Some people see yoga as a form of exercise or relaxation; others see it as a way of life. But whether you practice it regularly or have never set foot in a studio, chances are you have some long-held beliefs about yoga and its health and fitness benefits. Yoga proponents swear by its ability to cure disease and improve vitality, while skeptics might see it as little more than glorified stretching and chanting.
But the truth, says Charleston, S.C.-based yoga instructor Erica Rodefer, is that yoga is a versatile practice that can be modified to fit the needs of almost anyone who wants to learn. And to sort through the exaggerations, misunderstandings, and misconceptions, we looked at the research and talked to certified instructors to get their take on all things yoga. You may be surprised to learn the truth about something you already thought you knew.
Myth: Yoga isn't a "real" workout.
Truth: Most types of yoga will not burn as many calories or get your heart pumping as much as a cardiovascular activity like running or biking; that part is true. But yoga has been shown to improve flexibility, balance and strength -- three very important parts of physical fitness, says Sophie Herbert, a life coach and yoga instructor in Brooklyn, New York. And you'll certainly work up a sweat in vigorous, high-intensity classes like Vinyasa Flow, Bikram (or hot yoga), Ashtanga, and Core Power Yoga.
Myth: Yoga is only for flexible people.
Truth:"People tell me all the time: 'I can't do yoga because I can't touch my toes,'" says Brigitte Bourdeau, a yoga instructor in New York City. "I tell them, 'Sure you can do yoga. Just bend your knees.'" The idea that you have to already be flexible in order to see any benefit from a yoga class is just plain wrong, she insists. Instructors know how to modify poses so that people of all fitness and flexibility levels can do them, and so you can watch your flexibility improve with time and regular practice.
Myth: Yoga improves your sex life.
Truth: One of the most widely circulated rumors about yoga is that it is somehow intertwined with enhanced sexual pleasure -- and it is true that yoga can increase your confidence and body image (and even your flexibility), which could lead to more fun in bed. But as to whether it can lead to more powerful orgasms or tantric sex sessions that last for hours? The jury's still out. Research does suggest that yoga can increase blood flow to the pelvis and may improve sexual functioning and satisfaction, but so far that's only been anecdotally linked to real sexual benefits. (If it's working for you, though, don't let us stop you!)
Myth: Yoga requires a complete lifestyle change.
Truth: Yoga can be anything you want it to be, from a once-a-week fitness class at the gym to a 24/7 philosophy of how to live your life. Devotees of some yoga branches, like Integral Yoga, do believe that the poses you do on the mat are only a small part of what yoga really is -- and that ethics, service to others, religion, and meditation are all big parts, as well. But no yoga studio is going to tell you that you must become a vegan, stop drinking alcohol, and sacrifice your material belongings, says Rodefer. "I think most tofu is yucky. I like junk food on occasion. I enjoy a good glass of wine. And I have a bit of an obsession with clothing -- yoga clothing in particular," she wrote in a blog post on Yoga Journal's website. "Is it wrong? Maybe. But my practice makes me more mindful of how I live in this world." [Source: Rodefer]
Myth: Yoga can prevent or cure pain and injury.
Truth: It may not be the magical cure-all that some instructors would lead you to believe -- and, in fact, it's not unheard of for students to actually sustain injuries from yoga classes. (Interestingly, men seem to be especially at risk.) [Source: Broad] But there are also real, proven benefits to a regular yoga practice, as well. Several studies have found, for instance, that yoga can help reduce and prevent chronic low-back pain, insomnia, and anxiety. [Source: NIH] Restorative yoga can also help stretch out tight, injury-prone muscles, especially in runners and other athletes.
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- ABC News. "Better Sex Through Yoga? Book Says Yes!" February 9, 2012. (June 13, 2013) http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/health/2012/02/09/better-sex-through-yoga-book-says-yes/
- Broad, William J. "The Perils of Yoga." New York Times. December 22, 2012. (June 2, 2013) http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/23/sunday-review/the-perils-of-yoga-for-men.html
- Bourdeau, Brigitte. Yoga instructor. Personal interview. May 31, 2013.
- Herbert, Sophie. Yoga instructor. Personal interview. March 21, 2013.
- NIH.gov. "Yoga for Health." (June 14, 2013) http://nccam.nih.gov/health/yoga/introduction.htm
- Rodefer, Erica. "5 Biggest Misconceptions About Yoga." December 14, 2010. (June 14, 2013) Yoga Journal Blogs. http://blogs.yogajournal.com/goodlife/archives/2010/12/5-biggest-misconceptions-about-yoga.html
- Rountree, Sage. "Watch: The Body Shop: Pillow Talk." Runners World. April 26, 2011. (June 13, 2013) http://www.runnersworld.com/stretching/body-shop-pillow-talk