There are still misconceptions that yoga is the domain of the young, fit and flexible. That you have to be really flexible to practise yoga is a particularly odd misconception.
Increasing your natural range of flexibility is one of the reasons to practise yoga in the first place, so if you are really inflexible then you stand to gain a lot. It’s a reason to start yoga, not to avoid it!
Plenty of other misconceptions about who should and shouldn’t be practising yoga are out there, but thankfully, there are ever increasing waves of people getting into yoga and experiencing the benefits first hand.
I seem to be coming across more and more examples of this at the moment so thought I would gather a few of them together to bust a few myths and inspire a few of the yoga-curious-but-shy into giving it a go.
Myth 1: Yoga is for the young
There are plenty of older people practising yoga and you’re never too old to start!
In a 4-hour yoga workshop I took part in last month one of the participants was in her late 60s (and looking more like early 50s). She’d begun yoga later in life and was loving it.
Of course, late 60s is still young and it’s not so unusual so how about the 96-year-old yoga teacher, Tao Porchon-Lynch? Tao is still teaching classes and released a yoga dvd just a few years ago.
Rather than seeing herself as too old for yoga, she realises that it helps to keep her young. “It’s taken away stress and has helped me through crises.”
Or there’s 71-year-old Angela Farmer whose practice has aged gracefully with her:
“My practice has slowed down to the outer eye. There’s less happening to the outside eye but more happening deeper inside. I’m more tolerant and mentally flexible. I have more focus and more patience. I respect my body a lot more. I let myself sleep more when I need to. I eat, play, and have more inner joy.”
Yoga myth 2: Yoga is for the slim
Yoga is not about looking a certain way. It’s about connecting to your body, becoming more aware and moving mindfully. It doesn’t require or necessarily lead to an athletic or muscle-bound physique. We don’t all have athletic frames and nor should we.
Having practised alongside plenty of people with bigger bodies, I have seen for myself that body size doesn’t dictate strength, flexibility or ability. Nor does it dictate inner peace, confidence or happiness.
Take Dianne Bondy, yoga teacher and leading voice for more diversity and inclusion in yoga: “Remember everyone can do yoga. We breathe, we feel, we stretch, and we connect fully to ourselves, even if we don’t look like a supermodel.”
Or how about Anna Guest-Jelley? Through her experiences of practising yoga as a larger person she went on start Curvy Yoga, a movement for greater body acceptance, encompassing classes, workshops and even teacher training. “Yoga is the technology & foundation of my well-lived life — and well-loved body. It’s changed my world, rocked my core — and become my life’s work. I have no doubt that all these twists and turns brought me exactly where I am meant to be.”
Myth 3: Yoga is for the mystical
That yoga is more for the mystically inclined is a misconception worth busting. Corporate yoga has brought much needed balance and inner calm for stressed out executives for a good while now. Yoga is even being used in the military with the Ministry of Defence including yoga as a fundamental part of military rehabilitation.
As well as rebuilding strength, the yoga sessions for the military also harness yoga’s holistic power to alleviate symptoms such as insomnia, depression, phantom pain and PTSD.
The UK’s largest charity for wounded and sick veterans, Help for Heroes now offers a comprehensive yoga programme, Heroes at Ease, headed up by yoga teacher Suzie Jennings. Suzie has also started a yoga teacher training programme for the yoga veterans so they can go on to teach their fellow soldiers.
Yoga myth 4: Yoga is for the able bodied
Wounded veterans are not the only ones practising and teaching yoga. Matthew Sanford is a paraplegic yoga teacher, who teaches both disabled and able bodied students. “We all live on a continuum of abilities and disabilities,” he says. “The principles of yoga apply to all people, to all bodies.”
Matthew came to yoga after his accident, looking for a way to get his body and mind back to health despite his disability. He found a lot more besides:
“For me, everything I do flows from my daily yoga practice – the time I take to feel and refine the sensation of my existence. When I lose track of why I do what I do, I remember a simple observation from my years of practicing and teaching yoga. I have never seen anyone truly become more aware of his or her body without also becoming more compassionate. On the flipside, when we become more disconnected from our bodies, we become more self-destructive. Each day, as I practice connecting my mind and my body, I am able to feel a more compassionate path.”
Yoga myth 5: Yoga is for women
It’s true, yoga classes are very often made up mainly of women – that’s got a lot to do with the self-perpetuating nature of the myth itself. Yoga is just as beneficial for men as it is for women. For physically active men, who are into sports or weights, yoga is a much needed balance point, bringing flexibility, core strength, alignment and greater focus. It is not uncommon for people with a lot of muscle to suffer from aches and pains due to insufficient strength in the more subtle inner muscles, and due to alignment problems caused by tight muscles. Yoga can address these issues and help people get even better at their chosen sport.
And for men who are less sport or gym inclined, yoga can offer a fulfilling and challenging experience of movement and mind. Some of the leading teachers in yoga are men.
One of my favourites is Jason Crandell, an American teacher who teaches down-to-earth classes integrating power yoga, anatomical awareness and mindfulness. His classes are available online via yogaglo but you will also find inspiring male teachers in most yoga studios.
How masculine or feminine a class is doesn’t depend on the gender of the teacher of course. If you are looking for a more of a masculine style you might want to try practising power yoga, ashtanga yoga or vinyasa flow. Or you could embrace balance in your body and nature and try a more receptive and opening style of yoga which you will find in a gentle hatha, iyengar or yin yoga class – it might be exactly what you need.
This has been a quick round-up of some yoga myths. It’s important not to let the advertising of yoga put you off. Like most advertising it can give us unrealistic expectations and unhelpful beliefs. Unfortunately these expectations and beliefs can stop us from accessing the benefits that could be ours for the taking.
Try to put the advertising aside and connect to the stories of real people, recognising that the person on the mat next to you has their difficulties to overcome and their strengths to offer, however shiny and perfect (or otherwise) they may appear from the outside.
So be inspired and remember that yoga is a personal journey – it’s a tool that’s there for you to use, regardless of your particular packaging. It might take trying a few different classes and teachers before it clicks, but it’s worth persevering because it’s a powerful tool for life.
I’ll be writing more about different types of yoga in upcoming posts – so don’t forget to sign up for updates.