Fitness Magazine

What is the Difference Between Exercise and Yoga?

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge

by Nina

What is the difference between exercise and yoga?

Accessible Yoga Ambassador Marie Aroch
Photographed by Sarit Z Rogers

Of course you can perform any yoga poses as simple exercises. After all many modern yoga poses resemble other types of exercises, including from gymnastics, dance, and martial arts. So you could certainly practice yoga poses in the same way you do any other type of exercise or practice restorative poses or Savasana by “just resting” in them. However, when we talk about performing the poses as part of a “yoga practice,” we mean taking a special approach to the way you do the poses. From my perspective, this means two things: practicing with a mental focus and practicing wisdom in action. Today I thought I’d start delving into those two topics a bit.
Practicing with a Mental Focus
Practicing a yoga pose with a mental focus means that while you are in the pose you intentionally move your mind away from your internal monolog (your thoughts and judgments about the past, present, and future) and focus on what you’re sensing in the yoga pose. Having a mental focus engages you in the present moment and is what allows you to quiet your mind during your practice.
Your mental focus can be on your breath, your drishti (gaze), or a particular physical sensation, such as feeling of your feet pressing evenly into the ground. See A Balm for the Soul: Practicing Simple Breath Awareness for information about practicing simple breath awareness and Coming to Your Senses in Yoga Poses for information other types of focuses you take.
As you practice, your mind will certainly wander from your mental focus. So an important aspect of this practice is using your witness mind to notice—without judgment—when your mind is wandering and to what. As Beth says about the witness, “The Witness is the aspect of self that allows us to see ourselves in action as we are acting.” (See Waking the Witness and The Power of Svadhyaya (Self-Study), Part 1.) After noting that your mind has wandered, simply return to the mental focus you’re using in the pose. And because an essential part of the practice is to refrain from making judgments, start by not judging yourself when you notice you’ve lost your focus; it happens to all of us!
Next, notice if you are being critical about yourself and your pose (you know what I mean, right?) or are comparing yourself to others. Let go of those judgments and comparisons and return to your focus. Or, are you obsessing about the past or worrying about the future? Let go of those thoughts, too, and return to your focus.
If you’re focusing on your breath, don’t judge the way you’re breathing. However, if your breath seems too labored, which may indicate that you’re pushing yourself too hard, you can adjust your pose.
If you’re focusing on a physical sensation, first observe what you’re feeling without judgment. However, if you notice an imbalance, energy that is stuck in some part of your body, sensations of overstretching (see Healthy and Unhealthy Stretchiing Sensations) or pain, you can adjust your pose into a healthier alignment.
All of this requires cultivating contentment (santosha) to some extent. Desikachar translates the yoga sutra about contentment as:
“Contentment or the ability to be comfortable with what we have and what we do not have”
So as you work on staying focused, practice being comfortable with how well you are focusing and with everything else you observe, from your thoughts and emotions to the sensations you experience in your poses. See Yoga Philosophy: Contentment (Santosha) for more information.
Practicing Wisdom in Action
In this wisdom, a man goes beyond what is well done and what is not well done.
Go thou therefore to wisdom:
Yoga is wisdom in work. 

Set thy heart upon thy work, but never on its reward.
Work not for a reward; but never cease to do thy work.
Do thy work in the peace of Yoga and, free from selfish desires, be not moved in success or failure.
Yoga is evenness of mind—a peace that is ever the same. 
—trans. by Juan Mascaro  
Although this message of the Bhagavad Gita—that “yoga” means doing our work without being attached to the outcome/reward of our actions—was intended to address all types of actions we take in life, applying this philosophy to your asana practice not only allows you to cultivate equanimity as you practice but it prevents yoga from turning into a performance art or competition.
You have a right to your actions,
But never to your actions fruits
Act for the action’s sake
And do not be attached to inaction.
Self-possessed, resolute, act
Without any thoughts of results,
Open to success or failure.
This equanimity is yoga. —trans. by Stephen Mitchell

So how do we practice “wisdom in action” in the yoga room? Doing the “work” of a yoga pose without “thoughts of results” means that even though you have a goal for your pose or your practice of the day, such as increasing your strength, flexibility, balance, or agility, improving a physical illness or condition, or even just reducing stress, you practice without attachment to the results of your practice. That way, any setbacks, such as falling in Tree Pose or not being able to do a pose you could do before, won’t disturb your equanimity in the moment and fear of failure in the long-term won’t discourage you in the present.
After all, as you practice yoga asanas through the years, you’ll see many changes in your ability to do poses. With practice, some will get easier to perform, in other’s you’ll improve your alignment, and eventually you may be able to get into some poses you couldn’t originally do. But of course as anyone who has been practicing for a number of years can tell you, you will also experience setbacks, both temporary and permanent.
The nature of life is such that we all experience temporary illness and disabilities as well as age-related to changes to our bodies and there are many who experience permanent illnesses and disabilities. For example, I have permanent age-related changes in the form of osteoarthritis in my right hip and lower spine, and also had one of many temporary disabilities when I recently sprained my arm. Obviously many people have much more serious conditions, such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, partial paralysis, and so on. And for all of us even if you’re just generally working on improving ability in a pose, there are those day-to-day fluctuations in ability based on any number of variables. So it serves us all to be able to do our yoga poses on any given day “Without any thoughts of results, Open to success or failure” so we can experience the equanimity that is yoga.
If you have a temporary illness or disability, whether it’s a simple bout of the flu or something more serious, taking this approach means letting go of worrying about when you will heal and get back to “normal.” You just do the work, trying your best, and observing without judgment how things go. When my arm was healing, I avoided certain poses until I thought I was ready for them. Then, when I tentatively tried a few, I felt immediate pain in some of them, so I just set those poses aside for trying again in a week or so, without letting that feel like “failure.”
If you have a permanent illness or disability, taking this approach means practicing what you can do with dedication and trying to set aside thoughts of where you’ll be in the short- or long-term future, of what you might gain and/or lose in your abilities. I don't want to use myself as an example here because I don't feel my osteoarthritis, though common, is that serious. So I'll just point out that lately I’ve been very impressed by yogic attitude of many people I’ve met or learned about with serious disabilities or chronic illnesses, such as wounded veterans and the Accessible Yoga Ambassadors, who are obviously reaping the physical, emotional, and spiritual rewards of a dedicated yoga practice—so much so that they are out there teaching and spreading the word about all the benefits of yoga.
Finally, for those of you who simply have a goal of improving your health, again, as you work toward that goal practice in a dedicated fashion without attachment to outcome of your practice. That way, no matter what what happens in the future, you'll be prepared to handle it.
Obviously putting this yogic approach into action is easier said than done. It might mean letting go of some deeply ingrained ideas about yourself and of tuning out messages you're receiving from the world at large about "success" and "failure." But just trying this new approach on a regular basis can create a new habit or samskara (see Putting the Wisdom of Yoga into Practice), which makes it easier and easier over time to develop a new habit of practicing wisdom in action.
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