Tag Archives: postural yoga

Of Down Dogs, Goats and Salvation: 5 Yoga Myths

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 yoganjali05@gmail.com

First published in March 2018.

International Yoga Day a Culmination of a Surge in Yoga Culture

The number of US yoga practitioners has increased exponentially to more than 36 million in 2016, up from 20.4 million in 2012, as per a study conducted by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance. Yoga has surged in popularity and its impact is everywhere: in movies, television, advertising, and schools. Americans have witnessed an increase in yoga studios, meditation centers and vegetarian restaurants, all of which have roots in India. Meditation was originally a huge part of yoga. Now, yoga is marketed as a series of asanas (postures) that makes one fit and helps in weight loss. Many Americans have incorporated yoga routines as an essential part of their workout regimen.

International Day of Yoga

In 2014, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming June 21 as ‘International Day of Yoga’. The resolution introduced by India’s ambassador to the UN was a follow up of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call during his address to the UN General Assembly on September 27, 2014, asking world leaders to adopt an international Yoga day, as “Yoga embodies unity of mind and body; thought and action; restraint and fulfillment; harmony between man and nature; a holistic approach to health and well-being.”

The first International Day of Yoga was observed all over the world on June 21, 2015. In New Delhi, Prime Minister Modi, a large number of dignitaries from 84 nations, and a record number of 35,985 people performed 21 yoga asanas (postures) on Rajpath for 35 minutes. At the UN Headquarters, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and India’s  External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj spoke at the inaugural function which also featured a yoga demonstration. The UN General Assembly President Sam Kutesa attended the event along with more than one hundred people, including diplomats and UN staff. The event was webcast to thousands who took part in an all-day yoga event at Times Square.

The Indian Embassy in Washington D.C. organized many curtain-raiser yoga events featuring Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, among others, during the months of May-June 2015. Indian ambassador Arun K Singh attended the event on June 21, along with several dignitaries. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii delivered a congressional resolution commemorating the day. Now, the Indian Embassy in D.C. is organizing a celebration of the 4th International Day of Yoga on June 16, 2018. All Indian consulates in USA are also organizing similar events and inviting members of the Indian community to participate.    

Yoga Comes to America – Yoga Luminaries

Swami Vivekananda introduced yoga to Americans. He came to the USA in 1893 to address the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. During his stay of about four years in America, he lectured at major universities and retreats. He started the Vedantic centre in New York in 1896 and taught Raja Yoga classes. In 1920, Paramahansa Yogananda came as India’s delegate to the International Congress of Religious Leaders in Boston. He established The Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) in Los Angeles. Today, there are seven SRF centers in California where Yogananda’s meditation and Kriya yoga techniques are taught.  Maharishi Mahesh Yogi introduced Transcendental Meditation (TM ) to Americans in 1959. The TM technique involves the use of mantra and regular practice offers reduction of stress and fatigue. Yoga continued to proliferate in a limited way as the focus has been on the religious aspect of yoga, which dealt with how to use meditation to come closer to God.

Indra Devi

Indra Devi was the first to teach and propagate nonreligious yoga for the American mainstream, with an emphasis on its physical benefits. She opened a yoga studio in Hollywood in 1947 with emphasis on the physical benefits of yoga. She was born Eugenie Peterson in Latvia on May 12, 1899 and went to India in 1927 for three months. She was not happy coming back and returned to India where she became a rising star as a dancer and actress in Indian films. In 1930, she married Jan Strakaty, the commercial attaché to the Czechoslovak Consulate in Bombay. She started learning yoga in 1937 from Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. She became the first Western woman and the first woman chela (pupil) of an Indian yoga teacher. In 1938, her husband was transferred to China. At the urging of her teacher Krishnamacharya, Indra opened a yoga school in Shanghai in 1939. Many Americans and Russians joined the school to learn yoga. There, she became known as Mata Ji, which means mother. She wrote her first book “Yoga, the Technique of Health and Happiness (1948). It was believed to be the first book on yoga written by a Westerner to be published in India. In 1947, a year after her husband passed away, she moved to California. In an effort to publicize and spread yoga for health and wellness, she cultivated movie stars like Gloria Swanson and other famous people like Yehudi Menuhin to come to her Hollywood yoga studio. She promoted yoga to Americans as a system of physical exercise, consisting of a series of poses, postures and positions. She reached thousands of people through her books on yoga, two, Forever Young, Forever Healthy (1953) and Renew Your Life by Practicing Yoga (1977) were best sellers.

Yogi Bhajan started teaching “Kundalini Yoga, the Yoga of Awareness” in 1968. His version of Kundalini Yoga has continued to grow in influence and popularity largely in the Americas, Europe, South Africa, Togo, Australia, and East Asia. He was an inspiring teacher and trained thousands of teachers. Many of his followers opened their yoga studios in various parts of the world, popularizing yoga for health and fitness.  

B. K. S. Iyengar, considered one of the foremost yoga teachers in the world, was the founder of  “Iyengar Yoga”. He learned yoga from Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, the same teacher who taught Indra Devi. In 1954, Yehudi Menuhin invited Iyengar to Switzerland. From then on, Iyengar visited the west regularly to teach his system of yoga. He made his first visit to the United States in 1956 and gave several lecture-demonstrations. He published his first book, Light on Yoga (1966), which became known as “the bible of yoga” and has been the source book for yoga students. He was the author of many books on yoga practice and was often referred to as “the father of modern yoga”.  Iyengar started hundreds of yoga centers, teaching Iyengar yoga which focuses on the correct alignment of the body within each yoga pose, making use of straps, wooden blocks, and other objects as aids in achieving the correct postures. He was awarded the Padma Shri  in 1991, the Padma Bhushan in 2002 and the  Padma Vibhushan in 2014.

B. K. S. Iyengar


Bikram Choudhary emigrated to the United States in the 1970s and founded yoga studios in California and Hawaii. He earned fame and fortune by teaching yoga to Americans by opening heated yoga studios. His style of yoga is practiced in a room that has been preheated to a temperature of 105 degree F. Bikram Yoga is the 26 postures sequence selected and developed from Hatha Yoga.  In the 1990s, Bikram began offering nine-week teacher certification courses and trained thousands of certified instructors who opened Bikram Yoga studios all over the world. For the last several years, Bikram has been involved in lawsuits due to his sexual transgressions.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar established the International Art of Living Foundation in 1981, which is operating in 154 countries. He has been promoting the Sudarshan Kriya, a rhythmic breathing yoga exercise that incorporates specific natural rhythms of the breath, harmonizing the body, mind and emotions. It is claimed that regular practice of Sudarshan Kriya “eliminates stress, fatigue and negative emotions.” In 1986, Sri Sri came to California to conduct the first course to be held in North America. Since then, he has been frequenting America to spread his brand of yoga.

Swami Ramdev is the most celebrated yoga teacher and has a following which runs into millions. He has revolutionized  people’s thinking about yoga exercises. In 2003, India-based Aastha TV began featuring him in its morning yoga slot. Within a few years, he attained immense popularity and developed a huge following. His yoga camps are attended by a large number of people in India and abroad. His Pranayam exercises – a set of breathing exercises – are promoted to bring about balance between the body and mind. Regular practitioners claim numerous benefits. Zee TV in USA gives a one hour program daily featuring Ramdev’s yoga asanas.  Ramdev has attained commercial success of his physical fitness yoga, with no parallel in India or the western world.

Embracing Yoga

America is now dotted with yoga gyms and studios providing easy access to everyone, including business executives and Hollywood celebrities. There are also many yoga professionals and teachers who have gained prominence in this growing industry and are available for expert guidance. Several studies have shown that yoga reduces blood pressure, back pain, relieves stress and improves overall health. Several doctors recommend yoga to their cancer patients during and after treatment. Many Americans are drawn to yoga for physical fitness, others are attracted as yoga provides relief from stress while many others practice yoga for weight management.  

Several entrepreneurs are flourishing in this $30 billion industry. They publish yoga magazines, yoga books, produce TV shows, make DVDs, video games and apps, manufacture yoga clothes, yoga artifacts, yoga furniture and furnishings, yoga foods, yoga tea, yoga energy bars, and hundreds of products and services. The proliferation of yoga products, DVDs, and Internet websites has made yoga accessible by one and all. These yoga websites have all kind of information about yoga, from health and wellness to spirituality and show simple to complex poses. Several New Age gurus, who travel across the globe, have contributed to yoga’s popularity. In the United States, best-selling author Deepak Chopra has significantly contributed to Indian meditation philosophy and yoga going mainstream.  

Yoga has gone through several ups and downs during the last sixty years but now has earned well deserved respect and recognition. At its core, yoga is both a physical and spiritual practice. But for most Americans, yoga is a workout system that consists of a series of stretches, poses, and postures to tone and shape one’s body.

Inder Singh regularly writes on Indian Diaspora. He is the author of The Gadar Heroics – life sketches of over 50 Gadar heroes. He is Executive Trustee of Global Organization of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO) Foundation. He was chairman of GOPIO from 2009-2016, president from 2004-2009, president of National Federation of Indian American Associations (NFIA) from 1988-92 and chairman from 1992-96. He was founding president of Federation of Indian Associations in Southern California. He can be reached at indersingh-usa@hotmail.com

Surya Namaskar Deconstructed

A handy infographic that shows a step by step progression of poses for surya namaskar (sun salutations) along with affirmations and benefits.

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