This year I completed my first 200-hour yoga teacher training as well as a Yin Yoga teacher training. Since then, I have had many discussions about yoga with a wide range of friends and strangers. Many of the conversations reveal that a lot of people “don’t like yoga” because they’re “not good at it.”
When I press further about what they mean, most tell me that they are not flexible enough to get into yoga poses.
This is a core aspect of human nature: we like what we believe we are good at. And if we like it, we’ll do more of it. And, presumably we will get better at it. This is a pattern we repeat whether the underlying thing is good for us or not.
I believe that a regular yoga practice is good for us on many levels. So if you think you’re “good at yoga” and that gets you to practice regularly, carry on. And also keep reading, because you may be surprised.
If you think you’re not good at yoga because you can’t get into poses, then what I’m about to share is definitely for you.
Being “Good at Yoga” Is Not a Thing
First, I want you to know that I get it. Although most people who gravitate to yoga teacher trainings are highly flexible, that is not me. Whatever assumptions people might have of me based on my appearance (5’10″ with a lean frame and long limbs that make me look like a dancer), knowing that I’m a yoga teacher, and that I have been doing flying trapeze for 16 years are quickly laid to rest when people see me move.
If being “good at yoga” were about twisting your body into complex shapes, I would also not be “good at yoga.”
Fortunately, there’s no such thing at being “good” at yoga. In fact, one of the reasons I became a yoga teacher was to spread this message and to create spaces for people like me and you to feel safe practicing yoga that may not look “pretty.” Because that’s not what yoga is.
Here are three things I want to share with you on this topic.
(1) Yoga Is More Than Asana
For most people, “good” or “advanced” at yoga means that they can bend your body into various poses. Although most popular yoga classes focus on taking a class through a series of poses, collectively referred to by the Sanskrit term asana, yoga is much more than asana. Asana is only the third of the eight limbs of Ashtanga yoga (ashtanga = eight limbs) outlined by the sage Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras.
The eight limbs of yoga are: Yamas (abstinences), Niyama (observances), Asana (posture), Pranayama (breathing), Pratyahara (withdrawal), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation), and Samadhi (absorption).
Yoga is an art that is practiced as much off the mat as on the mat. It’s about how you go through life. It doesn’t matter if you can twist your body into crazy poses if you’re not living the Yamas and Niyamas and the other aspects of yoga.
In terms of the on-the-mat practice, one of my teachers used to say that even if you mastered any particular pose, you’re still only at “level three.”
To be clear, the eight limbs are not levels that you pass through; this isn’t a linear process or a video game. His point was that getting into a pose doesn’t make you “good at yoga” any more than getting into a car and driving makes you a good driver.
Yoga is more than just the pose.
(2) Asana Isn’t What You Think It Is
Even though we know that yoga is more than asana, let’s look at asana for a moment and discuss what it is.
Patanjali didn’t write about specific poses. The English translation of asana is seat. As used by Patanjali, asana means to be “seated in a firm, pleasant, and relaxed position.” Asana, as we understand the sutras, is the seated pose for meditation, with a straight spine and relaxed body.
The yoga poses developed after, as a way to move breath and life-force through the body, and to prepare the body to sit comfortably for longer periods, so that meditation becomes easier. Essentially, the movement part of a yoga class is a set-up for the stillness of meditation.
There’s a bit of irony here, in that most people who believe they are “good” at yoga gravitate to vinyasa (or flow) classes, but resist the classes with less flow, such as yin yoga or restorative yoga. Yin and restorative are both “yin” or receptive in quality, as compared to the “yang” of a vinyasa flow practice. In these practices, there is less movement, and the long periods of stillness prove more challenging for most people.
It’s in that stillness that the real work of yoga happens.
So, if it is possible to be “good at yoga” you don’t need much flexibility or mobility to be good. You need to be able to be in the stillness.
(3) Getting Into the Pose is Not the Goal
While we’re talking about asana, what’s the point of it, aside from preparing us for meditation?
Our bodies constantly change and adjust to our internal and external states, not only day to day but through many stages of a lifetime. That is why a more meaningful practice promises no end but provides a constant journey of learning and discovering. Advancing our practice implies refining our ability to see and listen to our body on deeper and subtler levels.
If you think you’re “good at yoga” because you can get into a certain pose, but then one day you can’t get into it, are you suddenly “bad” at yoga? What happens if you get injured? Does that suddenly make you bad at yoga? Of course not.
In fact, this is when yoga becomes the most relevant, as it facilitates the conversation with our bodies about what we need and how to best care for ourselves.
The yoga poses are tools we use for this dialogue. They are the way in, the way we get to know ourselves. One of my teachers would say that yoga starts when you get into the pose, or whatever modification of the pose you take that day. This is the gift of a yoga practice, and why yoga is not a “workout” but a “work-in.”
Yoga is the art and science of navigating change, internally and externally. It is a method of self-discovery, a way to explore the inner workings of the body, mind, emotions, and spirit, and how they relate to each other. You don’t need to be strong or flexible or mobile to do yoga. You only need to be willing to approach your practice with an open mind and to engage with yourself with curiosity and compassion.
- Ganga White, Yoga Beyond Belief: Insights to Awaken and Deepen Your Practice. North Atlantic Books, 2007. p. 40. ↩