Yoga: It’s not what you think it is

Are any of these misconceptions holding you back from trying yoga?

woman doing yogaYoga is derived from the Sanskrit word yuj, meaning 'union' or 'coming together'. It is called so because regular practice of this art has the power to bring about unison between the mind, body and spirit.

But there are many misconceptions that keep people from reaping its benefits.

1. Yoga is a religious practice.

This is a common misunderstanding among yoga aspirants, who dread chanting even a simple Om thinking that it's a prayer to a particular deity.

You might have come across references to yoga in Hindu scriptures or probably seen saffron-clad gurus on television propagating pranayama and yogic asanas, but yoga has nothing to do with any religion.

In fact, yoga does not need you to invoke any Gods or light incense or even believe in, let alone practise, religion. It gives you a spiritual advantage because it teaches you to connect to the power that is within you and helps keep your mind and body well-tuned. But if you're not spiritually inclined, worry not. You can still practise yoga.

2. Yoga is slow and boring.

There are ways to make it interesting and fun. Learn the right technique of performing every asana and keep trying new things every time.

Don't stick to the same routine. Have a good mix of standing, sitting and prone poses. Also, do not restrict pranayama to the end of your practice.

You could even try couple yoga with your partner or a friend. Another great idea would be to practise yoga outdoors—the neighbourhood garden or your building terrace. Use props, if you can, and play some soothing natural music. If static poses are not for you, try power yoga.

3. Yoga is only a stretching exercise.

If this is your excuse for avoiding yoga, then you have no idea what you're missing. Yoga has so many facets to it—asanas, pranayamas, mudras, bandhas and kriyas among them.

And the benefits you gain from practising even one are immeasurable. It can heal your body, slow ageing, calm your mind and build resistance, stamina & strength.

In the words of Yoga Guru Shri BKS Iyengar, "Yoga teaches you to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured". Give it a try—you're sure to get hooked on to it.

4. Yoga is only for the flexible and young.

The beauty of yoga is that it does not matter how old or young, flexible or stiff you are—you can begin now. Everybody is different and not everyone can do the same asanas.

But remember, flexibility is not an eligibility criterion for yoga; on the contrary, it is an outcome of regular practice.

If you can't sit in full lotus [padmasana], try the half lotus [ardhpadamasana], and if that is difficult, try the simple cross-legged position [sukhasana]. Yoga is well-suited to elders as it helps overcome the restriction of limited physical activity that comes with age.

5. Yoga is just about contorting your body into difficult poses.

To the untrained eye, this is what yoga might appear to be. But, it is important to pay attention to your breathing and body coordination while doing any asana. Every movement in yoga has to be controlled and rhythmic.

In the final pose, as you drop you eyelids and focus on your breathing, you gradually start becoming aware of the problem areas in your body. This helps you understand the strengths and limitations of your body and, in turn, makes you aware of your health.

Doing any advanced pose requires dedicated practice, endurance and patience. But, the contentment of finally getting a pose right, after several attempts, is worth all the effort.

6. Yoga needs you to be vegetarian.

It is not mentioned in any yogic texts that, in order to practise yoga, it is mandatory to be a vegetarian. Non-vegetarian food is not easy to digest as compared to vegetarian food and is also against the principles of ahimsa [one of the virtues suggested in Ashtanga yoga].

The philosophy of yoga suggests having a diet that is light, nutritious and wholesome. Eat foods that suit your body and avoid those that cause harm. Similarly, avoid alcohol and smoking. But if you drink or smoke, don't let that stop you from pursuing yoga.

7. Yoga cannot be stopped once started. If I do, my health will suffer.

Not just yoga, this misconception applies to even other forms of exercise. People often think that it's better to avoid exercise altogether, instead of doing it for some time and then discontinuing, because then health problems will come back with a vengeance.

For instance, if after losing weight, you stop being physically active and consume more calories than you burn, you're sure to put on all the weight that you lost—and more.

Get this correct: if you decide to take a sabbatical from your yoga practice for some reason, your body will not hold it against you and your health will not start deteriorating. At the most, you might have to begin from preliminary poses when you restart, but you'll soon regain your form.

8. Yoga has to be done early morning for maximum benefit.

This is a good excuse if you're feeling lazy. Although it is recommended that you practise it early in the morning, you can practise yoga anytime during the day; there is no fixed time.

In fact, I've noticed that for some, evening is a better time as by then their body has warmed up a bit and is also more flexible. Just make sure you don't eat anything at least 2 – 3 hours before and 30 minutes after your practice.

9. I do deep breathing every morning, but it's not helping.

I've come across people who complain that they've been practising yoga for years, but haven't found relief. That's probably because most of them are either doing it wrong or are just doing a couple of asanas or warm up exercises.

Just doing some breathing exercises for five minutes occasionally cannot be equated to a regular yoga practice. According to yoga sutras, pranayama has to be done the right way for benefit—the wrong technique can actually harm you.

The same applies for asanas. Spend at least a minimum of 20 minutes daily or three times a week doing a mix of asanas and pranayama. And don't forget to learn the correct technique from an expert before you try it yourself.

10. Yoga is only for women.

I see this myth gradually shedding. However, there is still some apprehension among men. Some of the best yoga teachers across the globe are men. It is also a part of the physical training of most international sport players, including the Indian cricket team. What's more, it is also being taught to our police force. Need I say more?

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Grazilia Almeida-Khatri
Grazilia Almeida-Khatri is a homoeopath, yoga trainer and a wellness coach. She endorses yoga as a way of life and conducts yoga retreats for individuals and corporates. She is also trained in Pilates by Michael King, who is based in the UK. Grazilia is a practitioner of the Body Mirror System of healing as taught by Sir Martin Brofman. She lives in Mumbai and offers consultations in person and also on Skype.

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