When I say I am a yoga teacher, a really common response is “Wow, you must be really flexible.” At a wedding recently a girl I had just met went so far as to scream “You do yoga, DO THE SPLITS ON THE DANCE FLOOR!” When I laughed that off she started chanting “Do the WORM, do the WORM!”. I can do neither so I didn’t… much to her disappointment and everyone else’s relief.
The screaming girl at the wedding was pretty similar to most people, if not in how she demanded my immediate acrobatics then at least with some common misconception. People tend to put flexibility and yoga into the same package bundle, because this is what we usually see of yoga in the media. And yes, yoga can help with flexibility – and it does over time. But it’s not like when you hit Flexibility Level 6 streamers are released from the ceiling and the whole crowd goes wild. (The Fle-X Factor anyone?) The truth is, nobody really cares how flexible you are. Everyone is focused on themselves, and their own body in a yoga class, and they won’t notice that your body moves differently to theirs. And everyone has a voice in their head that feeds them very convincing stories about what they can and cannot do, with seemingly believable reasons until they spend some time examining those thoughts. Here are a few common beliefs that can hold you back, and how to let them go.
- “I can’t do yoga, I’m not flexible enough” Just think about that phrase – actually think about it. It’s like saying “I’m not an origami master so I can’t fold paper” or “I’ve never been on MasterChef so I can’t make scrambled eggs.” Starting is the whole point, not getting to where you think you should be, or where your brain has tricked you into thinking you should be. Start. And when you start, your body will thank you. And then your mind will thank you. And then you won’t care so much about touching your toes.
- “When I can do what X person can do, I’ll be happy” This is the Fle-X Factor card playing up again. We live in a culture where everything is focused on progress, levels, always looking to the future and forever improving. This means we can lose out on all the wonder of the present moment – we lose out on the right now. And that is all that really exists, everything else exists only in your mind. If you feed into this thought, in a few years you will be sitting with your ankles tucked behind your head saying “I’ll be happy when…” Save yourself some time and start really soaking in all the benefits of yoga without cheating yourself out of the present moment.
- “I need to lose weight before I go to yoga” A friend said this to me recently and my stomach dropped. It caught me so off-guard because of how much I love my friend, and how much she doesn’t need to lose any weight, particularly for yoga. This is a variation of the phrases above, with the scent of “I’m not good enough right now” which is the opposite to yoga. Yoga is all about being kind to yourself and learning to have a new relationship to your body. Take a brave step towards ignoring that unhelpful nag in your head and treat yourself with more kindness – if you want something, start now.
- “I have to look like the teacher in every pose” You absolutely do not. If you need to take things slower, if you have an injury or if your energy is low that day – take your practice for yourself. Bend your knees in forward folds or take simpler variations for poses – the whole point is to work with the body you have, not the body you want. Start where you are.
- “My body is annoying” I hear students say this about injuries a lot. And I get it – I’ve had injuries and it can be really frustrating not to be able to move how you want to move. But to be clear, your body is doing everything right. It’s responding to threats every day in your immune system, it digests every bite you eat, it brings you everywhere you go every day, it keeps you safe by sending you sensory signals and chemical responses and works tirelessly every second of your life to keep you here and healthy. Your body has you covered. The mind is the one to work on – if you are mentally steamrolling your body into a faster recovery than your body is ready for, it will do its job and keep you safe, by tensing up or sending you pain signals – listen. You should never feel any pain in yoga. If you modify poses to suit your injury, you will be supporting the muscles that need support and therefore healing your body in a much better, healthier and often faster way than the steamroll approach, which can lead to more injury time. Your body has an incredible capacity to heal itself, if your mind allows it.
If this is sounding all too familiar, then start enjoying your yoga practice now – start with a fresh approach and fresh thinking. Because your body is ready – your mind is the one that needs the nudge.