“The success of Yoga does not lie in the ability to perform postures, but in how it positively changes the way we live our life and our relationships.” – T.K.V. Desikachar
Before you started doing yoga, what did you think that a “yoga person” looked like? Was it somebody who looked like you?
After teaching hundreds of diverse students in my classes through the years, I’ve come to believe that absolutely anyone can do yoga and benefit tremendously from it. I’ve never once met somebody and thought, “Nope, this guy does not need yoga.” Some people like it hot, some people like it cool, some people like to practice with a group, some people like to practice at home, but everyone can benefit from SOME type of yoga.
Unfortunately, many people that haven’t tried yoga yet are put off by their mental image of “what a yogi looks like.” If you consume ANY amount of advertising or social media content, then I can’t blame you for thinking that all yogis look like this:
I mean no offense at all to the woman in this image, the talented and impressive @kinoyoga, but obviously we cannot all be beautiful blonde, thin, white women hanging out on the beach with our feet behind our necks. If you are older, injured, heavier, stiffer, out of shape, or different from this image in any way, this type of “inspiration” may scare you away from yoga altogether.
If you’re new to yoga, you might not realize that this archetype is SUPER modern. If we take a little walk down memory lane, to a time before there were yoga studios on every corner, the typical yogi looked more like this guy (Mr. BKS Iyengar, one of the teacher credited with introducing yoga to the Western world.)
Or if we go back a little further, the first yogis that we met in the West looked more like this. (This is an image of Paramahansa Yogananda, author of “Autobiography of a Yogi,” one of the best selling books of all time. Notice the total absence of any yoga postures or bikinis whatsoever.)
I won’t take a deep dive into yoga history right now, because that story could fill several novels, but I think that it’s helpful to realize that our image of “what a yogi looks like” has changed RADICALLY over the past century. Yoga has transformed from an esoteric activity, practiced almost exclusively by men of Indian origin, to a popular activity for American white women to engage in before their Sunday brunch.
There’s been plenty of hand-wringing about how yoga has been watered down or misappropriated, and I’ve certainly done my own fair share of head-shaking while scrolling through an Instagram feed full of bendy young yogis showing off their poses in their underwear, but I am still happy that more people are discovering the benefits of yoga.
Ironically, yoga was a “male only” practice until the 1930’s or so, when Indra Devi became the first female student accepted to practice under Krishnamacharya. As a woman, I am happy that women are now able to practice yoga, even though sometimes it seems like we have scared off all the men!
As one stereotype disappears, a new one takes its place. For a while yoga was male dominated; then for a while, men wouldn’t be caught dead in a yoga class. Happily, the tide has turned a bit and gender stereotypes are fading. In Providence, we often see classes that are 50% male – at times the men even outnumber the women!
There’s also a stereotype that most yoga practitioners are white and affluent (and America, the statistics agree.*) This is ironic too, since white people are very new to yoga. It wasn’t until the 20th century that a series of Indian teachers introduced yoga to the West, and it didn’t become a “mainstream” activity until these past couple decades.
Along with gender and race, many people worry that they don’t have a “yoga body.” Historically, it’s very true that most yogis have been very thin and flexible. But those were also the days when being a “yogi” was a serious, full time profession. Now that yoga HAS become a more mainstream activity, it’s important that we adjust the practice and adapt it to the needs of our students.
Our student Brittanny wrote an excellent blog post titled “What Bikram Yoga Taught Me About Business.” In her blog, she wrote:
“I am a plus size girl, and when they say you should be able to see your ribs in the mirror, I’m thinking I’ve never seen my ribs ever. It can be very discouraging to hear the words said, but I know that the system wasn’t created with someone like me in mind, but it’s not going to stop me from practicing and getting better.”
This is so right. You might fall in love with a type of yoga that was created by someone with a completely different body than you, living in a different culture, on the other side of the world, and you might find a deep resonance with that practice and make it work for you.
As somebody who practices yoga, teaches yoga, and owns a couple of yoga studios, I’m pretty obsessed with making our classes as inclusive as possible. I love working with our teachers to dial in our language and make sure we’re offering options for everyone. Mostly, this boils down to emphasizing “trying” over “doing” – because not everyone can actually touch their forehead to their knee, but everyone can TRY to do it!
I love the two styles of yoga that I teach – Bikram Yoga and Yin Yoga – because they are both, at their core, accessible to almost anybody. In Bikram Yoga, we emphasize “trying the right way,” even if you are only able to do 1% of the posture – you still get 100% of the benefit! In Yin Yoga, we are able to use props and modifications to make the postures accessible for every student.
If the success of yoga lies in its ability to create positive change in your life, then I think it’s okay for yoga to change and evolve to meet our needs. Our grandparents lived VERY different lives than we did – they ate different foods, they did different kinds of work, they used their bodies in different ways. After a few minor historical events – such as the industrial revolution, technological revolution, and information revolution, to name a few – of course our lifesylte changed! So we might approach our yoga practice a LITTLE bit differently compared to someone who was born in India hundreds of years ago. I think that is just fine.
To me, it doesn’t matter if you’re able to execute all the postures flawlessly or if you look like everyone else in the class, as long as you are using yoga to improve your life. It always makes me happy when I walk into the studio and I see students from all different walks of life – different ages, genders, abilities, body types, backgrounds, religion, lifestyles, and history – and they are all practicing together, healing together, and growing together.
In the words of the great Shel Silverstein – when we lie down on our mats at the end of class, “We all look the same when we turn out the light.”