“I’m terrible at yoga, I’m not flexible at all.”
I hear this so often from people when they find out I teach yoga and it makes me both sad and excited. Sad because it is a reflection of how yoga has been defined in the modern world — as a fitness regime for beautiful, skinny, bendy (predominately white female) people who say “Namaste” and glow with an ethereal sense of calm.
On the other hand, I feel excited by the opportunity that it brings to people who have felt that yoga is not for them because they don’t have the right body type, they aren’t flexible, or they are intimidated by the Lululemon-wearing, Instagram-dominating- pull- your- leg- behind- your- head- balancing- on- one- leg image that yoga has become. Who can blame anyone for being intimidated or turned off by that? I’ve been practicing yoga on and off for most of my adult life and I can’t do most of the poses I see on Instagram.
In fact, there are still dozens of poses that I cannot do… and that’s just fine by me. Because for me, yoga is not just about the physical body. It’s about using the body to connect to breath, mind and ultimately to the highest, most pure, peaceful part of my “Self”.
Contrary to popular belief in the West, the actual purpose of yoga is not fitness, it’s spiritual growth.
In fact, this is one of the reasons I have been practicing yoga “on and off” as opposed to consistently for the past 20 years. Most of what I have found in the western yoga culture has been too superficial, too focused on yoga poses (which are called asanas), and lacking in the depth of tradition and spiritual evolution.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not knocking yoga as fitness. Yoga is a fabulous way to connect with your body, release physical tension and live healthier lives. That is how most of us first discover and fall in love with yoga. We find the right classes and we like the way yoga makes our bodies feel. But if you are really lucky, you find a teacher or tradition that will move you beyond asana to show you the really juicy, yummy stuff like pranayama, bandhas, mantra, and meditation.
In traditional yoga, the more advanced you become, the more subtle the practices become. Your awareness moves from external to internal. The practice becomes much less about the shape you move the body into and more about how that shape works with the breath to impact your whole energy system.
As one of my teachers once said, “Yoga is meditation. Everything else is just preparation.”
The idea is to prepare the body and to create an energetic state that allows you to sit and meditate in stillness and ease for long periods of time. In fact, most of the yoga poses we do in a modern yoga class were never a part of the ancient yoga tradition. These poses were created in part as a result of the influence of colonial British gymnastics conditioning in India some time in the 19th century, a time when (much like now) physical fitness was considered a moral pursuit.
In Patajnali’s Yoga Sutras, which are 196 short, succinct aphorisms written approximately 2500 years ago and might be considered the bible of the yoga tradition, the word asana is mentioned only 3 times. The sanskrit translation of asana is actually not pose, it means seat, as in a still and stable seat for meditation. According to another ancient text, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, there are actually only fourteen postures, eleven of which are seated postures and the four most potent are seated meditation postures.
The point is, when it comes to yoga it doesn’t really matter if you are flexible in your body or not. You may never be able to touch your toes and that’s totally ok. The length of your hamstrings is actually irrelevant and frankly every body is shaped differently and moves in its own unique way. What matters is that you want to feel better by connecting body, breath, mind, and spirit so that you can move through your life with a sense of ease and peace.