One of the most common sentiments people express about trying yoga is, “I’m not flexible enough to do that.” And it got me to wonder….
“What do people think about yoga?” The comments seem to fall into a few categories.
1) I’m not flexible, or “stretchy” enough. I’m out of shape and have no sense of balance.
2) It’s too difficult
3) It’s not hard enough…I want to get a workout
4) It’s scary
5) It’s strange. Those people burn incense and chant.
6) It’s “new agey”, out there, in left field and doesn’t apply to my life.
I can absolutely appreciate these opinions and thought it might be helpful to explore each of them.
1) I’m not flexible, or “stretchy” enough. I’m out of shape and have no sense of balance.
I have a friend whose father regularly goes to the Himalayans to climb. He believes in being very prepared for his outdoor excursions. For instance, he flew to New Mexico from Louisiana to try out his new “bear proof” camping equipment. And who can blame him. If he makes a mistake up there he freezes, falls or has other unpleasant things happen to him.
Preparation can be a positive thing. There are many things in life, such as LSATs, board exams, the birth of your child, going out for an evening with friends, where planning is helpful. Yoga isn’t one of them.
Yoga is a practice of letting go rather than adding on. You already have everything you need to take a class.
A side note on equipment. A mat, towel and water bottle go a long way. However, you can always borrow a mat at One Flow. As for clothing—shorts or other workout pants and a t-shirt work just as well as designer yoga clothes—do avoid cotton though as it sticks to you when you sweat.
You will build and grow strength, flexibility and balance over time. The physical benefits are fringe benefits of the practice. In reality this is an internal practice.
However, we do use the physical postures or “asanas” to help us to be aware. Each asana is a tool to help you explore but it is not the ultimate goal. I mean no one really cares if you can get your foot behind your head. But when you are calm and kind and peaceful—deeper benefits of the practice—that they do notice.
It’s too difficult.
When people say this about yoga I believe they are speaking about the physical difficulty. It’s absolutely true that this can be a very demanding and challenging practice—but only if you want it to be.
I often share that this practice will be hard (difficult) until you decide to make it easy. You make the choice.
What you need in order to practice yoga physically is the ability to breathe. I have literally seen people practice with titanium rods in their backs. I have seen people who are considered severely overweight practice. I have also seen people practice when they are missing limbs. Whether recovering from an injury, experiencing a migraine or working through a plethora of life’s other challenges…the people who practice come from the gamut of experience.
But how can they physically get through a yoga class?
It helps to understand a few things about the practice. The first one is it really is about developing awareness through the practice of breathing. You don’t need to be able to stand on your head or touch your toes for that one. (Believe it or not it is still possible to be kind, loving and happy without ever touching your toes.)
Also, everyone practices yoga together in the same class. The only difference between a “Level 1” class and an “All Levels” is the Level 1 is slower—but only because people in an All Levels class are more apt to take care of themselves instead of trying to go through every single posture.
How can everyone practice together?
There is an idea in yoga called “Ahimsa” which is generally translated as non-harming but may also be translated as “Love”. Love one another. Love yourself.
Which brings us back to a class. If you take accountability to “love” yourself in a yoga class then you will do what’s best for you in each moment. Sometimes this means finding a full expression of a posture and sometimes it means resting or drinking water.
We use the physical postures to create awareness but it’s not really about the posture. It’s about the deeper experience of letting go and connecting. And you can do that just as easily sitting down as balancing on one leg.
In each class you will be given options to “modify” a practice. (And if ever need a specific modification please ask the teacher.) The posture is here to serve you. Make it work for you instead of contorting yourself to fit it. Again, the choice is yours.
It’s not hard enough…I want to get a workout
I love teaching people who are new to yoga. Yet, it has always puzzled me why people leave their first class saying, “That was hard—much harder than I expected.”
Where did people get the idea that this practice is easy?
It turns out that until the 1980s most of the yoga in the United States took the shape of “soft form” yoga. This is the gentle, quiet style that has become synonymous with “yoga”.
Pop quiz. Remember a woman on PBS who taught yoga? She always wore a unitard and seemed so peaceful? Her name is Lilias Folan, and her pioneering show called “Lilias Yoga”, ran from 1972 until 1992—20 years! I remember watching her when I was a child. Lilias almost single handedly introduced Americans to yoga.
See her show here.
Ahh, now you remember. Thank you Lilias for spreading yoga and heightening awareness.
After Lilias several practices bubbled up in the American consciousness quite rapidly—in the timeline of yoga—during the 80s and 90s.
- Bikram Yoga from Bikram Choudhury
- Ashtanga from K. Pattabhi Jois
- Jivamukti from Sharon Gannon and David Life
- And a practice called “Baptiste Power Vinyasa Yoga” from a guy named Baron. (By the way, Beryl Bender Birch coined the phrase “Power Yoga” along with Bryan Kest.)
All of these fall in the realm of the “hard form”. And each can be quite intense. It is these practices that have fueled the explosive growth and interest in yoga in America. They can feel more like work, in the American Puritan sense versus the Eastern idea of “work”, and we like that. (We do live to work.)
Even though they are physically demanding, Lilias influence runs deep and people still think “yoga is easy”.
I’ve had the honor to teach thousands and thousands of people, including professional ballet dancers, UFC fighters, motorcycle racers, triathletes—people with incredible levels of physical fitness and there is an overwhelming consensus that yoga is challenging.
(This really is one of the those situations where you just have to try it to experience it. Trying to explain to your friends how difficult it can be to raise your arms and legs will only elicit strange looks. Just invite them.)
But yoga is hard in a way we haven’t even brought up yet. Yoga asks you to dig deep physically AND mentally, emotionally and spiritually…but that’s a discussion for another time.
Yoga is Scary
If you are one of the people who think this, you are in great company. Many, many people have this notion. After all “yoga” encompasses so much and means many different things to different people.
It is impossible in the short span of this article to cover all of the ways yoga may be scary because people are highly creative. However, it might be helpful to go over what some of the more common thoughts of the practice are.
To help us I thought we’d play a game I’ll call “Yoga myth or Hawaiian”. Each number below is either a myth about yoga or a famous Hawaiian. See if you can figure which is which.
1. Nicole Kidman
Hawaiian. Famous for being Australian, Nicole was actually born in Honolulu.
2. You have to be very flexible to do yoga.
Myth. (While we’re at it, add strong and balanced.) What is needed to practice is the ability to breathe. Flexibility is something you develop over time as your body adapts.
3. Don Ho
Hawaiian. Famous for being Hawaiian and for singing “Tiny Bubbles”.
4. Everyone will look at, stare and judge me.
Myth. In reality most people think this. How, though, can they be staring at and judging you when they are worried about you staring at and judging them. Also yoga is a practice of compassion, kindness and love.
5. Jack Johnson
Hawaiian. Born and raised on the North Shore. His middle name is Hody and yes he was a professional surfer before being known as a musician.
6. I’m too (pick one or more) old, out-of-shape, overweight to do a class.
Myth. This is a breathing and awareness practice. Everything else is optional.
7. Bette Midler
Hawaiian. Actor. Singer. TV Star. Author. She does it all and was also born in Honolulu.
8. I’ll be the only one in the class that’s having a difficult time.
Myth. No matter how long someone has practiced, we all seek out places that challenge us.
Now that we’ve looked at a couple of the more prevalent thoughts let’s explore:
Things to help make your first yoga class easier.
Get there 15 minutes early.
You can get settled, figure out where the bathrooms are and fill out any paperwork necessary.
Set up in the middle of the room.
It might sound strange but the recommended place for someone who is new is right in the middle. This is so you can always have a person in front of you as a guide, no matter what direction you are facing.
Attend with a friend.
It’s always wonderful to have the support of a friend when doing something new.
Take a class that focuses on people who are new to yoga.
Ask the studio to recommend which classes are most suitable for people just starting out.
Introduce yourself to others.
Yoga is about community and it will help you to feel part of it when you get to know other students. You’ll find they are just like you.