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A student recently sent me a video of a young girl, no more than 11 or 12 years old, doing gymnastics with the tagline: “Yoga!!”

It made me pause.

Sure, some of the movements looked like poses we practice in class, and the strength and flexibility of the girl in the video is something we are always working on. If these two physical practices seem so similar, is there even a difference?

Yes. Of course there is.

Hatha yoga, the practice that includes physical postures (and looks an awful lot like gymnastics), has a long and convoluted history. If you are familiar with all the various styles and schools that currently exist of Hatha Yoga, just imagine how many forms existed in the past, rising up to prominence, and falling into obscurity.

My own teachers explained to me that the earliest asanas were simple seated poses, intended to be comfortable so that one can sit in meditation for hours. From these first poses, all other asanas grew, and as they grew they absorbed other practices. Some poses came from Ayurveda as some poses were prescribed and practiced as preventative medicine. Others later came from Western calisthenics, and still others more recently from gymnasts.

Yogis embraced various practices and folded them into their own spiritual practices. It is still happening, as we can see this today in different practices like stand up paddle board yoga and aerial yoga.

Yogis became gymnasts. But that doesn’t make gymnasts yogis.

Asana was always meant to be a preparatory practice, to keep the body healthy and grant us a long life, as well as build awareness and control of the body. This prepares us for learning how to control our breath, which will prepare us for learning how to control our mind, which is a preparation for meditation.

Asana can be a meditative practice by either concentrating on the flow of energy within the body, or by making the poses an offering of love to the divine. But the practice of feeling energy or divine love can be done while washing dishes, or doing your taxes. Feeling subtle energies or love do not require a special workout once the awareness is there.

Ultimately, yoga is still a spiritual practice, and the goal is still enlightenment.

Yes, the goal of yoga is enlightenment. We can casually talk about enlightenment, but the concept is very difficult to grasp. In yogic thought enlightenment is the belief is that we shed our karmas (our debts and desires) and join with the divine. The work required for enlightenment is not found in the body – it is found in our hearts and minds. Yoga is far more about morality, personal responsibility, and self-knowledge.

Asana is considered the lowest yoga practice. Children will do the poses better than yogis, and monkeys even better than children. They can perform effortless and perfect poses without concentration or conscious thought, there is no intention to the movement outside of play or physical pleasure.

Gymnastics is meant to be a performance, to be seen at the circus or to be judged at a competition. A performative practice is based on external validation, and true yoga is all about the internal work: living, breathing, and moving consciously to better know ourselves. There is no higher practice than meditation and self-reflection.

I love asana, there is a lot of joy to be had in the physical practice. But as our lives progress and we gain wisdom, our bodies slowly and inevitbly decay. The simple fact is that age will make many poses well beyond our reach. It is wisdom that draws us nearer to our true selves. The greatest gurus and yogis weren’t born great, they became great through decades of dedicated practice of yoga, and not just asana but pranayama and meditation.

Performing a perfect yoga pose will not get you to enlightenment, becoming a better person will.