By Margo Rosingana
People come to a yoga practice for many different reasons – some purely for the physical benefits, others for the spiritual, but most come for a combination of both. They begin to feel stronger in their bodies and also feel a greater sense of ease in their overall being. I still think that there are a lot of misconceptions about yoga, and I hope to dispel a few of the myths that have crept up around this practice. These are some of the most common that I have heard from potential students over the last few years.
Myth 1: You Have to Be Flexible to do Yoga
About nine times out of ten, when I am asked what I do for a living and say I’m a yoga teacher, the person I am chatting with immediately responds with “I would like to do yoga, but I’m not very flexible.” I go into my speil about how you don’t have to be flexible to do yoga and that you will actually become more flexible with a regular yoga practice. For some reason, I don’t think they are buying it. In my classes, I see all levels of flexibility–from people who can fold their bodies into yogi sandwiches to those who can barely touch their toes. Depending on the other activities or sports you like to engage in, you may find that you will never be able to attain a level of flexibility worthy of the cover of Yoga Journal, but who cares? You are doing something good for yourself, whether you can touch your toes or not. My friend Scott is a yoga teacher and an avid mountain biker. He has said that he will always and forever have tight hamstrings and that’s okay. Remember that yoga is a practice, and every time you come to your mat, you have a chance to add to your embodied knowledge.
Myth 2: Yoga is all about gravity defying poses that twist your body into pretzel like shapes.
Yoga is not about the poses! Yes, that’s right you read correctly: YOGA IS NOT ABOUT THE POSES. The poses are a means to creating self-awareness in the body. They are a vehicle to better understand our thought patterns and habits that somehow get in the way of being able to live our best lives. Yoga is a way to calm and soothe the nervous system, to create a space of healing, to ease tension and to be more in tune to a connection to everything and everyone around us. I have been practicing yoga for about fifteen years and I know that there are poses that I will never be able to do, nor necessarily want to do. If you do find yourself in a more advanced class and the teacher is offering more challenging poses, you have two options: (1) Watch everyone else with admiration and awe as they move towards more advanced poses. (2) Take the pose to the level that is right for your body and notice how far your practice has come. Who knows? Maybe one day you may find yourself levitating with one leg wrapped around your head.
Myth 3:You Have to Work Extra Hard In Order to Get the Benefits of a Yoga Practice
Yes and no. As they say, what you put in is what you will get out. But pushing yourself beyond your ability level or when your energy level is low is just going to lead to pain and injury. Again, yoga is a practice of self-awareness. You will begin to recognize what it is you need and when you need it. Have you ever been to a restorative yoga class or gentle yoga class?…the level of intensity is pretty low, almost non-existent. Yet, the emotional benefits are exactly the same as what you would get from a more vigorous practice.
Myth 4: Yoga is Not for Everyone.
If you were to look at all of the popular yoga teachers internationally and flip through leading yoga magazines, books, and DVDs, I could see how you would come to the conclusion that yoga is only for a select group of women aged 22-35 wearing size 2 yoga pants. While it is true, statistically, more women do practice than men, nowadays, you can find all kinds of yoga classes. As more and more people participate in a regular yoga practice, classes are filled with people of all shapes, sizes and ages. In addition, there seems to be a yoga class for every part of the population. There is chair yoga for people who are less mobile, kids’ yoga, mama and baby yoga, yoga just for men, teen yoga, curvy yoga, yoga for veterans suffering from PTSD, and the list goes on and on and on. (I think you can just do a Google search with [fill in the blank] + yoga and you can probably find a class near you.) Find what resonates with you, and embrace it.
Myth 5: Yoga is a cure-all.
This might come as a surprise to some, considering all of the amazing benefits that yoga has to offer. Recent studies have shown that yoga can improve immune function, ease the effects of anxiety and depression, reduce back pain, increase bone function and lower risk factors that contribute to heart disease. On a physical level, you will feel stronger, more flexible, and feel an increase in balance. Keep in mind though, there are some things that yoga can’t do. You should see yoga more as a preventative measure, rather than the end-all be-all for exercise. Listen to your body and be your own best teacher. If you are experiencing an injury, then yoga can perpetuate that injury, leading to greater problems further down the road. If you are, however, experiencing stiffness or tightness in your body, then yoga is absolutely appropriate and can help alleviate aches and pains. If you include a regular yoga practice alongside other activities you enjoy you will see how it can complement and improve your overall performance in these recreational activities.
Yoga is about meeting yourself exactly where you are. This means that your experience can fluctuate every time you come to your mat. Engage in a willingness to both challenge yourself, but know your own limitations to keep your practice sustainable and injury free for years to come.
Margo Rosingana, RYT is a yoga teacher, writer and beginning surfer based in Portland, ME. She seeks to empower her students with soulful and heartfelt rejuvenation through alignment – based Vinyasa flow and Restorative Yoga.