A few years ago, I wrote this piece out of frustration from what I saw being represented as yoga. I have grown in my practice since then and have tried to present an image of a nontraditional yogi; one who lifts heavy weights and is muscular, is African American and not particulary flexible as a way to encourage others to practice: hashtag #representationmatters. Yet, on the regular, I am hit with conversations expressing hesitation and fear from those interested in starting a yoga practice but afraid because of the images of super bendy, skinny yoga bodies bombarding their media feeds. For clarity, Yoga is for EVERY BODY and I want to get the word out.
I’ve been practicing yoga consistently for five years, sharing my progress along the way with friends, acquaintances and social media followers. I enjoy practicing, so much so, I invite one and all to come and join me for class, where maybe they will also begin to develop some love for the practice. All too often, I hear the following reasons why they don’t:
"I’m not flexible enough to do yoga.“
"Are they gonna have me doing handstands and stuff?”
“I need to practice before I come to class."
Ummm. Yoga IS the practice and flexibility is NOT a prerequisite.
If you follow yoga accounts, you may see the "yoga superstars”, the super flexible, very thin, and mainly fair skinned, create elaborate geometric shapes with their bodies. What about the ones who have no yoga commitment and use the asanas (yoga postures or poses) for photo ops to primarily to draw followers . There are also those who may already be very flexible for other reasons like dancers, gymnasts or genetics. This has been dubbed “Yoga Porn.”
How many super bendy “yogis” do you see on social media and elsewhere? Just hashtag #yoga. Do these images excite you or cause you distress, bringing out envy or jelousy? For a long time, those images brought out those same negative feelings. As beautiful as some of those photos are, that is not all yoga is. Yoga has 8 limbs and asana is one, (1. Yama - abstinence, 2. Niyama - observance, 3. Asana - posture/poses, 4. Pranayama - breath control, 5. Pratyahara - sense withdrawal, 6. Dharana - concentration, 7. Dhyana - meditation, 8. Samadhi - contemplation, absorption or superconscious state) and is usually the gateway to initiating a yoga practice. However, an over saturation of seemingly impossible asana images have intimidated and scared off potential yoga practitioners. Very few instructors I’ve practiced with over the years gave history or philosophy on the type of yoga being practiced that day. The ones that had, I followed intently, being the type who lives off the reasons for and history behind why I'm doing what I'm doing. It’s always been helpful to get a little background into the the thing when beginning something new. There are those who really only want to do the physical aspect of yoga, which is cool because there is the benefit of getting stronger physically. Fitness minded people are drawn to the physical. The asanas are very physical and very much seen, often for good or bad.
Like most, I was introduced to yoga through asana. I stood outside of studios and watched instructors until I was comfortable enough to walk in. I stayed because that particular teacher spoke to my spirit and made me feel welcome. I completed classes I didn't feel comfortable in, never walking out, but never going back. Not every teacher is for every student and part of the journey is finding the ones that are right for you, individually. I walked into the studio physically strong from years of weightlifting and cardio that resulted in being tight all over. I was not yoga strong which is a different kind of strength. Once my body became stronger in my practice, my flexibility increased. With consitency of practice came an interest in what else yoga could offer. This is a small part of what comes from committing to a yoga practice. But first, you have to start.
At this point on my journey, I still cannot do a lot of the super flexible postures. So what? I enjoy my practice; every time I see progress in a particularly challenging pose, it let's me know I'm moving forward. I will be able to practice the asana in its full expression when I’m supposed to be able to do them. The truth is some I may never be able to do. That is not what's important. Part of the journey is the practice. That is the joy of the practice. Everything in its time and there is always somewhere to go. It never ends unless you stop. This is true for everyone. That hyper flexible person you saw on Instagram may have been born that way. Or it that flexibility may have come from years of consistent practice and they are celebrating their journey by posting a picture. What is often not posted are the struggle photos or the before and after progress photos that got them to where they are today. This doesn’t make them better than you are or can be in your personal practice. Because yoga is personal. What someone else can do should not be a deterrent.
We all have someone we know who practices yoga. Ask them questions. Get studio, class and teacher recommendations. Then grab a friend and try it out. This is where your yoga journey begins. The journey is different for everyone. It cannot and should not be compared to another’s and should not be your focus. The concern over possibly being unable to perform something you saw someone else do is real but unwarrented as using yoga props (blocks, bolsters, straps etc.) can get most bodies into most poses. Comparison can lead to an unfulfilled and more than likely, brief yoga practice.
Here is the point. Yoga is for anyone. Yoga is for everyone. Every type of body. Every gender. Every race. Every age. E-VER-Y-BO-DY. Namaste.