What Yoga Is & What It Isn't | Omega

Do you think you're too old or too out-of-shape to do yoga? Yoga therapist and medical doctor Timothy McCall explains what yoga is, what it isn't, and why anyone can benefit from the practice.

Many people who could benefit from yoga shy away due to misconceptions about what it is and isn't, or who can do it and who shouldn't. Here are some common misconceptions about yoga and yoga therapy.

Yoga Isn't...Only for the Flexible & Fit

Some people avoid yoga because they think it's only for people who can bend like Gumby. They think it's for the young, strong, and athletic—and if you look at pictures in magazines or sample some vigorous yoga classes you could easily get that impression.

Interestingly enough, if you feel that you couldn't possibly do yoga, then yoga might be especially helpful for you. It's well-known among yoga therapists that people with no experience in yoga often make quicker progress with health problems than students with years of experience. Indeed, it is those who find yoga the most challenging, think they are terrible at it, and can't seem to quiet their minds who have the most to gain.

Yoga Isn't...Only for Those in Good Health

While I was researching yoga therapy in India, I visited centers that treated people with all kinds of physical, mental, and emotional problems: old people, stiff people, people with years of chronic disease, people in pain, people who were too depressed to get out of bed. Yoga has been used successfully on schizophrenics and on children with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and autism. Those who are bound to bed or wheelchairs can do yoga modified for their needs and abilities. There are people in their eighties, nineties, and beyond doing yoga, and I'm convinced that if you embrace the practice, you'll increase your odds of making it that far and feeling good when you get there.

Yoga has helped cancer patients and people with heart disease so advanced that emergency surgery was recommended. In almost all instances, yoga therapists encourage their students to continue their conventional medical care. But many yoga students notice after a while they need less of it, medication may be reduced, some drugs become entirely unnecessary, and surgery may be delayed and then cancelled. In India, I spoke with patients in whom all signs of rheumatoid arthritis or type 2 diabetes disappeared with regular practice. This is not everyone's experience, of course, but it shows what may be possible.

Yoga Isn't...a Religion

Yoga is not a religion. Although yoga came out of ancient India, it is not a form of Hinduism. In fact, yoga is happily practiced by Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, atheists, and agnostics alike. There is certainly a spiritual side to yoga, but you don't have to subscribe to any particular beliefs to benefit from it. It's probably more appropriate to view yoga as somewhat akin to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Like AA, yoga has a spiritual dimension that you can focus on or totally ignore, depending on what's most useful to you. Like AA, yoga is compatible with any religion, or none, if that's your preference.

Also like AA, yoga allows a "take what you can use and ignore the rest" approach. Meditation, which many people find effective for a variety of problems, originated in yoga and remains a part of it (although meditation is often thought of as a Buddhist practice, the Buddha himself was a yogi). But if meditation seems too foreign to you, don't do it. If chanting om strikes you as weird, chant something else, a prayer to Jesus or Allah or for world peace, or don't chant at all. In the thousands of classes I've attended, I've never once see a teacher object to a student skipping it.

I've also found that even those who aren't the least bit interested in spirituality, or whose childhood religious experiences were traumatic, don't have a problem with what goes on in most yoga classes or therapeutic settings. This is one of the beauties of yoga. There are so many practices and so many ways of modifying those practices that virtually anyone's needs can be met.

Yoga Is...?

Yoga is a systematic technology to improve the body, understand the mind, and free the spirit. Yogis tend to be more flexible, stronger, more energetic, thinner, and more youthful than people who don't do yoga. And what's happening on the outside is a reflection of what's happening to every system of the body. With the practice, you are strengthening and calming the nervous system. You are increasing the blood flow to internal organs and bringing more oxygen to your cells. You are clearing the mental clutter that can wreck your life, allowing you to see things more clearly. You are cultivating the spiritual muscles in a way that can make you happier, less anxious, more at peace.

Yoga is a series of practices that allow you to steadily gain discipline, strength, and self-control while cultivating relaxation, awareness, and equanimity. While it wasn't originally invented to improve health or facilitate recovery from a serious illness—it was and still is, for those who choose to use it that way, a spiritual path, a way to find happiness and meaning in a chaotic and out-of-control world.

Adapted from Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing. © 2007 by Dr. Timothy McCall. Used with permission.

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