What is your goal for yoga? What do you want to achieve from yoga that could make a significant impact to your life? If you ask a group of friends who understand you and your practice well, what feedback would they give you to guide you towards your goal? What is the single most impactful change you could make to improve your life, your practice and achieve genuine balance that would turn yoga into your lifelong path and passion?
We are all creatures of habit. We like familiar people, concepts and more often than not they underpin the our choices and actions. We also make assumptions about the benefits we get from our yoga practice.
Let's look at the common assumptions and see whether they are supporting or undermining your goal. The most common assumptions are:
- Yoga is good for your health
- Yoga calms your mind
- Yoga relieves muscle aches and pains
- Yoga propels you to instant Instagram stardom—a more controversial one which may cross the minds of most yogis and yoginis whether novice or pro
Let's examine each of the assumptions:
1. Yoga is Good for Your Health
Yoga is indeed one of the building blocks of a healthy lifestyle. Some studios even have writings on their walls that say something along the lines of “Practise Everyday for a Life Changing Experience”.
While it is universally agreed that yoga could provide lots of benefits to your health, it can also place a lot of stress on your joints from doing too many chatarungas if you practise strong yoga poses everyday. A good solution is to balance your yoga practice with complementary exercises to alleviate such stress which can, in turn, improve your yoga practice. Your diet and stress levels in life will also play very important roles.
Let's look at one example. Some of you may be may be familiar with the 40 Day Challenge run by various yoga studios from time to time. Different studios may have slightly different rules, but the usual requirement is to fit in 6 yoga sessions a week, allowing people to make up for their missed sessions by doing back-to-back sessions and multiple sessions a day. Before jumping into such challenges, have you assessed the commitment required of you, your physical capabilities, how you should spread out your practice between power, slow flow and yin? Smashing the body with 6 power yoga sessions a week may not be wise if you are not already very fit.
Always be guided by your bodies and refrain from pushing yourself to a point where your body becomes susceptible to injuries, whether short or long term.
Yoga is a very useful tool to help us escape from everyday stress, build up our strength if we utilise it wisely.
2. Yoga Calms Your Mind
Different relaxation techniques work for different people and that is why a lot of people turn to yoga in the hope of escaping everyday stress. Why are we stressed? Perhaps we are all trying to do too many things in too little time?
Yoga is but one form of relaxation but it is not the only answer. Perhaps we should start by identifying our source of stress. If the source cannot be eliminated, we can change our attitude to reduce its impact on our lives. Yoga is a time to chill, a “blocked out” time for ourselves, a self manufactured sanctuary to rejuvenate our body and mind for the challenges ahead.
Yoga is an exploratory journey. Some find doing physically challenging poses in power yoga help them achieve a meditative state through singled minded focus on the movements. Others prefer the slow flow type which eases the body into the various poses and find the whole process very soothing. If you listen to your body and consciously seek out and learn from different teachers, you will continue to benefit from their unique perspectives on yoga practice and training which will in turn help you discover what works for you.
Proper instruction is also essential as is a workable yoga practice routine that is compassionate to your body.
3. Yoga Relieves Muscle Aches and Pains
There can be many reasons for muscle aches and pains. If the aches and pains are structural, then doing certain yoga poses will actually aggravate the condition and may cause irreparable damage. If the muscle aches and pains are due to bad posture, tips from an osteo and regular therapeutic massage can fix that.
Why should we do yoga for aches and pains then? In my experience, I see yoga as a form of self massage which not only gives the muscles of my body a good and gentle stretch (whether the practice is gentle or not would depend how you go about your practice) while the hatha yoga that I practise promotes blood circulation to bring oxygen to our vital organs, fuel our brain cells and increase our metabolic rate (regenerate and repair new cells). It’s like a cleansing of the body at the cellular level.
If you do yoga to relieve aches and pains, it's important that you are able to get the correct personal attention during your yoga practice specific for your aches and pains. If you're in a class of 60 people, personal attention is essentially non existent. Even though yoga teachers are mostly very approachable and they end their classes with “if you have any questions, I am right outside”, it is impractical to hang around to ask questions when 59 other yogis are trying to leave and another 60 are coming in for the next class. Personal attention makes a huge difference.
4. I Want to Go Upside Down, Walk Upside Down and Produce “Wow” Selfies
If Instagram stardom is your main driver then maybe yoga is not right for you. Not to mention it is potentially dangerous to push yourself to attempt difficult poses unless you're using the right technique.
We are bombarded everyday with the vast majority of yoga images on our social media depicting people doing arm balances, head stands, hand stands etc. It never fails to amaze me how some people think with practice they may imitate the amazing shapes that seemingly what "everyone" can get into.
Firstly, not everyone can do those poses. The many many images come from the forever expanding group of yoga teachers and ambitious yoga practitioners all over the world. As a portion of the total population, their numbers fall far short of “everyone”. Secondly, unless you practise yoga from the cradle so your body developed into a "yoga friendly" one (as opposed to turning to yoga in our adulthood as we all do in the Western World), you need to be wary of how persistent, strong yoga practice day in day out can cause irreparable damage to your joints and cartilage. These will result in a life of pain which is quite unnecessary and unintentional.
Having grown up in Hong Kong, amidst the times when martial arts movies flourish, I distinctly remember one famous martial arts action star Kara Hui (Wai Ying Hung) said in an interview back in 2000 (when she was 40 yrs old) that she had to battle pain every day as a result of all the training she put her body through. I remember saying to myself then that no fame or glory would be worth a life in pain. I suppose she had a career to pursue and it was probably the sacrifice of all action heros(ines) but for me, I am happy just being functional and pain free.
Time to Stop and Think
If you would allow me, I would like to invite you to take a step back and reflect on your yoga practice in your own time. Think about your goal or purpose. Are you doing yoga for yourself or others? What benefits are you getting? Are you taking care of your body so you're not overloading your joints, wrists or neck from excessive chatarungas, arm balances and shoulder stands? Are you receiving the right coaching?
Start a yogic journey today that is compassionate to your body and mind so they will be strong enough to see you through a long, happy and pain free life.