“How can I do yoga? I am not a girl!”
Addressing the most common excuses why people say no to yoga practice.
- “Of course you enjoy doing yoga: you are a girl!”
Wait, what?! I hear this excuse all the time and I still struggle to understand what it means.
In modern society, especially Western society, yoga classes count a much higher number of female students than male students. This has arguably been the case since the mainstream diffusion of yoga globally in the past 30 years or so.
However, traditionally yoga was a male-only discipline: Indra Devi was the first woman being accepted as a student of Krishnamacharya in the late 1930s. This seems incredibly paradoxical when thinking about the recent shift to today’s yoga industry, largely female-dominated.
The reason for this may be that many men, based on prejudices and misconceptions, deem yoga as a “restorative” practice, not a “proper workout”.
This brings be to my next excuse.
- “Yoga is not even a proper workout, I’d rather go to the gym and break a sweat!”
Coming mainly from protein-shake-sipping, weight-lifting bros (but not only), this is the one excuse brought forward by those who do not understand a single thing about yoga. But especially, those who do not know that yoga is an umbrella term for a range of styles and practices.
While it may be true that some more restorative kinds of yoga, like yin yoga, will not make you burn the cheeseburger you had last Saturday, it is also true that they do not represent yoga as a whole.
More dynamic styles of yoga, like Hatha (when the poses are held for a long time), Ashtanga or its ‘contemporary’ incarnations like Vinyasa Flow, can be an intense full-body workout. It is to be said that these will not get your heart rate up in the same way that going for a run does (the aim is to keep it lower than 80 bpm for Hatha, 100 bpm for Ashtanga, on average), but can help you build strong and lean muscle thanks to isometric contractions (in Hatha) or concentric and eccentric contractions mainly in Ashtanga.
Personally, I think that what constitutes a ‘workout’ is very subjective, depending on which muscles you are used to using, body-type, resistance, etc. However, as an ex-professional ballerina I am quite used to cardio exercise like jogging, and when I go running I only break a sweat after about 25 minutes; when I do yoga, instead, I am already perspiring around the 3rd sun salutation, only a handful of minutes into the class.
Maybe yoga would have this effect on you, maybe it wouldn’t: but do try before ruling it out!
- “I am really not flexible, so yoga is definitely not for me!”
Who told you so? I would love to know, because that person deserves to stay in Utkatasana (chair pose) for at least 40 minutes straight – then they can tell me whether yoga really is only about flexibility.
Strength, balance, focus, mental stamina, spiritual reconnection: just some of the things which have nothing to do with flexibility, but have a lot to do with yoga. The list goes on.
While yoga definitely is a good way to improve one’s flexibility, and it helps achieve perfection in some poses, it is by no means a prerequisite. This is because of three main reasons.
Firstly, all asana is yoga but not all yoga is asana. A lot of the practices which constitute the realm of ‘yoga’ have nothing to do with physical movement at all. For instance, yoga nidra (literally ‘yoga sleep’) is a form of guided meditation. Meditation (dhyana) itself, in addition, is a part of yoga practice, and has in fact everything to do with training the mind and nothing to do with training the body. In similar fashion, Pranayama (or extension of the breath, the life force) – constituted by a range of breathing exercises which serve different purposes and are suitable for different people – can be practiced even by the least flexible of people. The same goes for most yoga Mudras, gestures, which allow those who practice them to rebalance the energy body with simple movements of the face, the hands or the body.
Secondly, a great number of yoga asanas do not require the student to be very flexible: just a few examples would be poses such as the above-mentioned Utkatasana (or chair pose), Tadasana (mountain pose), Chaturanga or Santolasana (yoga push-up and plank pose, respectively), Dandasana (or staff pose), Kakasana (or crow pose), and many others. What is more, most poses have a number of variations and can be adapted to suit the needs/abilities of the student. This process can be facilitated thanks to the use of props, like blocks and straps, as introduced by BKS Iyengar.
Thirdly, the very terms ‘flexible’ or ‘flexibility’ are not very specific, and if not clarified do not mean much – especially when used to describe a human being. A human body comprises of 360 joints and over 640 skeletal muscles, not including visceral muscles, tendons, or ligaments. A body’s ‘flexibility’ could depend on the flexibility of a number of these muscles or joints, and could also depend on structural issues of the skeletal system. In order to understand which yoga poses one can or cannot do with ease (or altogether), one needs to understand where their lack of so-called flexibility stems from.
In this short and far from comprehensive blog post, I have addressed some of the most common excuses people present not to practice yoga. What do they all have in common? They mostly come from people who have never tried yoga, or have not really understood what yoga is about. If you don’t like to practice ‘yoga’ in any of its incarnations, nobody will force you to: but try to have an opinion based on a first-hand experience rather than a judgement based on prejudices, because, no matter if you’re female, male, old, young, sporty, unfit, flexible, or not, yoga has something to offer you!
M. Stella Scarpellini
YTT 200HR, March 2018