As a strong advocate of yoga for all, I am somewhat disturbed by the proliferation of images that portray yoga as more like gymnastics than the cultivation of a mind/body connection. Yoga was originally developed as a contemplative practice to assist with the physical demands of seated meditation. Somewhere along the line certain branches of the practice have taken a turn to the athletic. In fact there has been a movement in recent years to make yoga a competitive sport. This is fine for some. Unfortunately, however, this tends to intimidate people who think they are too old or infirm or inflexible or whatever to do yoga. That, of course, is completely untrue. One does not need to be flexible to do yoga. Although yoga will not alter genes or inherent physical attributes, it can improve flexibility and encourage greater mobility in regular practitioners. Fortunately, there is also a growing segment of the yoga community that is advancing the practice of yoga as therapy, expanding on its roots as an inner as well as outer practice.
The keys to experiencing the benefits of yoga, both physically and mentally, are letting go of expectations and maintaining a consistent practice. It is entirely possible that you will never be able to touch your toes in a forward fold. But here’s a revelation – it doesn’t matter! If you practice forward folds consistently, they will become more comfortable and you will experience their benefits. These include calming the nervous system, quieting the mind, and helping to relieve stress and anxiety. Forward bends also stretch the hamstrings and calves, notoriously tight areas for most of us that can lead to additional problems in the hips, knees and lower back. And now for another revelation: according to a Yoga Journal article by long time yoga teacher Baxter Bell “90% of people [need help] doing [forward bends] safely”. So if forward bends are a problem for you, you are certainly not alone. This is what props are for. Using props is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of self-love, self-compassion and finding the joy that accompanies true acceptance of reality. Remember also that today’s reality is transient just like everything else. So accepting and accomodating the reality of today doesn’t have to mean forever. Just for today practice they way that feels best for you. That may change tomorrow. Or it may not. But today is the most important day. It deserves your attention.
It doesn’t help that we live in a culture that does not value aging. Youth is celebrated to the extent that we are constantly bombarded with images that implore us to deny the natural – and inescapable – reality of changing physical bodies. Instead we are encouraged to follow the next great product or procedure to the impossibility of eternal youth. We find ourselves falling into the trap of denying reality and living with the false hope that we can avoid change or return to some magical time when everything was perfect. It’s amazing what hindsight allows us to believe. The fact is that just by virtue of having lived longer than younger people we have accumulated a certain amount of wisdom simply through experience. Sometimes the noise of the youth culture becomes so overwhelming that we, too, forget to value this wisdom. Here are some quotes from one of the founders of modern yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar:
“Do not look at others’ bodies with envy or with superiority. All people are born with different constitutions. Never compare with others. Each one’s capacities are a function of his or her internal strength. Know your capacities and continually improve upon them.”
“Action is movement with intelligence. The world is filled with movement. What the world needs is more conscious movement. . .”
Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance recently completed a study titled 2016 Yoga in America. Highlights include documentation of the increase in yoga participation throughout the U.S. even in remote and rural areas. This is not exactly big news to most of us, but some of the statistics are surprising. Among them, more men are practicing yoga. Also the number of participants aged 55 and older has increased by a whopping 10 million people in the 4 years since 2012 (from 4 million in 2012 to 14 million in 2016). The article anticipates that this population “may usher in a wave of softer and more meditative practices.” Fortunately, this is already happening. Those of you who are lumping all yoga classes into some broad category of sun salutations and arm balances would do well to take a second look. Most studios offer a variety of classes. Check out the descriptions or speak with an instructor before making assumptions about what you can and can’t do. The study also points to the increase in the number of trained yoga teachers. For every current teacher, there are 2 more who are training to be teachers. This means that there is a choice in teachers. So if you try a class and don’t like it, my first suggestion is to try again. Everyone has a bad day and your own anxiety could have been part of your judgment. If you still don’t like the class, try a different teacher. American yoga has greatly expanded on the original methods of yoga that came from India. Today there are so many styles and teachers bring many different backgrounds and interests to their classes. So don’t give up. With a little patience and persistence you will likely find a practice that works for you.
Finally, the study cites all of the benefits enjoyed by yoga practioners. These include a more positive self-image, increased likelihood to be active in other ways, relief of stress and overall health improvement. Those who take classes also have the benefit of community. So if you are new or returning to yoga after an absence, be kind to yourself. Let the past go. Just for today, accept where you’re at right now. Don’t try to push yourself beyond your capacity. Pay attention to your own body and listen to what it is telling you. Use props and make adjustments as needed. And accept support. Ask your teacher for help with whatever accommodations you might need. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else. Regardless of what you think your poses look like, you are a real yogi just like all other practitioners. Relax and enjoy! You, too, deserve the benefits of yoga.