Yoga myths (and excuses) #1 & #2: “I’m not flexible enough to do yoga” and “I am not good at yoga”

Photo: via https://cheezburger.com/2521349/18-funniest-yoga-memes-for-international-day-of-yoga by https://www.gemmacorrell.com/

I cracked up when I saw the cartoon above. I love her tenacity! And yes, she is totally doing yoga!!

I have quoted Newton before, and I will quote him again when I say: “A body at rest tends to stay at rest. A body in motion tends to stay in motion.”

He was not talking about the human bodies, but I firmly believe that we creatures of habit will find ourselves in both good and bad habits, and it is hard to change them.

This is why I say that the hardest part about a daily, or even a weekly, yoga practice is stepping foot on the mat. There are days that I literally step on the mat, lay down on it and try to motivate to do something for a good ten minutes. And even then, maybe it’s only 15 minutes of something, but that’s still better than nothing.

As a teacher, I hear lots of reasons why people don’t come to class and especially why people don’t start practicing. We ALL have lives off the mat. Missing one class or a week of class isn’t the end of the world, so I’m not talking about occasionally truancy. I’m talking about those of you who always say you are going to start yoga and never do. This is not me judging you, believe me. I get it 100%. I cannot make you join my Zoom classes, but I am going to try to encourage you by debunking some of the reasons why people think they can’t do yoga (based on what they have told me) and try to give you some tools and encouragement for overcoming some of the reasons you give.

Myth #1: “I am not flexible enough to do yoga.

This is one of the most common excuses that I hear from men and women of all ages.

I want you to do something for me right now. Seriously. Stand up. Nice and tall. Let your arms hang by your sides with your palms rotated forward. Take a breath in through your nose and let it out slowly through your nose. Now sit back down. Congratulations! You jut did yoga. You practiced tadasana or mountain pose and one round of breath.

Yes, there are some advanced, super bendy postures, but many postures have variations of them, which a good teacher will show you. Getting into the “final expression” of the posture is something you direct your energy towards, but you may never get there, and that’s o.k. There is no gold star for getting your leg behind your head, but when you work towards that, knowing you will likely never achieve it, you increase your hip mobility and flexibility, which can reduce injury and tension.

Yoga can be very important for increasing flexibility. It is not important in most of our lives that we do the splits. Your inability, to do the splits is unlikely to have a negative impact on your life. However, your inability to touch your toes may have a negative impact on your life. A good yoga class will bend your spine in all directions: forward, backward, laterally and twisting. Throughout class, your hamstrings and hips should also get stretched. These movements will all reduce pain and chance of injury in your back. I have taught men over 50, a notoriously inflexible group, and watched as in a matter of weeks of REGULAR practice, their flexibility visibly improved. Nearly everyone can improve their flexibility, which will reduce pain, tension and injury in the long term.

A note about flexibility and the body shape. Some people are hyper-mobile. This means that their tendons and ligaments are just naturally looser and their joints move more. MANY gymnasts have this. This is something you are born with. Often times, a person with hyper-mobility will find that it is easy to do some very bendy postures, but that same person needs to be very careful to not injure themselves. Hyper-mobility is a gift, but can be a curse if not managed. So don’t judge yourself against the woman who looks like a pretzel. Also, our body dimensions impact the ability to get into certain postures. I, for example, have a short torso relative to the rest of my body and disproportionately long arms and legs. This means that certain binds are very easy for me. If you have a long torso and shorter arms, you will find binds nearly impossible. That doesn’t mean you aren’t flexible. You simply need to either bridge the distance with a strap or towel, or don’t worry about binding.

Myth 2: “I’m afraid I won’t be good at yoga.”

This is the twin to myth 1. They go hand-in-hand. (There is a triplet, actually, called “I’m not strong enough to do yoga,” which we will cover next time.)

Here is the thing that is super hard for a lot of people to grasp: there is no such thing as being “good” at yoga. Yoga is not an achievement. There are no real benchmarks or goals in yoga.

Let that sink in.

I know, Ms./Mr. valedictorian, triathlete, top regional salesperson, CEO, developer of life-saving medical procedures, astrophysicist, working parent of honor roll kids, that this is a super hard concept to grasp. I will say it again: There is no such thing as being good at yoga.

Mind blown, I know.

Some of you are now asking, “So what is the point? How do I know if I’m doing it right? How will I know what class I should take?” Blood pressure and anxiety are rising.

Stop. Take a breath.

Let go of all of what you know about sports, martial arts, competitions, races, and contests. Yoga is different. It is a journey with no defined start nor end. The start is the moment you first step on the mat, and the end is, hopefully, the moment you take your last breath on earth. This means that everyone starts at their own individual ability level and age. If you are a 65-year old man who has never done anything physical, but your doctor told you to “try yoga,” that’s great, but PLEASE start in a beginner, senior or gentle class. If you are an ex-dancer and college gymnast, you will find the postures easier, but yoga is not dance, so it is still important to start in a beginner class and then you may rapidly find you are able to do advanced postures, while my first example will never do those advanced postures. Guess what? That’s o.k!

Yes, classes are often labeled as ‘beginner’ or ‘level 3’ or whatever, but that is just to give you, the paying practitioner, the information needed. As a teacher, I would get very frustrated when beginner students came to intermediate or advanced classes, but only because they risk injuring themselves, and it also takes away from the other students if the teacher needs to spend extra attention with a student who would be better suited in another class. Teachers don’t eject students for being in too advanced a class, but I would often advise them of more appropriate class offerings. As a teacher, I also give modifications, and it is the job of the student to find the best version of the pose for them, which may not be what the person on the mat next to them is doing. Guess what? That’s o.k. too!

Sometimes the single biggest hurdle is our own ego. Our ego is a bitch, and he or she is very greedy for attention. Trying to let go of your ego in yoga class is a very important part of the practice. Listening to your ego is an excellent way to get hurt in yoga and to discourage you from continuing the practice, so leave your ego at the door.

There are no belts in yoga. There are no certificates. As teachers, we may say we are 200-, 300-, or 500-hour, but that is just the hours of training we have had, and it does not necessarily indicate how good we are as teachers. I would argue that there are definitely good and bad teachers, but there are also just different styles of yoga and of teaching, so if you once tried a yoga class and hated it, try another. It would be like taking a bite of pumpkin pie, hating it and then declaring that you hate all desserts. Try a few styles, studios and teachers before deciding that it is not for you. Maybe you just didn’t like that pumpkin pie, or maybe you hate all pie, but love cake, as long as it isn’t carrot. (Which is simply wrong because both carrot cake and pumpkin pie are delicious, but you get the point I am trying to make!)

Yoga is not a competition against the teacher, the other students or even yourself. I have been working on my handstand during COVID. I’m working on the strength to hold myself, balance and getting over the fear of falling over. This is a practice. I may successfully do a handstand off the wall one day, I may not, but nothing will change either way. I won’t stop doing them just because I “achieved” it, nor will I stop if I don’t. Yoga is a practice. Yes, it is wonderful to say that you want to be able to get into a particular posture and to work on it and practice and be proud of yourself if you do, but if you don’t, that’s o.k. too. You will still keep practicing. You may take class on Monday and be able to touch your toes and then on Wednesday, you can’t. That’s o.k. You may be 25-years old and super fit, but you can’t do a headstand, while the plump 60-year old grandmother on the mat next to you can. That’s o.k. She is not good at yoga, and you are not bad at yoga. You are just each in a different place on your journey.

One day in class earlier this year, pre-COVID, the teacher gave us the option of a forearm stand. I went to the wall, tried to kick up and was like, nope, not happening. The teacher shrugged, smiled and said, “Today, no.” Exactly. I just did not have it in me, and that was o.k.

For this reason, I think yoga is perfect for people like me who aren’t particularly competitive, but I would also argue that it is even more important for the person who IS competitive, who IS type A, who IS an achiever or over-achiever. Yoga gives that person a chance to practice NOT setting goals other than to show up and step on the mat. A good teacher will help guide you and give you variations of a pose, so that you can do the version that is best for you. I am very focused on alignment, so I may correct your positioning to avoid injury. I may also push you to go deeper as a challenge, but it is not a dare and it is not a requirement.

I had a student when I taught in Washington, D.C., one of the world’s epicenters of type A people. He worked on the Hill, the natural habitat of over-achievers, and he was really stressed out, so he decided to try yoga. He had come to a couple of classes, and one day he came up to me afterwards and told me that he was very open to me correcting him and helping him do it “right.” He asked if I had any pointers for him. I am always glad when students are open to correction because, as I said, I can help them reduce injury, but I assured him that he was doing it right, and that I wanted him to try to use this one hour, one time a week to not worry about doing something well or right. I asked him to just be on the mat and to let himself go in the postures and that was going to be “right” for him. I saw his gears turning and his mind reeling, and I smiled and told him that he was 100% doing it right and all he had to do was keep coming to class. He did.

There are also MANY styles and levels of yoga. I wrote a bit about them in a previous post. If you find yourself as a beginner in a level-2 vinyasa class, you will either give up or hurt yourself. Finding a class style, level and teacher is important, so that you are not doing postures that are too advanced for you and require strength or flexibility you have not yet developed. Everyone starts out a beginner, and some will end up advanced. Some won’t. And yes, you guessed it: That’s o.k!

There are more myth-busting posts to come, but if these two spoke to you, try me. Take a class for free on Zoom or on YouTube or take another class with another teacher and then maybe another until you find the dessert….I mean yoga class… that is right for you in your body right now!

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  1. Yoga Myths (and excuses) #3: “I don’t like yoga”
  2. Yoga Myths (and excuses): #4 “Yoga isn’t enough of a workout for me” & #5 “I don’t like to exercise”
  3. Yoga Myths (and excuses): #6 I am Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Atheist, Agnostic, etc., so I Can’t Practice Yoga
  4. Yoga Myths: #7 Yoga is Just Another Type of Exercise
  5. Yoga myths, excuses and questions: #8 Is Yoga an Example of Cultural Appropriation?
  6. Yoga Myths and Excuses: #9 Yoga and Pilates are for Women (and I’m a Man)
  7. Yoga Myths and Excuses: #10 I Don’t Have Enough Time (or energy) for Yoga

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