Is yoga really for all?
Many people ask me if they can start doing yoga and without any hesitation I say “yes!” right away. Yoga can be practiced without age, gender or any other restrictions. Someone in a wheelchair can practice yoga and may even have a more advanced practice than a football player. But before you jump into purchasing your first intermediate ashtanga class pass, let me tell you what I mean by yoga being safe for everyone.
First of all, yoga is not only what you do on your mat. Yoga is a lifestyle that contains more than our asana (physical) practices. Depending what lineage of yoga you follow, there are different parts to your yoga practice, but since I follow Ashtanga (the 8 limbs of) yoga, I will shortly tell you about the 7 other parts one should build into their practice.
The first two limbs of yoga are Yamas and Niyamas. Universal and personal moral codes and conducts of our lives, behaviour towards ourselves and others. The attitude we have towards things and people outside ourselves are called Yama, and how we relate to ourselves inwardly is called Niyama. Then follows our Asana practice. This is our physical practice, which most people consider “yoga” not knowing the other aspects of a yogi life. Then comes Pranayama, which is our breath control if we very simply want to describe it. After Pranayama comes Pratyahara, which means withdrawal of the senses, the gateway between our physical bodies and mind. Calming the mind if only possible if we learn to control our senses and distance ourselves from all the distractions that they pick up from our environment. Once that is in practice, comes Dharana. Trying to hold the focus on one single point. This doesn’t mean we can, but we keep on reminding ourselves to aim for this goal. If Dharana is successful, we arrive to Dhayana, where we are capable to hold our focus on one point. This is meditation. And if you see the chronological order of practices, technically we are using our Asana practice to prepare our bodies to comfortably sit in one place for at least about 40 minutes so we can attain Dhayana. If we need to move and fidget because we feel soar or we experience discomfort, we are unable to focus on one point, we get distracted and therefore we are not practicing meditation any more. Once we are able to meditate and we are doing it without even noticing it, Samadhi appears. I say it appears because we are not in control at this stage any more. We are not aiming for Samadhi (union with the divine, enlightenment), but simply experiencing it.
Of course there are many more details to each state, but let’s say you have had an injury, or are extremely inflexible or you are at and elder age. Can you practice yoga? Of course you can, and probably you are already doing it on some level (reading spiritual texts, practicing selfless service or non-violence, maybe you are vegetarian because you don’t want to harm animals etc.)
What people should ask instead: can I practice Asanas? Can I come to a mat and move my body in the space? My answer would still be “yes, of course you can and you should” but I would also say “get a teacher who can guide you well”. Someone who knows what your limitations are and is adjusting the class around your needs. Someone who can give you and easier version for the same pose, someone who brings practices to you that suits your level of understanding of Asanas.
I have been practicing yoga for 6 years now. I have always been physically fit and I assumed I can jump to an intermediate level quite quick. I tried cutting corners and I have injured myself simply because of the lack of understanding I had on how to do different poses with the right alignment and breath linked to them. I am lucky to have had that lesson at a young age, my body healed and learning from the experience I realised I need to learn more. So I did my yoga teacher training and until this day am learning as much as I can. But you may not have the luxury to be OK with an injury simply because of a careless teacher or careless practice, or even worse: because your own ego pushes you to do something a person next to you can and you think you can too without preparing your body with a practice of your own that is consistent and suits your level. So please, be mindful and respect your body’s limits. This does not mean that you will not have your goals met, it simply means you take all the steps you need to take in order to get there as the happiest and strongest version of yourself. Time doesn’t matter. Joe on the other mat doing his splits also doesn’t matter.
And lastly let me tell you one more thing: now that my practice is more towards the intermediate level, I love going back to beginners classes and allow myself a more chilled practice. I love simple exercises and reminders of easier versions, because our bodies are different each day. Some day I can do a pose, other days I need an easier version of it within my own practice. Stretching our minds eyes and thinking on a wider scale of our practice not only means to go for a more difficult exercise, but also allowing ourselves to think of the preparatory pose for that exercise and knowing when to substitute a difficult pose for an easier one.
So, should you start yoga? I believe by now you know my answer!