April 25, 2022

Here's what yoga is...and isn't

 Yan Krukov/Pexels

"Cool! Can you stand on your head?”

"Well, I can’t do yoga because I’m not flexible.”

Those are the top two responses I hear when people discover I’m a certified yoga instructor.

My requisite response to the first inquiry is: “Yes, I can stand on my head, but that isn’t the essence of yoga.” 

And my response to the second statement is as follows: You know how to breathe, right? Then you can do yoga.”

But more on that in a minute.

First, I want to debunk some myths about yoga.


Because amid all the frenzy about yoga — and talk about the benefits, there remains a bit of stigma hanging in the ether:

Is yoga a cult?

What does yoga teach?

What does yoga really mean, anyway?

Well, let’s start with what yoga isn’t.

Myth #1: Yoga is a religion.

No, it isn’t.

Yoga has no gods to worship or services to attend, no institutional structure or leaders, no statement of religious beliefs, and there is no profession of faith.

Yoga, by definition, means to “yoke” or to unite the body and mind in harmony.

Yoga, as a practice, seeks to correlate all aspects of living as it relates to those around us. This union is accomplished through physical postures, relaxation, and meditation.

What yoga does have at its core, however, are the Yamas and the Niyamas. These are the moral and internal restraints that regulate our inner lives.

The Yamas are the moral virtues that, if attended to, purify human nature and contribute to the health and happiness of society. The five Yamas are: nonviolence, truthfulness, nonstealing, moderation, and nonhoarding, which means to take only what is necessary.

The Niyamas are personal observances. They refer to an attitude that we adopt for ourselves to live soulfully and joyfully no matter our circumstances. The Niyamas are: cleanliness, contentment, disciplined use of our energy (keeping our bodies fit and healthy), self-study, and surrender to a higher power.

That last bit about a higher power refers to whatever God you may already believe in.

And even if you aren’t religious, you can still practice yoga.

Now let’s move along to myth #2.

Myth #2: Yoga is expensive.

Sure, there are classes and retreats that cost far more than my monthly mortgage payment. But participating in them is in no way necessary to practice yoga.

Not only do many studios offer free community classes, YouTube is chock full of an array of highly qualified instructors.

But I’ve found that my favorite way to practice is in the confines of my own home. And while props can come in handy (i.e. blocks, bolsters, straps, etc.) during your practice, they are not mandatory.

Here’s what you need to practice yoga: A mat.

That’s basically it. And even that is optional depending on your flooring.

Myth #3: You must be flexible to do yoga.

That — pardon my French —is total bullshit.

Yoga is for small and big people; short and tall people; young and old people; women and men.

In other words, yoga is — quite literally — for everybody.

Yoga is about coming home.

In all the yoga literature I’ve read, US Airborne Ranger-turned-celebrated yoga instructor Rolf Gates characterizes this point best in his book entitled Meditations from the Mat: Daily Reflections on the Path of Yoga, which he co-authored with Katrina Kenison:

Yoga is a path to our true nature. This truth can be readily tested at the conclusion of any asana [the postures in a yoga exercise] practice. The problem is estrangement from self. Check in with yourself at the end of your yoga practice and see if you haven’t experienced a miracle of healing. See if you do not feel more at home in your body, more at home in your life, more at home in your spirit. This sense of coming home is real.

And the best part?

This splendor is available to everyone.

And it’s not only beautiful to experience, but also equally beautiful to witness.

Quick story: Long before I became an instructor, back when I was in college and still a yoga newbie, I used to pore over the pages of Yoga Journal magazine and admire all the accomplished, world-renowned yoga instructors — Kathryn Budig, Seane Corn, and Rodney Yee among them — who were striking intermediate and advanced poses with effortless ease.

I wholeheartedly admit to being swept up in the beauty, flash, and pizazz of it all.

But now, twenty-three years later, I have since been introduced to what is truly beautiful…

When one of my students, who is old enough to be my grandmother, is so dedicated to her practice that she attends class no matter what — even on the days when her arthritis has her wrists on fire. And when the time comes to do Warrior II pose, her breath is calm and even, and she’s standing taller than anyone else in the room.

That is beautiful.

When another student finds peace and comfort in Mountain pose after sitting hunched over at a desk all day.

That is beautiful.

And when the shy teenage girl, who usually retreats to the corner, decides that today is the day that she will conquer her fear and attempt Shoulder Stand pose, does it, and then cries afterward as the class erupts in applause.

That — that — is beautiful.

So, all together now; let’s recap: You DON’T have to be flexible to do yoga!

If you can draw breath, you can do yoga.

And you can do it beautifully.

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

© Copyright Courtney Conover, 2022

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