BY: AYA TSINTZIRAS
Everyone around me looks completely Zen as they lie on their backs and settle into the final pose of the yoga class: Savasana, or resting pose. It’s a Saturday morning in April, and what is supposed to be relaxing—the chance to close your eyes for a few minutes—feels anything but. My mind can’t stop churning over the day’s agenda. As we bow our heads in appreciation, the yoga instructor thanks us for our practice. All I can think is: Thank God the lying down is over.
It’s been two years since I started going to regular yoga classes, but I still suck at Savasana. I can’t stop my thoughts, and I’ve never learned how to be still. So if I feel bored during the opening seated meditation that starts every class, and if I can’t clear my mind during the final pose, am I failure at yoga? Women’s magazines, especially the ones focused on health, publish endless articles on ways to de-stress, and yoga is always at the top of the list. But despite three to four classes a week, I still get stressed, making me think that yoga isn’t the perfect cure we think it is.
Yoga is an unavoidable part of mainstream North American culture. There are studios on every corner, women walking around in Lululemon pants (even when they’re not working out), and magazines touting meditation as the answer to all of life’s problems. And there are many different types of yoga, from hatha, the most common form, which sequences movement with breath, and the faster-paced vinyasa to yin and restorative, which focus on slowing things down instead of strength or stamina. According to the Harvard Medical Health Letter, meditation has been considered a good way to combat anxiety and depression since the 1970s. Yoga has proven health benefits; it helps with mood, reduces stress, and lowers blood pressure and heart rate. As a September 2013 Yoga Journal article explains, neuroscience has explained that, in a meditating brain, the areas that exhibit stress are slowed. But if that’s true, why can meditation feel so awful?
I first tried yoga in high school, and it seemed boring. When I graduated from the University of Toronto in 2011, I realized, as we all do, that the real world isn’t as easy as we expected it to be. I felt depressed, and, when I started doing yoga the following spring, I became an addict. Yoga did help me feel better, but it didn’t stop stressful situations from popping up. I still felt like the new kid at school, desperate to find someone to eat lunch with. Everyone looked toned in their outfits and knew what props to get. Meanwhile, I’d never heard of a bolster. And I was confused whenever the teacher talked about the sacrum. Turns out it’s just below your lower back. Why not just say that?
My first yoga class was taught by Joshua Lewis, a guy wearing a top that said “Spiritual Gangster.” I asked him if he thinks yoga is the cure for anxiety, depression, stress, and the inability to relax. “There’s a tendency to think of yoga as a catch-all benefit,” he said. “You’re tired, do yoga, you’ll be fine. You’re sick, do yoga, you’ll be fine. You’re depressed, do yoga, you’ll be fine. You can hurt yourself doing yoga as much as you can hurt yourself riding your bike.”
Justin Haley runs a class at 889 Yoga, a studio in Toronto’s Rosedale neighbourhood. He’s a calming presence who jokes about “10:30 a.m. intestine talk” when we lie on our stomachs. After one of his classes last spring, we talked about what he calls “type A” yoga vs. the slower forms. He calls Toronto a breeding ground for a “more is better” mindset, the need to always be doing something, even during a workout. He acknowledges that restorative poses can look like a “glorified nap,” but, “When you begin to engage with it, and if you have a sophisticated teacher, there’s a real awareness that it’s active relaxation.”
In Toronto, there are more yoga studios than Starbucks (in 2012, the now-defunct publication The Grid calculated there were 151 locations of the popular coffee chain, while Yoga Conference co-founder Ruth Dargan told the Toronto Star in 2013 that, by her count, there were 669 studios). Some trendy Toronto studios sell seven-dollar drinks and promote juice fasts and cleanses—which, to me, seems like the opposite of healthy and stress-free.
I’m not discounting all the good that regular yoga practice can do for someone. It focuses on breath, encourages stretching and being active, and helps a lot of people heal. But like any exercise, the high from a yoga class is fleeting, never lasting more than a few hours.
The fact is, no matter how many yoga classes I go to or how Zen I try to be, I’m still me. The moment class is over, I race for my iPhone to check my email and social media accounts. If I get a stress-inducing text or email, I still feel that. The hour I spent breathing and stretching doesn’t take that away. And I would rather spend an evening binge-watching my favourite shows than go to a restorative yoga class and lie down for an hour.
For me, yoga was less the perfect way to banish stress and more a gateway to exercise. I never used to work out, and now I go to cardio dance classes four times a week. Now, whenever I head to a yoga class and pull out my mat—a lot less often than I used to—it’s like visiting an old friend. The memories are there and I know that it’s good for me, but I also know it’s not an absolute cure for stress. And that’s not yoga’s fault. It might be ours.