Today I want to talk about some of the reasons people think yoga isn't for them, and discuss which of these preconceptions are rooted in the reality of the practice and which are assumptions. Here are some of the objections I have heard towards the practice:
-I'm not flexible enough
-I'm too old
-It's not cardiovascular
-it's just stretching
-It causes injuries
-I have a bad back/knees/neck/ankles etc.
- It's for women
These are just a few, but I'd like to address them, and try to break down mental barriers to a practice which I know can bring a whole host of benefits to anyone who practices it.
I'm not flexible enough/ I have injuries/I'm too old: the fear of a lack of flexibility comes I think in part, from all of the images of yoga teachers in postures which are very bendy, and make some of them look like contortionists.This can then make us think that a serious amount of flexibility is prerequisite to attend a class. If we suffer from old injuries, we can start to believe that there is no way we could practice yoga. We often get less flexible with age, hence getting up the courage to attend a class can become too big an obstacle to overcome. Here's the thing; yoga is designed to meet you where you are at. As you practice it over the long term, your body gradually invites you into greater flexibility. That is part of the benefit. I am not a particularly flexible yoga teacher, but I have opened my hips and loosened my lower back over a period of eight years. One of my favourite kundalini yoga teachers is Gurumukh. She is in her 70s and I cannot keep up with her! The truth is, there are always adjustments that a teacher can (and should ) offer to her students, so that anyone can begin to work on their body in its' current state of being.
It's not cardiovascular, it's just stretching. Plus, it's for women, not men: There are some forms of yoga which are particularly cardiovascular, for example Bikram or hot yoga, Vinyasa which can be a fast enough flow to really work up a sweat. Ashtanga, also known as 'power' yoga is also particularly vigorous. Kundalini, which is the style I teach, can have different levels of intensity. It all really depends upon the time of day, the students in the class and the energy levels on the day, as to whether I teach a slower more meditative set, or a more vigorous and lively one.
Stretching is also an important part of yoga, and it is not to be dismissed, as stretching is key for allowing joint mobility, which adds to overall muscle strength. If we don't stretch, our muscles shorten, the blood flow is not as vigorous and we can get resulting injuries from pulled muscles. Runners, footballers and rugby players often get very tight hamstrings, from a lack of stretching, and then can not fully straighten their legs out.
But yoga is a lot more than stretching alone. It works on the mind as well as the body, increasing focus, quieting thoughts, and allowing us to regulate our emotions more easily. With regular practice we become more tuned into our bodies; we learn to be able to isolate individual muscles and relax or activate them at will, and we know what our bodies need in terms of nourishment or rest.
There are many women who practice yoga, but there are arguably just as many western men who do so today. Traditionally, yoga was practiced in India by men and women, and still is today. The perception that yoga is more of a 'soft sport' for women is becoming outdated, as more people realise that it is a practice that supports our inward development and mental health, as opposed to being a sport or competitive practice. Competition has no place in yoga.
It causes injuries: Funnily enough, this is an objection I heard from my chiropractor, but she also said that when I was weightlifting, and dragon-boating, so I think it's a bit of a non-argument to be honest. Perhaps the point she was making is that too often, yoga teachers encourage students into postures that are far too advanced, without enough preparation, and then students feel like they have to keep up with everyone else in the class. That is when injuries happen, as people are striving to look like they 'belong' in the class, or get validation from the teacher and their peers, rather than listening to their own bodies. Injuries can also occur when teachers make adjustments to students, forcing them to go further than their own intuition tells them it is wise to go. These are just examples of bad teaching, as opposed to something which is prevalent throughout yoga. The idea is to learn to listen carefully to our bodies, to embrace a little muscular discomfort now and then for challenge, but not to do anything that causes us pain or flares up old injuries.
I hope some of you found this useful, and you're willing to give yoga a try if you haven't before!