I can’t do yoga (and other lies people tell me)

21 Nov

I honestly can’t tell you how many times I’ve had this conversation:

Person I Just Met: So, what do you do?

Me: I’m a yoga teacher.

Person I Just Met: Oh, neat! Where do you teach?

Me: Right now I’m mostly just subbing, but I teach a regular weekly class at [local studio]. You should come!

Person I Just Met: Oh, um, yeah, maybe. We’ll see!

Me: It’s pay-what-you-can and all levels. I would love to have you!

Person I Just Met:  I can’t do yoga. I’m just really not flexible. Sorry!

Here’s the thing: anyone can do yoga. I honestly believe that. I have taught a yoga class to a room full of octogenarians who stayed seated in comfy chairs the entire time – if they can do yoga, then so can you. It doesn’t matter how flexible your body is – any and all poses can be modified to meet you where you are. And really, if you want to try yoga but lack of flexibility is your excuse, how will you ever improve your range of motion without first taking up something like a regular yoga practice? Everyone has to start somewhere – why not start now, today, whatever shape your body is in?

Having said all that, I know there are a ton of reasons why people shy away from yoga, and most of them have nothing to do with flexibility. Part of the problem is that the yoga culture in the west is kind of fucked up.

Yoga is an ancient Indian discipline dating back several thousand years. The first definitive text on yoga, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, is estimated to be about 2,000 years old, and the practice itself is even older than that. Yoga is one of the six astika, or orthodox, schools of Hindu philosophy, and in its original form was mainly a mental and spiritual practice with some physical elements.

The second sutra in Patanjali’s book pretty clearly outlines what was, at the time, understood to be the main goal of yoga. This sutra reads, yogah citta vrtti nirodhah, which is typically translated to mean something like, “yoga is the cessation of the movements of the consciousness”. In short, yoga is all about getting your brain to shut the hell up so that you can enjoy a little peace and quiet, for once. Yoga is also about moving past the busy, restless, endlessly nattering part of the brain, the one that Buddhists often refer to as the “monkey mind”, and towards the purusa, which I will loosely define here as a sort of universal consciousness. Yoga is meant to help you see clearly, and one of the things yoga philosophy tells us we need to learn to see is that all beings and all parts of nature are interconnected. We are all part of the same larger pattern, and we are all part of each other. Realizing that is the original, ultimate goal of yoga.

Here in the west, though, we view yoga mainly as a form of physical exercise. Although we chant OM at the beginning and end of every class, and although as part of our practice we often perform surya namaskara (sun salutations), movements whose original intent was to honour the Hindu solar deity Surya, the way we view yoga is pretty much totally secular. Oh sure, some people will tell you that it makes them feel “spiritual”, but most don’t think about the religious aspects of what they’re doing. There’s a lot of cultural appropriation that goes on in western yoga, a lot of white people wearing mala beads and chanting in sanskrit without really understanding what any of it means. In my time in the western yoga world, I’ve seen so many examples of people exoticizing Hinduism and Indian culture, but not many attempts to learn more about what all these words and symbols mean.

I could go on and on about cultural appropriation in yoga, and maybe someday I will. Right now, though, it’s mainly the above-mentioned white people that I want to talk about. See, yoga in the west has, for the most part, become the domain of young, skinny, upper-middle-class, heterosexual white women. I’m not sure how this came about, as, up until just a few generations ago women were forbidden from practicing yoga, but, well, here we are. And I, a young, skinny, white, middle class, heterosexual white woman want to tell you that this is a problem.

The main issue is that people feel intimidated not necessarily by yoga itself, but by the other students in the room. In a worst case scenario, people might feel unwelcome, even unwanted. The message that the yoga community often sends out is that students have to look a certain way, wear certain clothes, have a certain body type and a certain sexual orientation in order to practice yoga. There’s a lot of privilege going on in the western yoga world, and not a lot of yogis who are willing to acknowledge it. And you know what? That’s not cool, because yoga should be for everyone. Yoga is for everyone. Rather than ignoring or dismissing the problem, we in the yoga community need to sit up, take notice, and ask ourselves how do we solve this?

One way to help solve this is to create safer spaces for different types of students. For example, I love Kula Yoga’s Positive Spaces Initiatives, which include classes like “brown girls yoga”, and “queer yoga”. I think that we need more classes like this, more safe spaces catering to the needs of different groups. We already know that some people prefer specialized classes – prenatal yoga, for example, or yoga for seniors – so why not expand this idea? How about yoga for fat chicks, or yoga for trans folk? After all, yoga should be for everybody, not just a select few.

We also need more pay-what-you-can classes, which most studios call “karma” or “community” classes. The average cost for a yoga class in Toronto is between $16 and $20 – paying that amount even just once a week is not manageable for some people. We need to find a way to make sure that yoga is affordable to everyone, not just those with a steady income.

Mostly, what I really think we need is for people to realize that yoga isn’t about how you look, both in terms of poses and clothing, and is really about how you feel. As my (very wise) friend/teacher Charlene recently said, “Yoga isn’t the series of poses and movements that you do during class. Yoga is how you feel after the class.”

The thing is, I honestly believe that yoga has changed my life for the better; that’s why I teach it, so that I can hopefully share that experience with other people. I’m not saying that everyone has to do yoga, or that it’s going to have the same effect on other people as it’s had on me, but I do honestly believe that everyone should have the opportunity to have a regular practice if they want one.

After all, as yoga teaches us, we are all equal and all part of the same greater system.

28 Responses to “I can’t do yoga (and other lies people tell me)”

  1. Amanda November 21, 2012 at 4:09 am #

    What a timely post! I am looking at going to a local studio here that has a “Seva” pass where you volunteer your time and you can take classes for half price. It seems like a really great way to do some service and also do some yoga too.

    • bellejarblog November 21, 2012 at 5:35 pm #

      Oh, that sounds amazing! A lot of studios offer things energy exchanges where you can do work around the studio in exchange for classes. Most studios don’t seem to advertise it, though, which means that not many people realize that this is an option!

  2. taleofnew November 21, 2012 at 5:59 am #

    I somehow stumbled on this, when searching for new reads on yoga. I just was turned on to yoga by my Zumba instructor (an early 30s white woman, with the body you speak of, in the clothes you described). I will honestly tell you that you hit the nail on the head in your reasons that people are hesitant to try yoga.
    I am an overweight, brown female who would have never tried yoga on my own without that extra encouragement/invitation from her. I have since attended 8+ sessions in 3 weeks, and Bikram yoga twice. While I’m not extremely flexible, I feel stronger and more flexible already! In a short span of time it has changed my outlook.
    If only there were more ways to spread the philosophy so people would let go and just absorb everything yoga had to offer!
    Keep on keeping on!

    • bellejarblog November 21, 2012 at 5:41 pm #

      Thank you! I am trying to figure out ways to bring more diversity to yoga in Toronto – hopefully soon more people will realize that it’s not cool that yoga seems to belong to such a small, homogeneous group of people!

      And I’m so happy to hear that you’ve had positive experiences with yoga & Zumba. Sending that keep on keeping on right back at ya!

  3. shannon November 21, 2012 at 6:08 am #

    I’ve done a few yoga classes and really loved them. I cried at the end of most of them. I’m not sure why it was so emotional for me. I’d love to do more. You’ve inspired me; maybe I’ll find something for the new year!

    Also—you’re so fucking CUTE.

    • bellejarblog November 21, 2012 at 5:36 pm #

      I think when you release tension in the body, you also release emotional tension. When we feel things strongly, we also experience that physically – like how all your muscles tense up when you’re angry or afraid. So it makes sense that when you release physical tension, emotions will also come bubbling up.

      And thanks! So are you 😛

  4. ambernikel November 21, 2012 at 6:34 am #

    I’m a white, young, skinny, middle class, heterosexual girl who, even when wearing the clothes, has felt unwelcome in a yoga class. Luckily that is rare, but it can be very intimidating to walk into a new studio sometimes. I also believe that yoga can really improve everyone’s lives and should be available for all! I really like this blog. Thanks!

    • bellejarblog November 21, 2012 at 5:39 pm #

      It can definitely be intimidating! There are some studios where I’ve practiced that have definitely felt clique-y, and I felt like a weird outsider who didn’t belong. I think studios need to work really hard to avoid that kind of stuff, and set the right vibe, if they want to attract new students.

      And thank you!

  5. Matt November 21, 2012 at 5:47 pm #

    This, right here, is what makes you an awesome yoga teacher. I want to this print this out so I can give it to everybody that I tell to go to a karma class and they make up some crap.

  6. mandaray November 24, 2012 at 5:14 pm #

    Reblogged this on Note To Self and commented:
    A great post. 🙂 I love yoga, though these days I don’t do it as often as I should. But it helped me during a hard time, and because of that I I believe it really can help anyone, no matter what your body looks like.

  7. Ron November 25, 2012 at 7:06 am #

    I can’t agree more that yoga should be for everyone because we are all equal. Thank you for taking the time to write this post. I’m in Singapore, and the situation here isn’t exactly very different either, with the bigger gyms and studios propagating the image that yoga is for skinny, sexy women walking around in yoga pants. However, I do not agree that having specialised classes for women of colour or LGBT, is the right way to go. If anything, I think it goes against the principle of everyone being equal. Existing classes like pre-natal and senior classes are there for a more practical reason–physical abilities–not so much about race, sexual orientation or any societal privilege (although I’m still split over how I feel about charging for yoga classes and do agree that we somewhat price certain groups of people out.)

    Having said that, I see some smaller studios here doing the right thing, and am grateful that I get to practice and teach at one such studio. These studios reinforce the idea that yoga is much, much more than physical exercises, and that yoga extends to the way we lead our lives. I think there are as many different types of yoga studios and teachers out there as there are the different types of people who want to practise yoga. So, all I can say is keep looking until you find one that really works for you, that makes you feel loved. I, for one, don’t like the hot yoga variants, but am glad to see friends enjoying it and reaping benefits from it. As I believe, the perfect yoga is the yoga that suits you.

    • bellejarblog November 27, 2012 at 2:33 am #

      It’s interesting to know that yoga culture is similar in Singapore!

      I think that it’s important to have the option of “specialized classes” as a way of providing safe spaces for people of colour/queer folk/trans folk/etc. There is actually a pretty high demand for these types of classes in Toronto, and a few people have told me that they probably wouldn’t practice yoga if it weren’t for these classes as they feel so uncomfortable in a “regular” class. This doesn’t mean that people of colour/queer folk/trans folk/etc. aren’t welcome in a regular class, just that they don’t feel safe there.

      I totally see where you’re coming from, but I do think that doing whatever is necessary to make sure that people have access to a yoga space where they feel comfortable and safe is a good place to start when searching for equality.

      And this? “As I believe, the perfect yoga is the yoga that suits you.” I couldn’t have said that better myself!

      Thanks for taking the time to comment 🙂

      • Ron November 27, 2012 at 2:42 am #

        I know what you mean. As a gay man myself, I have come across careless comments that made me uncomfortable. Granted, these comments weren’t intended to be malicious, but I do see your point that some people would much prefer to practice in an environment in which they don’t have to deal with such stuff.

        Good stuff you have here! 🙂

  8. Jodi November 26, 2012 at 1:27 am #

    Man. Wish I could take Yoga from you.

    Seriously. You think Toronto is bad for “those” studios, should check out Burlington. The rich stay at home wives of the Toronto commuters and their expensive clothes and judgey stares. 4 studios down…still trying. If you hear of any good ones out this way give me a heads up. xoxo

    • bellejarblog November 27, 2012 at 2:27 am #

      Awww I wish I could teach you, too! Next time you come to town, I’ll give you a class – and when Erin is here, I’ll give you BOTH a free class!

  9. OneWeekToCrazy March 11, 2013 at 3:18 pm #

    I loved reading this! You are absolutely right about yoga “targeting” certian populations in the United States. I do appreciate the free podcasts that are available on iTunes…but then again, downloading from iTunes is also not accessable to everyone I suppose. Regardless, thanks for the great read! How did you become a yoga teacher? There are so many great training programs out there, but they are so expensive!


    • bellejarblog March 11, 2013 at 3:42 pm #

      I did my training at a studio here in Toronto. It was expensive, but I just thought of it as being equivalent to a university tuition. It was a huge learning curve, but I’m so thankful that I did it!



      • OneWeekToCrazy March 11, 2013 at 3:45 pm #

        That’s a very good point! Thanks for the info!


  10. BulgingButtons September 15, 2013 at 10:55 pm #

    I’m so glad to have read this post. I would be one of your “yoga for fat chicks” girls. I’ve been trying new things in my quest to get healthier and live a fuller life, but the idea of walking into a yoga class scares the hell out of me.

    • bellejarblog September 16, 2013 at 3:25 am #

      If you were in Toronto I would totally teach you yoga!

      • BulgingButtons September 16, 2013 at 3:28 am #

        I’m visiting next month, 🙂

      • bellejarblog September 16, 2013 at 3:34 am #

        Yay! Drop me a line when you get here and we can figure something out if you want 🙂

      • BulgingButtons September 16, 2013 at 3:53 am #


      • NW IndiaN April 22, 2014 at 3:10 am #

        what in the hell do you know about our culture white gutter rat! go back toeurope and get off indian land stinky diseased parasite you white neanderturds know f all about our religion so quit exploiting us and get a life! you are sheer mockery to our religion and we pray everyday that you colonial white trash get eradicated for good!

  11. NW IndiaN April 22, 2014 at 3:09 am #

    stupid honkys get your own culture and quit stealing ours! you aint hindu so f off!

  12. andy August 2, 2014 at 10:17 pm #

    As a male yoga student I can say that the yoga class is not always a welcoming place for men. If you commit the sins of not being overtly gay and refusing to discuss your sexuality, of being an advanced, hardworking student, I can tell you from experience to beware all kinds of petty jealousy and troubles that may be coming your way from third rate washed up ego maniac teachers and deluded students who don’t practice and have claimed the class as their own. A bad yoga class is hellish.

  13. DIVINE~TIDES March 10, 2015 at 10:33 pm #

    These are my thoughts exactly and I told myself a couple years ago that when I become a yoga instructor I want to teach classes for prenatal women, and WOMEN OF COLOUR.
    I didn’t bother explaining my reasoning to anyone, because most people wouldn’t understand anyway. But I am so glad you mentioned specialty classes, I definitely see that being the new wave in the next few years!

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