Down dogs go well with beer. Goats are Yogis in disguise. Humans evolve into The Divine Pretzel to gain salvation. Instagram images implode with visions and variations of what Yoga has become all over the world. Sweaty, smiling “yogis” in heated rooms twist and turn to seek deeper truths. There are as many myths about the practice and the outcomes associated with Yoga as there are human beings and other creatures practicing Yoga (37 million two-legged creatures in the U.S. alone).
As a Yoga teacher, one hears it all with some humor, some compassion and some exasperation. Here are five of the most common myths about Yoga.
I am NOT flexible/bendy to practice yoga: As light as a feather, as bendy as Gumby. Many beginners are intimidated to get into a Yoga class with more “experienced practitioners” who seem to effortlessly fold forward, bend backward, transition gracefully from one difficult pose to another without losing their breath, a beatific smile always writ large on their glowing faces. Flexibility comes from practice and conscious, skilled stretching of deep connective tissue and muscle fibers. It’s a complex function involving the musculoskeletal, the circulatory and the nervous system. Most of us who practice regularly see an increase in flexibility. It is a gradual process. Each of us have areas that are more flexible than others in our bodies. There is such a thing as being too flexible. Hyper flexibility can cause a person to stretch too deep into the joints and may cause pain and injury if the movements are consistently above the normal range of motion for that joint.
I don’t have a Yoga Body: There is no such thing as a “Yoga body”. If one has a body, it’s a Yoga body. If one can breathe, it’s a Yoga body. If one can practice kindness, it’s a Yoga body. If one can drive in freeway traffic and not cuss at someone who cuts you off, you are practicing Yoga. While social media showcases acrobatic poses by mostly young men and women, this is not the real, whole picture of what a complete yoga practice, or a real practitioner, looks like.
There is absolutely nothing wrong in practicing advanced and how-the-heck-is-she doing-that-when-alive poses. Asanas tone, stretch, and strengthen one’s physical body. The advanced poses can help motivate the practitioner to practice physically in a regular and disciplined fashion.
Asana practice taught by an experienced teacher is inclusive. A group class can, and should, be modified so anyone who wants to practice, can practice and reap all its benefits. From B.K.S. Iyengar, a stocky South Indian man, the trailblazing Indian Guru, to Jessamyn Stanley, an advocate for body positivity and the author of “Every Body Yoga”, to Tao Porchon Lynch, the vibrant 99 year old Yoga icon and the oldest living Yoga teacher, there are inspiring Yoga teachers and practitioners who have diverse body types.
There’s only one type of Yoga, and that’s the true Yoga: Hatha Yoga, the ubiquitous umbrella term refers to all of the physical practices in the ancient Yoga tradition. It is sometimes confused with other brand names of modern Yoga such as Power Yoga, Vinyasa, Ashtanga, Iyengar, Restorative etc. Each of these variations of modern Yoga stem from Hatha Yoga, and have nuances and practices that have evolved due to innovation and study by the founder of that particular style. Each of these variations offer something unique and there is no one true “Yoga” style. One can think of modern Yoga as a delicious buffet, and try different combinations of styles to see what suits one’s lifestyle and needs the best.
Yoga belongs to Hindus and Indians: Does relativity belong to Einstein? Do the stars belong to Galileo? Yes, Yoga has deep, historic and mythological connections to India. Ancient sages believe that Lord Shiva was the original creator of Yoga. References to Yoga are found in the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads. While Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is widely regarded as the most important codification of Yoga practices (Ashtanga or the Eight limbs), some scholars believe that the text had very little to do with the physical practice and more to do with the Yogi’s quest for the Divine or salvation. From the 10th century Hatha Yoga Guru Matsyendranath (believed to be an incarnation of Shiva) to the 15th century Svatmarama’s Hatha Yoga Pradipika, there are many texts that pertain to the study and the practice of Yoga. However, it was only in the early 19th century that Guru Krishnamacharya, the “Father of Modern Yoga”, revived and synthesized all his learning from ancient texts, study under sages, Indian wrestling, and gymnastics, and created the Vinyasa style of Yoga, variations of which are taught and practiced today all over the world.
The history of Yoga, like most phenomena that have survived the test of time, is highly debated, studied and analyzed, and is open to one’s interpretation, perceptions and world view. In the modern context, most of the standing asanas have evolved and are a product of study and creativity. It is a true global practice since it has influences from Asian martial arts, Buddhist philosophy, Western gymnastics, and modern science. It hence belongs to all of humanity. If Yoga has to survive and evolve further, its teachers and practitioners will continue to absorb the context and needs of the time.
Yoga is Asana: Yoga is really much more than the physical body. The very meaning of Yoga comes from the word, Yug, to yoke, to unite. To connect the physical, mental, emotional, and the spiritual, and eventually, the Divine in all of us. To narrowly define this all-encompassing practice is not giving it its due. Asana is the third limb of the eight limbs of Yoga (Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi). Each progressively aims to advance the practitioner’s path from the physical body to the subtle body, to eventually merge with the Divine.
A consistent Yoga practice can take many forms, styles, shapes, and colors. As one goes deeper and deeper into the practice, the practice permeates into everyday life, the way we live, our relationships with each other and the world, the way we deal with stress, the ways in which we grow as human beings. While this author has nothing against beer or goats or the two in combination, a down dog just may be better executed without having the other two. Maybe a pup some day.
Anjali Kamath Rao believes that Yoga can help one live a life of meaning and intention. Her passion is to help others discover their own strength and potential. She teaches at Stanford Cancer Program, Washington Hospital and corporate locations in the Bay Area. When she is not on her mat, you can find her with her kids on a bike, or in the car with her kids practicing Yoga on the freeway. Contact her at [email protected]
First published in March 2018.