Think of it as "active recovery" and suddenly yoga has more zing, less zen. 

By Jacqueline Andriakos
Updated November 29, 2017
Yoga Mats
Credit: Jamie Grill/Getty Images

I love exercising. Sweaty boot camp and boxing classes are my stress outlet. But I’m all yang and little yin: Count me in for anything high intensity and out for workouts requiring slow-motion movement, long poses, and no shower afterward. Layer on the ego factor—I’m a former ballerina who has since lost her litheness—and it’s no surprise that I consider myself a “bad” yogi.

When I shared my peeves with Marlynn Wei, MD, psychiatrist, yoga teacher, and coauthor of The Harvard Medical School Guide to Yoga, she assured me that my yoga gripes are common. “There’s a notion that to do yoga, you have to be able to sit still or be flexible,” said Wei. “But the teaching of yoga is less about poses and mantras and more about body awareness and emotional and physical release and recovery.”

The word “recovery” resonated with me; I started to think about yoga as a form of active recovery that, as opposed to a traditional workout, would allow me to recoup better and be stronger in all my other fitness challenges. Wei also encouraged me to apply the qualities that I loved about other forms of physical activity to my yoga practice: Adding speed turned up the calorie burn, and therefore the appeal, so I shopped around for vinyasa-style options. Music, too, has always helped keep me engaged during workouts, so I sought out Y7, a studio in New York City and Los Angeles that plays hip-hop tunes as you move through flows. I also found that following a yoga video online—with my gym playlist streaming—in the evening helped me wind down and shift my focus away from next-day worries.

I’ve been attentive to my yoga practice for a few months. To reap the psychological and physical benefits of yoga, you should commit to practicing one or two times a week for 8 to 12 weeks, explained Wei.

Today I can say the recuperative stretching has helped me squat and lunge deeper and alleviate some hip-flexor tightness, making my true workout loves (sprints! box jumps!) less painful and more powerful. And, I’ll admit, conscious breathing and moments of stillness feel OK, maybe even satisfying, during stress spirals. So, yoga, do I like you? I don’t know if I would go that far—but I have certainly learned to respect you.

Make Yoga Work for You

Your First Thought: “I’m not spiritual or zen.”

Rethink it: Don’t force it. “Yoga is meditative by nature, so if you’re doing yoga or even just yoga breathing, you’re already being spiritual, so to speak,” says Wei. “If you don’t like mantras and yoga talk, tune them out and focus on yourself.”

Your First Thought: “Yoga doesn’t feel like a real workout.”

Rethink it: Look for vinyasa or power yoga for more of a burn. Or take yoga out of the workout category and think of it as a mode of self-care or relaxation.

Your First Thought: “I’m not bendy enough.”

Rethink it: Do modifications, advises Wei. “There is no shame in it,” she says. “The power of accepting where your body and mind are at in that moment is the most empowering yoga principle of all.”