When people hear that I teach yoga, a typical comment is, “I’m not flexible enough to do yoga.” My reply: “That’s like saying your house is too messy to hire a maid.”
It’s a common misconception that yoga requires people to twist themselves into pretzels and stand on their heads. But while complicated postures may be part of the yoga practice for some people, they are by no means required. Not only do you not have to be flexible to practice yoga—you also don’t need to be young or fit or even ambulatory. In fact, the only requirement for practicing yoga is the ability to breathe.
As a yoga therapist, I specialize in creating appropriate practices for people with health challenges, and I’ve taught students dealing with a wide array of ailments including cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, blindness, PTSD, Parkinson’s disease, and leg amputation. For many people, yoga practice involves simple yet powerful, meditative movements that anyone can do.
Yoga For Unity and Balance
Despite the common misconception that yoga is a form of exercise, the practice is much more than just a workout. This ancient discipline originated in India, and the word “yoga” means “to yoke” or “unite”. At a basic level, yoga helps unite body and mind. At a deeper level, yoga seeks to unite the individual with the universal. Yoga teaches you how to relax and release tension, as well as helping to strengthen weak muscles and stretch tight ones.
It also helps balance and integrate mind, body and spirit, to enhance energy flow and stimulate the body’s own natural healing processes. As a powerful form of mind-body medicine, yoga approaches health in a holistic manner, recognizing that physical ailments also have emotional and spiritual components. At its heart, yoga is a comprehensive system for self-development and transformation.
Yoga Practice In The West
In Western cultures, however, word “yoga” is often used to mean “posture,” and people think of “doing yoga” as “performing yoga poses.” But postures are just one component of the yoga tool kit, which also includes breathing practices, meditation and principles—such as non-harming, truthfulness, and contentment. Performing postures without attention to these other aspects of the practice often means that people are doing just that—performing postures, but NOT actually doing yoga.
Because in yoga it’s not just what you do that matters, but also how you do it. Embracing the yoga principles as you practice is generally a very different experience than moving with the typical Western, competitive, striving mentality. Yoga asks us to take each pose to the point of challenge, but not strain, with awareness of all the sensations that are present, and with honesty and self-compassion. This is often quite challenging for people who are used to pushing themselves and who are frequently self-critical and judgmental.
Learning the yoga approach of compassionate self-awareness on the mat frequently translates into using this mindful, kind approach when handling challenges in daily life. This often results in numerous health benefits that extend far beyond increased flexibility and enhanced balance.
Yoga As An Ailment Treatment
In recent years, an increasing number of scientific studies have measured yoga’s effectiveness as a treatment for various ailments. A growing body of research suggests that yoga offers a wide range of health benefits, including improving blood pressure, relieving pain, enhancing sleep, and boosting mood. Currently, there are more than 240 publicly and privately-supported studies being conducted exploring the therapeutic benefits of yoga for varied conditions including heart failure, depression, fibromyalgia, insomnia, and inflammatory arthritis.
These days when I ask new students why they’ve come to yoga, more and more of them tell me that it’s just what their doctor ordered. In fact, nearly 14 million Americans say their doctor or therapist has recommended yoga to them, according to a 2008 study on yoga in America. Almost half of current yoga practitioners started practicing to improve their overall health, the study found, and 4.1 percent of nonpractitioners—about 9.4 million people—said they will definitely try yoga within the next year.
Micro-Practices Of Yoga
Yoga is powerful medicine, and it’s most potent when taken regularly, over time. That’s why I like to teach “Yoga Sparks” – quick, simple micro-practices designed to help people integrate powerful yoga teachings into daily life. In my work as a yoga therapist and in my own practice, over more than 35 years, I’ve found that interweaving brief practices into the day can be transformative, turning ordinary activities into sacred rituals and bringing awareness to the precious gifts of body and breath.
Over time, these micro-practices can have major effects – relieving pain and stress, stretching and strengthening your body, calming your mind, and lifting your spirits. And because they’re so easy and quick, you can fit them into activities you’re already doing, such as showering, cooking, driving, or surfing the Internet, to help cultivate ease, joy, and well-being.
Igniting Yoga Sparks throughout your day will help you find the healthy alignment of your body, the peaceful potential of your mind, and the joyous nature of your spirit. Breath by breath, moment by moment, you can move with compassion and diligence in the direction of health.