Eight Misconceptions about Yoga

There are a lot of misconceptions out there about yoga. This may be in part because we have such a wide variety of practices that are called yoga today, each with a slightly different focus. Some people are purists and believe that only practices with a long history can be called yoga. Personally, I feel that yoga is an evolving system, and each individual person needs to decide for herself which practices (new or old) resonate and feel genuine. The Buddha said, Doubt everything. Find your own light. The key questions to me are: does the practice help you be happier and improve the quality of your life? And does the practice increase your sense of connectedness and alignment of mind, body, and spirit?

Back to the misconceptions. There are many articles about this online, but I thought I would list and respond to a few ideas I often encounter that I consider to be misconceptions.

  1. I’m not flexible enough to do yoga. ☯ In fact, flexibility isn’t a prerequisite for doing yoga ~ it’s a result! When I started my yoga practice, I was a distance runner with tight hamstrings who couldn’t even close to touch my toes. Through years of practice of yoga poses (asana), I have gradually begun to regain my flexibility. If you aren’t very flexible, yoga asana is a great practice for you!
  2. I need to lose weight/ get in better shape before I can do yoga. ☯ If you are overweight or out of shape, some yoga practices might be inaccessible to you. However, there are lots of yoga practices which are accessible wherever you are with regards to your physical health and which can be incredibly beneficial. There is chair yoga for seniors, and yoga for people in wheelchairs. There are students and teachers who specialize in health challenges ranging from arthritis to MS to depression. For example, A Gentle Way Yoga in La Mesa specializes in plus size yoga and gentle/ adaptive yoga for health challenges. If you do have health/ weight/ fitness challenges, it is important to find the right class and teacher where you feel comfortable and supported in your practice.
  3. Yoga is the practice of physical yoga poses. ☯ Yoga can include the practice of physical poses or asana, but it is not simply an exercise class. The ancient system of yoga involves eight “limbs” of practice, which include the physical postures as well as breathing techniques, concentration and meditation practices, and a system of ethical behavior. The word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit word for “to yoke or unite”. It is often described as any practice which helps us become balanced and connected with our deepest sense of self. Depending on the practitioner, yoga may be expressed through volunteer work, through song and music, through study and thought, through physical poses, through meditation, or a combination of these.
  4. Yoga is not really exercise. ☯ In contrast to the previous point, some people are reluctant to try yoga because they don’t think it will be “enough of a workout”. The 2010 Yoga Insight survey found that half of men who have never practiced yoga believe that it isn’t really exercise. If you are looking for a physical challenge, a vigorous vinyasa flow or astanga yoga class may be exactly what you’re looking for. Yoga has a wide range of benefits, from relaxation and stress relief to building strength, flexibility, and endurance. The fittest people I know are yogis ~ and while you are getting in your workout, you may be surprised by what other benefits you encounter, these tangible physical, mental and emotional benefits for a start, and maybe some other things (eg. making you change your career ~ like me!)
  5. Yoga is just for women. ☯ Yoga was originally developed in India by men for men. Women are relatively new to the practice, but certainly a lot more visible in the yoga wave sweeping the so-called “West”. However, I’m happy to report (anecdotally – I have no stats to back me up here) that I’m seeing more and more men in yoga classes here in San Diego ~ men of all ages, fitness levels and levels of yoga experience, and in a variety of studios too. And I think they are finding that yoga is manlier than they ever imagined because they are repeat customers. 🙂
  6. Yoga is a religion. ☯ Yoga does have spiritual elements, but it is not part of any one religion and can complement any religion, or none. If you are concerned about yoga practices conflicting with your religious beliefs, see if you can find a yoga class taught by a member of your religious community, or start one! While some yoga teachers do incorporate spiritual language into their teaching, many others do not. As with any other aspect of practice, it’s important to find the right teacher whose style resonates with you.
  7. There’s only one right way to do yoga, and if you can’t do it right, you can’t do yoga. ☯ There are so many different systems of yoga. Personally, I believe that any true system of yoga should be inclusive and embrace individuality, allowing for individual strengths to be drawn upon, individual challenges to be safely addressed, and individual discoveries to be made. There are certain alignment problems during practice that can be dangerous and certain poses are not safe to do if you have certain conditions, so do take the advice of a trained teacher seriously! However, trust your instincts. If you feel a teacher is being unnecessarily dogmatic and that doesn’t work for you, find another teacher. It doesn’t necessarily mean that teacher is wrong, but it does mean that you aren’t connecting with the teachings he is offering.
  8. Oh, you’re a yoga teacher. You must be able to pretzel yourself into all sorts of crazy shapes. Can you put your foot behind your head for me? ☯ I can’t put my foot behind my head. I’m only just starting to be able to fold forward in Upavistha Konasana (wide-legged forward bend). I have a terror of arm balances and inversions which I’m just starting to get over. I have never kicked up into handstand. I am learning to be compassionate with myself, to accept myself in my own body and mind, to let go of judgments and expectations that I will be different, little by little, to be where I am. That’s yoga. The effect it’s had in my life is so much greater than the ability to put my foot behind my head. Maybe I’ll be able to do that, too, some day… but that isn’t the point. Not any more.

What do you think? Do you agree that these are misconceptions? Have any others you’d like to share?

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