Imagine walking into your local yoga studio. What do you expect to see?
You might expect to see Jen, the perky 20 something wearing the trendiest leggings, a snug racer back tank and stretching out in the back, showing off her flexibility. This is what most of us imagine when we think of yoga. Skinny middle -class women doing headstands and impossible balancing acts.
Would you be surprised then that next to her is Sue, an overweight 57-year-old grandma who recently cut back to part time and signed up for this class through community ed? She’s wearing some old sweatpants and a baggy t-shirt she picked up in Jamaica 15 years ago. No tight spandex for her. It might surprise you even more to notice that her and Jen are talking in that familiar way about what they did over the weekend. What could these women possibly have in common? Are they friends?
Would you be equally taken aback to see that next to Sue, stretching his back in a forward fold, is Steve. Steve is a 34-year-old former marine sergeant who started yoga per recommendation from his counselor to help manage his PTSD.
To the front of him are Karen and Don who always lay their mats together and bicker over who made the other late that day. Would you expect that they are in their late 70’s and they just started yoga the year before last?
Is this how you imagine the practitioners of yoga to be?
Are these the next great yogis of our time?
Or are they simply a representation of yoga today?
Yoga is many things, but what it is not is exclusive. Yoga is for everybody. Every age. Every ability. Every person can practice some form of yoga. Yoga brings people together from all walks of life. The young, the old, the able bodied, the hurt. Yoga is not a religion. It is not a sport. It is a practice that connects the body, mind and spirit through the breath. You can find classes in a studio, in a park, in a church basement, on the beach, even online. Yoga is everywhere. As you sit in your car pulled up to the stop light, you notice the young woman next to you close her eyes for a moment and breath deeply through her nose. Is she practicing yoga? Of course she is! She’s practicing pranayama- breath work. Maybe she doesn’t know she’s practicing yoga but she is. At your next work meeting you notice the presenter do something funny with his hands, he holds them in a sort of steeple with the finger tips touching and the fingers widened apart. Is that yoga? Yes it is! That’s what yogis call a mudra- a way of working with your bodies energy systems. Perhaps he learned that trick at a leadership conference and never knew he was beginning a journey into such a powerful practice. At lunch your co-worker tells you about some exercises from her physical therapy. They kind of sound like yoga. Are they? They might be. Again- Yoga is all around us.
Some people say that America has ruined yoga. They say that we have ripped away the tradition and importance of the practice. I say that America is young and eager. We see the benefits and we know deep down that we need those benefits for ourself. But the underlying thread and importance of yoga can never be altered. None of us are living the life of traditional yogis. So how can we take a traditional practice and expect it to work today. The truth is we can’t without completely changing everything about what makes our lives run the way they do. Now that’s not saying there isn’t room to change but yoga brings that change in its own way. You don’t have to change yourself to do yoga because yoga will bring about the change for you. Yoga forces you to confront your ego and it humbles you. Not in a degrading sort of way, but in the way that reminds you of what’s truly important in life. Yoga not only allows you to live in the moment and to just be, but it also works on a physical level to strengthen and bring balance to your body systems, no matter what style of yoga you practice.
So next time you have insecurity or trepidation about attending a yoga class, take a moment and remember Sue, Steve, Don and Karen. Even think of Jen because she is part of this yoga conglomerate. The names have been changed but they represent real individuals. These are the people of modern yoga. Not the contortionists we imagine in our mind, but our neighbors, our coworkers, our family and our friends. This is what yoga looks like today and I am proud to be part of it.