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There's no denying that yoga has many health benefits, from increasing flexibility and reducing muscle tension to reducing stress and anxiety. As far as exercise goes, yoga is very good for your health. "Yoga provides a unique combination of deep stretching and dynamic movement that effectively lengthens muscles and realigns the body," said registered yoga teacher Kristin Fuchs, who teaches at Criplu, the largest yoga retreat in the United States 8 years on the board of the Yoga and Wellness Center.
But there are also a lot of misconceptions about yoga — misconceptions that keep many people who could benefit from a yoga practice from never setting foot on a yoga mat.
So, what are these misunderstandings - and why are they inaccurate? Let's bust some of the most common myths about yoga - so that no misunderstanding or misinformation stops you from starting yoga (and enjoying all the health benefits in the process):
Myth #1: "Yoga is only for flexible people."
When you see pictures of yoga practitioners on social media, they're usually in gravity-defying poses - leading many to believe you need to be super flexible to practice yoga.
But flexibility isn't a prerequisite for practicing yoga -- no matter how flexible or stiff you are, there are ways to adjust each pose to fit your body.
"At the heart of yoga is a focus on breathing and exploring what the body feels like. Each yoga pose can be adapted to a person's current level of flexibility," says Fuchs. "The focus shouldn't be on the student's posture, but where the student feels the stretch."
Take a face-down dog as an example. Someone with tight hamstrings will definitely have a hard time getting into the heel-to-heel pose you see in yoga classes - but a) that's not the point of the pose, and b) you can easily adjust your pose to fit your current pose flexibility level.
"The purpose of Downward Dog is to stretch the spine without rounding the lower back; instead of keeping the legs straight, the goal is to keep the heels on the floor," says Fuchs. Fuchs recommends that students with tight hamstrings fully bend their knees to stretch their backs—as they become more flexible, they can try straightening their legs and lowering their heels.
And, if you practice regularly, there's a good chance you'll become more flexible. "I often hear people say they're not flexible enough to do yoga," says Fuchs. "I remind them that you don't need to be flexible to do yoga, but you may become more flexible when you do it.")
Myth 2: "I have chronic pain -- so I can't do yoga."
If you struggle with chronic pain, you can feel overwhelmed by the thought of exercise—and that includes yoga (especially more intense forms of yoga like Flow Yoga).
However, if you struggle with pain, some types of yoga can actually help you better manage your pain.
"Research shows that practicing yoga may be beneficial and even reduce certain types of chronic pain," says Chicago-based yoga instructor and wellness blogger Stephanie Morgan. "For example, Yin yoga is often taught in unheated classes and has been shown to increase oxygen and blood flow to the muscles by holding the pose gently for extended periods of time. Recommended for those suffering from chronic pain, stress, or muscle tension. These classes are more restorative, relying heavily on gravity to help deepen posture and restore range of motion."
People with chronic pain may also worry that certain postures may actually make their pain worse. But it's important to remember that "all poses can be modified," Morgyn says. "If you practice in class, make sure to let your instructor know of any health concerns before class so they can provide customized tips and modifications to help you with certain poses that may be painful."
Myth 3: "I'm too old to try yoga."
Many people think that if you haven't started yoga at 30, the boat has already sailed.
But there is no age limit to start practicing yoga — and there are a variety of yoga styles to suit any age group.
"While my 80-year-old mother may not be into bikram yoga or power yoga, there are many different styles of yoga that move us slowly," Fuchs said. "If the main purpose is relaxation, I recommend (older) students try restorative yoga or Nidra yoga. For a more active practice for older adults, I recommend chair yoga...slow yoga or gentle yoga."
There are also some benefits to practicing yoga that are especially helpful to older generations; for example, “one of the great benefits of yoga is focusing on balancing poses, like tree pose, and getting your roots firmly in place,” says Fuchs. "This is especially important for older adults," who may have difficulty maintaining balance (and could face serious health problems if they fall).
Bottom line? Whether you're 25, 42, 59, or 82, you're never too old to start practicing yoga on a regular basis.
Myth #4: "Yoga is only for spiritual people."
Yoga has spiritual roots, which leads many to think that yoga is only for spiritual or religious people.
However, while yoga is definitely a spiritual practice for many people, it is certainly not required. There are many different elements in yoga. "The yoga we talk about the most is actually asana, which is a physical part of yoga, not necessarily a spiritual practice," says yoga teacher Alexandra Calderin.
While the spiritual aspects of yoga (like meditation) certainly have their own health benefits, there are also many benefits to sticking with a rigorous physical yoga practice.
"However, [asanas] can be great tools for touching and listening to the body, developing strength, slowing the mind, and mastering the breath," says Calderin. It's also "linked to a host of health benefits, including reduced anxiety and inflammation."