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Yoga is popular these days. Very popular. According to a recent Yoga Journal survey, over 20 million Americans practice yoga on a regular basis, up from 15.8 million in 2004. Yoga practice has clearly found its stride and is attracting more followers every day. Yet, while many people are reaping the benefits of yoga, there are countless others who are unfortunately scared off due to ill-founded myths and misconceptions about what yoga is. Like any other popular activity, yoga can fall victim to stereotyping and sweeping generalizations if you’re unwilling to look below the surface to really experience the essence of the practice. Once you dig a little deeper, however, you soon discover a simple and profound truth: yoga is for everyone.
The following are some of the most popular myths and misconceptions surrounding yoga and its practice. If you are a yogi, perhaps you once held one or more of these mistaken beliefs before experience changed your mind. If you’re new to yoga or sitting on the fence and unsure about taking the plunge, explore these myths and see if they may be holding you back from finding your place on the mat.
While on the surface, yoga may appear to be a simple stretching or calisthenics routine, it is far, far more. The yoga poses or asanas that most people associate with stretching only make up a small portion of a very thoroughgoing philosophy, science, and way of life. The word yoga means union—the union of body, mind, spirit, breath, and environment. It forms an all-inclusive and comprehensive worldview.
The vast storehouse of Vedic and yogic thought comprises a body of knowledge that espouses yoga as a complete and total path of liberation. The classical eight limbs of yoga enumerated by the great yogic sage Patanjali include rules for:
There’s no doubt that yoga is more popular with women than men. Most yoga classes have far more female than male participants. However, this wasn’t always the case. In the records of time, yoga was traditionally practiced almost exclusively by men in ancient India. With its arrival in the West however, yoga began to draw a large female following. Regardless, yoga is not a gender-specific activity. Men and women alike can practice and benefit from a regular yoga practice.
Many potential yogis get scared off from yoga practice by images of very flexible or fit yogis gracing the covers of magazines or website articles. They see someone in an asana and mistakenly assume that flexibility and strength are prerequisites for the practice. In actuality, flexibility and fitness come as byproducts of yoga, not as requirements.
While it’s true that yoga poses can build strength, flexibility, and balance, you can practice yoga without having those skills or attributes and still receive all the wonderful mind and body benefits. Yoga is for every body, no matter what body you bring to the practice. Tall or short, thick or thin, young or old, yoga is meant to adapt to you, not the other way around.
The popularity of yoga worldwide has created a unique and unexpected offshoot–yoga gear. Entire companies now exist to provide yogis with specialized clothing, mats, gear bags, and sweat towels. While these add-ons can be nice, they are in no way required to practice yoga. Consider that the ancient yogis once performed yoga on beds of leaves in a forest wearing nothing but loincloths. Although you don’t need to be that minimal in your practice, it’s important to remember that yoga is an “inward stroke”—taking your awareness within.
External appearances like that flashy new mat or those trendy new yoga pants exist on the material-level of your awareness, while the actual practice of yoga coaxes you to go deeper. Yoga can be practiced in whatever feels comfortable for you, with or without a mat, with just a few feet of empty space in which to move.
Because of its ancient Indian roots and ties to Hinduism, yoga often gets misidentified as a religion. However, it is actually much more like a science (In India, yoga is often thought of as a science of Self-Realization). As such, yoga practice is likened to a laboratory in which you are both the subject and the object of your experiment, the goal of which is to awaken your own inner potential and the divinity within.
The archetypal concepts sometimes invoked through mantras, chants, or images of a specific deity are meant to awaken the dormant potential of those states of consciousness that reside within you. But those practices are not required to benefit from yoga practice, nor does their use carry a religious connotation. Yoga is not about outer worship; it’s about inner exploration.
Those who look at yoga through a purely physical lens may think it’s too gentle or mild to be of any benefit. The “No Pain, No Gain” mentality so common in the modern fitness culture paints a picture of results based on hard work and struggle. While yoga, especially restorative yoga practices such as The Seven Spiritual Laws of Yoga, can focus on doing less to accomplish more, it doesn’t mean that yoga is easy or passive.
The mind-body coordination required during yoga practice is unlike many other forms of exercise because your full attention is engaged and present in each movement. Unlike running on a treadmill while watching television, yoga engages all aspects of your being, making it more challenging than it may appear on the surface. Yoga unifies your:
At the opposite end of the spectrum are those who shy away from yoga because they fear it will be too difficult. Fearing that their bodies “don’t go that way,” many will opt out of yoga and miss out on its countless benefits. Granted, some yoga poses can seem intimidating, but the beautiful thing about the practice is that it meets you where you are. The idea is not to force yourself into a yoga pose – it’s about adapting the pose to fit your body where it is today.
There are always alternatives to any given pose. Yoga encourages you to listen to your body’s signals of comfort and discomfort, and choose those poses that feel best for you. Then, as you become more comfortable with yourself in the practice, you can explore more challenging poses, and often, to your surprise, they end up being easier to attain than you once believed.
Performing any new activity with people you don’t know can stir up self-doubt and self-consciousness, but potential yogis shouldn’t fear this. Remember that yoga is about deepening the conversation between your mind and body–it’s a personal journey. Worrying about what others think keeps your awareness stuck at the level of the ego and personality.
Yoga is about being fully present and aware of who you are in the moment. The practice encourages genuine authenticity and self-acceptance. The more you begin to accept yourself in the practice, the sooner you’ll notice a deeper bond forming between you and your fellow classmates. Everyone is a wave on the vast ocean of Spirit. Yoga allows you to express yourself with openness, kindness, and self-love.
While there are some contraindications for doing yoga, it is on the whole a very accessible practice that nearly anyone, at any age or condition can practice. Once again, it’s important to think of yoga as malleable to your life and who you are. Take what you need, and allow yoga to give you its gifts.
There are numerous styles of yoga, each with a unique focus or interpretation of these ageless teachings, so if one yoga school or class doesn’t work for you, try another until you find the right fit. In addition, consider chair yoga or the use of yoga props such as blocks or straps to aid you in your practice. If you can’t go to a class, try a DVD or online video. The options are countless if you’re willing to try.
Although yoga may appear to be just another trendy exercise program that will be replaced by the next gimmick to hit the scene, it’s actually far from being a new thing, and it’s not likely to fade out of popularity anytime soon. Yoga has been around for thousands of years. While modern books, classes, videos, and workshops are relatively new methods of communicating its timeless teachings, yoga has been an established and proven means to integrate all the layers of life and awaken human potential for countless generations.
The persistence of yoga’s appeal is quite simple—it works. Whether in the laboratory of scientific research on mind-body and consciousness research or in the subjective framework of an individual’s life, yoga has stood the test of time and will continue to do so.
Spend some time reflecting on these myths. If one or more of these misconceptions has been holding you back from trying yoga, embrace the truth behind them and fear no more. Hop off that fence and step onto the mat. You won’t be sorry.