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Ask A Yoga Instructor: Is yoga a form of exercise, meditation, or way of life?

Ask A Yoga Instructor: Is yoga a form of exercise, meditation, or way of life?

Beyond the mat

Text: Natalie Khoo

Image: Amos Yip for BURO Malaysia

In conjunction with International Yoga Day, we speak to three local yoga instructors on their yoga journey and how yoga has shaped their career paths

Ever since its origins in ancient India, yoga remains one of the most enduring ancient traditions that has spread tremendously across the world. For the uninitiated, the word ‘yoga’ derives from Sanskrit and means to join or to unite, symbolising the union of body and mind (or consciousness).

Besides promoting unity within oneself, yoga has also united communities across local gyms and even beyond borders, leading many to pursue yoga as their career path. In conjunction with International Yoga Day, we speak to three local yoga instructors on their yoga journey and how yoga has changed their careers and lives for the better.


Gayatri Pillay

Ask A Yoga Instructor: Is yoga a form of exercise, meditation, or way of life? (фото 1)

Tell us when and how you started practising yoga.

I was introduced to yoga at the age of 17. I was an overweight child and my mum used to send me to gym sessions and fitness classes to help me lose weight. However, I had a pull in my leg, which led me to not do anything too strenuous so my mum invited me to join her yoga classes. As I was practicing, I discovered that I have a natural ability to execute some of the asanas. It felt like I had done this practice before, which led me to be the teacher’s assistant. I was even asked to consider pursuing yoga further, but I had to go to university and eventually landed up in the corporate world as an interior designer and photographer.

13 years later, yoga found me again as I was going through a very challenging time personally and professionally. I decided to visit my teacher and he said, ‘I knew this day would come’ (goosebumps alert!). After a comforting chat with him, I decided to go to Kerala, India and I lived in an ashram there and truly learnt the art and science of yoga, understanding each of its components including the Asanas (poses) and Pranayama (breathwork).

Which style(s) of yoga do you practise?

I am primarily a Hatha Yoga Practitioner. Haṭha yoga uses physical techniques such as asana, pranayama, and meditation to preserve and channel vital force or energy. The word “ha” means sun and “ta” means moon. Hence, Hatha refers to yoga that brings balance between the sun and the moon in you. You can explore Hatha Yoga in ways that take you beyond certain limitations, but fundamentally, it is a physical preparation—preparing the body for a higher possibility and elevating your consciousness.

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Why did you decide to take your practice further to become a yoga instructor?

I was already in the wellness and fitness industry, running group classes such as Dance Fitness, Weight Training, and HIIT sessions. I was also a Healthy Living Coach but I felt I could do more to support my clients and students better. When I returned from India with the knowledge that I had acquired, I felt it was important for me to serve, share, and support the people I come across on my journey.

I had been looking for a Guide/Teacher/Coach who would provide that for me when I was in my seeking phase. Unfortunately, I never came across one that I fully connected with. So, I decided I would be the Guide/Teacher I wish I had. My aim is to create a safe and loving space for people, allowing them to fully be themselves and hopefully, after a session, leave in a better space mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Even if they leave just one per cent better than when they first came in, it’s a win. It’s the small steps made consistently in the right direction that matters.

What are the steps to become a yoga instructor? Is there a universal course/program?

Many people who take yoga courses don’t become yoga instructors. They take them to understand what yoga is about and how they can better their life. But if you decide you would like to be an ambassador of its teachings and share, I think it’s important for you to enjoy working with people first and feel you have the space to hold for your students. It is a practice of exchanging energies. For that to happen, you as the teacher need to take care of your well-being and truly love what you are sharing.

As for where and who to learn from, honestly, there are so many versions today. Choose a program that resonates with you at where you are currently at in your life. There is always room to further your knowledge. Start with any course that you feel works for you and trust me, the real teaching happens in your sessions.

How important is the spirituality aspect of yoga?

Very integral, in my point of view. While most people take up yoga for its physical benefits, the practice of yoga can benefit us in various other ways. Yoga is deeply rooted in spirituality. In fact, if you look at the postures, they have deeper objectives that go beyond simple stretching and strengthening of muscles. The holistic effect that is attained through yoga enables practitioners to not only improve their physical strength and flexibility, but also their emotions, mentality, and concentration, bringing union to the mind, body, and spirit.

Some say is yoga a way of life, while others see it as a form of exercise and meditation. What do you think?

I believe and know that it’s a way of life. If you look at the eight limbs of yoga known as Ashtanga Yoga, this will show you in-depth how it is truly a way of life. Exercise is yoga in your Asana Practice. Meditation is yoga is your Dhyana practice. Yoga is the original mind-body medicine and is one of the greatest treasures of the unique Indian cultural heritage that teaches one how to strengthen the relationship with oneself and how to live in this world with joy, peace, and happiness.

It teaches us awareness about ourselves—how we should conduct ourselves and how to look after the vehicles we’ve been gifted with. From your food, nutrition, health, way of living and approach to life, mindset—you name it—it’s covered in yoga. Yoga is the way we live our lives in tune with our Dharma (purpose). At Yoga Yatri, this is what I emphasise and guide on—how can we take these principles, get to know ourselves, and apply them in today’s world to help people progress with purpose and live in harmony with their mind, body, and spirit.

How has teaching yoga changed your life or career?

What started off as me following mum to a yoga class just to “work out” has turned into a daily process of “work in” whether I’m on my mat or off my mat. It has taught me a lot about myself inside out and given me the opportunity to transform, impact and serve many people across the globe—spanning USA, India, Canada, Dubai, Australia, Malaysia, and Singapore. Yoga also helps me to practise kindness and compassion towards myself and others.

Keep up with Gaya on Facebook and Instagram or visit her website for more information about her yoga classes.


Farhana Wahab

Ask A Yoga Instructor: Is yoga a form of exercise, meditation, or way of life? (фото 3)

Tell us when and how you started practising yoga.

I started yoga back in 2016. It all started when I did my internship (as part of my sport science degree) at Yogaonethatiwant Studio, which is Atilia Haron’s yoga studio. I wanted to do something different than my classmates, and to be honest, I was just curious about yoga because I’ve never tried it before even though I’m a taekwondo athlete and a very active sports person.

Which style(s) of yoga do you practise?

My preferences usually depend on how I feel on that day. If I feel like I want to sweat a little more than usual, I will go for vinyasa/power flow classes, which is the fast-paced style of yoga. If I will like winding down and stretching more, I’ll go for Yin class where each pose will be held a bit longer to feel the deep stretch.

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Why did you decide to take your practice further to become a yoga instructor?

I was hired to manage the yoga studio after I finished my internship. That was when I realised that yoga is one of my passions and I want to share it with everyone else. Also, as a Muslim yogi and hijabi, I want to inspire other Muslim women and educate them that it is totally fine for Muslims to do yoga.

What are the steps to become a yoga instructor? Is there a universal course/program?

There are no specific steps, but you must at least have good practice in yoga so you can understand more during the course. There are lots of courses that you can take to become certified, but the most recognised one is the 200-hour teacher training under Yoga Alliance, which is a foundation that supports yoga studios and teachers to offer teacher training certificates.

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How important is the spirituality aspect of yoga?

For me, it is equally important. Yoga is not just about the asanas (yoga poses), it is also about the other values that come along with it. Being kind, being grateful, to your body, to the people around you—that is also part of yoga.

Some say is yoga a way of life, while others see it as a form of exercise and meditation. What do you think?

There’s no right or wrong about this. It all comes back to your intention of doing yoga. In the end, the goal is for you to just be appreciative towards your body and yourself, without harming and hurting yourself or the people around you.

How has teaching yoga changed your life or career?

It changed my life completely. I have met so many amazing people and have been given lots of opportunities along the way throughout my career as a Yoga Instructor. I am grateful.

Keep up with Farhanna on Instagram at @fawhanna.


Jenifer Alicia Ooi

Ask A Yoga Instructor: Is yoga a form of exercise, meditation, or way of life? (фото 6)

Tell us when and how you started practising yoga.

I started practising yoga by chance. About 19 years ago, I saw a yoga studio while doing groceries and just walked in. I signed up because the company I worked with at that time had a gym/fitness benefit so I thought ‘why not use it for yoga?’. I got into my first class which was a breathwork class and totally loved it. The rest is history.

Which style(s) of yoga do you practise?

I practise multidisciplinary styles of yoga. I like to keep my mind open to new methods, new ways of learning, practising new approaches and techniques, and experience and learn from different teachers to broaden and expand my range of understanding, especially in movement mechanics.

As for teaching, I teach more functional-based yoga classes. My classes focus on progressive and intelligently-sequenced movements that allow them to find their optimum range and build strength and flexibility with their range over time.

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Why did you decide to take your practice further to become a yoga teacher?

I practised with the same teacher for more than 10 years, but one day he decided to stop teaching. After many attempts to find a teacher to fill the gap, I was left really lost and demotivated. I tried to convince him to come back to teach for a very long time but he convinced me to become a teacher instead.

I took up my teacher training with the aim of teaching and providing wisdom, knowledge, and energy that made me experience and understand yoga differently with each practice. I felt it was a huge role and was never truly ready until my teacher gave me a nudge of confidence.

What are the steps to becoming a yoga teacher? Is there a universal course/program?

To be a registered yoga teacher, one has to partake in a minimum 200-hour teacher training course with a registered yoga school. The course can be an immersive course spanning over a month or a weekend course typically ran over three months led by experienced lead trainers. During the training, one will be immersed in the philosophy of yoga, studying the anatomy of the human body and movement mechanics, learning about teaching different bodies, alignment in yoga poses, and most importantly, safety and precautions in conducting yoga classes. Each yoga school has a different ideology and belief system, so it is important that you align yourself and understand what you are signing up for.

I believe the more important question one should ask themselves is: what is your true intention and purpose of wanting to be a yoga teacher? Understand the difference between teaching and practice if you have the ambition to be a yoga teacher and that will give you a good headstart. As a teacher, your responsibility is much more than just holding space and being responsible for the bodies that show up in front of you each time. Ask yourself: what will you be teaching? Is it yoga or something else?

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How important is the spirituality aspect of yoga?

It depends. At different life stages of your practice, you will begin to understand the concept of spirituality differently. The more important aspect should be, how well we understand ourselves when we tune inwards even amid chaos. What is our capacity to know our body’s limits, its nature, and be sensitive enough to enjoy moments of stillness and silence as essentially and eventually, the practice of yoga is to bring our body into a state of meditation—a state of union between mind and body.

Some say yoga is a way of life, while others see it as a form of exercise and meditation. What do you think?

Depending on where you are in your practice, yoga can be all forms of workout. However, the physical poses are just a small fraction of yoga. The full embodiment of yoga includes discipline, observance, steadiness in poses, breathwork, concentration, detachment, stillness, and finding balance with all the in-betweens.

A full understanding of yoga takes time. Hence, we all start somewhere by first practicing physical poses and allowing the physical poses to help us still our minds. Eventually, we will begin to understand that the practice is not restricted to the four corners of our mat, which explains how yoga is a way of life. The true practice of yoga happens in the now.

How has teaching yoga changed your life or career?

Yoga made me understand my dharma, my purpose in life. It helps me strive to be a better human every moment, and it made me live life in the now.

Keep up with Jenifer on Instagram here. Follow her yoga studio @karmayoga or book her classes here.

Read more Ask A __ stories here.