What comes to mind when you see that word? When people find out I am a yoga teacher, they naturally make assumptions. One friend was shocked when I ordered a burger for dinner. “You’re not a vegetarian?” she asked. “Oh, I like you so much better now!”
A man I met at a group run asked, “Yoga? Like, naked yoga?” My answer was running away.
People have assumed I am a spiritual, calm, tea-sipping creature. They are surprised to find out I am an atheist, beer enthusiast, and an occasional dropper of the F bomb. Other fitness teachers have furrowed their brows if I have tightness or weakness in certain areas. “Yoga didn’t fix that up for you?” one of them asked, referring to my low back as I modified an exercise. Well, yoga helped my back—it is because of yoga that I know how to safely modify.
Most of these comments make me laugh. After all, how many assumptions have I made in the past about ballerinas, bikers, or jazz musicians? It is human nature.
But, really, what IS yoga?
The truth is, most people don’t really know what yoga is about. Many of the people who do it every week don’t completely understand. And that is okay! I don’t mean it in a condescending way. I am still in the process of learning what yoga is truly about. I had plenty of assumptions going into yoga that persisted years into my teaching career. I’m sure that I still carry some now. This article isn’t for me to lecture you on yoga credibility. It is to persuade you to try it and learn for yourself.
Seven years ago, I thought yoga really would fix my body and my life. I thought I could turn from an anxious, unstable, chronically pained mess to a blissful, strong, limber lotus flower child. I wasn’t wrong—I am now much healthier and content. But I wasn’t totally right either.
MYTH: Yoga is about fixing things.
TRUTH: Yoga is not a TO DO list of self improvement. It is a process of understanding my nature, thoughts, and habits. It is an opportunity to BREATH deeply through whatever joy or mess that life hands me.
My students have found their own truth. Here’s what they discovered. (I like that some even found different words for “truth!”)
MYTH: Yoga is great for stretching but not strengthening.
REALITY: For me, yoga has increased my strength significantly. My core, my legs, arms and upper back all are stronger than when I started and without using weights. I can lie back on the floor with control when I used to flop.
MYTH: I can't keep my focus on one thing so I shouldn't try yoga.
REALITY: Yoga has helped me create a stronger focus over time. My mind will still wander, but I can bring it back because I am more aware.
MYTH: I can’t practice yoga because I can’t wear those tight clothes.
REALITY: It helps to wear form fitting clothes so that you and your instructor see your body positioning. However, wearing comfortable clothing that allows you to bend forward without obstruction or discomfort is more important. Sweats and a t-shirt will get the job done.
MYTH: My balance is bad so I can't hold the poses well.
REALITY: At the beginning, you will have shaky balance poses. As you continue with your practice, your balance only gets better because your strength improves.
MYTH: Yoga - it's just breathing and stretching. Why bother?
REALITY: Yes, controlled breathing and stretching is part of yoga as is balance training and strengthening. Besides the benefits of all of those, there are emotional/spiritual benefits that I did not expect. I have experienced a euphoric feeling after practicing as well as a general feeling of happiness. Is it similar to that "runner's high?" Maybe, but I like to call it "zen." I feel open to others and energized.
MYTH: Yoga is a fixed, rote series of poses.
FACT: Yoga is breathing while improving strength, flexibility and balance through attitude, movement and stillness.
MYTH: Yoga is just exercise.
FACT: Yoga is a way of life. Imagine a pool—you can just dip your toes in, or totally submerge yourself in the deep end. Same with yoga.
MYTH: Yoga is for the young, slim and physically fit.
FACT: Yoga is for me-68, overweight with arthritis and various other physical limitations.
MYTH: Yoga studios are intimidating.
FACT:Most yoga studios I’ve tried are very welcoming and inviting to all comers.
MYTH: Yoga is for skinny, flexible people.
TRUTH: Yoga is for everyone and helps to have flexible body and mind.
MYTH: I have too many physical limitations including total hip replacement, torn rotator cuff, compromised knee cartilage to participate in Yoga classes.
FACT: I have found that there are considerable alterations that can be made in Yoga poses that can accommodate all of the above. It seems that Yoga instructors intuitively recognize this and attempt to alter certain poses to fit individual physical limitations. I have actually found that, even using the alternative poses, flexibility and strength in the affected joints increases thereby creating a therapeutic response that gradually begins to ameliorate the preexisting physical limitations. PLUS, when the session is over—even though it may have been somewhat uncomfortable at times—there is a dramatic sense of peace and comfort.
MYTH: Yoga is too time consuming.
FACT: It has been my experience that, given the broad range of positive physical, emotional and self- and other-awareness effects, one would be hard-pressed to find a better use of 30–60 minutes than Yoga practice. These effects increase gradually—sometimes it seems too gradually to be clearly noticed—but over time, one will come to recognize the unique and positive transformative effects of Yoga practice.
There are wonderful books, documentaries, articles, and lectures on yoga. These tools are valuable, but supplementary. The best way to learn about yoga is to actually do it. I learn the most from my students. Their expectations, challenges, and discoveries are unique, yet all ring true.
MYTH: I'm the yoga teacher. I teach people how to do yoga.
REALITY: I teach them mindful breathing and postures. Their direct experiences and observations serve as the best teacher of yoga.
Whatever your age, size, gender, ethnicity, religion, or political ideology—give yoga a try! Start with a beginner class. Confront your misconceptions, and discover your truth…maybe even a pathway to peace.