I get asked this question or a variation of this question from yoga students more often than you’d think. Truthfully, I’ve gotten it more often than any injury or alignment issues/questions. In the movie, Kingdom of Heaven, Balian says that his father told him that he “was to be a good knight.” Tiberias chuckles a bit and replies, “I pray the world and Jerusalem can accommodate such a rarity as a good knight.”
What the hell is a “good knight?” Along the same lines, what the hell is a “bad” or “good” yogi?
Some of the things I’ve heard are as follows:
- I don’t practice everyday.
- I don’t meditate every day (or at all).
- I don’t practice pranayama.
- I can’t do fancy poses (arm balances, inversions, splits, etc.).
- I can’t touch my toes.
- I can do the fancy poses, but I don’t like them/they don’t feel good in my body.
- I’m not a vegan.
- I don’t like chanting.
Before I address some of these “concerns,” I feel like it’s important to cover some background information. The word, “yoga” comes from sanskrit root, “yuj,” which means to join or to unite. So, the practice of yoga is to create a union between the mind and body and man and nature. The practice of vinyasa is a type of yoga where we move our bodies in conjunction with the breath. The word comes from the sanskrit roots, “nyasa” and “vi.” “Nyasa” means to place. “Vi” means in a special way. So, we can say that “vinyasa” means to place (or move) in a special way. The practice of vinyasa could be interpreted as moving our bodies mindfully and with purpose and I feel like that’s key to a lot of what a yoga practice actually is. If we are doing something mindfully and with purpose, we are practicing yoga, even if it’s done while preparing dinner. It doesn’t have to be a literal, “roll out your mat and do all of the yoga postures you can possibly think of” type of thing.
I don’t know where this nonsensical rumor came from that if you can’t do a headstand or touch you’re toes, you’re not a “real yogi.” It’s ridiculous and if someone has told you that or something similar, that person, pardon my French, is an asshole. If a teacher gave you that impression, I recommend finding a new teacher. It’s not okay to make someone else feel less than based on their skills or abilities.
Furthermore, if something doesn’t feel right to you or in your body, you don’t have to do it. I don’t care if your split is the prettiest split in all the land. If something doesn’t feel right, it doesn’t feel right and there are two ways you can handle it.
- Try to figure out what it is about the pose that doesn’t feel right in your body. Maybe it’s an alignment issue. Maybe you’ve got a nagging injury that you didn’t realize you had. Maybe you just need a prop to assist you or you need a modification. Once you figure out the issue, see what you can do to remedy the situation. If it works, great! Do the pose to the best of your ability. If it doesn’t, don’t.
- Don’t do the pose. No one gets any special awards for being able to flawlessly execute every single pose featured in Light on Yoga and being able to do so doesn’t make you a better person than the person sitting next to you who can’t. So, who the hell really cares? It’s just a pose.
The whole point of the practice is to be mindful and that means cultivating self-awareness both physically and mentally. Being able to do all of the poses doesn’t mean a thing if you’re broken and still lost at the end of the day. The journey to the pose is infinitely more important than the actual pose. The journey is where the work happens. The self-study. What about “this” makes me “feel” or “react” like “this?” When we asks ourselves questions like this when we’re on the mat, we can start translating it to our habits, behaviors, and thoughts off of the mat as well.
Again, (and I can’t stress this enough) if a teacher insists that you should do something that doesn’t feel right, I recommend finding a new teacher. That teacher is not for you.
Yoga is what you make of it and what you put into it. I firmly believe that it is a practice for everybody and every body. It just needs to be adjusted in order to suit the needs of the individual. So, if that means 15 minutes of sun salutations every other day or once a week because that’s all you can accommodate with your schedule, then that’s what it is. If that means your body prefers the more gentle yin or restorative type of classes over the strong vinyasa ones, then that’s what it is. If that means your yoga practice is just 5-10 minutes of quiet breathing while sitting in your office chair, then that’s what it is.
As for the not practicing daily, meditating, pranayama, etc. piece, I will break down the benefits of all of it, not to make you feel guilty for not doing it, but to give you something to think about. Maybe you’ll decide a daily practice of something is for you. Maybe you’ll decide your current practice is enough. Maybe you’ll decide to incorporate all three practices into your life in some capacity.
The Benefits of Yoga:
- Increases strength, balance, and flexibility
- Can increase energy and improve your mood
- Helps relax you and improve sleep
- Can help relieve back pain (as long as you practice mindfully and with safe alignment)
- Improves heart health
- Can help ease arthritis symptoms (again – LISTEN TO YOUR BODY)
- Helps to manage stress
The Benefits of Meditation:
- Helps to manage stress
- Improves self-awareness
- Helps you focus on the present
- Can help to alleviate depression, anxiety, and other negative emotions
- Can help increase patience and tolerance
- Increases blood flow and slows the heart rate
- Can increase energy
The Benefits of Pranayama:
- Strengthens the connection between the body and mind
- Can promote relaxation and mindfulness
- Supports lung function, blood pressure, and brain function
As I said earlier, yoga is what you make of it. You can choose to do a physical practice or not. You can choose to meditate or not. You can choose to practice pranayama techniques or not. Doing these things or not doing these things does not make you a “good” or “bad” yogi. Doing them doesn’t even make you a “good” or “bad” person. Maybe the person who rolls out her yoga mat every single day for 90 minutes at a time just has more free time than you. It really could be that simple. Maybe you prefer the meditative or pranayama side of yoga over the physical practice side. Maybe instead of chanting, you like to practice to hard rock music (or the film score for the original Star Wars trilogy). It doesn’t matter. What matters is that whatever choice you make is done so mindfully and that you’re true to yourself and what your needs are.
What are your thoughts on the subject? Do you feel like you need to practice a “purist” form of yoga in order to be considered a yogi? Why or why not? Comment below!