Valerie Reiss has been practicing yoga for 20 years and is a certified instructor. She writes about the practice — and other topics — for Yoga Journal, the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, the Huffington Post, and more. We asked Reiss to name the 10 things she wants everyone — yogis and non-yogis alike — to understand about yoga.
1. Your flexibility level is perfect for yoga.
Tell non-yogis you’re into yoga and the first thing you hear is: “Oh, I’m not flexible enough for that.” They’re perhaps picturing a magazine cover with a Lululemon-clad lady eating her toes. I have some responses for this: A) Feeling inflexible actually makes you a perfect candidate for yoga — a practice that, in part, allows you to stretch your muscles. B) You know why the Yoga Journal woman can mouth her pedi? Perhaps she’s naturally flexible, but more likely she got that way through practice — lots of it, over time, with breath, attention, and showing up on her mat. C) We need flexibility for a lot more than show — playing with kids, gardening, dancing at weddings, not falling over and breaking bones when we’re older.
If you’re “inflexible,” yoga is exactly for you.
2. Paying attention to your breath makes it yoga.
When teachers skip telling students to notice their breath, they’re depriving them of the most essential benefit of yoga. Syncing your movements with your breath (leg up, inhale; leg down, exhale) gives your attention an anchor within your body. When you make a habit of noticing air flowing in and out of your nose, and then grooving with it, yoga becomes a moving meditation. The present moment expands and allows you to sink into it, body, mind, and all.
It’s also a gift off the mat; habitually breathing steadily when you’re in a pose that feels uncomfortable is pro training for life. Breath is portable. When you start really using it, it buys you time and gives you a peace — which can mean the difference between big drama and no big deal.
3. There’s a lot more to yoga than the physical practice.
In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, a foundational yogic text, asana is just one of eight “limbs,” or steps, for living a calm, centered, whole existence. It’s not even the first one. You’ve got ethical do’s and don’t’s that come before it, and then after it are breath awareness, non-attachment to the external, inner awareness, meditation and devotion, and union with the divine.
The system is designed to help us gather our attention to ascend to higher levels of awareness, and eventually to find perfect bliss. Leave it to us Westerners to focus on the part that can make your butt smaller.
4. Yoga and meditation are really freaking good for you.
Did you know that a steady yoga practice has helped breast cancer survivors feel better? That it wards off depression? Eases PTSD? Amps down ordinary stress? Real scientific studies show all this. Everyone from prisoners to war veterans to troubled kids to addicts to paraplegics are discovering yoga and having it improve their lives.
So — you, in maybe a more ordinary life? Imagine what it might do to help with stress, anxiety, and simply getting through the hard, joyful, annoying days of being human.
5. A little goes a long way.
Studies have shown that 15 minutes of yoga three times a week can make a difference in your life. You do not need to take a 90-minute class five days a week to feel better. Some very accomplished yogis I know do 10 minutes a day. Moving, breathing, stretching, and paying attention to the moment for a bit can help hugely.
6. If you don’t like yoga, you might just not like the yoga teacher or the style.
Going to one class, hating it, and deciding you don’t like yoga is like trying okra and deciding you loathe all vegetables. Maybe you landed in a 110-degree Bikram class in which the teacher yelled and wouldn’t let you drink water. Or perhaps you took a class in a purple room with a teacher who told you to breathe into your vagina and exhale the negative fairies in your chakras. And you’re a dude.
Try again. There are well over 100 styles of yoga out there and thousands more teachers. One of them near you might talk in a tone and offer a practice that feels right to you.
7. Getting frustrated is part of the deal.
Truly. You will be on your mat, totally annoyed at the teacher, at your hamstrings, Darth Vader breather to your left and the woman folded into an origami swan to your right. It’s during these moments that a yogi is born. Do you roll up your mat and flounce out? Or do you take a nice, full breath into your belly — and another and another — and keep going?
Again, this is training for life — the cable company, your in-laws, traffic. We can choose to be raging maniacs, judging everyone and everything and feel like crap, or we can take a breath, realize it’s all fleeting and maybe even kind of funny.
8. You know your body better than anyone else — including the teacher who may think otherwise.
Yogis often talk about “riding your edge.” This means: Push yourself without hurting yourself. It’s hard to do. It’s even more challenging if you end up with a teacher who thinks she knows your edge, body, and skeletal structure better than you do. Of course you want to grow, learn, and even surprise yourself with discovery — handstand, woo-hoo!
But if it hurts, it shouldn’t. Yoga injuries are real. Protect your knees; use your muscles, not your joints; sharp pain is bad; practicing to impress your instructor or the guy behind you is also a quick ticket to physical therapy. Respect the body you have, knowing some things might shift, and others are just how you’re made.
9. Stay for savasana.
There’s this great NYT article from the late 90s, “Attack of the Killer Yogis,” and at the end everyone is rolling up their mats and padding out instead of laying in savasana, or corpse pose, at the end of class. I’ve seen it. Don’t do it.
Some yogis say savasana is the most important pose. It helps you integrate everything you just did. It helps you get some deep rest. It can also help you evaluate the quality of the class — at the end you’re looking to feel good. If you’re jittery and stressed, you probably overdid it. If you drift into yoga nap dreamtime bliss? That was a good class.
10. Yoga isn’t for everyone.
Some people are probably better off not connecting their body and mind. Kidding, sort of. Or they just don’t like being contained in a room with other people for that long. Or they hate being told what to do. I get it. Yoga may not be your thing.
But I would say: Find your yoga. Or find a way of moving and being that releases tension from your body and mind; helps you find your center; and allows you respond more than you react. Running, painting, walking in nature, whatever helps you get your “om” on — even if you don’t call it that.