In Yoga, The Form Is the Substance

I’ve been thinking a lot about form over substance lately. Form over substance is the concept that the image or look of something matters more than the content or ideas behind it. We are working on a strategic plan at Hearing Health Foundation and while most of the strategic plan discussion centers on the organization’s mission and goals for the next five years, as it should, part of the conversation has been about the form of the plan.

For example, does it matter if the plan is a powerpoint document or a word document? Is it important to use images as part of the plan? Should we lead with the mission statement or the financial goals? In this situation, I think both the form and the substance are important, since the content is not helpful unless it is understood by others, but clearly the substance takes precedence.

This got me thinking about yoga (doesn’t everything?) and how in yoga, the form actually IS the substance. Doesn’t that make things simple?


But can it really be that simple? If the form is the substance, then it is nonnegotiable, exacting, and prescriptive. Well, to some extent it is, and that is part of what I love about Bikram yoga. If you follow the dialogue to the best of your ability, you will have the proper form and you will get the benefits. The depth doesn’t matter, only the form. With the proper form, you can change your body and your life. You will find the substance because you chose to follow the form. Interesting.

But let’s not forget about form over function. Form over function is when the look of something is considered to be more important than how it functions. For example, if you had a fancy toaster that looked beautiful on your kitchen counter, but always burned the toast. Again this is very simple in yoga, because the form is what drives the function. The wind removing pose works on digestion. The spine strengthening series strengthens the hard to reach muscles of your back. Camel opens up your chest and throat. And the list goes on.

Each posture’s form allows it to target a specific muscle, joint or system of the body for cleansing, strengthening, and healing. Even in today’s crazy world of multitasking, in yoga we only need to focus on one thing — and that is the form.

Readers, do you struggle with form over substance?

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2 thoughts on “In Yoga, The Form Is the Substance

  1. That’s funny, I just finished a report for work so I was tangled up with that same issue of form and substance (or content) myself. And yes, I do struggle with that relationship sometimes. Yoga indeed seems to be about ‘performing’ in the quite literal sense of taking on a form in a series of asanas. In hot yoga there are verbal suggestions given for the form, but still I wouldn’t say that there is a unique exemplary form that is prescribed, at least, that’s not how I try to understand it in my practice. I believe that each time I practice I give a different interpretation of the posture, depending on my bodily abilities that day. During practice I try to focus on performing the intention in the postures, but of course my outwardly shape in the mirror does give feedback on what that results in that day. Because we all have different bodies, different skeletal structures, different flexibility and ability, I actually very much enjoy that hot yoga teachers don’t show the movement themselves but only give verbal advice.


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