A great yoga teacher of mine once told me:
“Saying you’re too inflexible, or not strong enough,or not balanced enough for yoga is like saying you’re too dirty to shower.”
Yoga holds a strange place in Western society; it lives in an ambiguous area between bending for squats and bending in prayer. Though the literal Sanskrit means, “to yoke,” different yogic scholars have translated it more expressively in innumerable ways: “equanimity in skill and action,” “to become undivided revealing the wholeness that was already there,” “learning to stop how the mind turns things around…” Of course it can also be defined merely as “stretching.” The practice itself is flexible enough to encompass all of these definitions, and to benefit practitioners of all body types and ages. It is an egalitarian practice that allows for self-improvement across physical, emotional, and spiritual dimensions.
On a physical level, recent studies have found that yoga practice can help individuals manage a huge variety of ailments, including back pain1, cardiovascular disease2 , diabetes2, and side effects of chemotherapy3. While poses may appear still or inactive from the outside, they are actually far from static. Yoga is inseparable from the concept of change- if the purpose of a pose is to increase strength or flexibility, then clearly, over time as strength and flexibility increase, or even within a single practice as the muscles warm up, that pose will no longer be the same. The same can be said for many exercise programs, however the slowness of the practice, the emphasis on feeling rather than doing, and the focus on whole-body rather than isolated sensations really highlights this. A backbend, for instance, is not just about the back- it is about the wrists, shoulders, upper back, middle back, lower back, chest, thighs, quads, ankles.. A slight movement in the neck or big toe creates an entirely new posture, entirely new sensations. Yoga is a form of agency, a reminder that the body is not a permanent, mechanical structure, but a fluid form that is malleable, ready for adjustments and improvements in overall functionality.
The emotional benefits of yoga, including reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression4, have additionally been documented in a huge volume of recent studies. The main mechanism of action seems to be through the down-regulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA), which plays an important role in our physical and psychological reactions to stress4. In the case of the backbend, the compression of the back puts pressure on the adrenal glands, which often creates a rush of stimulating energy, an all-over high. Yogic texts suggest that backbends increase extraversion- try one out before a big presentation, party, or blind date!
The original significance of yoga, however, was religious and it still often does incorporate a spiritual element. BKS Iyengar, the man often seen as the father of modern yoga, defined yoga as, “The union of our will to the will of God, a poise of the soul which enables one to look evenly at life in all its aspects.” The Bhagavad-Gita, a sacred yogic text that reads like an epic poem, actually translates to “a love song to God.” The Gita, however, does not provide a single path towards the attainment of salvation, but offers options. It constantly redefines and contradicts itself to guide the practitioner, slowly, towards greater knowledge.
In this way, yoga practice allows for cynicism, allows for moments of doubt, moments of wondering what we’re doing trying to twist ourselves into those positions to begin with. But the thoughts pass. They trickle out of inverted skulls or are blasted out of pumping heels; they dissipate cheerfully when something about a pose suddenly feels right.
So whether you see yoga as exercise, enjoy the mental stability it induces, or turn to it to placate emotional turbulence, it offers a means of working on the self without being particularly regimented or forced. A practice is as flexible as you are. How do you like to practice?
References: 1. Cramer, H., Lauche, R., Haller, H., & Dobos, G. (2013). A systematic review and meta-analysis of yoga for low back pain. The Clinical journal of pain, 29(5), 450-460. 2. Bijlani, R. L., Vempati, R. P., Yadav, R. K., Ray, R. B., Gupta, V., Sharma, R., … & Mahapatra, S. C. (2005). A brief but comprehensive lifestyle education program based on yoga reduces risk factors for cardiovascular disease and diabetes mellitus. Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine, 11(2), 267-274. 3. Dhruva, A., Miaskowski, C., Abrams, D., Acree, M., Cooper, B., Goodman, S., & Hecht, F. M. (2012). Yoga breathing for cancer chemotherapy–associated symptoms and quality of life: results of a pilot randomized controlled trial. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 18(5), 473-479. 4. Ross, A., & Thomas, S. (2010). The health benefits of yoga and exercise: a review of comparison studies. The journal of alternative and complementary medicine, 16(1), 3-12.