Newsflash: it’s not all about the handstands.

Yoga has come a long way since its debut on the ancient lifestyle scene. Who would have thought way back when Indian sage Patanjali was writing the first book on the subject, The Yoga Sutra, some 2,000 years ago, that one day we’d be suspending our bodies in silk harnesses and calling it yoga? The body-soothing, mind-clearing practice has had more makeovers than Madonna so it’s no wonder we all come to the mat with our own ideas of what yoga is all about. But, a few of those assumptions aren’t exactly accurate, according to the experts. We asked them to clear up yoga’s biggest myths…

Only flexible gals need apply
Ever thought that yoga was for super-bendy types only? That’s kind of like saying you need to be fit before you can exercise. “The biggest assumption I hear is that you need to be flexible to do yoga,” says Nicole Walsh, yoga teacher and founder of Sydney studio InYoga (inyoga.com.au). “Another one is, ‘my mind is too busy and I wouldn’t be able to concentrate’. If the majority of people understood that the by-products of practising yoga include increased flexibility and the ability to keep their minds more present, they’d be rushing to yoga studios!”

If you’re new to yoga there’s a good chance your first few classes will make you feel like a stale pretzel. Stick with it and you’ll start feeling more like spaghetti every time you roll out your mat.

You’re competing for the yoga crown
You’ve been regularly hitting up your local studio and practising at home with monk-like dedication, but your crow/eagle/tree still isn’t Insta-worthy. Been there? Don’t stress, says WF yoga instructor Charlotte Dodson, it’s not a race. “Many people compare their practice to others, or feel like they’re not progressing fast enough,” she explains. “Yoga is a lifelong journey, and it’s in the daily application of your practice that you recognise your progress, realise your potential and experience the benefits both on and off the mat.”

Sure, that chick in front of you looks rock-solid in dancer’s pose while you’re shaking like a leaf, but every day is different, and the comparison game can be downright dangerous, Walsh adds. “Problems can arise when the poses become the goal and mastering certain asanas becomes the focus. It can lead to competitiveness, self-criticism and sometimes injury.”

It’s not a real workout
Oh, so you thought yoga class was for your rest day? Ahem. Allow us to introduce you to ashtanga yoga, a traditional, fast-paced style that you’ll really feel. “Yoga lengthens and strengthens your frame, creating a lean, toned effect throughout your body,” says Dodson. “I’d recommend an ashtanga class if you’re interested in experiencing positive athletic changes to both body and mind.”

Vinyasa, Bikram and power yoga will also have you working up a sweat. If you are looking for that rest-day vibe, try yin or hatha.

You can’t get hurt
Bad news, friends – yoga might be your go-to for preventing injury but it can also inflict pain if you’re doin’ it wrong. The number-one safety tip for this form of movement? Breathe. “Some people may injure themselves by forcing themselves into a pose rather than allowing the breath to guide them into it,” explains Dodson.

Pushing yourself before you’re ready could put you on a fast-track to injury, warns Walsh, so practise with a knowledgeable teacher who can help you modify moves where needed. “Always alert your teacher if things start to hurt during or after class, and always listen to your body,” she says.

It’s guaranteed stress-relief
Given the dim lights, soft music and deep breathing, it’s natural to assume that yoga = instant zen. In reality, struggling to twist into challenging poses, attempting to clear your mind and translating sanskrit words into instructions you can actually follow can make a yoga class feel kinda stressful. “It’s normal to feel like we’re ‘no good’ at something if it’s challenging, and to create a whole lot of negativity around that,” says Walsh.

The x? Remember that you’re learning. “Any negative stress that’s generated during a yoga class can be avoided by a change in the way we think. Like, ‘it’s okay to fall out of a pose’, or ‘it’s okay if you’re not the most flexible person in the room’. This is all part of being human, and every experience is a precious part of our personal growth.”

It’s all about nailing the poses
Here’s the big one: yoga as we know it focuses on movement, but it was never intended to be a purely physical practice. In fact, the poses are considered just one ‘limb’ of yoga. “There are many different facets, so by focusing only on advanced poses without exploring meditation, pranayama (breath work) or seva (service), you’re missing out on some of the magic,” says Walsh. “Although the physical aspect seems like the most important part, it’s not. Yoga is about feeling at peace with the world and spending quality time with yourself in ways that relax, rejuvenate, uplift and inspire.” Namaste to that!

This story originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of Women’s Fitness.

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