increased demand. Everything from beer yoga (we’re not sure either) to dog yoga is on offer, and celebrities are crediting yoga for their impressive body transformations and long, lean physiques.
However, despite what the media may tell you, general fitness and yoga are actually very different. Of course, yoga can get you fitter, stronger, and healthier but, contrary to believe, yoga didn’t originate in a sweaty fitness studio.
Here’s the three main differences between fitness and yoga.
Exercise can be done for a wide range of reasons. Some people crave the look of chiselled abs, others swear by its ability to decrease stress and others simply love the feeling of getting stronger or beating their records. While yoga can certainly be done for a range of reasons, the focus is not on pushing your body to its limits or revealing that six pack. Instead, it is an ancient tradition that dates back thousands of years – well before the age of low-carb diets or sweaty fitness studios!
The Yoga Sutra is essentially the classical yoga guide book, written by Patanjali at least 1,700 years ago. In this book, he lays out the 5 Yamas, which are the moral, ethical and social guidelines for any yogi. These should be practiced in actions, words and thoughts.
Ahimsa – The practice of non-violence towards others and the self
Satya – Truthfulness. We are urged to live and speak our truth at all times.
Asteya – Non-stealing or not taking what is freely given. This means not only refraining from stealing, but also being opposed to exploitation, social injustice and oppression.
Brahmacharya – Creating moderation in everything we do. This will conserve energy and help create balance.
Aparigraha – This urges us to let go of anything we do not need. We should not be greedy, materialistic or covetous.
Yoga is more than the movements you make on your mat, it is your thoughts, actions and words that follow your daily practice. While you can leave fitness at the gym, the practice and philosophy of yoga should be carried with you throughout your day.
You may be able to contort your body into an impressive backbend, hold a handstand for 30 seconds or drop into the splits first thing on a Monday morning, but without awareness, it doesn’t really count as yoga. If you’re practicing your stretches while running through to-do lists or planning your next meal, you’re simply stretching – you’re not practicing yoga.
Running on the treadmill or perfecting your deadlift is still fitness whether you are getting psyched up to your favorite song or getting lost in a true crime podcast. While mindfulness can certainly be beneficial during regular exercise, it is not essential. Awareness or mindfulness, however, is one of the key components of yoga and one of the reasons it differs so widely from fitness.
So how do you become more aware during your yoga practice? Bringing the focus back to the breath is the best way to achieve this – those of you who have a regular meditation practice may find this easier. If you find your mind beginning to run wild with thoughts of daily tasks or tomorrow’s weather forecast, simply bring your awareness back to the breath. You will notice that every yoga class ends with a Savasana, or Corpse Pose. If this doesn’t highlight the difference between yoga and fitness, we don’t know what will! While the end of your spin class may see you gulp down your water, wipe your sweaty face with a towel and get started on your protein shake, yoga classes are slightly different. Virtually all classes will finish with Savasana, which involves sinking into the present moment and quieting your mind.
The final difference between yoga and fitness is the emphasis on the breath. While you will need to be able to control and regulate your breathing to reach your squatting PB or run your fastest marathon, the emphasis on the breath in yoga is slightly different. In yoga, the breath is used to keep you focused, aware and in the present moment. It is the perfect way to anchor your mind, unblocking emotional and physical tension which helps to relax the mind and reduce anxiety.
The general term for different breathing exercises in yoga is Pranayama. Traditional yoga styles require a variety of breathing methods throughout the class, such as alternate nostril breathing, which can help to calm anxiety and balance the mind. You’ll notice in a yoga class that your teacher regularly mentions returning to the breath – often telling you when to inhale and exhale. It is this emphasis that makes yoga such a special practice and why it differs so much from fitness.