If you have ever wondered, “Can I really do yoga?” the answer is YES.
It just might not look like your current idea of what yoga looks like, especially if you associate yoga with extreme flexibility, extreme booty-toning, or anything else extreme for that matter, including an attitude of “more is better!” and “no-pain-no-gain.” You may need to learn to notice how each pose feels and modify it to meet your needs, rather than force your body to fit the pose. This is admittedly a more difficult skill than mindlessly fumbling through the instructions provided to a group and ignoring what your mind and body have to say about it, but fortunately, it is also much more rewarding!
The Yoga Sutras, often considered the primary text of yogic philosophy, have very little to say about the physical postures of yoga practice. The instructions, unlike some of the contortions that often visually represent yoga in our society, are refreshingly simple.
Sutra 2.46 describes the physical postures of yoga as a practice of steadiness and ease. That’s it. No contortion required– in fact, if you are straining to get into a pose, it might not even be considered yoga.
This is good news for those of us living with a chronic condition or injury, who may feel limited by symptoms or risk of re-injury/exacerbation. In traditional forms of exercise, progress is seen as the ability to do more, longer, heavier or more intensely. In yoga, progress is showing up, noticing what is present, and letting dis-ease– or even symptoms– be an indication to adapt the physical practice, our approach to it, or both.
As a licensed physical therapist and a certified yoga therapist, I have the opportunity to help people discover a practice that honors where they are and supports their goals. If you haven’t found this yet in a self-led practice or group class, please don’t be discouraged. It can be an overwhelming task (one that requires years or decades of training!) to appropriately adapt movement, breath, and mental focus for what you are experiencing, and it may even take a village to support the process.
The true purpose of yoga is to “calm the thought waves” that create an agitated, anxious, and distracted state, which may benefit anyone dealing with the stress of a health crisis. If you are frustrated with your physical health, it might be time to employ a yoga therapist, physical therapist, somatic therapist, psychotherapist or some combination of these so that you can move forward with ease.
When I work with clients who have restricted mobility, they often believe they are not flexible enough to practice yoga poses. Trying to force their body to bend in ways it simply doesn’t move is an exercise in frustration! But if they are willing to let go of what they think it “should” look like and be present with what is, we can choose poses, props and modifications that make sense for their current body and their goals.
Many of my hypermobile clients have been told not to do yoga by their doctors, likely out of fear that they will be encouraged to push too far into hypermobility and overstretch ligaments that protect joints. This would certainly not be a practice of steadiness and ease– to practice yoga as a hypermobile person is to cultivate moderation and emphasize strength and stability of poses in order to improve balance, body awareness and integrity of movement.
While reviewing the literature for the course Yoga and Pilates for Older Adults that I developed for Summit Professional Education, I was pleasantly surprised to find a wealth of evidence that supports the use of yoga in rehabilitation.
Evidence consistently shows that yoga improves quality of life, physical function, and pain levels for patients ranging from pediatrics to geriatrics, and eases symptoms for people living with Parkinson’s Disease, cancer, anxiety, musculoskeletal conditions, osteoarthritis, chronic fatigue/fibromyalgia, chronic pain, pelvic floor disorders, dementia and more.
Yoga techniques like breathing, imagery, mindfulness and body awareness can be applied to many scenarios, fostering an environment that is conducive to healing whether you are on or off the mat.
So if anyone tells you not to do yoga (even a well-intentioned but misinformed healthcare professional) please consider that they may not define yoga in a way that aligns with yoga’s true purpose and guiding principles. They may not be aware of the many ways yoga can be customized by highly trained professionals to emphasize the potential for healing and minimize risk.
Your health and wellness journey is yours alone to travel. Choose guides and practices that support you along the way. Yoga has been around for thousands of years, so there are many options to choose from! Whatever you choose, may your efforts bring steadiness and ease.