Yoga is a group of physical, mental, and spiritual practices originating in Northern India for over 5000 years. Many religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism, incorporate yoga into their practice as a spiritual discipline. Since it’s inception, yoga has evolved and changed over the years into a variety of different practices that have been modernized for members of society. While there are a variety of institutions specializing in yoga, regular gyms such as Anytime Fitness provide beginner yoga classes for members that are less intimidating than attending a yoga school. For my ethnographic fieldwork, I will be observing a beginners “Warrior Yoga” class at Anytime Fitness.
Prior to fully observing the yoga class, I had a brief idea of what would take place during the class as I have occasionally glanced through the windows while classes would take place. My key informant has been consistently attending yoga sessions at Anytime Fitness and claimed that the classes helped his flexibility and recovery as an athlete. When I questioned him about what I should expect from the class, he responded by saying “just stretching”. The class is scheduled every Monday and Wednesday at 8pm. My Key Informant suggested we attend the Monday session as it was easier than the Wednesday class.
We arrived a bit early and the yoga room was empty. The doors into the yoga room were made of glass with large windows on both sides of the doors allowing gym goers to peer inside. The room had tan wooden floors and mirrors that lined the entire front and part of the left side of the room. The right-side wallpaper was green that had 3 doors where the yoga matts are kept. The back of the room had 3 large windows overlooking the restaurants in Eastwood City. I should also mention that there was a large photo of a woman in her bikini at the back of the room. My key informant grabbed two mats and placed them towards the front of the room. He then started to remove his shoes and socks and placed them in the back of the room. I sat in the back of the room next to bikini woman for about 45 minutes observing, allocating the remaining 15 minutes to participate.
At around 8:05pm, people began arriving and setting up their mats. There were 15 people overall, including the yoga instructor. The yoga instructor was a short, middle-aged, Filipino man wearing a plain black t-shirt, black gym shorts, and black sandals. Majority were middle-aged women except for 2 men. One of the men wore a turban and appeared to be of Indian descent. He had a strong build and arrived with 3 other Indian women. While they were setting up, I overheard their discussion with the instructor about their yoga practice in India. The rest appeared to be Filipino except for 2 Korean women who set up their mats in the last row towards the back. They would occasionally communicate to each other in Korean.
When the class began, and everybody was sitting with their legs crossed on their mats, the instructor turned off the lights and started playing soft music. The music gave off a calming feeling, imitating sounds from nature such as wind gently blowing and a stream of water. He then sat in the front, facing the class, asking everyone to close their eyes and place their hands in prayer position in front of their chest. He instructed people to settle in, inhaling through their nose and exhaling through their nose, while keeping their mouths closed. He had a soft and soothing voice, telling the class to “set our intentions”, and then gave a short prayer.
After the prayer, the instructor turned on the lights, and guided the class into the first pose which was “child’s pose”. This pose required them to place their knees on the mat hip-distance apart, toes touching, with their forehead sitting on their mats as their arms are stretched foreword reaching the top of their mats. They stayed in this position for 5 breaths. The breaths for this yoga class were long and deep and the goal is for each breath to be in sync with the movement of each pose. For instance, when the instruction went from standing to chaturanga1 to upward-facing dog2 then to downward-facing dog3, required an exhale through chaturanga pose, an inhale through upward dog, and finally, an exhale into downward dog.
It was easy to distinguish those who practice yoga consistently to those who didn’t. The one’s who seemed to attend consistently didn’t stumble at any of the instructions and were familiar with the pattern of poses which means they would complete the poses slightly faster and more smoothly. They were clearly comfortable with the instructor. During some poses, the instructor would physically force their body into a deeper stretch if he felt like they were capable. They also didn’t look at the instructor as much as those who seemed newer to the class.
The people who appeared to have less experience in this class often looked to their neighbours after an instruction was given to see if they were doing it correctly. Their movements appeared to be more robotic and awkward compared to the more experienced and my presence in the room seemed to make them a bit self-conscious as they would occasionally glance towards my direction. For certain poses that required more flexibility and strength, the instructor gave variations for those who couldn’t complete the pose.
After about 45 minutes of observation I joined in during the final 15 minutes of the class. I walked over to the mat that was placed in the front next to my key informant and proceeded to follow the instructions given. The pose that the class was doing was downward dog. This pose stretches your hamstrings while also working your shoulders. During the final 15 minutes, most of the poses were done on the floor that required a lot of binding and twisting motions. For the final 5 minutes, the instructor ended with savasana also known as corpse pose. In savasana, the practitioner is laying flat on the mat, palms facing the ceiling and feet falling sideways. The instructor turns off the lights and tells the class to close their eyes like he did in the beginning of the session. While my eyes were shut, I focus on his instructions. He said things like “set your intentions”, “clear your mind of all your worries”, and “let go of negativity”. He then tells us to lay still and sink deeper into the pose. While lying there with my eyes shut without moving, there was a sense of detachment I felt. After about 3 minutes with our eyes closed, he instructed us to slowly move our head left to right and wiggle our fingers and toes, slowly bringing sensation to our hands and feet. He then turned the lights back on and sat cross-legged in the front of the class facing us. He concluded the session with a short prayer, expressing “namaste”, and bowing, which the class also did in return.
Why people practice yoga
Clearly, those taking this yoga class in particular, are economically privileged as being able to allocate money for a gym membership requires one to be financially well-off. People who can fund this hobby usually do not need to worry about things such as food and shelter. Instead people who belong to the middle and upper classes are found to have high stress levels due to concerns with self-image (4). Insecurity about oneself indicates low self-esteem which is constant negative thoughts towards yourself. Practicing yoga has been a way for some to relieve stress. Several recent studies suggest that yoga may help strengthen social attachments, reduce anxiety, depression, and insomnia (2).
For others, such as my key informant, they use yoga as a tool to heal their bodies from wear and tear endured from playing sports or doing other physically vigorous activities. My key informant is a professional basketball player, meaning a large portion of his hours during the week are spent overworking his muscles with 3 hour practices, sprints, plyometrics, and weight training. When he tore his acl a few years ago, he realized that recovery is a vital aspect of physical performance that he stresses more so now than he did when he was younger. He says his legs (strength and power) aren’t the same as they used to be despite consistently training them so it’s important for athletes to increase their flexibility and mobility to prevent injuries. According to a 10-week study done on college-level male athletes, yoga has been reported to enhance muscle torque, increase handgrip strength, decrease body mass index, decrease low back pain, delay the onset of muscle soreness following strenuous activity, increase flexibility, and improve cardiovascular performance (3).
1Chaturanga: also known as Low Plank, pose where one’s straight body is parallel to the ground and supported by the toes and palms, with elbows at a right angle.
2Upward-facing dog: pose where palms are pressed on the floor supporting the body as the legs and feet are extended towards the back of the room. The head should also be facing towards the ceiling
3Downward-facing dog: pose where feet are hip-distance apart with hands placed on mat shoulder-width apart. The head should be upside down looking through your own legs towards the back of the room. Legs should be straight and hips should extend upwards.
What insights were gained from participation compared to just observing?
Without participation, I wouldn’t be able to have first-hand experience on the benefits that people claim. The particular movements and the difficulty of certain poses can only be experienced if one participates instead of just observing. Furthermore, the mental detachment experienced during savasana can only be explained if one takes part in the pose instead of watching a group of people lying flat in a dark room.
What did having a key informant add to your understanding?
Having a key informant was important in briefing me on what I should expect during the class and the difficulty of the poses. He also gave insight on his experience with yoga, the benefits attained from consistent practice, and how it effects his career as well as the preventative measures that could aid elite athletes.
What was learned from participant observation at this event that a questionnaire or interview about it might miss?
Participant observation allows me to collect non-verbal data or data that would not affected by a participant’s own bias. Different perceptions could also effect the data collected and sometimes observing allows me to see things that may go unnoticed. For instance, observing the amount of practitioners who would often glance at other people to see if they were doing the pose correctly would not have been accounted for in an interview due to them being focused on the actual activity.
For what purposes might a questionnaire or interview be better than participant observation?
An instance when a questionnaire or interview would be better than participant observation is when one wants to collect data that reflect the opinions from a variety of groups. When one needs to collect a large amount of data, questionnaires have the ability to do so in a short amount of time. Also, it is easier to compare data with questionnaires and interviews as they are usually the same set of questions.
What insights did you gain about Philippine society and culture from the event that you observed and participated in?
Yoga is an activity that transcends culture. It’s a practice that people do all over the world due to its spiritual, physical, and emotional benefits. The expectation of society is a universal burden. In every society, there are always expectations that people “need” to follow to be accepted and liked. When some of these societal rules take a toll on a person’s well-being it can lead to stress which then could lead into anxiety and depression. Activities that release stress and tension are telling of society and our expectations of people and ourselves. During the final savasana, the yoga instructor told us to “release our expectations of others” and “allow ourselves to be accepted”. It reflects how negative we tend to be towards ourselves, and how practicing self-care and acceptance can rid us of majority of our problems.
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