Confessions of a Yogi: 10 Misconceptions About Yoga
As a yoga instructor I’m surprised by how many misconceptions there are about yoga. Even myself, before becoming a certified yoga instructor, I had a lot of false ideas about what yoga is really about and very little understanding how best to use this ancient practice to help my mind, body and spirit. I was often left feeling that yoga was a sort of competitive sport where the more headstands and complex poses I could do, the better and that yoga was more of a group practice where I needed to be in a yoga studio with someone guiding me, rather than understanding that yoga is really a personal practice that we can do on our own in our daily lives.
Knowing how yoga is accessible to everyone and beneficial for so many reasons including improving our health, our mental wellbeing, and our ability to be more present and peaceful, I’ve written about some of the common misconceptions that I feel many people have that might discourage someone from practicing yoga:
Doing a headstand means you’re awesome at yoga
The longer you can meditate, the better you are at it
Meditation means your mind must be completely empty
Yoga must be done for an hour each day to be effective
Yoga is for spiritual people
Yoga is just a bunch of yoga poses and is only a physical activity for your body
The more difficult your yoga pose or yoga class, the more you will progress in yoga
All kinds of yoga are right for you and your body
Your yoga teacher always knows best and you should always follow what they say
Yoga is only for people who are young, flexible and in shape
#1 Doing a headstand means you’re awesome at yoga.
I begin with my favorite misconception because I see it so much with people who do yoga, especially in the Western world—the belief that if you can do a headstand, you’re awesome at yoga. It seems to be that if you can show people you can do a headstand, then you’re a true yogi, but the reality is that a headstand is just one posture out of thousands and is no more important than any other. In fact, when I teach yoga, I don’t even teach headstands or shoulder stands because learning and understanding the philosophy and techniques of yoga such as breath control, meditation, mindfulness, compassion and patience, for example, are far more important and powerful to master than any one pose, such as a headstand.
Another concern I have about everybody trying to learn headstands is that it takes time to build up to a pose, like a headstand, because it involves many different muscle groups. It also requires delicacy as you practice since you can actually hurt your neck and shoulders if it’s not done properly and slowly. In fact, I’ve had students in my classes who had injuries from trying to do a headstand. If the next time you’re in a class where everyone is showing off their headstands, don’t just jump in. Take your time. A great way to start is by strengthening your shoulders first, for example, by doing the Dolphin pose for a month or more until they feel strong enough to begin working towards the headstand. And if you have any neck injuries, I personally would skip this pose all together unless you’re under close supervision by a yoga instructor while practicing this pose.
Lastly, if you feel yourself trying to learn a pose to subtly or not-so-subtly “show off” to others how much of a yogi you really are, it’s probably time to re-examine why you’re doing yoga in the first place. Western society has a strong need to be competitive and to try to prove our value, strength and show just how amazing we are to everyone (a little bit of sarcasm here) so we’re quite good at turning everything and anything into a competition—even yoga. Things like competition, judgment and ego are not the point of yoga and have no place in it. So don’t worry if you don’t know how to do a headstand, and if you do, do it because it enhances your own personal practice and don’t worry about anyone else.
#2 The longer you can meditate, the better you are at it.
Quantity is not better than quality when it comes to meditation. For example, I find five minutes of being focused and centered in your meditation is far more powerful than one hour where you are feeling distracted, impatient or frustrated. As I always tell my students, just five minutes of meditation per day, each day, is going to have more impact than one hour of meditation once or twice per week.
A huge part of the benefit and power of yoga is the discipline of the practice. By discipline, I mean making a commitment to yourself to practice yoga at least five minutes per day each day. By creating a practice that is realistic to do each day, the practice will naturally expand without having to force it. With just 5 minutes of meditation each day you are more likely to be consistent with the practice and to therefor experience the benefits. So stop worrying about how long you’re meditating, and just set a few minutes each day where you will be undisturbed and you can begin to quiet your mind and body five minutes at a time. It will feel a lot more enjoyable, and before you know it, you'll naturally want to do more.
#3 Meditation means your mind must be completely empty.
Popular belief seems to be that meditation involves sitting comfortably in the lotus position while effortlessly meditating with an empty mind for long periods of time. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Meditation, a tool to enlightenment, is really about the path rather than the destination. It is a way to begin to calm the mind and the body, to go inward into understanding who we are and our connection to something bigger, to detach from our thoughts and emotions and to “just be.” While the goal is to empty the mind, there are many different ways to do this and it is definitely a process.
When you first start meditating, the most common experience is that the mind is wandering all over the place. This is also known as “monkey mind” in Buddhism. The mind focuses on everything and anything it can think of to distract you from yourself and from just “being” in the moment. Often, the easiest way to help the mind to calm down and begin to focus is through different concentration exercises. Exercises using breath control, visualizations, mantras, a specific word or sound or counting, for example, are all ways to begin your meditation practice. Once you begin to gain more “control” over your monkey mind, you will then begin to have moments of “no mind” where the mind is completely empty. From here you can begin to expand these moments into longer and longer periods of time, which is what meditation is.
But remember that it’s normal and perfectly ok to have thoughts coming in and out of your head and that learning to calm your mind and detach from your thoughts is all part of the process. Meditation is an individual and personal journey and the best way to experience its benefits is to try it for yourself. Start with 5 minutes per day and see where it takes you! And if you’re not sure how to start, feel free to read my article about how to start your own simple meditation practice.
#4 Yoga must be done for an hour each day to be effective.
Many people feel that if they can’t do yoga for a minimum of one hour each day, that they shouldn’t bother with it. Similarly, they might also feel if they’re not doing yoga at a yoga studio with an instructor, that it’s not worth doing either.
While going to yoga classes is a great experience and really helps our practice to evolve, it is even more important, in my opinion, that you develop your own yoga practice based on your needs. By having your own yoga practice you’re not dependent on always needing a class to go to or having to pay someone in order to continue your yoga practice.
So I teach all my yogis to develop their own yoga practice starting with just 5 minutes per day. Yep, just 5 minutes.
I usually recommend one breathing exercise and then 2-3 postures for your needs and body and you’re done for the day! It really can be that easy. Most people think you have to do yoga for an hour or more each day but that’s just not true. Yes, in a perfect yoga world of everyone practicing yoga, we would all have the chance to do one hour of yoga each day, but most people cannot do this. So rather than forgetting the whole thing entirely, just start your practice each day, probably first thing in the morning or before you go to bed, with just 5 minutes. If you find you have more time in the middle of the day, do it then! As I said before, yoga is a practice of discipline so by building the consistency, you’re already creating your practice. And make sure to choose postures or breathing exercises that feel good for you. Don’t worry about what your yoga teacher told you to do or what your friend is learning in her yoga class, just do what feels right for you. The point is to leave your practice feeling more grounded, calm and balanced. If you don’t, then change up your practice and try something new. Some simple postures to start with are Child’s pose, Supported Fish pose and Cat/Cow, but whatever you decide to start with is fine.
#5 Yoga is only for spiritual people.
While yoga does have its roots in spirituality coming from the ancient texts of India, you do not have to be “spiritual” to practice yoga. The reason I love yoga so much is that it has something for everyone regardless of your age, gender, religious beliefs or physical state. Yoga is ultimately a practice of self-discovery so it’s actually not necessary to have a spiritual belief system to enjoy its benefits. With yoga, there are so many wonderful tools and techniques as well as philosophical ideas such as breath control, learning to focus one’s mind, being “mindful” and in the moment, practicing things like compassion, patience and acceptance, and of course, all the beautiful postures that help to create balance, flexibility, strength in the body offering us an endless amount of health benefits.
So if you happen to be in a yoga class, and the teacher uses spiritual vocabulary or concepts that you don't resonate with, rather than turning off or tuning out, use whatever vocabulary works for you. Whatever God or philosophy you use is fine. Just plug it in where you feel it’s appropriate to make the practice more meaningful for you because it's ultimately your practice.
#6 Yoga is just a bunch of yoga poses and is only for your body.
Most people seem to have some idea of yoga as having spiritual roots, but the commercialization of yoga by the West has unfortunately turned it into more of a physical practice than a spiritual one. Examples of this can be seen in how many different styles of yoga are available today, many of them I have yet to discover or even understand, to be honest.
While a big part of yoga is in the yoga postures or asanas, this is actually only one aspect of the yogic philosophy. And in the traditional Hatha style of yoga, there are “8 Limbs of Yoga” which discusses the “steps” or components of the yogic philosophy that are believed to best prepare one to reach enlightenment. Things such as concentration exercises, meditation, breath control exercises, diet, sexual abstinence, cleansing practices, focusing the mind on only positive thoughts that are free from violence of any kind, non-attachment, and the list continues. And yet when we talk or think about yoga we really just focus on the physical aspect of the postures. Why?
Sadly Western society loves competition and situations where we feel we need to push ourselves to succeed and we need to compete to be the strongest, the fastest and the best. The very beauty of yoga, I believe, is in its gentle and holistic approach that teaches us to be in the moment, to accept ourselves and our bodies, to be compassionate with ourselves and others, to be non-judgemental, patient, grounded and balanced. Unfortunately, these are the very things we tend to ignore.
Something I love to teach in yoga that is of very little focus in many classes I’ve seen, is the focus on breathing correctly. And most people, in my experience, don’t actually know what it’s like to take a full and complete breath—especially during a whole yoga practice. We put so much emphasis on being able to bend our bodies into so many poses, that we forget the core and foundational principals that hold so much power.
So my advice… the next time you practice yoga or take a yoga class, ask yourself:
How am I breathing?
Do I feel calm and centered?
Am I accepting of my body and where it’s at?
Am I focused and “in the moment?”
Are my thoughts positive and compassionate?
Am I listening to my body and what it needs rather than what others are doing?
With these things as the foundation of your practice, the postures will be just another component and not the sole focus, and your practice will be far more powerful and beneficial.
#7 The more difficult your yoga pose or yoga class, the more you will progress in yoga.
This one is a similar to the first misconception I mentioned about learning to do a headstand in yoga or taking yoga classes like “Hot Yoga,” “Power Yoga” or “Warrior Yoga.” While none of these are necessarily bad in and of themselves, there does seem to be a tendency in the West to push ourselves in whatever we do, even when the activity is supposed to be to help us be more relaxed, centered and in the moment. I don’t know how many times in yoga classes I’ve taken over the years that I’ve either been instructed to or have witnessed others doing poses that were far too advanced and included very little instruction on how to do the pose correctly so as not to injure oneself.
And of course, there is always the natural tendency to look over at your neighbour or your yoga teacher and want to match what they’re doing. I myself have done this many times. But of course, the problem with this is that no two bodies are the same and each person has their own natural strengths, weaknesses, injuries, body type, etc. that needs to be respected and listened to. If not, it can be very easy to get hurt and also frustrated, even in a yoga class. Getting injured can mean weeks where you are unable to do yoga or any physical activity while your body heals which can really throw off one’s asana practice. While feeling frustrated constantly in your yoga class can leave you not wanting to go back and as if you’re not good at yoga or that it isn’t right for you.
So the next time you feel the urge to try a difficult posture or a more advanced class, ask yourself if it’s what your body wants or perhaps what your ego is trying to convince you into doing. If it’s your ego talking, then thank it for its input and then just go back to what your body is telling you to do. By doing this, you will learn the more important yogic practice of self-acceptance, compassion, patience and non-judgement, which will have an even bigger impact and you’ll leave your practice with a big yogi smile.
#8 All kinds of yoga are right for you and your body.
This might be surprising for a lot of people, but it’s not always best to throw yourself into any class that your local yoga studio or gym is offering because, contrary to popular belief, not all yoga classes are the same or are right for you.
There are multiple types of yoga these days such as Vinyasa Flow, Power Yoga, Yin Yoga, Restorative Yoga, Acrobatic Yoga, Bikram Yoga, Kundalini Yoga, Ashtanga Yoga, Hatha Yoga and even Nude Yoga (yep, not sure about this one either), not to mention different levels of beginner, intermediate and advanced depending on the type. So by picking a class at random because it’s offered at the right time for your weekly schedule, you might find yourself either in pain from the postures, sweating from the extreme heat of the room or completely out of breath and lost because the class is moving so fast.
Also, if you have any kind of injury in your body, no matter how small and unimportant you think it might be, make sure to rehabilitate the injured area before potentially causing more damage. A great class for this, for example, would be a Restorative Yoga class which focuses on using props and alternative postural adjustments so that the body can begin to gain flexibility, strength and can heal any problematic areas. A seemingly minor injury to your wrist or ankle, for example, could become considerably worse in a Vinyasa Flow class where you are moving from one posture to another without stopping. A good Vinyasa Flow class can be amazing, but if you don’t know the proper alignments already for all the postures or are unfamiliar with the movements, it’s very easy to cause further stress and strain to an already injured part of your body without knowing it. And particularly when it comes to our joints that we are using all the time, we need to pay attention to any injuries or pain and be careful of not making it worse.
So when deciding on which class to take, I recommend talking to the staff of the yoga studio about their classes and asking for their advice about which class might be right for you depending on your experience with yoga, your current level and where your body is at. Also, think about what you would like to get out of yoga, such as more focus on meditation, focus on rehabilitating certain parts of your body, focus on breath work, or maybe just learning the postures and the correct alignment. If you have any physical injuries at all, always tell your yoga instructor before your class so that they are aware and can offer you adjustments to the poses. When in doubt, look for a beginner class, introduction to yoga or beginner level Hatha Yoga class since they will focus on the postures, the alignment and breathing. Hatha Yoga is a great foundational yoga to start with and then explore other types once you have a good understanding of the basics so that your yogic experience will be more enjoyable and pain free!
#9 Your yoga teacher always knows best and you should always follow what they say.
This one might surprise a lot of people as well, including a lot of yoga teachers, but the person who knows your body best is always YOU. As a yoga teacher, we are there to help instruct, guide, encourage our students and to make sure they are being safe in their postures to not harm themselves. But no matter how much we know about yoga, we don’t know what your body is feeling. You might come to a class with an injury, and if the teacher is not aware, you could be instructed to do a posture that could further injure your body unknowingly. Or maybe you don’t have an injury, but your body is really tight or just naturally inflexible, like mine, and a seemingly “simple” or “beginner” posture might need to be modified or you might need support props for you to get into the pose safely, or skipped all together until you build up to it. I, myself, have been in classes where we were doing “beginner” level postures and I felt like I was in an advanced class. Looking around me in the class I thought, wow, there must be something wrong with me since everybody seemed to be able to pop themselves into the poses so easily! But by pushing myself into the postures further than I should have, I sometimes ended up leaving the classes with a headache or lower back pain.
Again, your yoga instructor is there to teach you the correct alignment of the postures and to support you in your practice, but if your body is feeling any kind of pain in any posture, always stop or back off of the pose. You can also communicate with your teacher either during the class if it’s small enough, or after the class to see if there’s an alternate posture you can try to help the area that was in pain.
Lastly, if you should find yourself in a class that feels too advanced or where you feel lost in the postures, completely out of breath the entire time or in a lot of pain, don’t suffer through it and risk harming yourself. A good yoga class for you is one where you can keep an even breath, feel calm and centered, feel supported by your instructor, can understand the correct alignment of the postures and movements and where you feel you can begin to listen to your body and what it needs in your yoga practice. If the instructor is moving too fast, not giving enough direction for the poses or unaware of the level of the students, it’s best for you to listen to your body and to your own instinct about what is right for you and try a different class the next time. Sometimes you may have to try a few classes to find the right one for you since each instructor will teach a little differently. But taking the time to find the right class and instructor for you will make all the difference in your yoga practice.
#10 Yoga is only for people who are young, flexible and in shape.
This is another one of my favorite misconceptions. This idea that yoga is really only for young, in-shape, naturally flexible and strong people. Sure, it doesn’t hurt to be in-shape and naturally flexible and strong, but most people aren’t. I, myself, am very inflexible which I discovered by doing yoga. Whereas a lot of yoga instructors are naturally flexible and can bend themselves into all kinds of postures, I really have to work at helping my muscles and body to be more flexible. But the longer I do yoga, the more results and benefits I see in my body, including getting rid of hip and knee pain that I used to have from running (and from being inflexible).
As for your age, there are people doing yoga into their 90’s and older. Yoga is actually a wonderful activity as we age since it has so many benefits such as increased flexibility, increased bone and muscle strength, keeping the spine limber, less pain and stiffness in the body, increased energy, better focus and concentration, increased mood, increased metabolism and the list goes on and on.
If I had to choose one activity for everyone to practice that has the most benefits for overall wellness and balance of the mind, body and spirit, yoga is the answer hands down. The combination of breathing practices, meditation, postures and overall philosophy is tremendously beneficial and accessible to everyone. So if you think you’re too old, or too heavy, or too inflexible, think again. You’re perfect for yoga just the way you are.
Tania Manczarek is a holistic swiss army knife. A trained therapist, shamanic energy worker, certified yoga instructor, massage practitioner and spiritual coach, she focuses on healing through the mind/body/spirit connection and is passionate about helping people live an authentic and balanced life. Originally, from Los Angeles, she left to travel the world over 5 years ago to find her own path of healing and to follow her dreams. Now living in France, she offers individual wellness services by phone/Skype, events and retreats in France and abroad.