Yoga on the mat

Memo #1: You don’t need flexibility, strength, or size 8 gold-lined leggings to practice yoga

From listening to people talk about why they do – or don’t – want to try yoga, there are a few common misconceptions that crop up repeatedly.  I’ll attempt to demystify a few things here that might just be one less barrier to the beginnings of your own yoga practice.

For some, yoga is akin to a bunch of enlightened beings in contorted positions, chanting in an ancient tongue and bathed in exotic plumes of incense. At least, this might have been the case a mere five or ten years ago.  However, over the last few years, the practice of yoga has exploded in popularity in the West, and we now have almost too much choice to compute: Ashtanga, Yin, Vinyasa, Iyengar, Kundalini, Hot, Acro, Beer, Goat…all of these are yoga classes probably at a venue near you.  Whilst this proliferation of yoga has helped to make it feel more ‘accessible’ (I’ll cover that concept in a separate point…), it has also somewhat diluted the essence of yoga.  It is, sometimes, now a barely-disguised fitness class with a clientele of nubile, young (often white, often female) clients bedecked in £100 leggings and whose ‘warm-up’ involves them bending backwards at 90° and getting a novel perspective of their own backside.

Good for them!

But what about the rest of the population (ie. most of us)? Does this mean that yoga is now off-limits? Is there a pre-requisite of bendiness? Or a dress-code?

NO!

Saying you can’t do yoga because you’re not flexible enough is like saying you can’t have a shower because you’re not dirty enough.

At its very core, a yoga practice is a personalised blend of movement, breathing and meditation to guide us towards an inner sense of peace, acceptance and clarity. Let’s break that down:

  • ‘Personalised’: there is no ‘one size fits all’ way. What works for your teacher, or your sister, or even the rest of the class, might not work for you and your body or mind. We each bring with us to the mat our own blueprint that affects how we move or react to any given posture. For example, somebody in their twenties who was a gymnast as a child will yearn for different postures than somebody who is 12-months recovered from a hip replacement operation. That doesn’t mean that one is more entitled to, or ‘better at’, yoga than the other. It just means that each of us practice in our own unique way.
  • ‘Blend’: yoga has become synonymous with asana – the postures of a practice. Indeed this might be the dominant factor for somebody whose day is spent sitting at a desk and hence movement (be it strong or gentle) is the most natural route to reconnecting with the body.  However, many of us are embroiled in the turnings of the mind which ultimately leads to anxiety, stress and depression – so a more meditative yoga practice might be best suited.  Usually it’s a ‘blend’ of physical movement, pranayama and meditation – in varying degrees – but again there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ mould.

Once you begin to practice yoga asana regularly – and consistency is key – you will invariably notice an improvement in your flexibility and/or strength.  There’s no need to fixate on getting your body into a desired shape (trust me, I’ve been on that bandwagon and all it does is feed and bruise the ego in equal measure).  A well-rounded asana practice that meets your needs on that given day will leave you feeling refreshed or relaxed, energised, rejuvenated, or empowered.

As for the ideal ‘yoga body’?

How to get a yoga body:

  1. Have a body
  2. Do yoga

It doesn’t matter what size or shape you are – a yoga practice is available to you.  And any teacher, or fellow student, or yoga studio, who makes you feel otherwise doesn’t deserve to have your company on the mat.  Most postures can be adapted to suit the individual by using props such as yoga bricks, blocks or belts – or a chair, wall or dressing gown belt! Certain postures are more difficult than others and require stable foundations (such as in headstand) so may be more suited to those who have some experience of asana practice…but even in these instances, there are variations of the posture that can help to develop the required strength and awareness to progress to full headstand in time (conversely, due to neck injuries or ailments, some people may never practice headstand or its variants and that’s also totally cool).  The nub of the matter is: any teacher worth his or her salt will make every pose (or its variants) available to their students and, in the cases where it simply isn’t suitable, will offer another posture with similar benefits.

img_0620Lastly: dress-code.  Listen, if you want to rock up to a class in the latest yoga leggings plugged to you via Instagram, adorned in mala beads, go for it! Lemme break this to you gently though: *whisper* it doesn’t make you more of a yogi.

The only dress code you probably want to adhere to is one of comfort and freedom of movement.  Jeans won’t cut the mustard. Leggings (even those £2 ones from Primark), jogging bottoms, loose trousers (like those seen here in this picture), or shorts will do just fine. A vest top or tshirt will work wonderfully, although ladies might want to wear a sports bra or crop top to keep the lovely lady lumps relatively secure and contained.

Take away points

  1. A yoga practice can include physical postures, breath awareness and meditation
  2. Your yoga practice won’t look like anybody else’s and that’s 100% the way it oughta be
  3. You don’t need to be flexible or strong to practice yoga because there are always lots of options (variations and modifications) to make each posture accessible – but you might notice that your flexibility and strength increase over time with a consistent practice
  4. Your dress size is irrelevant
  5. Your choice of attire is irrelevant

Happy yoga-ing!