Debunking the “Yogi” Sterotype

By Kim Kirk

When you think of yoga, do you have a mental picture? A lean, flexible body encased in a spandex blend? Arms and legs contorted, wrapped, twisted around each other and moving seamlessly from posture to posture? Perhaps someone very unlike your own self image. But it’s time to erase this image and replace it with one of yourself because yoga is “a practice for every body.” 

It’s 8:30AM on a weekday morning, and I am signing in students for the 9:00AM class at Hot Yoga Harrisonburg. Through the studio door walks a retired 84-year-old man named Art. He’s full of wit, yogi spirit, and a bulldog determination to touch his toes. Next in is a college student named Anna with a heavy workload and a body made for athletics. The two couldn’t be more different but they have both used yoga to completely change their bodies and become mentally stronger. How is it possible that they both receive incredible benefits? The answer comes from debunking some longstanding “yogi” stereotypes.

Students at Hot Yoga Harrisonburg practice triangle pose. Photo courtesy of Hot Yoga Harrisonburg.


You have to be flexible (or fit) to do yoga.

Perhaps the most prevalent of all the myths is that the typical yogi started out already being flexible and fit. When I began my own yoga journey, I couldn’t even see my toes easily much less touch them.  Soon afterwards, I saw my body change and my hips, shoulders, back, etc. open in a way that would allow me to finally gain back the range of motion that I had lost over the years. Chances are, every flexible body you see in a yoga class was also once very tight and limited. 

Pilates instructor and studio owner of Breathe, Rebekah Girvan Budnikas, says her students “love that we focus on what our bodies can do instead of feeling defeated by our limitations.” Suzanne McCahill Perrine, owner of The Center says at her studio “we get together as a team and discuss the challenges we have as instructors in properly, respectfully, and gently handling our students' limitations through alignment cues and hands on adjustments when needed.” 

Yoga is just about increasing flexibility.
Although flexibility is a wonderful result of a consistent yoga practice, there are countless other results that make hatha yoga a whole body and mind healer. 

How does yoga get into the brain? Rebekah has found yoga and Pilates to have a grounding effect. She says, “I am a whole person because of my practice. I have discovered a new person in myself, someone who is more determined, better balanced, and most days a whole lot calmer. I am more forgiving of myself, the people in my life, and I am humbled by the community around me."

Suzanne describes it as a way to cope with the inevitabilities of life. “Yoga doesn't make the messiness of life go away.  It just changes how we handle it. Hopefully with a little more steadiness, grace, and love.”

In addition to the mental and emotional benefits, yoga provides strength training as well – building lean muscle. Several yoga styles (especially heated power yoga and Bikram yoga) provide cardiovascular benefits that result in increased endurance and a significant calorie burn as well. Building balance in the body not only improves balance in the mind but also helps the body resist injury in other physical activities outside the yoga room.

 

Using yoga to build a community. like at Breathe, is one of the benefits of a mind/body practice. Photo courtesy of Breathe Harrisonburg.

 

I lift weights (or do other sports) so I don’t need yoga.
Actually, you may need yoga more than anyone else! At Hot Yoga Harrisonburg, we’ve had professional football players, cyclists, Cross Fit enthusiasts, avid golfers, marathon runners, etc. come in to experi

ence how hot yoga (and yoga in general) can be amazing cross-training. Joints and tissues that were once tight and restrictive - reducing the true use of those strong muscles you’re building – are now flexible, giving you more range of motion and increased performance.

I have a serious injury or illness and can’t exercise.There are very few injuries or illnesses that should keep you from trying yoga. Talk to your doctor, of course, but know that a mind/body practice is an excellent way to find healing from injuries or illnesses. These are not seen as “limitations” but rather opportunities. If you are concerned about figuring out how to work with the body you have, each studio offers private sessions for you to work one-on-one with an instructor to ensure your practice is a beneficial one.

I don’t have time for yoga.
Absolutely, yoga is a time commitment. But the benefits of a consistent, regular practice make it worthwhile. Suzanne recommends that all new students come to the studio with “patience and practice,” noting that anything worthwhile takes time and that miracles can happen if you just surrender to the process. A quote that hits home for me is by Rabbi Hillel: “You have a solemn obligation to take care of yourself because you never know when the world will need you.” 

 

Students at The Center practice stillness and meditation. Photo courtesty of The Center.


Yoga is an individual practice.
Certainly, when you’re on your mat and staring at yourself in the mirror or looking inward as you attempt to challenge your body, this can be a very self-focused experience. However, the yoga that you do on the mat can’t help by expand outward as you interact with those around you.

Suzanne said it best when she said the Harrisonburg community, especially the downtown area, is “rapidly becoming more vibrant. People are walking and riding their bikes, enjoying the shops and restaurants. It feels like home. We are moving into a time where people are coming together like never before…the time of being separate is fading.” With yoga, the practice may start off individual but before you know it, you have a network of fellow yogis that you can depend upon and call upon in time of need. 

I don’t know where to start!
There are so many styles of yoga and it’s a great idea to try them all to find out what works best for you. All three downtown studios offer practices that touch on strength, flexibility, and cardio. Breathe offers TRX strength training, Pilates mat and reformer classes, and barre classes. The Center offers an incredible range of yoga styles from Kundalini, gentle yoga, vinyasa and power flow, meditation and more. Hot Yoga Harrisonburg, currently offers a proven 26 posture sequence (also known as Bikram yoga) that heals injuries, balances and tones the body, and calms the mind.

Want to try them all at once? Yoga Fest is a great way to support a wonderful cause while also experiencing a variety of different styles of yoga. 

If you have additional questions about yoga, hot yoga, or how to begin a practice, please don’t hesitate to email me.


Kendall Wondergem is the owner of Hot Yoga Harrisonburg.