Yoga tends to divide people into two (main) polarities: devotees who swear by it and naysayers who have tried it once or twice and decided it’s not for them (or refuse to try it at all). Nevertheless, yoga’s popularity has grown exponentially in recent times, from an activity that was more or less marginalized twenty-five (or so) years ago, to a six billion dollar a year industry. Yoga has something that everyone seems to want, but (in the words of the Millionaire Matchmaker), “not everyone gets it.” Why is that?
From talking to people about yoga (a lot), I’ve observed a handful of common yoga misconceptions and pitfalls that prevent most people from progressing beyond that initial try. Perhaps the most common of these misconceptions is the idea that you can get an accurate impression of yoga (that is, to determine whether you like it or not) on the first try, which leads me to my first and potentially most important point:
Yoga is a cumulative practice.
Many people have this first experience of yoga through a workout DVD or in a fitness club environment, where it is presented as a straightforward series of body positions connected by movement. Often, people show up at a class and find that they’re not flexible or coordinated enough to achieve many of the shapes (certainly not with the same ease as let’s say, riding a bike or pedalling an elliptical). They quickly decide, “I’m not good at yoga,” or “I don’t like yoga” and move on to the next activity.
As I’ve written about previously, our bodies are, essentially, a storage facility for stress, manifesting in stiff muscles, ligaments, and joints. If you’re unable to, for example, reach down and touch your toes, we know that you have tightness in your hamstrings, which correlates with tightness in your lower back, upper back, shoulders, and neck.
Over time, yoga softens this tightness, releases stress, and decreases tension in the body. It has taken a lifetime to accumulate this tension; it takes commitment to wear it down. And if my experience is any indication, it’s worth the effort; which brings me to my next point:
Yoga calms and strengthens the mind.
A common pitfall to acquiring a taste for yoga (ironically) is that it is practiced in a calming, peaceful environment. When you step onto a yoga mat, there is an implicit agreement that you will focus on your body, your movement, and your breath. There are no smartphones, emails, taxis, children, pets, or spouses. There are no obligations, chores, or annoyances (OK, sometimes the person next to you forgot to put on deodorant).
That many people would avoid or feel uncomfortable in a relaxing, distraction-free environment makes total sense. We have become so engrained in our constant busy-ness, that it’s hard to slow down. When we attempt to slow down via a yoga class, we become aware of how frenetic our minds have become when the distractions have been removed.
The secret? Over time, yoga helps to manage the mind’s natural tendency to fret constantly about the future or fixate endlessly on the past. When the mind is no longer running amuck, it’s easier to be present and actually enjoy the moment.
How does yoga do this? By cultivating undivided, real-time attention to the body, moving it through complex, challenging, physically demanding sequences. Which ties in perfectly with my next point:
Yoga is hard.
The New York City, type A, Soul Cycle, Barry’s Bootcamp, PureBarre, Marathon-running set (I love you guys – and – you know who you are) tend to classify yoga as “too slow” or not “a good sweat” and, therefore, not an appropriate substitute for a “workout.”
In reality, yoga requires a ton of physical strength and most new practitioners find they are incredibly sore afterwards. Yoga asks the body not only to work with its own resistance, but also to engage muscles that might otherwise be left dormant. Even if you don’t feel inclined to make yoga your exclusive form of physical exercise, it can make the body stronger, leaner, and more flexible. And, trust me, you will sweat and it does count as a workout, which segues perfectly to my final point:
Yoga is so much more than a workout.
And once you get it, you get it.