The popularity of yoga is surging. According to the 2016 Yoga in America Study (published by the Yoga Alliance), the number of people doing yoga increased from 20.4 million in 2012 to 36 million in 2016.
The benefits of a regular practice can be wide-ranging, including relief from pain, increased strength and flexibility, stress relief, better breathing, weight management, cardiovascular conditioning, better circulation, and a calmer mood, according to the Yoga Alliance.
And while nearly every version of this ancient practice incorporates some degree of strength, flexibility, and breath work to improve mental and physical well-being, not all practices are alike. Within yoga, you can find variations that run the full gamut from gentle restorative practices to sweaty, challenging workouts.
So, if you want to get into yoga, there are indeed a lot of options. And if any of the following myths about yoga have been keeping you from trying it, don’t let them.
1. I’m Not Flexible
Social media is rife with yogis who can move their bodies in unimaginable ways, so it’s easy to see why you might think yoga is only for flexible folks. But it’s time for a reality check.
You don’t do yoga because you’re flexible; You do it to increase your flexibility and mobility, explains Samantha Clayton, an International Sports Science Association (ISSA) -certified yoga instructor coach and a National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) -certified personal trainer based in Los Angeles. “We all have to start somewhere, and each pose can be modified to fit where you are on your own personal flexibility journey.”
Yoga (and the stretching you’ll do as part of it) is good for all levels of exercisers. And while you may never be able to stretch like the Instagram yogis, your flexibility will improve over time. Most people start noticing a difference after three to four weeks of practice, says Clayton, who is also the vice president of worldwide sports performance and fitness for Herbalife Nutrition and a former Olympic runner.
2. I Have Back Pain
Good news: That back pain shouldn’t disqualify you. “Yoga can be modified for almost any medical condition,” says Samantha Parker, an exercise physiologist with the United States Air Force in Washington, DC, a Yoga Alliance-certified yoga instructor, and an International Association of Yoga-certified yoga therapist (meaning she is trained to modify yoga practices for various health and medical issues).
For instance, if you have glaucoma (a disease that damages the optic nerves in your eyes), you’ll need to avoid dropping your head below your heart, which means you’ll have to modify certain poses, Parker says.
While medical issues shouldn’t hold you back from doing yoga, if you do have a health condition and you’re not sure if yoga is suitable for you, check with your doctor first and ask if there’s any movement you shouldn’t be doing , Parker says.
Then talk to the yoga instructor before class to let him or her know you have certain moves you need to avoid. The instructor should be able to show you pose modifications to make that happen. (If your instructor is a certified yoga therapist, he or she can recommend modifications for specific health conditions, Parker adds.)
3. I’m Concerned the Spiritual Side Will Conflict With My Religious Beliefs
Though often culturally associated with Hinduism and Buddhism, yoga does not require a set of religious beliefs and can be practiced in a completely secular way, according to the Yoga Alliance.
Yoga does, though, promote the idea of peace and purpose, which some people equate with spirituality, Parker says. If you’re not into that, look for classes and instructors who focus solely on the physical aspects of yoga.
4. Yoga Is for Women
Women do make up a majority of yoga participants – 72 percent female versus 28 percent male, according to the 2016 Yoga in America study – but the benefits of yoga extend to anyone who is interested in fitness.
“Yoga helps everyone improve joint mobility, range of motion, and overall core stability,” Clayton says. These benefits can help both men and women with performance goals across a wide range of sports, he says, from weight lifting to running and much more. Plus, yoga promotes good posture and muscle control and involves many of the smaller stabilizing muscles and tendons that may not get the same attention and stimulation with other workouts.
5. Yoga Is Just Glorified Stretching
Yoga does involve a lot of stretching, but you’re gaining more than just flexibility and mobility. You’re also building strength. “Many of the movements involve holding your own body weight as endurance, and this can improve muscle strength and endurance,” Clayton says.
In a study published in June 2015 in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicinefor instance, a 12-week yoga program improved not only flexibility but also cardiovascular endurance and muscular strength and endurance in a group of healthy adults.
6. I Don’t Have Lots of Spare Time for Yoga
Parker doesn’t mince words when she hears this myth. “You have time, you’re just choosing to spend it doing other things,” she says.
And, she says, there’s no minimum or maximum amount of time you need to do yoga. Longer yoga sessions can offer more benefits (depending on why you’re practicing and what results you’re looking for), but even short ones can boost mood, relieve stress, and increase physical fitness. You can do simple yoga flows at your desk to relieve pain, increase cognitive function, and lower stress, Parker says. Or do five minutes of Sun Salutations in the morning or at night to achieve those same effects.
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7. Yoga Will Get in the Way of Other Types of Training
Because of the restorative, strengthening, and meditative aspects of yoga, experts say the right type of yoga complements nearly any other type of physical activity. “If your muscles are tight, your muscles are also weak, and if you lack flexibility, you’re unable to access the muscle’s entire power potential,” Parker says. By doing yoga, you may find that you can perform better in other activities like strength training and aerobic exercise.
Plus, yoga gives those muscles much-needed relief from other activities. “Most yoga is designed to heal and aid in active recovery,” says Parker.
The key is finding the right practice to balance out the other types of activity you’re doing, Parker says. If strength training is your primary focus, look for a yoga practice that focuses on flexibility and mobility. If you’re spending most of your time doing cardio, look for a yoga practice that will help you build strength. Or if you’re following an intense training plan for an upcoming race or event, check out a restorative yoga practice.