People have been practicing yoga for over two thousand years, maybe more. Granted, yoga only traveled out of India in the last hundred years, but it has spread rapidly around the world and its popularity continues to grow, particularly in the United States. For some reason, certain myths have risen up around yoga (if you go to more than two classes in a row, these will dissolve instantly); we’ll break down some of the most stubborn.
1. Yoga is a religion
Although yoga is closely connected to Hinduism, they are not one and the same. Yoga is a set of physical movements that lead to improved health of body and mind, and that’s it. If there’s a core belief in yoga, it’s to be compassionate to yourself and to others. It’s worth pointing out here that Hinduism is not a religion either; it’s the geographic and cultural identity of many (but not all) Indians. “Hindu” comes from the Indo-European root “hin”, which means north (think hinterlands); Hindus were people who came to India from the north, and spread south. Sindu is another group—from the south. And the chanting you sometimes hear in yoga classes (like the seed syllable “om”) serves to focus the mind and deepen breathing, no more. Oh, and yoga itself means “union” (of body and mind).
2. I’m too stiff and out of shape to do yoga
The truth is, most people are stiff and out of shape. Unless you’re a classical ballerina or an Olympic gymnast, chances are your muscles and joints are stiff. In our modern world, we spend a lot of time sitting down (often in uncomfortable chairs, hunched over a screen), and beginning any kind of exercise routine involves a bit of loosening up. Don’t worry if it’s hard to touch your toes at first. The good news here is that yoga offers a gentle way to stretch out, and after a few classes (or sessions in your own home), you’ll notice improved flexibility. There are many classes geared just to this cause (other classes are set up to increase strength, or endurance). And every pose has a modification; yes, advanced yogis can stand on one leg with the other one twisted around their head. But the modified pose offers almost as many health benefits.
3. Yoga is just for women
While it’s true that many yoga classes are made up mostly of women, much of this trend is due to the macho atmosphere in a lot of gyms—yoga studios are generally small and quiet. But yoga is not just for women! Historically, some of the greatest teachers of yoga—over the last 2,000 years—have been men.
4. A yoga class is slow and boring
To people used to the noise and hoopla of a huge gym with fifty cardio machines, a simple wood floor in an empty room might look boring. And some styles of yoga are a little slow—they’re intended to empty the mind through gentle movement and deep breathing. Other kinds of yoga, like vinyasa and ashtanga, are fast paced and, well, exhausting. Hot yoga, where the studio heats up to 95 degrees, is a great way to sweat as much as you would in a sauna. With repeated practice, yoga increases strength, muscle tone, and flexibility.
5. A 60-to-90-minute class is necessary to reap the benefits
Long classes are wonderful; at the end, people feel relaxed, accomplished, and there’s a sense of camaraderie in the room. But if you don’t have a full hour to devote to your practice, that’s fine. Studies have found that twenty minutes of yoga increases brain function—it improves mental clarity, speeds the processing of information, and improves short-term memory retention. Even ten minutes first thing in the morning is a great way to wake up.
6. Yoga is meant to be practiced outdoors
There are a lot of images on TV, in magazines, and on the internet of thin, smiling people doing yoga in shady glens, sandy coves, and flowering gardens. All fine places to practice, but yoga yields the same benefits indoors, even in a small apartment. We tend to look for excuses not to start a new exercise routine—yoga is actually one of the easiest to start. All you need is a mat and an internet connection; there are free yoga instructional videos on youtube, and local libraries also have many yoga DVDs to browse.
7. I like to drink and go out—I can’t do yoga
It’s okay; you can still drink a few glasses of wine and be a yogi. After practicing yoga for some time, you might start making healthier choices, in what you drink and eat—but there’s no iron-clad rule that you have to change your ways.
8. The twisting poses aggravate arthritis
This could be true, but only when common sense is abandoned. A lot of yoga styles are gentle, with flowing movements, and you can use a chair to balance on. Blankets and yoga blocks offer cushioning. As many people with arthritis will attest, slow movement lifts some stiffness out of the joints.
9. Everyone has to do the same postures
Postures in yoga are called asanas, and no, you don’t have to do the exact same asana as everyone else in the class. If downward dog is too taxing, go into child’s pose instead. Every body is different, and capable of different mental and physical feats—yoga lets you find your body’s strengths through a rather methodical investigation. Sun salutation, one of the oldest series of asanas, is like a morning check-in with your body. Do the postures that work for you, and avoid over-stretching; there’s no judgment in yoga.
10. Yoga increases the frequency and quality of orgasm
Alas, no. Unless you include the benefit of increased flexibility and physical endurance, which can indeed help your sex life. But yoga is a separate practice from tantra, which is devoted (partially) to accessing higher levels of consciousness through prolonged sexual union.