When people hear that I’m a yoga teacher they often feel obligated to explain why they can’t or won’t consider a regular practice. And while I can understand that there are always reasons for being intimidated whenever anyone begins a new experience, I feel compelled to dispel a few of the more peculiar assumptions being made about yoga.
1. You Need To Be Flexible: The only thing that really needs to be flexible is your mind. Performing yoga postures on a daily basis will eventually increase your overall flexibility, but it will also help to expand your mind. Your job is to be open to possibilities, and develop faith in yourself. In truth, our minds are the biggest obstacles for achieving any of life’s goals.
2. It’s Only For Women: Here in the West, yoga has attracted a largely female audience. In India, the birthplace of yoga, it has mainly been a practice exclusive to men. It’s only in the last century that women have been allowed to do yoga in India. However, more western men are incorporating yoga into their daily fitness regimens, and many professional sports teams employ yoga coaches to keep their athletes strong in both body and mind.
3. Yoga Is A Religion/Cult: The physical practice of yoga is part of the ancient Eight-Limbed Practice, which includes things like meditation and pranayama (breathwork), and moral principles (like non-harming and not stealing). If you follow this “right path” it is said that it will lead to absolute bliss or Samadhi. Although this sounds like some of the basic tenets of more than a few religions, yoga is whatever you need it to be: A workout or a blueprint for mindful living…but not a religion. If you ask, most gurus will tell you that “love” is their religion.
4. All Yogis Are Vegetarian: Because some yogis have embraced the entire Eight-Fold Path they are very careful about non-harming most, especially when it comes to animals. However, in my experience, most yogis (especially on the East Coast) are not vegetarians and it is not the criteria for practice.
5. Yoga Can Hurt Your Joints/Muscles: Let’s face it, if you’re not mindful, you can step off a curb and sprain your ankle, but that doesn’t mean you never cross the street. As with any new exercise venture, you need to take it slow, make sure you have a qualified teacher and ask lots of questions. Then, get your ego out of the way. If you’re new, and you step into a room of advanced yogis, you will not be able to perform 90% of the poses, and any attempts to do so could cause a bad injury. You wouldn’t start a weight-training program by trying to lift 150lbs, so why start yoga by trying to achieve scorpion pose? The truth is that yoga is great for easing stiff, tired muscles, in helping to restore range of motion to joints, creating aerobic stamina and reducing stress – just not all at once.
6. All Yoga Is The Same: While all yoga systems fall under the general category of HATHA [HA=Sun, THA=Moon], there are many different styles or systems in yoga. Iyengar uses props like blocks and belts, and students hold the poses for great lengths of time. Vinyasa is a kind of yogic dance; poses are linked together with breath and synchronized to flow one into another. Ashtanga is considered the power yoga of the practices, and students develop a strong knowledge of the many different sun salutations until their teacher feels they’re ready for stronger poses. And there are many more paths (ie. Kundalini, Restorative, Kriplau, and Sivananda), but keep in mind that at the heart of each of them is compassion and love.
7. You Need To Be Young And Healthy: Each system and each practice can be modified or amplified to suit individual needs. If you find yourself in a class of very young, very fit people ask the teacher to help you with modifications and enjoy the youthful energy. The great Guru, BKS Iyengar is in his nineties and practices every day.
8. Yoga Is Only For Older People/Too Difficult For Older People: Yoga is a wonderful way for older people to exercise, especially if they are struggling with chronic disease or have mobility issues. Poses can be performed on a chair or even in bed. And as you have been reading, yoga can also be quite vigorous so, no, it’s not just for older people. It’s 100% adaptable.
9. Yoga Is Only For Certain Types Of People: There really is no “yoga type” of person. Yoga is practiced by a huge variety of personality types, from introverts to extrverts; by men and women from working professionals to at-home parents. The yoga studio draws people from all walks of life, personal styles, career paths, and reasons for practicing. You’ll always fit right in on your own yoga mat!
10. Yoga Is Not A Good Physical Workout: A regular practitioner is able to develop a greater understanding of exactly how the body functions, as well as the changing nature of its limitations. With more practice the body becomes more flexible, and muscle endurance is increased. Breathing (pranayama) techniques also greatly improve aerobic capacity by helping to strengthen the diaphragm and expand lung tissue, resulting in overall enhanced athletic stamina. Just do it.
Rita Trieger is the Director of Marketing and Promotions for Scarsdale Yoga Studios. She teaches therapeutic yoga for cancer and heart patients at Stamford Hospital and is the author of "Yoga Heals Your Back" (Fairwinds, 2005). Scarsdale Yoga Studios, LLC, opening this spring, is the largest yoga and wellness facility in Westchester County in New York state.