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5 Myths About Yoga We Should Stop Perpetuating
We’ve likely all heard myths in the yoga world before. There are the great myths about the god Shiva as the Adiyogi (“first yogi”) or the wonderful stories about Hanuman (the monkey god) who leaped across the ocean from India to Lanka (modern-day Sri Lanka) to faithfully serve his lord.
There are so many wonderful myths from the yogic canon that we don’t need to continue to make up more. In modern times, we have many yogic ideas that are not only mythical and false but could even be downright dangerous.
I admit that, as a yoga teacher, I used to perpetuate these myths as I was taught them and believed them to be fact. However, the more that I have studied and learned and grown on my yoga journey, the more truths I have come to realize.
Here Are 5 Myths About Yoga That We Should All Stop Perpetuating:
Let’s all please stop spreading these falsehoods about yoga.
1. Inverting While Menstruating Is Dangerous
This myth dates back very far. In a world completely dominated by men, women were not allowed to practice yoga in ancient India. It wasn’t until around the time of Krishnamacharya (“the father of modern yoga”) that women were even permitted to interact with this spiritual practice.
But despite the initiation of women into the world of yoga, men weren’t sure what to do with them during “that time of the month.” At the same time, Western medicine was also growing and evolving and the disease of endometriosis was being studied. To this day, medical professionals do not know exactly what causes endometriosis, but it used to be believed that retrograde menstruation was the culprit.
Retrograde menstruation is when the menstrual blood flows in the opposite direction of its normal pattern (instead of flowing out of the vagina, it flows back toward the pelvis). To the yogis, this perfectly correlated with the yogic and Ayurvedic concept of apana (the downward flow of energy).
The yogis believed that because menstruation is meant to flow downward and out of the body, then we should not reverse its flow by inverting the body. They argued that it would cause retrograde menstruation, which could lead to endometriosis and/or other maladies, and, therefore, inversions must be avoided at all costs during the moon cycle.
We know now that retrograde menstruation does not cause endometriosis and that it is highly prevalent in all menstruating women. And we also know that inverting the body does not change the normal flow of bodily fluids. Our digestive tract does not suddenly flow the opposite way when we practice Headstand Pose (Sirsasana) and neither does our period.
Of course, every person’s experience is different. So some practitioners may prefer to not invert while menstruating for a plethora of reasons. Some may consciously choose to avoid inversions during menstruation because they don’t have the energy or because they prefer to practice more relaxing postures. Others may have had a negative experience or experienced discomfort in the past. Additionally, there could be other reasons an individual might choose not to invert during their period. However, there is no inherent or known medical danger to turning upside down while menstruating.
2. Alignment Is Universally the Same
This great myth has perpetuated the yoga world for a long time. Physical alignment of the body during postures is widely considered steadfast and many practitioners and teachers even go so far as to say that it’s dangerous to practice poses without “proper” alignment.
But this myth harbors an even bigger myth behind it: the all-pervasive fallacy that our bodies are identical on the inside. Nothing about us is the same. We are all wildly unique—from our molecular DNA to our bone structure to our fingerprints. We are different in so many ways. So how can we possibly expect every yogi to practice every posture in the same alignment?
Alignment in Warrior II Pose (Virabhadrasana II) is not universal. It needs to be adapted to the individual who is practicing. For example, someone with wider-set hips may need to stagger their legs laterally farther apart. Someone with a shallow hip socket may need to shorten their stance. The same applies to every yoga pose in the repertoire of asana.
We need to stop using B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga as the “rule book” for how a pose “should” be aligned, and instead, adapt postures to meet the strengths and limitations of each individual practitioner.
3. Every Yoga Pose Works for Every Body
For one student, Warrior I Pose (Virabhadrasana I) may feel great, but for another, it may cause a nagging ache in their back knee or a crunching sensation in their lower back. The same may be the case for Camel Pose (Ustrasana) or Pyramid Pose (Parsvottanasana). Some students may love Wheel Pose (Urdhva Dhanurasana), while others cannot even fathom how to enter it.
Similar to the idea that alignment is not universal, poses are not universally adapted to work for everybody type. Some practitioners may never be able to practice Headstand safely because their body proportions just won’t allow it. Others may never be able to backbend deep enough to reach Kapotasana (Pigeon Pose). It doesn’t mean that they aren’t dedicated enough or spiritual enough or that their chakras aren’t aligned. It simply means that their actual physical morphology will not allow such contortions.
We all have physical limitations. For some, that may eliminate a whole category of poses from their practice. For others, that may only mean that their splits won’t be very deep. But our bodies and our physical forms (particularly our bone structures) are really the defining factors of whether or not a pose will “work” for us or not—nothing more, nothing less.
So instead of beating ourselves up for not being able to “master” specific postures, we should celebrate our abilities and the many, many poses that we are able to practice.
4. The Yoga Sutras Are the Epitome of Yoga Philosophy
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is a book of aphorisms compiled by the scholar Patanjali sometime between 400 BCE and 500 CE. As a collection of yogic philosophy from the ages, this book was very popular during its time. It was commented on by other scholars and translated into multiple languages. And then, the book fell into relative obscurity for thousands of years.
This is no coincidence. The times were changing. Ideology was changing. People and cultures were changing. And the ideology depicted in the Yoga Sutras was dated. Tantra became a popular form of yoga that was accessible to the householder. Yoga was becoming available for laypeople to practice. The caste system of India was evolving.
However, one man really revitalized Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and gave them new status. Swami Vivikenanada brought the Yoga Sutras to the World Parliament of Religion in Chicago in 1893. He essentially told the West that the straightforward eight-limbed path laid out in the book was the step-by-step guidebook of yoga.
Of course, yoga is a wildly complicated, intricate, and vast philosophy that spans countless schools, styles, and traditions, but Vivikenananda tried his best to simplify this limitless philosophy to entice the Western world.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are just one collection of these varied ideologies—not the epitome of them.
5. Asana Is Ancient
We’ve all heard that yoga is upwards of 2,000 to 5,000 years old. It is believed that yoga first appeared in history in art—etched into a seal that depicts a yogi sitting in a seat of meditation. The word “yoga” first appears in writing in the Rig Veda, the oldest of the holy scriptures of Hinduism.
However, contrary to modern-day popular belief, asana and yoga are not synonymous. The ancient philosophy of yoga has been studied and practiced for thousands of years. However, asana, as we know it today, is extremely modern—likely only about 100 years old.
Even in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras the mention of “asana” refers to the original meaning of that word: seat. Asana in the eight-limbed path refers to a seat of meditation, not modern-day postures like Downward Facing Dog Pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana).
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika was one of the first texts to introduce physical postures as a form of yoga practice, but those postures were very limited in number and likely quite different from what you would find in modern yoga class.
It wasn’t until the modern era of yoga, initiated and founded by Krishnamacharya, did asana became a truly physical art form with influences from gymnastics, dance, and military drills. Krishnamacharya lived from 1888 to 1989 and is largely responsible for not only the advent of modern-day asana but also for the spread of yoga to the Western world.
In 1926, Krishnamacharya was invited by the king of Mysore to teach him and his family the philosophy of yoga. Krishnamacharya was primarily a scholar of the Vedas, but when he arrived to teach many young boys, he quickly found that he could not keep their attention. So he created militaristic drills and warrior-inspired physical postures to drain their energy before sitting them down to study scripture. This was essentially the creation of our modern-day asana practice.
So the asana that we mainly practice today in classes like Hatha, Vinyasa Flow, Power, and all other modern styles of yoga is really no more than about 94 years old.
Stop Perpetuating Yoga Myths
Yoga is already shrouded in so much mystery and mystique, we don’t need to complicate this already complicated practice and philosophy by adding our own myths into the mix.
This is just a handful of the many myths about yoga, not an exhaustive list. So in the true fashion of yoga, it’s likely wise to question everything you’re told, study fervently, and uncover the wisdom of investigative research for yourself.
Leah Sugerman is a yoga teacher, writer, and passionate world traveler. An eternally grateful student, she has trained in countless schools and traditions of the practice. She teaches a fusion of the styles she has studied with a strong emphasis on breath, alignment, and anatomical integrity. Leah teaches workshops, retreats, and trainings, both internationally and online. For more information, visit www.leahsugerman.com.