As a yoga teacher and student, I always encourage those who attend my classes to love and accept themselves unconditionally just the way they are. I have respect for each person who enters my classes simply because they chose to show up and work on themselves. For some, it is their first encounter with the practice, and this can be a big deal! And for others it is part of their lifestyle. But I respect them for actually trying it, and also those who stick to it. There are many people however who perhaps want to try yoga but feel intimidated, scared they are not fit enough for it or simply don’t know what it is. Of course these fears can be self-limiting beliefs and insecurities, but they can also rise from what they see or hear in the media and other available resources.
So I wanted to write this article in the hopes that everybody understands yoga a little bit more for what it is and not what it looks like necessarily on these platforms.
MYTH # 1: YOGA IS ONLY PHYSICAL
Whilst one school of yoga is dedicated to purifying the physical body, there are different kinds of yoga. Hatha yoga, which is one of the most well known around the world, is the practice of yoga through physical poses or asanas. In this type, the person engages in different asanas to purify their physical body, by movement, building physical strength, tonight the muscles and increasing flexibility. From hatha yoga, over the years other styles derived such as vinasa, ashtanga, yin, Yiengar, all which use the classic poses of hatha yoga but in a different type of flow and manner. But there are schools of yoga such as Kundalinin yoga which is the practice devoted to raising the kundalini energy throughout the inner body, involving a mixture of asanas, mantras, mudras and pranayama (breathing yogic methods). Bhakti yoga is the school of yoga with the practice of devotion which is practiced mainly through mantras and mudras. Raja yoga or royal yoga is a practice devoted mostly to meditation. Another school of yoga is karma yoga, known as the yoga of service, in which one devotes themselves to be of selfless service such as volunteering. Jnana yoga is the yoga of intellect and development of wisdom through studying scriptures and texts devoted to the yoga tradition. Tantra yoga is the school of yoga which involves connecting with the divine energy through different rituals including sexuality, however contrary to popular belief, tantra yoga is not just about sex. It's about channeling the feminine principle of the cosmos, called shakti. All these are different branches of yoga and you can choose which one you want to explore more.
MYTCH # 2: YOGA IS A RELIGION
Some countries dismiss the practice of yoga completely because they think it's some kind of weird religion when the person starts mumbling in a strange language and does weird movements with their body (I actually had people saying this to me). Yoga is not a religion, yoga is a lifestyle. Practicing yoga does not ask of you to believe in any other higher power than the one you already believe in. In fact it actually encourages the individual to connect with the divine (whatever that means for you) and to acknowledge that there is more to the world than just what the eyes can perceive. Whilst there is an influence of both Hinduism and Buddhism in yoga, this does not mean you have to change your faith. There are different schools of yoga such as Bhkati yoga as mentioned above which is a yoga of devotion to different gods or a personal god. But you don't have to conform to a certain type, you can practice hatha yoga and still be very connected to your own Divine creator. Whilst some mantras do focus on bringing in the energy of the universe or Shakti, the female divine energy of the cosmos, you don't actually have to use mantras if they are not your thing. For me, yoga is a personal journey and a connection with the self, others and all that is around me. For others, it might be something else, but please know that it is not a religion.
MYTH # 3: ALL YOGIS ARE THIN
Whilst many of those who practice yoga can have a slender type body, yoga does not require a person to have a specific type of body frame. There are yogis of all shapes, some larger built, some smaller built. The physical frame of the body is not so important, as it is its moving ability and the person's willingness to explore their body. One can be bigger, have a belly and thicker thighs and still be able to practice yoga at a very high level, just as somebody who is thinner can struggle with some aspects of yoga. In fact, some experienced yogis in India or Buddhist traditions can have a larger frame or a belly, but their practice is strong, deep and beautiful. The yoga practice is about learning to appreciate your body and work with it to allow it to move freely, so you can open the energy blockages acquired through mental, physical and emotional tension. The number on the scales has nothing to do with it unless you notice that it is limiting you.
MYTH # 4: ALL YOGIS ARE ACROBATS
Instagram is one of the most popular platforms for yogis to share their practice these days with others around the world. We see many who can do amazing things with their bodies, flexibility wise. It’s important to note however that acrobatic abilities are not necessary because yoga is not about handstands, headstands and inversions only. Yoga can indeed increase the body’s flexibility over time but this is not its sole purpose nor it is required. Acro yoga is a style of yoga derived from the classic hatha yoga asanas, but it is also mixed with some acrobatic movement, hence its name. A lot of the practitioners of this kind have a gymnastics background or incredibly flexible bodies by nature. Others have gained this flexibility over the years, by practicing hatha yoga or coming from an athletic background. But you don’t have to feel intimidated by such yoga styles. Ultimately, yoga is a personal practice in which you bring connection between all parts of the self. It is not about performing a pose, it is about your journey of getting into the pose and exploring yourself through this.
MYTH # 5: I NEED FANCY PROPS TO PRACTICE YOGA
Back in the days, when yoga was first introduced in India, do you think they had fancy brands that provided them with mats, yoga gear and other props? No, of course not. They probably had a small carpet to protect their joints from the ground, or even better, they used the grass. What better way to connect with Mother Nature than to practice bare foot on the ground…Although it’s great that now we have access to mats, bolsters, blocks, straps, yoga wheels etc, know that these are resources to aid you in your practice. You don’t actually need any glamorous type mat to do your practice. Whilst I was travelling around, I used a towel to do my morning practice on. I didn’t have my yoga mat with me and my practice was just as strong and deep, with or without it. I am totally pro props, they are so helpful to help us during the practice, but you don’t need to spend a fortune on these. Also, there is no fashion forecast specific to yogis, so you don’t need to buy the latest brands of matching tights and sports bustiers, unless of course you want to. You can practice yoga in anything that your body feels comfortable in and it allows your skin to breathe. Traditionally, yoga was practiced in cotton cloths wrapped around the body. Thankfully now we have more options, but style should never be a goal through your yoga practice. After all, yogis are not fashion stylists, they are yogis.
MYTH # 6: I NEED TO BE VEGAN OR VEGETARIAN TO PRACTICE YOGA
Yoga doesn’t come with any specific dietary requirements, it’s a practice of discipline, devotion, love and self-discovery. Whilst traditionally, many yogis did not eat any living beings, it is not required for you to have a specific diet. If you eat meat or are vegan, and you keep true to your yoga practice, live your life in harmony with the internal and external world and do good for yourself and others, then just embrace what you are. Only you can decide what’s good for your body and if you feel ok with your diet, then continue to follow it. It is encouraged to keep a healthy eating routine, mainly because any foods which are heavy or full of preservatives can create toxins in the body and impede your practice and body movement. But just know that no, you don’t have to be vegan or vegetarian to practice yoga.
MYTH # 7: I NEED TO BE A CALM PERSON TO PRACTICE YOGA
The practice itself is for everybody, regardless if you meditate all day and are completely stress free, or if you have anxiety, suffer from sleeping disorder or any other emotional behaviours. In fact, many people who I have met and practice yoga daily were lead to the practice because they wanted to minimize such behaviours and they call yoga their coping mechanism. The truth is we are all human and we will never be perfect, nor we should strive to be. Yoga is about bringing balance in our lifestyle, not perfecting ourselves to the point that we become robotic. Sometimes, a yoga practice will feel frustrating to the point that you want to cry or scream with rage. Some days you feel great, and others not so much. It’s ok, you are not the only one experiencing these states. Yoga teaches us to be patient, to get to know ourselves and accept these moments and learn how to release them in a healthy way. You don’t need to be anybody else, but yourself on your yoga mat. More so, embrace who you are and go through all the motions. It is after all what the asana practice is about.
MYTH # 8: I CANNOT DRINK ALCOHOL, COFFE OR SMOKE CIGARETTES TO DO YOGA
There are people all over the world who are experienced in their yoga practice and who love their daily cup of coffee, the occasional wine and some even smoke. Get over it, yoga is about non-judgement of the self and others. If you remain true to yourself and to your practice, throughout time you will realise that these behaviours are not the best for your body and you will slowly learn to let go of them. And if you don’t, you can learn to at least balance these to the point that they don’t interfere with your health, emotional, mental and physical self. Yoga is about being kind to ourselves, and as you get deeper in your practice, you can assess which behaviours serve you for the higher good and which ones are needed to be released. Most importantly, yoga teaches us to love ourselves unconditionally and to bring balance into our life, by purifying your mental, physical and emotional self and by freeing yourself from all limitations and dependencies. Drinking alcohol creates toxins in the body, in the mind and also impedes your practice; smoking cigarettes can of course interfere with the benefits of pranayama or the healthy state of your breathing/lungs and overall physical wellbeing; and coffee is a stimulant which can influence the body and the mind in an unnatural state. In yoga they are referred to as negative habits because they affect the body in a negative way and so they are not encouraged, but certainly not frowned upon. But if you do these habits in moderation and can manage to keep yourself in balance, by all means continue to do whatever feels right for you. You know your body best and you have the right to live your life the way you feel it's best for you. Remember anything in excess is not good though...
As you start practicing yoga and begin to know your physical, mental and emotional body better, you will also start making different choices in your life. This is part of it, as it is a self-discovery journey.