What Is Yoga, and What It Isn’t

Have you ever tried yoga? If not, perhaps one or more of the many misconceptions about this 3,000 year old practice have held you back from giving it a try. Or perhaps you tried a class once, and something about it wasn’t right with you. In this article, I share what yoga really is, and also dispel some of the biggest myths and inaccurate perceptions surrounding it.

Let’s start with some key elements of what yoga is.

“Yoga” is a Sanskrit word that’s interpreted to mean “union.” Union, in turn, means different things to different practitioners. For some, it means a union of movement and breathing. For others, it might mean a union of the mind and the body, or even a union between the inner and outer self. This is the first key element: yoga is what you make of it. There are no strict rules; it is always “your yoga.”

Yoga is more than just stretching.
woman in pink shirt posing while standing on shore

You may know that dynamic stretching warms your muscles before exercise, and static stretches afterward help you recover, as well as maintain functional movement in daily life. The benefits of yoga, however, go much further. Researchers have found that yoga boosts heart and lung function, reduces anxiety and depression, and can even help with managing addiction. Yoga has also been shown to develop interoception, which is your perception of how your body feels inside, by helping you get in touch with the needs of your body and mind. In this way, yoga develops self-awareness to respond better to what your system needs.

Yoga comes in many forms.

There are six “branches” of yoga, and Hatha Yoga is the branch relating to physical yoga, or the yoga of postures. Many different styles of yoga have been developed, most within the 20th century as yoga became more popular in the western world. Here are some of the most common styles you may find at your local recreation center, gym, or yoga studio:

Iyengar: Developed in the 1970’s by B.K.S. Iyengar, this style focuses on quality over quantity. Various types of yoga props (blocks, blankets, straps, etc) are used extensively to help every practitioner achieve quality in each pose.

Ashtanga: One of the most classic styles of yoga, this style comes from the teachings of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, a renowned teacher who lived from 1915 to 2009. In this style, movement follows breath through a traditional, unchanging sequence of poses.

Vinyasa: A well-known style that’s very popular in the west, especially in the U.S., it includes dynamic, flowing movements synchronized with the breath that build strength and stamina.

“Hot” Yoga: This form of yoga involves a hot room with high humidity to relax the muscles and connective tissues so they can stretch further. The original “hot” yoga, known as Bikram, was developed by teacher Bikram Choudhury, and involves a series of 26 poses in a 106 degree room.

Power Yoga: Originally created by teacher Baron Baptiste, this is the most strenuous style of yoga today. Baptiste’s format involves a fast-paced sequence over 90 minutes, performed in a 90 degree heated room.

Yin: This style of yoga has recently become my new personal favorite. Its focus is completely different from other traditional yoga styles, in that its goal is the relaxation of the muscles so that the connective tissues (tendons and ligaments) can stretch. Each pose is held for 3 minutes, and props such as blocks or blankets are recommended for comfort.

Restorative: This is a restful practice that’s all about slowing down and opening the body through passive stretching. In a Restorative Yoga class, you may hardly move at all, with just a few postures over the course of an hour. It has similarities to Yin Yoga in that the poses are held for a long time. However, its focus is deep relaxation with an emphasis on the meditative aspect of yoga – the union of body and mind. By using props for support, the postures are held almost effortlessly.

Chair Yoga: This is a gentle practice in which postures are performed while seated and/or with the aid of a chair. Just like other forms of yoga, Chair Yoga increases flexibility, strength and body awareness. When standing poses are included in a Chair yoga class, the chair is used to help with and improve balance. Almost every standard yoga pose can be modified for Chair Yoga.

Yoga is for everyone, regardless of age, body size, or gender.

Unfortunately, social media images and magazine covers perpetuate the myth that the only people who practice yoga and young, skinny, incredibly flexible, and female. This simply is not reality, because size and shape aren’t barriers to yoga.

And it’s a common belief that you must be super flexible to begin practicing yoga. In fact, just the opposite is true. If you are not flexible at all, yoga is perfect for you because it will help improve your flexibility. A teacher can offer adaptations for you so you can practice the poses and reap the benefits from them as you gently stretch your muscles and connective tissues.

The beauty and wisdom of yoga is in knowing that every pose and movement is meant for your benefit. You make them work for you, where you are at that moment. By using props such as blocks, straps, a cushion, a blanket, or a chair – or simply changing the position in a particular way – every yoga move is adaptable to you. All without judgement. There is no “right” or “wrong.” This is also why it’s called a practice.

People doing yoga

Each person’s body will hold a pose differently, due to variations in skeletal and muscular makeup. Regular practice improves muscle tone and joint range of motion – and can establish a deep sense of wellbeing and interconnectedness, lower blood pressure, and even improve sleep.

Next, I’d like to correct some of the biggest misconceptions about yoga.

Yoga is NOT a religion.

More specifically, it is not Hinduism or Buddhism. Yoga does not exclude or lean toward any specific religions. However, yoga is often described as offering “spiritual” benefits. What this means is that it simply offers opportunity to work through stress, anxiety, or emotional issues and challenges. Yoga practice encourages mindfulness, i.e. creating awareness.

Yoga and Buddhism both evolved in the culture of ancient India, and consequently share some of the same philosophies: living a balanced life, with self-discipline, respect for nature, and mindfulness. Buddhism, like yoga, is a practice, not a religion (another common misconception.)

You do NOT need to practice yoga for hours every week to reap its benefits.

While an hour-long daily yoga session is a wonderful gift to give yourself, for most of us with busy lives this isn’t realistic. Also, yoga should not be your only form of exercise. Instead, it compliments all kinds of activities, including all those essential movements of daily life. Start off with one session per week, preferably attending an in-person class where a teacher can guide you. As you gain experience, you’ll find particular poses that really make you feel great. Consider practicing those for just a few minutes each day and observe what happens to your body and mind. For those who work at a computer all day, a short series of yoga stretches throughout the workday can make an enormous difference in how you feel both physically and mentally.

You CAN do yoga if you have a bad back.

According to the American Chiropractic Association, about 80 percent of Americans will experience back pain at some point in their lives. These people will then go on to spend $50 billion or more each year on treatment. However, yoga could provide an effective and cheap alternative. Several studies have shown that yoga helps ease lower back pain, including one in the Annals of Internal Medicine that found it as effective as physical therapy.

Meanwhile, a meta-analysis of seven studies in the Journal of Yoga and Physical Therapy found that participants who practiced yoga reported less lower back pain and greater functional ability. Even more interesting was that these benefits were reported to continue for 12 to 24 weeks after the sessions had finished.

The Takeaway

No matter your age, your body size, or if you’re flexible or stiff or anything in between, yoga could be a great option for you. If they’re available to you, try out different styles to find one that you enjoy. Ignore the myths and stereotypes, and make it your own.

Always remember you are unique in your own physicality, as well as in your daily activities and personal experiences. Knowing this lets you to focus on yourself in the practice, with no need to compare yourself to others or judge what ‘good’ looks like.

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