Misperception is definitely one of yoga’s challenges. Since beginning to teach, I’ve been astonished by how many people insist (vigorously) that they “cannot” do yoga because they’re “not flexible.” This is like suggesting that children can’t go to kindergarten because they haven’t quite got the hang of advanced calculus. Everyone can do yoga.
I’ve been waiting to get on a soap-box about this for a while. It doesn’t work well in conversation because it generally leads to glassy-eyed stares (have you previewed the length of this ramble?), but that’s what blogs are for!
In all seriousness, everyone really can benefit from yoga, and this is why:
- Yoga is a vast system encompassing far more than physical asanas. One of the most powerful statements that I’ve ever heard with regard to yoga is that it isn’t gymnastics. You may be able to perform a beautiful floor-routine or launch yourself expertly across a balance-beam (and these are impressive feats), but you aren’t necessarily doing yoga. Why? A true understanding of yoga leads to the realization that asanas are tools and not end-goals. The purpose of physical challenge in yoga is to develop the non-physical skills that produce samadhi, sometimes described as “enlightenment” or “enlightened consciousness.” The result in the mind/spirit/soul is what’s important, and it’s achieved and supported by a vital, active body. The physical benefits are wonderful and not to be dismissed, but the critical difference between yoga and other disciplines is that these benefits are appreciated, not upheld as ultimate achievements. Understanding this is what allows a practitioner to grasp the equal value of an improved tadasana (mountain pose) and a perfectly executed parsva bakasana (side crow pose). Stated simply, if sitting up straight without a wall behind you brings you to pay more attention to your muscles, breathing, and mental state, you can do yoga successfully.
- The collection of physical skills that regular participation in yoga develops, such as flexibility, cardio-vascular capacity, and balance, requires time and practice. Physical skills of all kinds demand ongoing training – the body habituates to routine demands, never giving more than necessary. It’s a matter of conserving energy and resources. A marathoner, for example, will have difficulty with a bodybuilding workout. He or she is undoubtedly in fantastic shape, but he/she has spent time training one set of abilities – cardio-vascular and muscular endurance – without having spent the same time developing fast-twitch muscle fibre or dealing with heavy loads and lengthy rest periods. Similarly, almost no one will take initial yoga classes with a great deal of flexibility – but it will improve steadily with regular practice.
- Yoga is inherently non-competitive. There are, nowadays, yoga events labelled “competitions,” but my belief is that these are useful only insofar as they promote curiosity about the discipline. A practice intended to lead us toward intensely personal experiences of self-awareness cannot be concerned with comparison. It really doesn’t matter at all if your neighbor can do a beautifully compressed garudasana (eagle) and you can barely walk a straight line; your neighbour may be double-jointed and failing to challenge himself at all. If you are, with awareness, mindfulness, and earnestness, striving to maintain or improve your sadhana, you are doing yoga, and you’re doing it well. Leave other people’s joints to them.
- Well researched solitary practice and experienced instructors will always suggest modifications that make asanas and vinyasas accessible. Props, such as blocks, canvas straps, bolsters, pillows, and mats, are one form of modification. Adjustments to poses and alternatives are also helpful: keeping one knee on the floor during lunges, dropping the knees to the floor instead of doing full plank, and selecting cobra (bhujangasana) instead of upward dog (urdhva mukha svanasana) are popular examples. Being comfortable with exploring alternatives is important, and it will allow you to participate fully. “Fully” is not, and does not have to be, synonymous with “identically.”
- We all have skeletons. The funny thing about the human body is that we can all be built in more or less the same way, from a skeletal point of view, but each individual’s idiosyncrasies can have a significant impact on how things look on the outside. My own yoga teacher once made a startling comment, stating that no matter how hard a person practices, he/she may never be able to perform certain asanas. At first, this comment struck me as limiting – given enough dedication and practice, shouldn’t we all be able to achieve the same ends (even if they are “only” physical)? What my teacher went on to explain, and what I now appreciate, is that muscles – barring injury or hereditary conditions – will certainly respond to flexibility and strength-building demands. Muscle can grow and change. Bone, on the other hand, is a little intransigent after a certain age, and “what we see” in early mid-life is more or less “what we get.” Consider ball-and-socket joints, such as the hip; if the head of your femur (thigh bone) is relatively much larger in the “cup” or “socket” of your pelvis than that of another practitioner, you will notice differences in your ranges of motion, no matter how flexible the surrounding muscles are. It initially seemed unfair to me that infinite amounts of training shouldn’t lead to universal results, but the more that I thought about it, the more liberating a fact this is.First, it leads us concretely to appreciate asanas as vehicles for inner change because it forces us to be conscious of what we’re pursuing. Are we working toward improvement, are we striving to be aware of synergistic processes (breathing, bandhas, posture, etc.)? Or are we pushing our bodies past their limits because we want to “keep up?” It forces us to be responsible, thoughtful, and measured about our development. Second, it frees us from external expectations. As I mentioned a while back, progress in yoga can be measured in a multitude of ways, from minute-by-minute changes to those that take years. There may be poses that a practitioner has diligently tried to perfect for years at a time, with intention and awareness and patience…and without outward success. Even for the most forbearing of us, this could be discouraging…unless we appreciate the fact that our limitation may have absolutely nothing to do with a lack of practice or responsiveness in the body. It may have everything to do with our skeletons not being designed to support a particular pose or two; real yoga practice will accept this with grace and make excellent, full use of alternatives. We tune back “in” and make use of the proverbial journey.
Ultimately, I think that a person’s response to yoga, and to many other forms of activity, has more to do with willingness than ability. Certainly, yoga has had somewhat of an identity crisis here, and that has led potential practitioners to reject it, even as a viable form of exercise. Given the many different forms and branches of yoga in North America, this is truly unfortunate. Education is the best way to dispel myth, of course, and I hope that these tidbits will help to make yoga a less intimidating possibility.