So I’ve been practising yoga now on and off for about seven years, but consistently for the last four, mainly using the Yoga with Adriene YouTube channel at home (not in person classes). As someone who never liked sports and exercise growing up, discovering yoga was a big thing for me, as I finally found an activity I actually enjoy and look forward to doing. Naturally, not every type of exercise is for everyone, but I wanted to share a few misconceptions and other things to know about yoga, which people may not be aware of!
You don’t need to be flexible
Absolutely not. Yoga isn’t something you do, it’s something you practise. The media fills us with the idea that yoga is done by super skinny, flexible, pretty women, which is nonsense. Yoga can be for anyone, any size, shape, or gender. Yes, you might find some of the poses easier if you’re naturally flexible, but it’s not essential. There are loads of modifications you can make to poses, to find what suits you and what feels best. You definitely shouldn’t try to painfully force your way into certain shapes either. One of the many benefits of yoga is that with time and practise, your flexibility will increase. It might take a few years or more, but one day you might suddenly find you can get into a shape you never could when you started!
It’s also important to remember that every day and every practice will be different, so some days your body might feel tighter and sorer than others. Don’t get disheartened or angry at yourself if you can’t stretch or bend as much today as you did yesterday!
You don’t need workout clothes and equipment
One of the great joys of yoga is that you don’t need anything special to do it. You can start practising right away with whatever you happen to have! If you’re going to practise consistently, then I do recommend getting a yoga or exercise mat eventually, as they’re the more comfortable and convenient thing to use. But to start out, you can use a towel or a blanket instead. I’ve done it just on the floor in a pinch, but it’s definitely less comfortable on the hands and knees! Some poses can involve blocks or straps, but you can modify to do them without it, or use whatever you happen to have around. I’ve used towels and T-shirts as a strap, and a thick book as a block!
You can also wear whatever you want; it doesn’t have to be yoga leggings! I typically wear proper workout clothes for higher-intensity routines, where I’m liable to sweat more. But I’ve also done it in regular leggings, T-shirts, hoodies, and jogging bottoms before. Just whatever is comfy and easy to move in.
Yoga is more than just stretching, it can be an intense workout
Oh it absolutely can be gentle stretching – but it can also be an intense workout! It totally depends on what type of yoga (e.g. hatha, ashtanga, bikram, vinyasa – check out this intro guide for more) and what type of routine you choose to do. Which is another of the many reasons I like it so much, as there’s routines out there to suit everything. On days when I’m tired or sore, I can choose a gentle, restorative sequence. On days when I want a challenge, I can choose something more intense and fast-paced. I’ve finished plenty of yoga practices sweating and out of breath and heart pounding!
It’s also not just about stretching and flexibility either! There’s many balancing poses, and a lot of strengthening and toning work. The poses that require a lot of strength, particular in the arms, are the ones I’m not so good at (crow pose continues to evade me). It’s an area I’m still improving but I can hold a plank for a hell of a lot longer than I could a few years ago! And my god, when you do a core-focused routine, you’ll definitely feel it in your abdomen the next day! It’s true that even a fast-paced, intense yoga sequence likely won’t be as tough of a workout as other types of exercise. I imagine folks that do strengthening sessions regularly might find it quite easy. But, it’s not always the easy, gentle practice that some think it is.
Yoga is a full-body workout
Definitely true. Yes, many of the poses will be targeting certain areas and muscles more so than others, be it arms or core or hips or back or legs. You can also do whole routines that target a specific area, especially if it’s one you’ve been feeling a bit sore in lately. But one of the most important aspects of a yoga practice is integrating your whole body in every pose.
When you first start out, you’ll be focusing mainly on the muscles being used most intensely. But with time and practise, you start to bring in everything. You realise that your core can help take pressure out your arms or legs, and relaxing in your shoulders opens your chest, and tucking your tailbone in helps your back. Everything is interlinked, and you can work on increasing strength and flexibility in every body part at once. Not just you can, you should, as that’s what protects you from injury as well!
It’s all about the breath
Yes, yoga can be a more intense, full body workout – but that’s not the most important part of it. It’s about breathing, focusing on your breath and moving in time with it. And that could be breathing your way through tougher poses, or keeping your breath steady as your heart rate increases. But it could also be long, even breaths paired with slow, gentle movement. What matters, is that you move with your breath, not the instructor’s or the person next to you. It’s one of the beauties of practising at home, that you don’t feel the pressure of other people around you. Especially if they’re moving faster and nailing the more challenging poses! At home, you can concentrate on your breathing, and what feels right for your body.
Yoga is good for your mental health, to slow down
This one is probably quite well-known, but it’s definitely worth mentioning anyways. Yoga is both about the whole body and about the mind. The concept of mindfulness doesn’t mean making your mind go blank. It’s about being present in the moment and putting all your attention on what you’re doing right now. And in yoga, you’re focusing on the breath and on the movement of your body. You’re keeping your attention on that, instead of dwelling on things on the past, or stressing about your future to-do list. Yes, you might find your brain wanders from this and gets distracted at times, but with practise, it gets easier.
This is also true whether you’re doing a fast or slow paced practice. But I think it’s definitely also good to try the slow ones sometimes if you’re a person who generally prefers faster, intense exercise. We live in such a hectic, modern world, always rushing around with things to do, and being bombarded with news and events constantly. Yoga is an invitation to slow down, to take time to be with yourself, and set all that aside. To be kind and patient to yourself, and to move your body gently and with ease, even if only for a few minutes a day.
You don’t have to be super serious and spiritual about it
But while yoga has a ton of mindful, mental health benefits, as well as physical ones, it doesn’t have to be super serious all the time. I think a lot of people view yoga classes as kind of spiritual, with everyone being silent and meditative at all times. But that doesn’t have to be the case. There are yoga classes, styles, and teachers out there with all sorts of styles and preferences. I always encourage people to try a few options before deciding that yoga isn’t for them. Maybe it was just that class or that teacher that didn’t gel for you!
For some people, yoga can be quite spiritual and that’s what appeals to them. For others, it can be a moment to switch off from adult life, and you can be relaxed and a bit goofy and silly along the way. This is one of the reasons I enjoy the Yoga with Adriene classes, as she frequently chats about tangents or bursts into song or something. It keeps the practice light and fun, but still balanced with moments of quiet and mindfulness. I think a good message is ‘take what you need’ from it. Listen and feel the aspects that resonate with you or the poses that make you feel good and happy. And set aside those that don’t and move on. There’s no right or wrong way to do it. Make your practice whatever you need it to be.
Yoga is a 5,000 year old philosophy
Now, while you don’t have to be serious and spiritual about yoga, I do think it’s important have an awareness of where and how it originated. In the Western world, yoga is often seen primarily as a form of exercise, and is very popular amongst white women (yes, including myself). Though as I mentioned before, anyone can do it! But the practice originates from India (and other South Asian countries and regions), and is believed to be around 5.000 years old. Most importantly, it’s actually a school of philosophy. Indian philosophy has many branches, often tied into religion as well, and differs dramatically from Western philosophy, so Yoga is just one school of it. It would take a whole book to explain it in depth, so this is just an introduction.
The Yoga philosophy focuses on achieving pratyakṣa, which is one of the ‘means of knowledge’ found in many branches of Indian philosophy. It is knowledge through perception and seeing what is before us. Our senses and our thoughts can lead us astray and distract us, but through long-term, spiritual practices of meditation and the movements of practising Yoga, we can calm our minds and focus more clearly. Removing our racing thoughts allows us to see and know the world as it truly is (1). Whether or not you choose to believe and follow this way of thinking, it’s clear how the basic principle of yoga being used for mindfulness and mental health has remained.
As I said, this is just an overview – to find out more, you might want to check out The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Sri Swami Satchidananda, and Light on Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar (I haven’t read these yet but I definitely plan to!).
Yoga is a versatile practice, that brings so many physical and mental health benefits. It’s an incredible tool that humans have been practising for thousands of years. I can’t recommend enough giving it a try! Have you ever tried yoga before, or do you plan to?
Sources (1): Baggini, J (2018) How the World Thinks. Granta Publications.