Must yoga be new-agey?
April 1, 2014 6:50 PM   Subscribe

Interested in yoga after hearing it can help depression as well as increasing strength and flexibility. But I'm a skeptical atheist with no interest in the metaphysical spiritual aspects. Is yoga for me?

I'm a middle-aged man leading a far too sedentary life who has long struggled with depression. My therapist has suggested I could benefit from yoga specifically moreso than just general exercise. But I'm hesitant because of the new-agey aspects of it. From the brief research I've done so far it seems some think it is possible, and some think any yoga without a spiritual component isn't yoga. I'd like to hear others' experience with this and any keywords or phrases to look for in identifying a more physical-based yoga regimen. Meditation is fine, chakras not so much. I do own a mat, but my funds are somewhat limited so I'm not sure I can afford a class.
posted by waraw to Health & Fitness (39 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Except for saying, "Namaste" at the end, a good majority of Yoga studies have nothing to do with spiritual advances: it's a Lifestyle Thing. I find it somewhat expensive, but usually studios allow you to go for the first time for free, which helps you to shop around and find the studio that fits what you feel comfortable with, best.

Some studies could also cut you a deal, if you help with janitorial work, if funds are tight. You could also see if there's community centers around that have much cheaper yoga available, with slightly less aesthetically pleasing locales. (city gyms, etc)

It's also worth thinking about learning some of the moves and doing it yourself - going to a class could help you with the basics, that you could then practice on your own, and then go 1x or every other week, to brush up on getting better with the form of the poses. Get your own routine going with poses that you like and make you feel good. Sometimes, you don't wanna do these things wrong. As a beginner, there's less of that sort of danger, but it's not 100% mitigated.

Good luck!
posted by alex_skazat at 6:58 PM on April 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm 100% atheist and I love yoga!

There is probably some variation between studios and instructors, but generally it's not overly spiritual or uncomfortable to me. I think of it more about connecting with my body and grounding myself in the world. Any time they talk about anything that doesn't exactly jive with my world view, I consider it a metaphor. Chakras are just a way to get in touch with different parts of your body and focus your mind there.
posted by radioamy at 6:59 PM on April 1, 2014 [8 favorites]

Ashtanga Mysore may be what you're after. There's a bit of a chant that you learn to start each practice, but just think of it as a fun way to learn Sanskrit.

It's a very physical practice, focused on breathing. Mysore is a style that is the traditional way of learning: you go to the yoga place, and you are taught each pose, one by one, with the "teacher" giving you a new pose when you're ready.

The full primary series can take about 90 minutes to complete, but in the beginning you may only practice for 30 minutes.

You can download a chart that shows you the full primary series, and take that with you to class. Best of all, you can practice the series at home, for free!
posted by gsh at 6:59 PM on April 1, 2014

Yoga can be whatever you want it to be. It just means linking breath with movement. Take a deep breath as you lift your arms above your head. Exhale as you lower your arms. Yoga! Some teachers are more woo-woo than others but I've heard more than one teacher say, take what works for you and leave the rest. That's how I roll. Check out some videos on YouTube and have fun.
posted by kat518 at 7:02 PM on April 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yes, yoga is for you. Yoga is for everyone! I'm not spiritual either but this year I decided to become an actual yoga person rather than a half-assed yoga person and it has changed my life (and my body). Really, I have never put a second's thought into treating it like a spiritual discipline. You definitely don't need to approach it that way to reap the benefits.

If you have an iPhone, get this app. It's $2.99, which is about 1/5th the price you will ever pay for even a single class - so if you hate it, no big loss. There are 30 different classes included of different types, duration, and ability level, so you can try out lots of different stuff.
posted by something something at 7:02 PM on April 1, 2014 [14 favorites]

I'm a skeptical atheist and have had no problem ignoring the very slight woo that has been present in some yoga classes I've taken.

Also, IME yoga varies a lot depending on the class leader. You may just need to shop around a little. Does your town have any kind of municipal activity program/community center? Those places will often have cheap beginner's yoga. Also, many yoga places will let you either take one class for free or pay a small fee to try one out.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:05 PM on April 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

IME Kundalini yoga classes spend more time meditating and discussing spiritual aspects than other yoga classes like Ashtanga and Iyengar, but it could have just been the studio I went to in, uh, Hollywood.
posted by gillianr at 7:09 PM on April 1, 2014

I've taken yoga at a variety of community centers and colleges. I'm in no way an expert, but I certainly felt like I benefited from yoga even when I ignored the occasional spiritual teaching (which was pretty rare, in my experience- and usually instructors would warn us that they might include a little teaching, we could take what we wanted from it). Most recently, I had an instructor that would read us a story at the end of class! Sounds weird, but at the end of the day, it's nice to just relax on your back after some stretching and have someone care enough to read to you.

Prices were very reasonable at local community centers, and mats and other props were generally available to use in class (although sometimes not in the best condition). They had a drop in rate and a cheaper "pay for a block of classes at once" rate. I think yoga studios might charge a little more, but they often will do free trial classes, and around here some have scholarships available for those who can't afford the higher prices, or accept work as trade (work being pretty easy stuff like "sweep the studio floor" or "man the front desk")
posted by Secretariat at 7:09 PM on April 1, 2014

I'm an atheist and I did yoga for years, and loved it. I did find it helped mentally, maybe just from the exercise, maybe from the focus on what you're doing and then on relaxing and clearing your mind at the end. How much spiritual slant gets pulled in would depend on the teacher, the class, the school of yoga, but you can do it on your own anyway.

I really, really wish I could get back to it.
posted by dilettante at 7:10 PM on April 1, 2014

Came in to say the same thing a couple of others have said: it really depends on the instructor. I'm a forty something guy who does yoga five or six days a week; usually two days in a class and the other days on my own. I got into it as way to improve my flexibility and coordination, and have gravitated to no-woo instructors. I would recommend some classes to learn the common poses and then taking at least one class a week to help keep the mechanics correct; this assumes you can find a class with an instructor who is going to walk around and correct things (which generally means a small class size). As for your question about "keywords or phrases to look for in identifying a more physical-based yoga regimen.", I would say look for "Vinyasa Flow" or "Power Flow" in the class description. Ashtanga is certainly also a code word for physical, but based on my local Ashtanga community, everyone who does it seriously is pretty much going to class six days a week.
posted by kovacs at 7:13 PM on April 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm currently doing (don't laugh) DDP Yoga (also called YRG - yoga for regular guys) and it's yoga with a slight cardio aspect to it and no spirituality whatsoever. Part of the gimmick is that there is no woo. Even the moves are renamed to be more "manly." Child's pose is "safety zone," warrior is "road warrior" etc.

I paid $89 for the 2 DVDs/booklet set and that seemed crazy to me, but that's about 7 yoga classes at $12/class in my area. You can probably find a used DVD on Amazon or eBay for cheaper. If you're picking them up outside of the set, definitely go for the first disc first because it has all of the moves.

Here's the subreddit community for it if you want testimonials that aren't part of DDP Yoga's site.

I'm in week 3 of the program, and I usually quit everything after week 1. I love it and I feel more flexible already.
posted by kimberussell at 7:18 PM on April 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

I'm an atheist and while a little bit of woo is pretty typical, I've never found it to be heavy-handed. And if it does happen, it's only at the beginning of class.
posted by O9scar at 7:24 PM on April 1, 2014

First of all, I'd get rid of the notion of "new agey" as it is a meaningless notion except as a way for those outside of something to characterize something (or I mean, a huge collection of different "things" in a way that says nothing about it, and doesn't understand anything about it).

Secondly, if you mean by yoga a physical practice based on the yoga asanas, then of course you can do it without engaging in the "spiritual" aspects. And yes, it will still have an effect on your mind, metal state, emotions, anxiety levels, way of thinking about things, etc etc, even if you merely think of it as atomistic exercise. However, every human being is "spiritual" regardless of whether they think of themselves as being so. You never stop being so, even if you step onto your yoga mat thinking "this has nothing to do with the "spiritual". I am just going through these movements because it's good for me"(whatever that means at this point). In other words being "spiritual" is not something we can just opt out of, even when we think we are doing just that. You CAN have a regular yoga practice that approaches it in a similar way as any mindless exercise regimen, but the fact is if you do it "mindfully" with presence and awareness, it will eventually become a "spiritual" experience regardless of whether you have some instructor talking about chakras during the session, or whether you sit down afterwards and read the yoga sutras. The spiritual aspect is not at all dependent on having ideas fed to you.
posted by Blitz at 7:28 PM on April 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

I would definitely look for a "beginner's" or "level 1" class to start with. When I was getting started it was good to have a class that was focused on just teaching the basic poses, where the teacher would talk through each pose and come around and help you. Classes that are called "flow" are often just pose-pose-pose, without pauses, and assume you already know what you're doing.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:28 PM on April 1, 2014

some think any yoga without a spiritual component isn't yoga

Are you them? No? Then do what you want to do, "some" be damned.

I have seen all sorts of yoga studios, from places that are basically ashrams to places that are far more about getting right with your core strength than getting right with your spirit.

For what it's worth, despite being an atheist, I took yoga at one of the more spiritually-oriented schools in the NYC area and felt like a lot of the spiritual stuff was really valuable for me. Not so much because I want to worship Vishnu or anything, but because it was a sort of back door to meditation and other ways of disciplining and centering the mind.

I also really like the more spiritual approach to yoga practice, where you're encouraged not to compete with anyone, even yourself, and to meet your body where it is at, today. I've always felt uncomfortable in gyms and with athleticism in general, so it was nice to do a physical thing but also not feel a lot of pressure about it.

But hey, maybe saying "namaste" or chanting a little bit really makes you uncomfortable. That's cool. Just seek out a studio that is clearly not about that stuff. Gym, community center, and YMCA yoga classes can also be a good source of non-spiritual yoga practice.
posted by Sara C. at 7:39 PM on April 1, 2014 [8 favorites]

Simple answer it's not for you. If you can't be bothered to open your mind and learn the spiritual stuff, you are truly wasting your time big style. Find something else you can get really into.
posted by flexiverse at 8:02 PM on April 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

You maybe be interested in DDP Yoga or something like this. It is a yoga-based exercise regime that takes traditional yoga poses and exercises, and adds elements of calisthenics and strength training. There is no new-agey stuff, just general motivational narration (e.g. "if you can't bend this far, don't worry, you'll get there in time").

I know there are some classes somewhere in the country, but not many. I own the first 2 dvd sets and enjoy them in the privacy of my own home every morning.
posted by Geppp at 8:07 PM on April 1, 2014

Yoga is, originally, a religious practice. But there are also secular Jewish organizations that celebrate the rituals and some of the morality of Judaism without the belief in God, so I encourage you to find the practice that satisfies your own beliefs, or lack thereof.

Switching gears completely, I refer to weightlifting as "heavy yoga." For a guy with a cerebral desk job, it's a retreat into purely physical performance that brings its own satisfactions. Don't let the "gym bro" appearances dissuade you. Just a thought.
posted by wnissen at 8:11 PM on April 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

My favourite yoga class is heavy on the woo. Like, Chinese seasons of wood affecting our gallbladder chakras and so on, through the whole class and each pose. But I swear, it was the best thing, even though I ignored all of that. It was very very active, very interactive (which was hard for me) but better than any of the other classes I've been to and I think it was partially to do with that integrated woo and how the practitioner approached the class.

But I don't do woo, so I ignored it.
posted by geek anachronism at 8:21 PM on April 1, 2014

(I just got back from yoga, actually.)

I'm an atheist, and a scientist, so I get a little grumpy at the "breathe from your liver" crap. But I love yoga, and I go to a reasonably woo-y studio because the quality of the instructors is excellent. Like others said, you just have to approach stuff from a metaphorical place, and you know, there is value in the aspects of the practice which speak to the acknowledgement of a shared humanity. That's what I take from the more spiritual aspects.
posted by gaspode at 8:25 PM on April 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

There are lots of free yoga classes available online and as podcasts on iTunes. Fit for Duty, Yoga Journal, and Yogamazing are a few of the less spiritually focused ones I've found. Online classes are free, easy jumping off point to try out different styles of yoga and see if one suits you. If you find something you like, that will give you a reference point to go seek out a class.
posted by chrisulonic at 8:45 PM on April 1, 2014

If you have an iPad or iPhone, I recommend the Yoga Studio app (mentioned above). It's excellent, and entirely devoid of woo. And the best part - I am home doing it all by myself and no one can see I am WEARING SOCKS.

As for classes with other live humans... opt for something taught at the rec center or local parks department over something held in some kind of Spiritual Yoga Center For Divine Enlightenment With Lots of Woo.
posted by AllieTessKipp at 9:44 PM on April 1, 2014

I too have a sedentary lifestyle and have struggled with depression. I also am an atheist wary of woo. So much so that I started originally with pilates and not yoga because I wanted to avoid any hint of "spirituality" that would make me roll my eyes -- even though pilates classes are less commonly available and always more expensive.

I now find yoga very helpful partly because of some of the aspects I thought I would hate the most. Exercise is nice and all, but yoga with an instructor who involves more than just the muscles nudges me toward the moving meditation that I didn't know that I craved. My mind is crammed full of so much internal chatter and self-judgment and stress about whether I'm "doing" life right that having a time during which I'm focusing on bodily being and breathing is a marvel to me. The first time an instructor talked about yoga being a devotional practice and your body being an altar, I was side-eyeing her from my downward dog, but thinking about moving muscles as a form of meditational devotion to myself is actually quite cool.

Like Sara C. and gaspode, I've found that taking the talk about third eyes and chakras etc as metaphors makes it easier to incorporate what is helpful from the spiritual aspect without getting worked up over its reality.
posted by spamandkimchi at 10:37 PM on April 1, 2014

I am not an athiest but also definitely not a fan of yoga-style woo; I love yoga and I view the woo part through more of a ritualistic/cultural/metaphorical lense and actually really enjoy most of it. What I don't enjoy I can pretty easily ignore, but the part that is central to the practice I see through a lense of representation and mindfulness and thinking in different perspectives. I find it cool.
posted by celtalitha at 11:13 PM on April 1, 2014

Yeah, shop around. Some places will be woo and others won't. Some styles are more aligned with woo than others. I've done Iyengar yoga, which, at beginner/level 1, is focused primarily on getting you in the poses and at most trying to synch your breath with the different actions. You have to teach the body what to do first. My impression is that the more you advance in your yoga practice, the more spirituality comes into it and there are specific classes to work on those aspects. Perfectly possible to treat it as a way of enhancing strength, flexibility, exercise, mind and body working better together, etc.
posted by Athanassiel at 12:15 AM on April 2, 2014

I often take yoga classes and personally love them for the spiritual aspect...but it really depends on the studio/teacher as to how much spirituality is infused in the class. I once took classes from my town's rec department which were VERY affordable ($50 for 10 classes), and were all about increasing flexibility and breathing and weren't at all "new agey". So that might be a good route to explore. You can also find lots of classes online to pick and choose from.
posted by Shadow Boxer at 4:17 AM on April 2, 2014

Most yoga you take at the Y, or in a storefront yoga place, or in a gym has no spiritual component at all! I've NEVER had an experience where yoga had any kind of religious message. It's mostly just mindfulness of body in the poses.

You can take classes in a series or try one for a one-time payment, see if you like it, and keep going if you do.

I will caution you to steer clear of hot yoga. That shit wipes me out, and not in a good way.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:43 AM on April 2, 2014

Most yoga you take at the Y, or in a storefront yoga place, or in a gym has no spiritual component at all!

Seconding this. I know you said funds are limited, but if you belong to a gym or are thinking of joining a gym (or if you're lucky enough to have a workplace with a fitness center), the yoga classes they offer generally steer clear of the spirituality aspect.

And while going the app/TV/online route is cheaper overall, you'd definitely benefit from at least starting out in a live class so the instructor can help you make sure you're doing the basics correctly (injury is possible in yoga!). Out of curiosity, I checked your profile and it sounds like Body Edge might be a good nearby fit for you? They offer 10 classes for $70... maybe talk to one of the instructors before you start to get a sense of how they operate.
posted by psoas at 6:09 AM on April 2, 2014

In yoga, I simply ignore anything on the spiritual side. In boot camp-type classes I ignore the competitive aspects. You can take what you want and leave the rest. You are paying for exercise. They can't force you to have deep insights. (And in my experience they don't try.)
posted by Lesser Shrew at 6:27 AM on April 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

New age talk can certainly be distracting and alienating, especially when delivered with a straight face by somebody totally committed to Sparkle Motion who appears not to understand that the primary purpose of language is the communication of actual ideas and that the primary responsibility of a teacher is to have ideas that actually mean something. But I have met very few yoga instructors fronting active, popular classes that actually match that stereotype. Most of them are just healthy, together people keen to share the techniques they use personally to help keep them that way.

So if you find yourself being instructed by somebody who clearly knows what they're doing with their body and what they're asking of yours, and they start talking about breathing from your liver or energising your heart chakra, the correct response is not to dismiss this as content-free newage (to rhyme with sewage) but to try to work out just what it is that they're trying to get you to do, then do that to the best of your ability. Because quite a lot of yoga becomes much easier and much more beneficial if you've learned to put your attention where it needs to be and turn your inner objector's protestations down some.

As an atheist and a rationalist, it's easy for me to fall into the trap of dismissing potentially useful knowledge for no better reason than finding the presenter's use of language a little irritating. Going along to a yoga class that is a little bit woo, and consciously attempting to find value in it by making a concerted effort to work out how much there there is there, is actually not a bad way of starting to unpick that habit.

So I recommend not letting woo be a dealbreaker. Find a class it's convenient for you to get to, go to a few until you've worked out which attendees are regulars, and watch how they get on. If they're clearly getting good things from the sessions, the most likely thing is that you will too.

Bear in mind at all times that your own metaphysics is every bit as arbitrary and (therefore) broken and wrong as anybody else's, avoid trying to correct every instance of Wrong Off The Internet, and you'll get on just fine.
posted by flabdablet at 6:29 AM on April 2, 2014 [9 favorites]

By the way, it helps to think of chakras not so much as physically identifiable constructs like bones and nerves and sinews, but as well-known places for you to put your own attention, each of which is associated with a more-or-less reliably repeatable bundle of effects on mood and characteristic patterns of thought. And you may well find that learning about these things is useful and interesting to you, even though they may have nothing worthwhile to offer if your aim is to build an objective understanding of bodily structure and function, and even though it's more than likely that a substantial portion of that repeatable bundle of effects is actually being triggered by autosuggestion.

There are studies that suggest that in fact certain classes of antidepressant drug work no better than placebo. It's tempting to conclude that those studies suggest that the drugs don't work, but that conclusion is actually wrong. What they do suggest is that we don't know precisely how they work, but that some attentional mechanism is plausibly involved. And they suggest that it's possible that if a person could learn reliable techniques for triggering whatever it is that actually does underlie the placebo effect, they might possibly end up being able to do that sufficiently well to equal the performance of antidepressants they'd previously had to rely on.

By doing your best to behave as a skilled yoga instructor is trying to get you to, you might well surprise yourself by finding that you develop an ability to decode other "woo" terms with similarly useful results, and a tendency to be a little less sniffy about hearing them used in conversation. I personally find quite a lot of woo safe and effective if used strictly internally and between consenting adults. Only time it causes trouble is if I let it push its way out into the realm of the objectively testable, where none of it is applicable (that's what makes it woo in the first place). And taking any of it too seriously is an obvious error. Woo is for play, not work.

Try not to take certain classes of internal experience off your own table simply on the grounds that some people might categorise them as "spiritual". And if you haven't already done so, spend some time reflecting on this talk from Jill Bolte Taylor, and bear in mind that when she uses the word "energy" in her presentation, she's using it in an absolutely straight-sciences sense.
posted by flabdablet at 7:04 AM on April 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

Could you try Pilates instead?
posted by HoteDoge at 7:16 AM on April 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I actually AM spiritual - but I have a serious dislike of chanting, namaste-ing, etc. in my yoga classes. It's easy to sit quietly if any of that is going on and not participate. It's your time and your money, and as others have said, you can take what you need/want and leave the rest. A lot can depend on the instructor (not just the studio). If you have a place you are considering, it may be worth giving them a call to ask about instructors who are more focused on the physical aspects.

I would definitely take a couple classes to learn the basics. It is very easy to get injured if you attempt a pose without the correct form, which for me is always impossible to get right without someone explaining it and fixing me.

Good luck and have fun!
posted by loolie at 7:42 AM on April 2, 2014

If you want the physical aspect of it, you could try Yoga Online or Pilates Anytime. But having been through depression, I think that participating in a class with live humans is part of the benefit.

I've been to lots of classes, from actual spiritual centers to classes at community colleges to classes at gyms. The last two did not incorporate spiritual talks or teachings in any way, with the exception perhaps of saying "Namaste" at the end (and frankly, the most annoying part of the spiritual center classes was not the spiritual talks, but the constant asking for money, after we had already paid for the class).

As with any other activity, you may have to try two or three different groups before you find a good fit with the people. So plan to try one class (as opposed to buying a 3-month pass or what-have-you) and then if you find it too new agey move on. (I'm in LA so there are yoga and pilates classes on every corner, it's easy to move on here). But definitely give it a try a few times before dismissing it outright.
posted by vignettist at 8:30 AM on April 2, 2014

I think yoga attracts new-agey type people but these days yoga is mostly divorced from its spiritual roots. If the teacher says spiritual stuff you can just ignore it.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:18 AM on April 2, 2014

I like Bikram Yoga which has some woo aspects. My eyes get a good stretch from all the eye-rolling going on. Remember to alternate sides.
posted by domo at 11:12 AM on April 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

There's actually a book that could be beneficial for you to read. It's called "The Science of Yoga" by William Broad and it involves looking at the measurable benefits of yoga based on multiple studies/scientific research. I read it because, like you, my doctor suggested I could benefit from yoga, but I was skeptical and wanted hard science on whether it is actually beneficial or not.

Based on the research contained in the book, the benefits of yoga aren't over-stated and are genuine - backed by scientific studies.
posted by stubbehtail at 11:26 AM on April 2, 2014

I'm 100% atheist, a professional PhD-level scientist, and also a registered yoga teacher. There might be some woo around yoga, but there are also many proven benefits, and no class I have ever been to forces any woo on you. Just take what benefits you from the class and ignore what doesn't.

Good luck! Starting a regular yoga practice literally changed my life. I used to suffer from chronic low level depression that never went away (we're talking a life time of depression here) and now I truly feel some measure of inner joy and peace. And I am also in pretty damn good shape.
posted by sickinthehead at 4:12 PM on April 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Whatever you do about yoga, please, when you are a beginner get a good teacher. There are challenges to beginning yoga in that the beginning program has to be self-correcting if you don't get into the pose right, and it's hard to create such a class; conversely, if the class has anything challenging in it you want your teacher to get you out of it gracefully should you get in trouble. That kind of knowledge is not so common. Selecting a teacher for competence with beginning classes is much more important IMO than selecting for non-woo, but then I like kirtan (sung chants) before class anyway.
posted by jet_silver at 5:36 PM on April 2, 2014

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