There are many things said about yoga. It’s for ‘girls’. You have to be ‘flexible’, amongst others. But did you know that at the core of yoga is meditation? Yoga is not just about fancy posture (or even chanting). There are many things about the practice of yoga which are misconceived or not well known! In this article, I’ve tried to summarise what are some of the biggest yoga facts and myths that exist today.
Myth 1. Yoga is only for women
When you walk into most yoga classes in a yoga studio today (when that was still possible), you would find a room predominantly filled with women. If you are lucky, there might be the odd guy, but on average the practice of yoga today is very female dominated. When I did my yoga teacher training, there were 17 of us, of which 3 were men. That ratio of around 5 or so women to every male is about what you’d expect to see in most yoga classes today.
“There are no pre-modern depictions of women practising yogic postures…. Sanskrit and vernacular poems of…north Indian ascetic traditions are highly misogynistic…. Women are never explicitly prohibited from practising yoga, although [medieval] haṭha texts commonly insist that male yogis should avoid the company of women.”
Myth 2. You need to be flexible to do Yoga
The yoga sutras of Patanjali, commonly referred to as the bible of classical yoga, says very little about posture. Sutra 2.46 says that yoga posture should be:
‘sthira sukham asanam‘,
meaning yoga posture should be steady and comfortable. When learning yoga, the very essence of yoga practice is the ability to find a good space, which draws in the more subtle qualities of yoga. The word ‘yoga’ is often described as ‘union’ or ‘discipline’ – to realise our true inner nature. It also described in the context of ‘disunion’, where separation from the ego-personality and connection to the higher self is the goal.
Modern yoga however has been depicted as a practice associated with the body, often aesthetically in the form of beautiful poses. Many of these seem quite inaccessible for the average person (especially men), yet it is portrayed that these poses are part of the practice of yoga.
Whilst advanced postures are often a sign of body and mind mastery, especially in ashtanga yoga, yoga is very much a holistic practice. Although mastery of yoga does require a combination of strength and balance, which attracts a lot of people to the practice, it is much more than that. It’s about asana, pranayama, as well as the more subtle mental aspects, including meditation.
The philosophy of yoga is also rich and underpins much of the practice.
So you may become flexible as a result of practising yoga, but being flexible is not a prerequisite. It’s probably one of the biggest yoga myths! Stiffness in fact is a wonderful place to start out with practising yoga, since with dedication and practise, you will notice changes in your body that you didn’t think were possible.
Myth 3. Yoga is a just a form of exercise
Whilst yoga is a philosophy and a form of exercise for many, yoga is also a therapy in its own right. According to the International Association of Yoga Therapists, yoga therapy is:
“the process of empowering individuals to progress toward improved health and well-being through the application of the teachings and practices of Yoga.”
The health benefits of yoga are well recognised. Yoga therapy therefore aims to improve the wellbeing of individuals, on both the physical and mental level, through specific and targeted yoga practices. For example, in the treatment of lower back pain, specific physical exercises through yoga poses might be offered to help support and strengthen the lower back. Similarly, with conditions such as PTSD, yoga may be offered to help regulate a traumatised nervous system.
Myth 4: Yoga is just about posture
At the heart of yoga is meditation. In Patanjali’s system, meditation almost sits at the pinnacle of the practice. It is often said that the word for posture (‘asana’ or ‘seat’) is about preparing the body for meditation. Many of the yoga poses that are common today are as a result of the evolution of modern yoga in the early 20th century through the work of Krishnamacharya.
The goal of meditation, at least within the tradition of yoga, is to find union or bliss within. Posture then is only part of the preparation to achieve such states.
The meaning of meditation comes from the latin word ‘meditari’, or to contemplate. Meditation requires an object – something that is done to ‘it’, and this usually involves observing the breath, it could be a visualisation or even paying bare attention to thoughts, feelings and sensations.
Through meditation, the quality of the mind starts to shift as a result of attention to that object and may bring about feelings of relaxation or bliss.
Myth 5: Yoga is for young people only
With the image of modern yoga presented as one of beauty and ease, it is easy to get the impression that yoga is solely for the young. As the body ages and becomes more rigid and less fluid, the ability to extend the spine (ie bend backwards) may decrease. Yet as the body ages, density of bones may decrease and muscles may become weaker. The body also becomes at greater risk of osteoporosis, where bones become brittle and weak.
That’s where yoga can help. Any exercises which are weight bearing through joints will help stimulate new bone matter to grow. There are two types of cells in the body that relate to bones. Osteoblasts, which grow new bone, and osteoclasts, which recycle old bone. By practising yoga and creating gentle stress through joints, you can help to generate new bone, to counter the effects of aging.
The same goes with muscles too. Unless muscles are utilised through strength and conditioning exercises, they will start to weaken and atrophy. Yoga classes are now offered in most major cities and towns for senior citizens, where emphasis is placed on classes that are slower and more accessible.
So no matter how old you are (or feel!), grab your yoga mat and find a teacher who enjoys teaching yoga to seniors. For some, that is their speciality!
The ancient practice of yoga is rich and varied. Unfortunately, much of what is assumed or written about yoga isn’t accurate. In this article I’ve tried to outline some of the most common yoga facts and myths there are today. If you’ve heard of or believed some of them, hopefully this article may inspire you to think again and try yoga for the first time. I hope it may just be the beginning of a lifetime of yoga practise. I hope it may also transform your life just like it has transformed mine.
To take part in any of my weekly yoga classes, see yogibanker.com/classes. Classes are currently running via ZOOM at various times during the week.