In Yoga, Youth, and Reincarnation, the late journalist and author Jess Stearn who benefited physically, mentally, and spiritually from learning yoga in the mid-1960s, explained the difference between traditional Western "exercise" and yoga asanas (poses).
"The English word "exercise" implies something strenuous, an exertion, with the prefix "ex-" denoting projection out into action. Asana means just the opposite, not so much exercise as "innercise," a condition of blanced tension achieved with minimum movement and expenditure of energy." Stearn also notes that the main purpose of yoga poses is to develop "inner power and control by habituating the body to various modes of immobility. The aim of this discipline is not listless passivity but rather an increase and conscious possession of vital forces."
What does this mean to the yoga beginner who develops a home practice?
It means, as I have advised ad nauseum, that as you learn yoga, you will benefit ALWAYS proceeding gently, carefully, and slowly and "cultivating" what Stearn calls a "sensitivity so that one can judge for himself how far to go and when to stop. No teacher can feel another's pain threshold nor gauge subtle conditioning factors based on body chemistry, glandular balance, nervous coordination, and emotional environment."
Amen! We would see far fewer yoga injuries if people practiced yoga with this approach always in mind.
Yoga has become so trendy that I believe people push themselves to keep up with classmates in the yoga studio or to follow along with the instructor even if their bodies are not yet ready. Strenuous yoga classes abound and more like traditional "exercise" because the participants move rapidly from pose to pose with no pauses, sometimes in heated rooms designed to induce profuse sweating.
However, in my not so humble opinion, the beginning yoga student can gain the most energy, flexibility, serenity, and self-awareness by first learning slow, gentle yoga. "Innercise" and immobility may not be as visually impressive but they can be just as, or even more beneficial. Indeed, sometimes you truly can "do less and achieve more."
Laura Venecia Rodriguez, the Beginner's Yoga at Home Coach