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Being Bad at Yoga

Updated: May 2

I love yoga. And I know that honestly, I'm probably in the minority of the general population. From not being able to sit still, concentrate, touch your toes, or see someone else like you in class, a lot of people feel they're just bad at yoga. And I can see why they would. But is being bad yoga an idea we should keep?

Is is even a yoga class if you didn't wobble once?

I haven't really been very well recently. I went from  this time last year being the most physically well, strong and powerful that I've ever felt to feeling depressed, bloated, angry with myself, easily distracted, absolutely exhausted and like I've got a different body 12 months on. I have some underlying health issues that I'm working on, but this change has at times left me feeling that I'm BAD at yoga. And I'm a yoga teacher 😅. This spurred me to think about some of the deeper issues faced by many people when it comes to yoga.

Why there is a problem

I suppose there are certain people who are more likely to be drawn to yoga than others. UK statistics show that most yoga practitioners are female 🖐🏻 white 🖐🏻 and commonly reported doing yoga for a musculoskeletal condition and anxiety and depression 🖐🏻🖐🏻. Anecdotally, I see more people who are already 'bendy' in yoga classes than those who, in theory at least, would benefit more from flexibility practice, and I see more people who are pretty used to sitting in meditation rather than folks who would get the big gains by starting to sit.

There ARE a lot of accessibility issues in yoga. Advocates and practitioners like Jessamyn Stanley and Yoga for Neurodiversity are active in highlighting the issues and getting us to properly think about what we're doing with and in yoga classes.

And ultimately I think many issues stem from the insidious concept that yoga is something you can be good or bad at. That it's something you can achieve, improve on, level up at, use as a badge of honour, compare against, or otherwise measure, in a linear fashion towards a fixed goal (whether that's finding Samahdi or enlightenment, standing on your head or, frankly doing ANYTHING that Dylan Werner gets up to).

And if it's possible to be good or bad at yoga, that means that there are certain people more likely to be good at it than others. There will be people who will say "it's just not my thing" because, in our achievement orientated society, they're better spending time on something they'll succeed at. Whether that's because they look a certain way or they move a certain way or they come from a particular background or their brains are divergent rather than typical or they can't afford to shop at Sweaty Betty, they will not think that yoga is for them or be able to access its many potential benefits.

It's time to stop approaching yoga practice as something you can be good at.

Why I am bad at yoga

I've been practicing yoga on and off for 20 years.

I mean that in itself could make me bad at yoga. I'm inconsistent. Famous teacher Pattabhi Jois used to say "practice, and all is coming". Well it's coming in it's own sweet time given the gaps in my practice record.

I started practicing yoga in the first place because in the 2000s asian culture was hip and interesting (wearing bindhis and sarongs and burning incense and buying various Nepalese art objects was pretty normal, though cultural sensitivity was yet to be developed) and I was curious to start exploring my mind. Which I also did in various other ways, including WAY too much alcohol. I can't say I ever went to a yoga class pissed, but I've definitely been to several hungover. And (ranty aside) I honestly can't believe that beer yoga is now a thing... I mean if we're going to have bad yoga practice, that's it. I fall over enough in balancing poses already!

I picked up yoga again in a serious way in my late 20s because I got injured as a result of my hypermobility. This was mad stuff really, since many yoga poses were taught at the time (and continue to be, according to folks like Alexandria Crow) that require more than a normal or functional range of mobility to get into them. So if you weren't mega strong and healthy (I really wasn't...) you were quite likely to get injured.

Somehow I avoided this, perhaps partly as a result of spending more time doing my own thing rather than paying attention to 'proper' teachers. I've always had a bit of stick it to The Man in me, so I still don't really reflect the significance of teacher/pupil dynamics from the yoga tradition in my own practice. Fortunately, some of the teachers that I do sometimes listen to have introduced me to a broad yoga cannon, which includes the idea of 'sadhguru' or the inner teacher, who may be your greatest teacher. So maybe I'm not so bad on that front after all?

Floating woman's head with black spectacles and an amused expression
I had meant to be meditating, but I decided instead to see what I'd look like as Holly from Red Dwarf...

Clearly, I'm being facetious, because I have come to the conclusion that being 'good' or 'bad' at yoga isn't a useful or healthy way to look at things. There are a few more areas however in which I feel the struggle is real.

In the physical practice, Utkatasana or Chair pose is a real nemesis and I will never understand how people get that 'thighs parallel to the floor' thing going on. My proportions are all wrong and my calves never get any looser.

Whilst I've practiced Ashtanga yoga for years now, I have never managed to develop some of the more elegant parts of the practice such as being able to lift up from seated (I don't care what Kino says... my arms ARE too short 🤣) or rolling over my toes in a vinyasa (probably thanks to poor ankle flexibility and horrible knots in my upper feet).

I can easily get into lotus pose, but it's painful insanity to hold it for any length of time because of said ankle and foot issues. Maybe one day I'll finally massage them out, but it's not happening in a hurry.

I often don't know my left from right (yay, neurodivergent wins!), which many of my students will corroborate. Although I practice and teach yoga to help with anxiety, stress and low mood, I still suffer badly from those things at times. Yoga does REALLY help, with the anxiety stress and mood stuff, which is why I also know that teaching it is important, but at times I feel like I'm bad at yoga because I still fall into the trap of overwhelm, or not looking after myself, or not practicing enough, or just not bloody feeling like it (any of it!) and wanting to hide in a cave for the rest of my life.

Why we shouldn't be good or bad at yoga

So, here's the thing. Yoga isn't an exam. There are no grades and no marks or rosettes other than what we give ourselves, or feel have been attached by our group or culture. The grades we see and experience might be absolutely real to us, but they don't need to exist for us to practice yoga.

As I understand it, yoga is a process of exploration, of finding the union or alignment of different parts of ourselves (the physical body, the mind, the energy and breath, our intuition and capacity for joy) through our practice, which might happen on the mat during "yoga" class or might happen whilst we are doing entirely different things (e.g. helping others, studying, writing music, rock climbing, weightlifting, etc).

Yoga is also not a destination, because it's not necessarily the case that once we've found or experienced it we can always get there again (although enlightened people by definition are able to reach the state of yoga at will, whilst also continuing to interact with the separate levels of being).

Yoga practice does not always mean the same thing to the same people. Some will practice yoga as purely seated meditation, whilst others will take their practice out into the world and work for the charity and service of others. Many people start their yoga journey with a physical practice of mainly yoga postures, and gradually take on more of the 'subtle' practices of breathwork and meditation, eventually to the point that they no longer do postures at all.

Yoga is learning about and exploring the many aspects of yourself so that you fully understand how and why you act, think and relate in the world. Most parts of yourself are not fixed, and might in fact change through the process of observation and exploration. Therefore it's unhelpful to think that there's a right or wrong way to do it, or that you can't practice yoga because you can't do downwards dog pose. From this perspective, it just seems absurd.

Why we still need a compass in yoga

If we can't be good or bad at yoga, and there isn't a right or wrong way to do it, the idea of what yoga is and who can practice could suddenly be thrown wide open.

If it's a way that we relate to and understand ourselves, there are many practices outside of the 'traditional', mostly Indian and Vedic origin methods that might be considered yoga. There are so many ways in which this could be a good thing. There are many people who can claim "this is my yoga" rather than seeing a pretentious workout class or a subset of cultural identity that doesn't make space for them.

However, this means we need to address other unhelpful and unhealthy situations which could (and do) grow in the space.

The issue of power exploitation is very real even in current yoga traditions and sadly I have read too many (read: any) articles from yoga students who saw their enthusiasm taken advantage of, or who were psychologically, emotionally or financially manipulated or, at the worst, sexually or physically abused by teachers and traditions which should be, at the heart of their reason for existing, totally trustworthy.

If we can't be good or bad at yoga itself, we need to know whether we are actually practicing yoga, or just saying that we doing yoga because it benefits us- in some unwholesome way.

In the same manner, throwing yoga wide open should not mean ignoring or dismissing the deep and complex origins of yoga itself. The huge variation of ideas and methods which make up what we now think of as yoga go all the way back to the beginning of civilisation in the Indus Valley in what is now Northern India. They come via through thousands of years of development as oral traditions amongst people who gave up worldly possessions and relationships to attain spiritual growth. They developed through changes in society where spiritual practice was brought into everyday life. They were reworked through different religious approaches which later developed from Hinduism. And only very, very recently in the scheme of things, yoga has been taken up by the wider world.

This is why, very often, we still do what we understand to be traditional yoga practices (I mean after all, they're tried and tested, right?) and we use the Sanskrit names where we can (although this may be also up for debate) and we don't just say that anything or everything is yoga.

Whilst it shouldn't be possible to be good or bad at yoga, we still need a compass. We need a tool to know if we're actually doing yoga or not. And that tool is a deep thoughtfulness about whether what we're doing is benefiting or harming ourselves and others.

I can do all the downwards facing dogs I like, but if I'm doing it to distract from an emotional issue that I refuse to face, it isn't going to be a yoga practice.

If I drill a yoga class and leave some students feeling sore and uncomfortable, we haven't been practicing yoga.

If I have an argument with someone which causes me to realise how I get emotionally activated, the realisation process could very well be practicing yoga.

Let's have a break from being good or bad at yoga

The methods of yoga practice are really broad. You really don't have to be able to stand on your head, sit still, wear Lululemon or touch your toes. There are practices that can suit pretty much anyone and everyone. (As long as they can occasionally put up with teachers confusing left and right, that is.)

Which things you can do, how hard or for how long are not ultimately helpful ways of thinking about or practicing yoga.

I know that achieving, progressing, winning and comparing are cultural concepts deeply ingrained in most of us, so this is very much a work in progress.

As things stand, there will always be people who feel excluded, bad at yoga, wholly or partially, some or all of the time.

But if we can start to find yoga practice as a journey, an exploration, without a fixed direction, which is inherently reflective about how we're behaving towards ourselves and others, we might just do something really worthwhile.

Come and explore yoga practice without worrying about being good or bad at yoga. Support yourself through stress and anxiety by booking a course of weekly online 1-1s for relaxation and calm. If you're local, join our friendly class in Alwoodley, North Leeds.

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