Yoga is an easy and accessible way to calm the mind and strengthen the body — but for many, it’s an intimidating activity with unfamiliar terminology and complicated poses. Don’t let that deter you. Whatever one’s age, mobility or fitness level, there’s a yoga practice for everyone.
By Athena McKenzie
Search the hashtag #yoga on Instagram, and you’ll find 90 million posts, the majority of which feature very fit (and mostly white) women in an array of twisty positions. This image of yoga is why many people — including those who could really benefit from the practice — stay away.
“There is a huge percentage of the population — I work with many of them and call them yoga misfits — who think that yoga is not for them because they’re not thin, they’re not flexible, they can’t go to the beach and do a handstand or they don’t drink green smoothies, et cetera,” says Nyk Danu, a Victoria-based Yin yoga expert, who also trains yoga teachers.
“This is the bill of goods we’ve been sold in the West as to what yoga is — and most of it is BS.”
The truth is that yoga comes in a multitude of forms, many of which
are accessible to a wide range of body types and abilities. While many now associate yoga with modern fitness studios and stretchy apparel in technical fabrics, it is a holistic mind and body practice with a 5,000-year history, based in ancient Indian philosophy.
“It was traditionally to create a body and a mind that are stable enough to be able to sit and meditate,” Danu says.
According to Andrea Ting-Letts, another local yoga teacher who specializes in a variety of styles, there has recently been a lot more conversation in the yoga community about recognizing the cultural appropriation of the practice.
“We’re essentially in the Western world, doing an Eastern practice that has a very specific cultural and mythological history,” she says.
“Some people want to ignore that side because they view yoga as a physical practice, but we need to acknowledge that we are borrowing a practice with a deep spiritual history.”
Modern yoga, much like the original practice, combines physical postures, breathing techniques and meditation or relaxation. Ting- Letts believes that the various forms of yoga can be used to specifically address what one might “need” at that point in their lives. She advises that when picking a yoga style, you should probably try the opposite of what you’re attracted to.
“If you’re the kind of person who is, in Ayurvedic terms, more kapha — more prone to stillness and really grounded — the practice you should probably move toward is a more active practice, such as a Vinyasa flow, because in your life, you’re going to be more sedentary anyway,” Ting-Letts says.
“Whereas people who have a tendency to be quite energetic — more of the vata or the pitta qualities — should actually look to the balanced and grounded practices of Yin or Restorative.”
Many forms of yoga were traditionally not designed for a wide range of body types. Jill Moran, a yoga teacher and founder of XL– Yoga, remembers attending many classes for “regular” bodies when she was doing her teacher training.
“Being in a yoga class, watching everyone else do a pose and not having a clue how to make it work for my body, was disappointing and frustrating,” she says. “As a teacher with a bigger body, I can relate to moving in poses with a bigger belly and bigger boobs. Yoga has improved my life, and I see students become more confident in their bodies and their lives off the mat.”
Using props Moran shows students how to work with their body type, instead of against it.
“In an XL–Yoga class, props make yoga accessible,” she says. “Blocks bring the floor closer; a strap makes your arms longer; a blanket can cushion your knees. Many yoga classes are silent and serious. We bring in humour and fun to the class, so that it can be less intimidating.”
Whatever your body, needs and goals, there is a style for you, but finding the best yoga practice is often a matter of trial and error. You’ll often encounter a mix of several types of yoga in the same class. The beautiful thing about developing your own practice is that you can use the form that best suits your needs in the moment.
“Before I even get onto the mat, I’ll just take a few quiet minutes, and check in and ask myself, ‘What is it that you need today?’ ” says Danu. “And that determines what my practice looks like that day,”
GOAL: Nurture the Mind-Body Connection
There is significant research supporting yoga’s mental health benefits. A recent article by Harvard Health Publishing says that the scientific study of yoga demonstrates that mental and physical health are “not just closely allied, but are essentially equivalent,” and that a yoga practice is a low-risk, high-yield approach to improving overall health. It can also relieve stress, sharpen one’s concentration and calm the nervous system.
When Ting-Letts first came to yoga, she admits she approached it like aerobics — a way to physical fitness. That has shifted over time.
“It’s more of an anchor for me now,” she says. “I’ve realized that I need more of the stillness; I need more of the meditative qualities of the practice. I’ve really come to appreciate the whole world of yin and restorative.”
One of the classes she teaches is called Stretch & Surrender/Yin & Restore. A blend of Yin and Restorative yoga, this practice makes use of various props to facilitate gentle stretching and self-massage with holding postures for long periods. It also incorporates elements of meditation to deepen relaxation and the mind-body connection.
For Katie Thacker, a yoga instructor and co-owner of the yoga studio Third Space Movement, one of the most important factors is that yoga forces one to pay attention to what they’re feeling and thinking.
“It really points out your repetitive thought patterns,” she says. “Those things you tell yourself every day. What usually happens in the background of your mind is brought into the light, and once you’re able to have that awareness, it can motivate you to make changes and improve your life.”
To her mind, yoga gives one a way to reflect on those inner feelings that many people “stuff down.” Along with her more movement-based classes, Thacker leads Meditation & Breathwork classes that nurture mindfulness.
Recommended forms: Yin, Restorative, Kundalini.
GOAL: Reduce Pain and Treat Injury
Yoga can also be used to address certain physical ailments. While Danu is a Yin yoga expert, she says all of her teachings now have a therapeutic leaning — “because once you have that lens, you can’t stop looking through it.”
She points to the definition of yoga therapy from Marie Quail of the Yoga Therapy & Training Centre in Ireland.
“It’s the closest thing I’ve seen that explains the difference between yoga therapy and standard yoga,” Danu says. “According to Quail: ‘Yoga comprises a wide range of mind/body practices, from postural and breathing exercises to deep relaxation and meditation.
Yoga therapy tailors these to the health needs of the individual. It helps to promote all-round positive health, as well as assisting particular medical conditions. The therapy is particularly appropriate for many chronic conditions that persist despite conventional medical treatment.’ ”
As a yoga therapist, Danu works with many people who suffer from back pain. Given our modern sedentary lifestyle, with its focus on desk work, our back muscles can become weakened and this can lead to injury. Danu’s series of back pain workshops uses a yoga therapy approach to strengthen the muscles that support the spine, while helping to release chronic tight muscles and fascia. She also teaches self-massage techniques for home use.
Like other instructors offering virtual classes, Moran’s XL–Yoga Restorative classes use yoga props and improvised props from home (blankets, pillows, cushions) to help participants relax into poses and increase flexibility.
Recommended forms: Hatha, Stretch Yoga, Yoga Therapy, Restorative
GOAL: Increased Mobility and Flexibility
One of the biggest misconceptions is that one can’t do yoga, because they’re not flexible enough. Long-time Bikram practitioner and instructor Ken Mayes thinks there is an element of irony to that thought process, as yoga is meant to increase flexibility — “If you’re already flexible, you don’t necessarily need yoga.”
The former owner of Quantum Yoga, Mayes says many men avoid yoga because of this fallacy around flexibility, as well as worrying they might be the only man in the class.
“When you go to hot classes, typically, that’s not the case. There seems to be more men in hot classes than non-heated classes,” he says of the Bikram style of yoga, which involves a series of 26 postures in a heated room.
“Many men might have soft-tissue issues or injuries from sports, but they can also have muscle development that limits range of motion. Any amount of heat is a good tool to help you move and heal your body.”
He describes Bikram as an accessible starter practice, with no headstands or deep inversions. The heat allows the body to warm up, making it easier to access some of the postures — though one should be careful not to push too far.
For many people though, their mobility may make it more difficult to make the transitions from standing to floor postures.
Tessa Hamelin, another local who aims to teach therapeutic yoga to all ages, ability levels and body types, believes Chair Yoga is one of the most accessible forms of exercise for people as they find limitations in their bodies. In her yoga-teaching journey, spanning 10-plus years she has taught four-year olds, 92-year olds and every age in between.
“My goal is to make yoga, which I believe to be an act of self-care, accessible to everyone, regardless of age or ability,” she says. “It’s not just for people with mobility issues, though. Chair Yoga is great maintenance work because I literally go through all of the body parts.”
Hamelin also teaches Gentle Yoga, the ability level above Chair Yoga, as well as a style she calls Tessa Rae Yoga, which incorporates trauma-informed yoga, yoga- therapy and stretch therapy.
Another new yoga practice is Functional Alignment Yoga, a form that Thacker teaches at Third Space Movement.
“I personally think that the Functional Alignment style of yoga is the most accessible style that I offer because we are very specifically training people to move in a way that they’re supporting their movements on a muscular level so that they’re preventing injury,” she says.
“It takes into account modern science and research about how our bodies are meant to move and the way that we’re meant to load our tissues. So that we can practice with longevity.”
Recommended forms: Bikram, Chair, Hatha, Functional Alignment, Iyengar, Vinyasa
GOAL: A Full-Body Workout
Another assumption common to yoga is that it can’t be a physical workout. “I think a lot of people assume that yoga is not challenging,” Thacker says. “They assume it is just some stretching. But there are so many more layers to it.”
Thacker and her husband are two of the City’s most prominent acro yoga teachers. The style is a very physical practice that combines yoga and acrobatics. It is done with a partner and often involves lifts.
“The reason I love acro is that it lets you be present in the same way that your yoga practice does, but you get to be present with other people — it’s really about the connection and community that’s resulting from the practice,” she says.
“Although it often looks intimidating, anyone can practice acro. One thing we find in our beginner workshops is people leave feeling surprised at what they’re really capable of.”
Of course, acrobatics aren’t necessary to get your sweat on with yoga. Many styles increase the heart rate and build strength. Vinyasa yoga — often offered as flow classes because of the way that the poses run together — is one of the most popular contemporary styles of yoga and includes Ashtanga and Power yoga.
The XL–Yoga Beyond Beginner class is also designed to build some heat in the body with a flow of movement using Vinyasa sun salutations.
Recommended forms: Bikram, Vinyasa, Ashtanga, Power Flow
For online yoga offerings, visit doyogawithme.com and the websites of the instructors mentioned in this article