Who Does Yoga? If You Can Breathe, You Can Do Yoga
At least once a week I have a conversation with someone that goes like this:
Them: What do you do for a living?
Me: I teach yoga.
Them: Oh I would love to do yoga but I am totally not flexible.
The idea that yoga requires flexibility and strength is one perpetuated by the media, by the increased number of classes with the word “power” before them, and the definition of yoga as “asana.” Individuals who could seriously benefit from spending some time on a yoga mat stay away because they feel as though they are lacking something that is required to do the practice. Whether it is a bendy body, Gwyenth Paltrow’s arms or stamina to do 108 Surya Namaskars, many students refrain from participating in yoga classes because of the worry that they will not measure up to the rest of the class or an ideal that they do not represent.
What is most ironic about this often-repeated situation is that all that is necessary to do yoga is the breath. While it is true that the length, depth and quality of breathing is individually different, breathing remains the common denominator among all yogis. Taking time to observe and focus on the breath is the heart of a yoga practice. The skill of turning our awareness to the inner self through the breath helps to calm the mind and soften the edges created by what happens in the outer self. Herein lies the root of how yoga benefits our bodies and our minds.
“Power” Can Mean a More Than One Thing
Two weeks ago I taught back-to-back classes as I often do. The first had seasoned yogis with strong asana practices and abilities to do arm balances, inversions and effortless vinyasas. During this class the students flowed up with their inhales, down with their exhales. They held Virbhadrasanas with strength and twists with ease. To an outside observer it would seem as though this was a “typical” Western yoga class: some stillness, some flow, strength, power and lots of breathing.
The second class of the day was my chair yoga group. These ladies are all over 55, have joints replaced, are unsteady on their feet or find a regular mat yoga class inaccessible. We spend much of our time focusing on breathing. Balancing our breath, moving with our breath, modifying it, and assessing and observing it as we practiced were all ways we did our yoga. This day, like many others we did not even stand up once. Someone only familiar with yoga as it is portrayed in advertisements and magazines might not think we were doing the same practice as we were in my first class of the day.
They would be wrong as both classes were 100% equally yoga.
After the chair class one of my students came to me and shared that for the first time in 14 years she was able to undergo an annual medical procedure without the use of anxiety controlling pharmaceuticals. The difference this time, she told me, was that in our chair yoga class I had showed her how to focus on her breath, that her exhales triggered her relaxation response and she was able to use these tools to proceed without medication. This student practiced yoga during her procedure and she was neither bendy, nor balancing on her head or hands, nor moving her body in an asana. She was simply breathing and that was enough to steady her nerves to do the procedure. She had turned her attention inward to soften the experience of what was happening on the outside.
There is a reason why yoga has remained a fundamental practice for all these thousands of years. Because whether we are built like the Saddhus in India, the vigorous vinyasa folks in the cities of the U.S. or the senior citizens in my chair yoga class, we all breathe. Drawing our awareness to our breath is the practice of yoga when it is combined with asana AND when it is not. We as teachers and students need to work on sharing the message that yoga requires only breath so that others with trepidation can join us on this path. We need to remind those that think that they cannot practice yoga that the mere observation of one’s breath is indeed the core of what we yogis do. Perhaps if collectively we can transform the appearance of yoga from one of bendiness and perfection to one of inhales and exhales more people would be encouraged to practice it.
For those who will be asking me next week about my career and then waxing philosophically about their inadequacies to practice yoga I say, as I always do, “If you can breathe you can do yoga.“ Do not let the media images of perfection, flexibility, pretzel poses and power make you believe that you are any less of a yogi. Breath is the great equalizer, and it is through our breath we all come to the mat whether it be at home, in a studio, over the internet or in a chair. No fancy clothes, no special mat, and no perfect body is required to practice yoga, only an inhale and an exhale are needed.