Yoga works for many people as a way to feel more connected to their bodies, It wouldn’t still be around if it wasn’t effective. But as a somatic practitioner and movement artist, it makes me frustrated when yoga is the first or the only mindful movement that is prescribed for those who need to get in touch with their bodies. It is FAR from the only, or the even the best form of embodiment practice out there--in fact, it’s just the wrong choice for some people. I used to practice it quite a lot in my 20’s, much less in my 30’s and now in my 40’s I don’t practice. I stopped doing yoga mostly for physical reasons but also for mental and spiritual reasons too. I share these with you in case you have ever felt like there was something wrong with you for not liking Yoga (or meditation). There’s nothing wrong with you, but it can be hard to know that when everyone is telling you you need to try it.
Toxic fitness culture tell us that there’s nothing we can’t do, if we just put our mind to it, dedicate ourselves 100%, we can do anything. But you know what? many of the poses glorified in Yoga aren’t actually available to a large part of the population. Some people’s bones and hip joints are designed in such a way that the angle of their hips will never be able to fold in half, to do the thing, to sit certain ways--not because of they aren’t dedicated or enlightened, but because of the their bone structure, and no amount of dedication to stretching will change that. If we continue to assume that everyone should be capable of the same thing, one could easily be led to think that there’s something wrong with their body, when in fact, there is nothing wrong with them at all.
For most people, the first thing that pops into mind with the word Yoga is bending. A LOT of bending. It’s nearly impossible to escape this because it’s been so deeply imprinted in our minds. For years, there has been far too much emphasis on flexibility and alignment. Yoga studios tend to sensationalize the poses that require flexibility even without realizing they’re doing it- we’ve all seen the advertisements with lithe young people folding themselves in half. I avoid these images as much as I can because it causes me empathic physical pain knowing, from experience, what that feels like in my body. Too many times, I was encouraged to ‘go deeper’ and there were consequences for me, I went too far.
Even though I know my body very well, I know my limits, I can start to second guess myself…what would happen if I kept going? There is an unspoken pressure to do more, go further, push through to the other side, or sit in the pose for a long time—looking at you Yin Yoga. There is a certain population for whom this works well, but for me, it’s just painful. If I hang out in a deep stretch for too long, I might have pain for days. Yet, I might, in the moment, succumb to peer pressure to do the thing that everyone else in the room is doing.
And I know I’m not the only one. There’s a sizeable population who have similar body types —for whom flexibility comes easily—who might not realize that stretching isn’t the most ideal activity for them, so they do it because it’s easier for them, but they might be doing more harm to themselves than good.
Flexibility for this population has everything to do with the genetic makeup of the connective tissue system that runs throughout the entire body. Hypermobility is systemic and affects the muscles, joint, connective tissue and organs. People don’t realize that flexibility for us can actually be a liability. It can lead to chronic pain and health conditions. Yet, we are easily fetishized and put at the head of class, but WE DON’T NEED TO STRETCH MORE!
Which brings me to a bigger point of contention—flexibility is NOT a measure of health or fitness and it needs to be stopped being used as a benchmark by doctors, chiropractors, personal trainers, fitness, wellness and health professionals alike. Please stop glorifying flexibility.
Let me tell you about a common pose that I struggle with--downward dog. But not because
I can't make the shape, I can, it's that it's hard for me hold it together. My flexible spine, shoulders and wrists that make it hard for me to find any strength and stability here. It feels hard but not in a good way, more like in the way that all my parts might collapse from underneath me. I'm like a dog owner holding 10 leashes for 10 dogs each wanting to go their own direction. It's chaos. Yet, usually, whatever cue the Yoga teacher has for me at this moment makes me feel like I should be focusing on letting go, yet I'm holding on for dear life. I hate this feeling. It feels better when my hands aren't on the floor, but on a table or elevated object. Not every teacher is skilled at helping you navigate using props in this way (and it's hard for teachers to think of everything for every kind of student). Props tend to be suggested to those who are inflexible and need a halfway point, so learning how to use them in way that supports me as a very flexible person has been up to me to figure out on my own.
>> What I do instead…Strength training is a fabulous way to help the bodies of those who are on the hyper mobility spectrum, it's highly beneficial for most body types! I use free weights, elastic bands, and sometimes go to the gym- for variety.
Weight training will also benefit those who WANT to increase their flexibility by signalling to the nervous system that your body is capable of managing stressors (weight) in many different conditions, thereby allowing you to work in a bigger range of motion. It's pretty cool. See my recommendations at the end of article for trainers.
Alignment is a little trickier to talk about but I will give it a go. If you have a teacher who has is experienced, they were likely taught about physiology based on a bio-mechanical model. This model tends to treat the body like a machine whose joints move in certain ways. It’s got a mathematical vibe to it—there were moves that everyone should be able to perform and certain moves that should be avoided at all costs, these rules were supposed to prevent injury (and lawsuits).
There are some helpful guidelines here, BUT it’s my experience that in the last 20 years, this model unintentionally seeded an underlying level of anxiety for both teachers AND their students. It caused second guessing and competition and led us to believing false things about how the body actually works.
For example: I still hear teachers tell me “Always have your knees lined up over your toes”. This was a rule thought to prevent knee strain based on the idea that when alignment is off it’s destined to pull on certain ligaments more than others and cause injury. The way to ‘fix’ this ‘problem’ is to strengthen the supporting muscles (usually in the hips and feet) While developing hip and foot strength will always do you good, no one is likely to hurt themselves by misalignment. In fact, it is entirely possible that their misalignment is helping them in some way. Ultimately, what’s more important, from a wholistic movement perspective, is to vary the way you move so that your body continues to be adaptable.
>> What I do instead : Gamify the way I move. Try it this way first, then another, then another. Put obstacles in my way, cut out or add sensory stimulus and see what happens. Each new variation is an opportunity to help me to build better adaptability movement patterns. AND it'll keep me from getting bored.
While I’m talking about teaching pet peeves, here are some other cues (or variations) that you might hear a Yoga teacher say that don’t work for me:
> Tuck your tailbone - not everyone needs to do this, yet it’s a cue I hear too often. What about the half of the room who could stand to UNTUCK their tailbone? Over-tucking is NOT good posture.
> Pull navel to spine - there are more effective cues to more fully engage your core. When we over focus on sucking in our tummies, we lose out on the benefit of core work
> Breathe deeply - Breath is WAY more complex than whether or not I can take a deep breath, AND maybe I don’t want to….from a bio-psycho-social model, it might be better to not coach the breath at all--let people figure out when they need to breathe on their own. Breathing is also a place where I hear all kinds of wild scientific claims that aren't true. I prefer to stick to what I know to be true.
> Listen to your body - there is so much to say about this, but because I’d like to keep this point brief, I think what most teachers mean when they say this is “don’t do the thing if it doesn’t feel right” which is seemingly good advice, but, I see that that this phrase usually leads people to feel flummoxed about what they’re listening for? How do they know what to listen for? Once they hear a message, how do they know what to interpret it? It’s advice that doesn’t really help but rather opens up a can of worms while keeping the appearance of compassion. It’s another phrase that can lead students to think that there’s something wrong with them.
Mental Health Reasons
The yoga mat feels like a spatial jail to me. I don't like being confined to a small space—I’m a dancer at heart, who loves rolling around on the floor—and the yoga mat feels like a tricksy way to keep everyone boxed in. I'm trying to break free of all of the ways that culture has told me to be and I'm not interested in following along just because.
I’m in my mid-forties, a point in my life where I don’t want to be told what to do, I’m at an age where I’ve been working on myself for many years, finally put some big puzzle pieces together. I’m now in the process of undoing and letting go of things that don't serve me, getting in touch with my authentic self--not the person I thought I needed to be.
Then there’s the mental energy it takes to find a class that I might actually like. I NEVER know what I’m going to get when I go…There’s a thousand different styles of teachings that have emerged ranging from Yin Yoga- barely moving, to Kundalini (kind of dancing) to Goat Yoga (with roving goats that climb you as you practice). Then there’s the time spent to navigate the different studios, different policies, all the online options, different price points, you’ve got to find a teacher you like. There’s too much variety to choose from and for me, Are they going to give me corrections, lay their hands on me? What’s the vibe of the clientele? Are the students coming to get a great body? What’s the pace? How hot will the room be? Will there be music? Incense? Are they trauma-informed? Do they chant? How long is Sivasana? Do they use Westernized language? Each variable for me, means that I need to adjust my expectations accordingly. Yoga is everywhere and it feels like it's trying to be everything. It makes me lightheaded just thinking about it.
>> What I do instead : roll around on the floor, dance with my furniture like they are my partner, make messy art for the joy of mashing color around on a page or a canvas, get into nature, garden.
I also have spiritual reasons for quitting Yoga, but it's very difficult for me to pin them down and put them into words. I'm going to keep working on it and they might just make it onto this blog at a later date, or into a future edition.
I will say this...I'm uncomfortable with the westernization of Yoga because of the history of cultural appropriation and how my participation at any level feels inherently icky. I do see some studios, some teachers tackling some of these big ideas; cultural appropriation, social injustice, inequity. But, it's
>> What I do instead : My spiritual practice is one that includes embodiment, time, space and nature. It starts when I close my eyes and ask a questions like...What is the will of (insert your name for God here) for me in this moment? .....And then I listen...for an impulse, for a word, for a sound, for a smell, for a memory, for a vision, for a movement. I listen and I follow.
If you are interested in my work and would like to tap into your own body's wisdom, check out the Body Dialogue Coaching Sessions.
Recommended Resources : I am not an affiliate for these programs, but the teachers are very good and I highly recommend each of them.