Yoga Misunderstandings and Myths: Can We Clear a Few Things Up?

When people find out what I do, they often feel compelled to explain why they can’t or won’t do yoga. While I think that every person should follow their own bliss, those reasons are more often than not based on a flawed perception of what it means to practice.

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Popular culture has a way of reducing everything to an elevator speech, so it’s understandable that misunderstandings exist. But a lot of people who could really use yoga have gotten the impression it’s not available to them. In the spirit of dispelling some misinformation, I’d like to take a crack at clearing up a few of the most common misunderstandings:

1. I’m too old/out-of-shape/overweight/inflexible to do yoga. There is a yoga practice available to every body regardless of shape, size, or physical ability. People who make this statement may have likely encountered one too many pictures of beautiful people assuming impossible poses while perched atop a spectacular mountain setting. Spoiler alert: You are real. That most practitioners do tricky balances on rocks amid the roiling waves of the ocean is the myth.

2. It’s all about the downward facing dog. When the flowing Vinyasa-style became popular some years back, this posture, where the practitioner is balancing on hands and feet while the body is making a “V” shape, somehow assumed a prominence that is not really merited. Downward dog can be a healthy part of a physical practice, but it may not be a good pose for you. In fact, no yoga pose has merit on it’s own. The practice should have context and the pose should be there for a specific reason. As my teacher, Gary Kraftsow puts it, “The practitioner should never serve the pose. The pose should serve the practitioner.”

Don’t fall for the hype! If your shoulders, wrists, back and hamstrings cannot support it, ask for a modification or do a different pose altogether. Until you are ready for it, your body is more than adequately served by other postures.

3. I could never make my body do those pretzel shapes. What is it with the pretzels, people? Just once I’d like someone to tell me they can’t do yoga because they can’t get themselves into a human G-clef. Or a curly fry. Now that would be a challenge! But the idea that a prime purpose of yoga is to contort your body into shapes is totally misguided.

One of the most important yogic concepts, Ahimsa, is about nonviolence. That begins at home in your own body. We work with the body we’re blessed with. There’s no reason to force things into shapes that don’t work. Some people have more lax ligaments and can do poses that seem impossible without effort. (See #1 above.) Depending on the nature of your ligaments and structure, some poses will work on your body, some won’t. Bear in mind that many of the deeper practices of yoga do not even involve physical movement. (See this month’s featured sequence.)

4. If I don’t sweat, I haven’t done yoga. This one always makes me chuckle. I have been practicing yoga for more than 20 years. I find mountain pose—standing still in a neutral position—to be one of the most challenging poses there is when practiced with single-minded attention. If you delve deeply enough into the kernal of any posture, you will create what the yogis call tapas (internal fire). On the other hand, it’s also possible to fake one’s way through any posture and sweat up a storm, never even landing in the same the zip code as true core strength.

Here’s my breakdown: Practicing poses with the sole intention of toning your body and not initiating the movement on the breath is doing exercise; Performing breath-based movements is practicing asana; Being in your life, cultivating healthy relationships, making good lifestyle choices, enjoying comfortable and easeful movement in your body and joints, and accepting your condition is doing yoga. All have benefits, depending on your goals.

5. I should do yoga because I need to stretch. Ah, the other end of the spectrum—the unbridled stretching concept. Big myth. There’s actually no empirical data to support the notion that stretching possesses any intrinsic therapeutic value. In fact, extended static stretching or over stretching a cold muscle can cause harm. The degree to which one can fold forward and touch the floor has really very little to do with overall health, unless a specific problem can be traced to tight muscles–in which case attempting to touch the floor is probably a bad idea anyway.

On the other hand, some of the fantastic benefits that yoga (especially Viniyoga) delivers in spades include increased circulation, freeing what is stuck/tight, easy joint movement, overcoming dysfunctional patterns, increased balance and clarity, improved vitality, and better relationships. In context, there will be stretching, especially in the area of expanding the concept of what it means to practice yoga.

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SANDY oppenheimer
SANDY oppenheimer
10 years ago

have osteoporis and need to learn poses that will help this condition love yoga and teach to elderly people as I am one myself thanks