Western Yoga Practices Prove Problematic

Isabel Hulkower, Columnist

If you’ve ever wandered into a mat exercise class thinking you were in for something easy and left in extreme pain, you are not alone. Low-impact exercise classes like yoga and pilates have gained major popularity, and their benefits include but are not limited to: being easy on the joints (no jumping), promoting stretching and flexibility and the employment of isometric holds.

Pilates is a style of exercise that emphasizes alignment and core strength to help train the body. It was dreamed up by the illustrious Joseph Pilates, who was born in Germany in 1883. He developed an interest in exercise in his youth and began truly refining his craft when he was confined in a British internment camp during World War I. During that time, he trained his fellow inmates and developed his integrated, comprehensive system of fitness. That’s actually what happened. Seriously.

Pilates has six core tenets: concentration, centering, control, breathing, precision and flow, all of which are designed to help you get better in touch with your body. This system was first popularized for dancers in the New York City Ballet and is still an incredible supplement for athletes of all sorts. It generally involves a lot of floor work and pulsing, and though the moves seem simple, they will hurt you in places you didn’t know could feel pain. It often uses straps, balls and other props, but most of the exercises use only your own body weight, occasionally giving you the feeling that you are “turning your own body against itself.”

Though the two have similar characteristics, pilates is not to be confused with yoga. The latter is a modern take on an ancient practice dating back to at least 3,000 BCE, significantly predating pilates. While pilates clearly has a lot to do with the melding of physical and mental health, it is miles away from yoga’s inherent spirituality, which comes out of old Vedic tradition. The use of poses as a part of a practice came much later than the original Vedic scriptures, which spoke only of spirituality, and even in modern ashtanga yoga, asana (postures) are only one of eight components that together lead to enlightenment. All in all, it’s quite evident that yoga has a much richer and more complicated history, and that the exercise part is just one cog in a much larger machine that is ultimately chugging toward an end goal of living a more meaningful and purposeful life — not just tighter abs.

The conflation of these two exercise styles does seem inevitable in certain ways. They are often taught side by side in the same gyms and fitness clubs, both share a focus on uniting the mind and body and, of course, involve stretching, mats and low-impact muscle toning. A great deal of this confusion is due to the modern thirst for yoga and its subsequent transformation into a commodified fitness trend. Since its popularization in the U.S. in the ’70s, yoga has ballooned into a $27-billion industry, inspiring practitioners to buy expensive mats and sexy pants, attend pricey classes and even go on swanky yoga retreats. Most American practices are caught up in the consumerist mentality and fail to bolster the holistic lifestyle on which the exercise was founded. That critique is only the tip of the iceberg, considering one of the biggest problems with yoga is the fetishization of another culture. White appropriation of sacred Eastern cultural traditions is sprinkled into any practice you find, and though some try to engage critically with it, there is little evidence that this problematic practice will soon change.

There are also classes that combine elements of both practices, with the most notable being Yogalates™. It’s exactly what it sounds like, fusing the two systems and, as the style’s official website says, providing a “meeting place of East and West.” That description is also quick to point out that both yoga and pilates have changed and adapted over the years and that Yogalates is a natural extension of those traditions. Whether this is an accurate appraisal of these narratives and whether this statement mitigates the inherent discomfort in merging an ancient spiritual practice with a more modern physical one is questionable at best. However, my personal credentials as a Johnny-come-lately yoga scholar do not qualify me to make that call.

No matter their faults, yoga, pilates and their unholy union Yogalates™ are all very effective ways of gaining strength, flexibility and spending time connecting the mind and body. Still, it’s important to remember that they are not interchangeable. It would behoove anyone interested in one of these forms of exercise to spend time disentangling them, while putting some intentionality behind their practice.