What is Yoga?
You could search google and read for days about what yoga is – it’s origins, the meaning of the sanskrit word itself, and the philosophical system. So to keep things simple instead, I decided to nut out what yoga is not. This is a particularly good post for those of beginners out there! Now, lets get clear:
What Yoga is NOT:
1. For women only
So many amazing international Yoga Instructors or “gurus” are men. For example: Bryan Kest, B.K.S Iyengar, Mark Whitwell, Rodney Yee, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, Mark Whitwell, Eoin Finn, Simon Borg Olivier, aaand…. the list goes on. BUT more importantly, you may not know that yoga was originally taught by male teachers only, to male students only. Yes, that’s right. The combo of women + yoga is a very modern thing. You may not have guessed it, but men have been exploring the yoga practices way longer that women!
2. For a certain type of body (or personality type)
Commonly, in the media, we see yoga practitioners portrayed as having a certain body type or look. However, pop down to your local Yoga class and you will see that people of all shapes, heights, and sizes attend. Of course, the more you get on your mat and practice the more your body will become toned, refined, and purified. However, the real bonus is when our physical body is no longer the priority, and we allow ourselves to be immersed deeply in the true teachings that we can absorb from this beautiful system if we’re willing to pay deeper and closer attention. The yoga system is multi faceted, and offers us healing of body, mind, breath, and spirit.
3. A Religion
Yoga itself is certainly not a religion. People of all faiths (or none) can practice Yoga. Yoga is about balancing and unifying the mind/body connection. Of course Yoga has its roots in India, where many of those who practice follow a Hindu path, but that is definitely not required or expected. Yoga could be suggested as being a spiritual path. Spiritually and religion are not the same thing. Spiritually is certainly expressed differently in all individuals. Yoga is a life long path drenched in beautiful and wise philosophy, and we can all immerse ourselves in this without any specific faith or religious practice.
4. A Cult
In Yoga, there are no dangerous or controversial rituals, or any form of mind control. Yogis do practice various types of breath control, called Pranayama, which is one of the eight limbs of the yoga system of Patanjali. Meditation is a form of voluntary and positive mind control – to ultimately create stillness, and clear unwanted negative patterning of the mind. Mediation is through the practice of withdrawing from the overstimulation of our senses, and instead focusing our attention inward on the Self.
5. All about As(s)ana (i.e. bending into pretzel-like poses)
You do not have to be a contortionist to do Yoga. In fact you don’t even have to be able to touch your toes. Most people who start practicing Yoga cannot, and may never. Yoga is an avenue in which you can become more flexible. Not so you can bend like a pretzel, but so you can keep your joints, ligaments, fascia, and mind in good health. It feels amazing to have physical mobility, which we take for granted when we’re young. Yoga will help to keep your body feeling supple, free, and youthful.
Having minimal flexibility or balance is a great reason to start practicing Yoga. It is an incredible way to develop these qualities, as well as helping to quieten the mental chatter from our busy lives. You will also experience improved quality of breathing through maintaining a consistent yoga practice. The breathing techniques help to keep the lungs spacious and healthy.
Yoga certainly is not competitive. The ego is competitive, and yoga is a practice that is intended to help us strip off the layers of the ego. Everybody is different. Every body is different. Compare yourself to only your own abilities, limits, and growth. Understand that the person next to you may have been practicing for ten years!
I personally have to work hard, really hard, to maintain my flexibility. I have suffered many injuries over the years (fifteen injuries in fact) through pushing and staring my body. For these reasons, I know I cannot compare myself to anyone else. And, I should never need to because of the joy I feel every time I have personal progress on the mat. The more patience and breath focused I am, the better my body and mind respond, which has offered me many beautiful breakthroughs in my practice.
7. About being twig-thin
Despite what you see on TV, in magazines, movies, or on the internet, Yoga is never about being skinny, or having to conform to a certain look.
However, if you do move the body and practice yoga regularly, you will find the weight on your body will naturally over time drop off (to a certain degree). It is common for many yogis to be vegetarian, eating a diet low in animal products, and very high in minerals and vitamins. Long time students of yoga are very health conscious (in general). You may find that in following a path of Yoga, you will naturally integrate more wholesome, nutritious, and fresh foods into your life.
8. Insanely challenging
There are many varieties of methods and levels of yoga classes. Find one that suits you. If you’re just starting out, be sure to attend a class – instead of practicing off a DVD – if you can. A teacher can help to guide your posture and alignment so you don’t cause yourself an injury, and also to simply assist you into poses. Talk to your teacher, as they’re there to help you. Let them know if you have any injuries, or any questions prior to your first class. And don’t be afraid to ask your teacher questions about their qualifications and experience either (since almost every 2nd person these days seems to be doing a teacher training..!).
9. Or really easy
Most people consider a cardiovascular workout when they think of Yoga. Although you are not doing fast movements (ideally) and there is no booming music pulsing through the room (or headphones) the more challenging postures – and how they’re linked together – can certainly be enough to increase your heart rate.
Learning to inhale and exhale properly, under the guidance of a knowledgable teacher, allows you to get the most out of each pose.
10. Sitting around a room stretching (or snoozing)
How do people stand on their heads or get into those incredible pretzel-like poses? It takes a balance, a union, of strength as well as flexibility to practice the physical postures of the yoga system. And through taking class you will find your own ingrained weaknesses and imbalances quickly. This awareness is a blessing – if you stick with your consistent practice, you will notice how quickly any imbalances start to restructure and realign.
11. Or simply sitting round meditating (like a monk)
For many yoga is not about going to a class and practicing postures. You will find there is a huge connection between the physical side of yoga and meditation. Yoga classes generally end laying down in a pose called Savasana. It is like a relaxation, a chance to restore the body, mind, and breath (never leave class before completing this essential component – you’ll be half-cooked!). However, meditation goes a lot further than this. For example, Kundalini Yoga is a style of yoga that places a huge emphasis on meditation during class, along with music, and sometimes chanting. You may be interested in exploring meditation through weekly classes or online courses (check out my recommendation: Elena Brower’s Art Of Attention Audio Meditation Course, and the One Giant Mind app for your phone). There are so many different types of meditation schools and practices to explore – for example: Mantra meditation, walking meditation, guided meditation, Vipassana, body scan meditation, transcendental meditation, vedic meditation, movement meditation, and so on.
Maybe at this time it is not for you. And that’s absolutely ok. However, if you struggle to calm and focus your mind daily, you would absolutely benefit from a daily meditation practice. Early morning or in the evening is the best time traditionally. But anytime is a great time to quieten the mental chatter.
So now you have a few thoughts to ponder what yoga isn’t. I hope it inspires and motivates you to get on your mat. Be sure to just follow a few simple tips:
- Move at your own pace. Don’t try to be better than the person next to you (ego). There is always going to be someone “better” than you.
- Listen to your body. Recognize the difference between pain and discomfort. Breathe.
- Be careful moving into back bend if you already have back problems. Use your abdominal muscles and lengthen the tailbone.
- Do not eat a meal an hour before doing yoga.
- If you have any injuries or medical conditions, explain to your teacher before you start the class. They will appreciate it!
Now, over to you. What else could be added to this list? Leave a comment below and share you insights and ideas!