Corals Zheng/THE VARSITY

For many U of T students, yoga is a popular athletic activity for those who want a workout for both their body and their mind. Yoga has become so popular and widespread in its practice that it’s funny to think that it wasn’t always popular in the West.

Yoga can be traced back to nineteenth century India. You may know that yoga is a spiritual practice, but for Hindus it is also a religious act and is included in daily prayer. The entire point of yoga — the Sanskrit for ‘divine union with God’ — is to free oneself from the cycle of rebirth so as to become one with the divine. As it turns out, however, this is easier said than done.

There is an eight-step process to reaching the divine; with physical postures comprising just one step. The postures called asana, are comprised of 15 original poses which are designed to relieve tension so that one may overcome material boundaries and reach the divine. Yoga was meant to be between a student of the lord and their teacher, or guru.

Now, however, yoga has become more popular, and been increasingly adapted for Western consumption during the exercise boom in the early 70’s. Americans were becoming more and more open to other cultures which was instrumental in popularizing the practice. “Yoga just makes me feel so good,” said third-year science student Andrea Guljas, adding that on top of feeling relaxed, it also makes her feel accomplished. “It makes me feel strong when I do a hard class.” 

Jill Cressy, the assistant manager, fitness & instruction, Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education at U of T, agrees that yoga is especially beneficial for students — not only to get moving, but also to relax and revitalize the mind.

“Students who regularly practice yoga may find it’s easier to focus in their academic classes and stay alert while studying and taking exams,” said Cressy, who also maintains that the benefits of yoga aren’t limited to students and can help improve anyone’s core strength, flexibility, and posture.

A yogafit instructor at the Athletic Centre, Cressy also highlights the importance of community engagement in her practice, and insists that group yoga is also beneficial as it instills a sense of belonging in her students. “Taking a yoga class on campus can help students find new people to study with, make new friends, and connections to engage in meaningful conversations, and enhance the overall student experience,” she said. 

Siena Dixon, yoga teacher at Kula yoga studio in the Annex, agrees that yoga is something she does to relieve stress and anxiety, as well as to build confidence, “[yoga] is ultimately a real personal practice. For me it began as a physical interest and has now transformed into a mental practice as well.”

Dixon, who had to complete a 200 hour teaching course to become a certified teacher, was inspired to teach yoga because of the confidence it gave her, and believes that a yoga class should strike a balance between athleticism and mindfulness. “In a physical sense, it’s a great addition to fitness routines… I find that a lot of men get into yoga to complement their other sports and activities. It can also help reduce injuries,” she said.   

Although there are multiple physical and mental benefits associated with yoga, adoption of the practice in the West has been criticized by some for fostering a culture of yoga, which has become increasingly commercialized. “Yoga has been largely used in the West to promote a certain higher class cultural capital,” said Farzana Khan, adding that brands like Lululemon are cashing in on traditional yoga items like mala beads and yoga mats, without so much as a thought for their Hindu origins.

Khan, who is a fourth year women and gender studies and religion major, posits that as yoga becomes more wide spread, and is adopted further in the West, the practice becomes less authentic. “As yoga becomes more transnational, it shifts away from its authenticity and from India’s tradition,” she asserts, citing the ‘take back yoga’ movement initiated by The Hindu American Foundation, which is trying to steer the practice back to its religious roots. Although Khan believes that the psychological and mental benefits of yoga are secondary to its ‘trendiness’, she asserts that simply buying into the fad isn’t getting you any closer to the divine. “Long term practices of yoga have been proven to reduce stress and increase well being,” said Khan, adding, “but you don’t need the commoditized yoga products to achieve this state.” 

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