Avoiding Avidya: 10 Yoga Myths Busted

Avoiding Avidya: 10 Yoga Myths Busted

Mark Twain said “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story “, and this seems to be as true in yoga as it is elsewhere. Certain phrases have been repeated often enough in the yoga world that we have come to accept them. But just because a phrase looks good on a tank top or adds a note of depth to a social media post doesn’t mean that it’s true. Some of the most popular phrases are incomplete, outdated, or even inaccurate.

Modern yoga has its roots in deep philosophical tradition. In that tradition, the aim of yoga is to guide us toward samadhi or enlightenment, a state where we understand our true nature, our role in, and unity with, the rest of creation. One of the tools at our disposal is vidya, derived from the Sanskrit word “vid ” and commonly translated to mean wisdom, to perceive or understand. Its opposite, avidya, commonly translated as ignorance, means to forgot, to lack perception, to experience misconception or misunderstanding of the true nature of things.

A central text of yoga philosophy, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, presents avidya as a key barrier to yoga, suggesting that anything, even a catchy slogan, that clouds the truth prevents us from practicing yoga (Sutras 2.3-2.5). So let’s have a look at some of the myths and misconceptions that, depending on our interpretation, could be holding us back.

1 | Yoga is all we need.

I love yoga. I love the way yoga asana, breath-work, mindfulness and meditation support my physical and mental health, and I love the lessons I learn from yoga philosophy. I teach full-time, so yoga consumes much of my thought and energy. But I am under no illusions; no matter how effective yoga is, it’s not all there is. In terms of the physical body, yoga asana practice isn’t intrinsically balanced, tending to emphasize flexibility over strength and lacking challenges for grip or pulling strength in the upper body and general cardiovascular fitness. In terms of the mind and spirit, there are many other systems, both religious and secular systems, that can help us more deeply understand ourselves and our role in the world around us. In the Bhagavad Gita, a core text in yoga philosophy, Lord Krishna defines yoga as “skill in action “; yoga doesn’t have to be all we do, but it can help make us better at what we do.

2 | Flexible body, flexible mind.

This is a subtle underlying premise that colors many yoga classes. Even if the phrase doesn’t appear overtly, teachers may suggest it by correlating a tight chest with being closed off, or tight hip muscles with a fear of moving forward. Of course our physical body is related to our mental and emotional state, but the phrase implies that increasing our range of motion will somehow improve our ability to meet life’s challenges with grace. If that were true, acrobats and contortionists would also have the world’s nimblest minds. But the truth of the matter is that physical flexibility is just that. We can alter it to some extent through our movement habits, or by relaxing tension held by the nervous system, but our end range depends more on the shape of our bones and joints and the level of elastin in our connective tissue. None of these factors have any bearing on our mental resilience, our creativity, or our problem-solving skills. Yoga practice can help us bolster our mental toolkit, not by forcing our physical range of motion, but by teaching us skills like learning to find ease within a challenge.

3 | The poses we hate help us the most.

Like most of these myths, there’s a kernel of truth here; we can learn from the things we find difficult. But we can also learn from the things we find enjoyable, grounding, or invigorating; dislike alone isn’t evidence of a pose’s usefulness. Some poses and practices are uncomfortable for a reason. Maybe Shoulder Stand (salamba sarvangasana) creates neck pain, or Childs’ pose (balasana) aggravates the knees, or perhaps certain breathing techniques trigger anxiety or light-headedness. Part of the mental practice of yoga is to observe and understand our reactions. The poses we find challenging might help us grow, but the poses we hate, we might just avoid for a reason.

4 | Every damn day.

While I’m a firm believer in integrating the lessons learned from yoga practice into daily life, this hashtag (which has appeared more than half a million times on Instagram) seems to feed the perception that “real ” yogis commit to a disciplined daily asana practice. But even at a purely physical level, the more intense the demand on the body, the greater the need for rest and recovery afterward; taking rest days, cross training, or varying the style or intensity of yoga practice might be even more important for committed asana practitioners. In my experience, students are drawn to their practice for a multitude of reasons – to breathe, rest and restore, reflect and meditate, explore, grow, transform, or play – not just to build physical strength and mental discipline. The word yoga, which derives from the Sanskrit root “yuj “, commonly translated as “yoke ” or “join “, suggests that our practice is an opportunity to cultivate balance or unity between the disparate parts of our lives. For some people, and some phases of life, a set and scheduled practice might achieve that aim; for others, yoga might offer an escape from exactly that kind of pressure.

5 | Do your practice and all is coming.

This famous quote from Sri K. Pattahbi Jois has deep roots in yoga philosophy. The sage Patanjali set out a clear pathway in his Yoga Sutras. Diligent and persistent practice without attachment to results was a key component (sutras 1.12-1.16). Patanjali was speaking of the mental practice of equilibrem, smoothing the fluctuations of a busy mind, but the quote is often applied to asana practice – implying that every pose is possible with sufficient practice. When I first started practicing yoga, this belief was wide-spread. We now know that people differ in their bony proportions and joint shapes as well in the level of elasticity in their connective tissue. When it comes to the range of motion required for many “advanced ” yoga poses, our capacity is highly individual. So while it’s healthy to maintain mobility by exploring movement in all directions, in the long term we are better served by following the original intention of this quote than its modern (mis)interpretation.

6 | We store emotions in the hips.

Spend enough time in a yoga hip opener and chances are that this phrase will make an appearance, probably because it’s partially true. Psychologists once believed that emotions were generated in the brain alone, until neuroscientist Candace Pert proved that various peptides and hormones bind with receptors on almost every cell to create emotional experiences and memories throughout the body (as detailed in her book Molecules of Emotion). Regardless of the chemical basis, we all seem to experience and remember emotions similarly in our bodies. A 2013 survey asked people to color areas in the bodies where they felt more and less sensation when experiencing various emotions, and remarkable similarities were found across cultures; anger feels red-hot in the face, chest and head while happiness creates heightened sensations throughout the body, with extra brightness around the heart and face. So we might feel emotions when releasing the hips, but we might also feel emotions when working on the jaw, neck, stomach, shoulders, or any area of the body.

7 | As long as there’s no pain, the pose is safe.

Our bodies are responsive and resilient, and yoga injuries are rare when compared to other physical pursuits. But some injuries do happen, and while I wouldn’t advise staying in any pose that caused pain, I also wouldn’t assume that pain-free means safe from injury. The truth is more complicated, for a few reasons. Firstly, there are vulnerable structures in the body, like the cartilage that covers and cushions our joint surfaces, that aren’t reached by nerves, and therefore don’t send pain signals. Secondly, some damage is subtle and cumulative; we might not feel anything the first time we do a pose, or the 50th, but eventually the damage reaches a level the body can register. Finally, pain is not a straight-forward pathway between damaged tissues and the brain: it is a neurological response heavily colored by our previous experiences and perceptions. As a method of communication between body and brain, sometimes pain is a last resort and sometimes it’s the first port of call. So where does that leave us? It leaves us in a place where our practice is an opportunity to be attentive to all the signals our body sends us, including pain, but also our facial expressions, patterns of muscular contraction, breath depth and rate, mental and emotional responses, and even how we feel the next day.

8 | Teacher knows best.

I love an attentive and enthusiastic student as much as the next teacher, but while I have invested hundreds of hours into yoga theory and practice I will never know how it feels to move in anyone else’s body. In fact, no matter how thoroughly our teachers are trained in anatomy and physiology, biomechanics, human movement, psychology, philosophy and more, but they can still only offer insight and advice, not authority. Each of us differs in our body shapes and proportions, joint orientations, experiences, habits and interpretations. A teacher’s alignment cues can be a helpful way to start exploring yoga practice, but each of us is the expert in our unique experience of a pose. Not to mention that even the most educated teacher is still human, and human knowledge is constantly developing; not too long ago, we believed that the sun revolved around the Earth rather than the other way around. Rather than following our teachers’ advice as dogma, it can instead act as a road map to offer signposts as we start exploring, leaving each of us to observe the compass of our own experience.

9 | Keep calm and carry “Om “.

The original slogan was intended to keep the British people functioning calmly during the trauma of World War II; this version seems to suggest that a true yogi does the same. Sailing through the stresses of life while maintaining the illusion of calm might help us cope with short-term emergencies but has little to do with the long-term aims of the yoga tradition. Patanjali’s yoga pathway did value mental equanimity, defining yoga as a specific program of life-long practices to still the vibrations or fluctuations of the mind (sutra 1.2). But rather than masking the feelings that disturb our mind, the reflective space offered by regular yoga practice actually allows us to become more aware of our fears and desires. We feel grief and anger, joy and excitement, jealousy and greed, but in yoga practice we aim to observe our reactions to these feelings, perhaps ultimately recognizing their separateness from our true selves (sutra 1.3).

10 | Social media is ruining yoga.

For those of us who remember yoga before Instagram, it’s obvious how much the yoga world has changed. Even a decade or two ago, yoga practice was done in baggy clothes, in private, and by a small percentage of the population. Now it seems like everyone is into yoga and sharing images of their experience – posing in a bikini-clad handstand on a beach, frolicking with goats, or balancing on one leg with a beer in hand. It’s all too easy to complain that the real meaning of yoga has been lost in all the noise. But the flip side to yoga’s sudden visibility is that the practice has become more known to people who might never have found it otherwise. Perhaps we start by trying to copy a pose seen on a smartphone, but many move on to a physical, mental and spiritual journey. Social media is simply a tool, and like any of the tools invented by humans it can be used in many ways. People in all continents, of all body shapes and sizes, and all states of physical ability have access to more information at the swipe of a finger than in any other time in human history; whether we use that capacity to support ignorance and escapism, or for growth into greater self-awareness is ultimately up to each one of us. And isn’t that, in the end, the ultimate aim of yoga practice?