What Does “Good at Yoga” Mean?

If this phrase conjures images of people doing the splits while standing on their hands, take heart. It’s time to break it down and debunk some concepts.

Perhaps you’ve asked a friend to join you at a yoga class at some stage and they’ve laughingly declined, “Oh no, I’m not good at yoga”.  Maybe someone you know has complimented you, “Wow, you are good at yoga”. Every yoga teacher will also be very familiar with this phrase, it’s common for students new to a class to try and manage their new teacher’s expectations with a self-limiting disclaimer, “Yes, I’ve done some yoga before, but I’m not very good though.”

Maybe you are even considering finally taking the plunge to do Teacher Training and find yourself wondering, “Am I good enough yet?”

Because we understand where this question is coming from, we can give you the spoiler alert:  You are most certainly already good enough and this is not a question anybody needs to be torturing themselves with!

So what are people really describing when they use this phrase?  Does the concept of being “good at yoga” really even exist? Read on as we break down this phrase and where it’s come from, and how aspects of modern yoga conspire to let this illusion perpetuate.  We’ll also offer you a new lens through which to consider your yoga practice.

“Good at Yoga” – An Enduringly Odd Phrase

Yoga teachers lovingly understand what people are referring to when they say, “I’m not good at yoga”.   Almost without exception that person feels judgemental of their own limitations in the physical movement aspect of yoga (asana). Part of the role and responsibility of yoga teachers is to help people develop compassion for themselves so they can enjoy greater freedom from self-judgment. In our modern and westernised nations, it has also become to help people understand that the physical practice of yoga is only one aspect of a holistic and integrated yoga practice and lifestyle.

Even people who are fit, strong and without injury are vulnerable to believing they are not “good at yoga” because it’s usually based solely on their self-assessment of one particular aspect of physical ability, commonly flexibility, or their capacity to do an advanced arm balance.

But if you ask people how they feel after yoga, many will readily comment on how relaxed or calm they feel, which points to an awareness on some level that a change has taken place that has nothing to do with core strength or hamstring length!  It points to:

  • On a physical level: a physiological change in the nervous system 
  • On an emotional level: with tension released from the body and certain chemical neurotransmitters and hormones released into the body, a change in how we feel, and
  • On a mental level: space for new thoughts to arise and our ability to stay present with them for what feels like longer, before our mind flits away again.

And yet, this new state of being that we all often enjoy after a yoga class doesn’t always draw a sufficiently strong link for people to recognise on their own that yoga is actually a holistic practice designed to also benefit their physical, mental, emotional and even spiritual selves.  They may cling to the notion of not being “good at yoga” for a long time, still benchmarking themselves against how high their leg is raised in standing splits. 

So, what’s going on here and how can we help ourselves and other people escape this self-judgement?

Where Has “Good at Yoga” Come From?

To fully understand how the “good at yoga” gremlin has come in to being, we need to look at it from two angles:

  1. How yoga has come to be so strongly associated with just a physical practice, and
  2. What conditions existed  – in the broader society or in the human mind’s tendencies – to feel the need to evaluate ourselves here in the first place.  

1. The impact of yoga’s modern evolution on the worhsip of asana

Yoga found its way to the west a little over a century ago, but for most of the 20th century it was seen a niche area of interest, domiciled in subcultures and embraced by hippies.

In the latter part of the last century group fitness classes became popular (thank you the lovely Ms Jane Fonda!) and the fledgling fitness industry saw that yoga could also be practised in quite an athletic fashion.  Spotting a new revenue opportunity, fitness centres whisked their aerobics instructors through yoga “training”. 

Bear in mind, the notion of yoga training standards did not yet exist, as this ancient practice had always been organically passed down from teacher to student over the course of many, many years. There has been no prior impetus to birth the idea of training standards. Today the notion of training standards is a big topic, but one that the global yoga community is still trying reach agreement on. But we digress…

Today, yoga is very much integrated into the fitness industry.  Some might say ‘embraced’, some might say ‘co-opted’.  Let’s use the more neutral ‘integrated’, as there are two sides of the coin here.  

We must acknowledge that the popularity of group yoga classes has flourished thanks to the fitness industry’s activities in the 1980s and 1990s which saw an explosion of group movement classes worldwide. Yoga was always traditionally taught one-on-one. One upside of group yoga classes is that they have helped millions of people in the west discover yoga through group classes’ relative accessibility.

One downside of the fitness industry’s role in modern yoga is that it has created an incredibly strong association in people’s minds between yoga and fitness (even the quest for the ideal body perhaps), with knock-on consequences for people’s preconceptions when they start to explore yoga.

Yoga’s relatively new association with fitness doesn’t mean people who find yoga through a gateway of fitness nowadays can’t come to learn the breadth and depth of yoga, (and fitness enthusiasts can be spiritual). It simply depends how people are introduced to yoga and if they are helped to distinguish between pure physical fitness and yoga, to help overcome certain preconceptions.

We have known many wonderful yoga teachers who have taught in a gymnasium/fitness setting, who acknowledged people’s starting points in beliefs around yoga and were able to take people on a gentle, patient and loving journey, to let them experience the many different aspects of holistic yoga and all the benefits. It is possible to teach authentic yoga to anyone, anywhere.

The Commoditisation of Yoga

As such, the core issue is not whether yoga is integrated into another industry, most notably because in this instance, that genie is not going to go back into the bottle anyway!  Yoga is an entrenched part of the fitness industry in most western nations and this is unlikely to change. Yoga has always been shaped by the places, peoples and cultures that practice it. What matters is how yoga moves forward in western countries where it’s so linked to physical fitness….whether the yoga community can help balance people’s misconceptions of what yoga is and isn’t, so that the broad spectrum of yoga’s significant healing and transformational powers are not lost over time in our quest for an ‘instagrammable body’.

The core issue is yoga’s commoditisation into a sellable, marketable product.  The ancient system of yoga is designed to work across the 4 quadrants of our being: body, mind, heart, and spirit. So, on what basis do yoga professionals endeavour to strike a chord with the public?  For example, some yoga classes are marketed around physical benefits, others around simply achieving sustainable calm in a stressful world, others around yoga as a spiritual pathway.

Yoga therapists (yoga professionals with additional training who help people with specific physical or mental health issues) can justifiably market their services to appeal to people’s desire for physical health as they may indeed specialise in helping people with very specific physical conditions, such as blood pressure issues, arthritis, sleep disorders, respiratory conditions, neurological disorders and so on.

Other businesses offering yoga who choose to market yoga primarily for its physical benefits tend to play on our human vulnerabilities around body image.  They may argue they do so in an attempt to connect with people’s preconceptions so at least those people will try yoga and the possibility then exists to introduce them to yoga’s other aspects and benefits.  And it’s certainly not incorrect that yoga may indeed yield noticeable differences in muscle tone and weight.

But the risk with this promotional approach is that it actually reinforces people’s misconceptions that yoga is chiefly about physical prowess.

If yoga is packaged to appeal primarily to those seeking the ideal body – perhaps with lots of aspirational pictures of lean physiques performing ‘cool’ poses – this will attract a certain demographic of the community that expects a body sculpting class, and may be confused by or even resistant to being introduced to techniques like breathwork, meditation or chanting.

Some westerners are apprehensive of the term ‘spiritual’, perhaps believing it will undermine an existing faith, or mistaking yoga for a religion where they will need to conform to a set of beliefs.   Yoga does neither of these things for the record!! (You can read more here).  But it can be challenging to offer yoga to westerners with no prior knowledge of yoga, as a spiritual practice. People’s mental walls may already be up.

However yoga is packaged and marketed to attract new clients holds enormous influence over the general public’s impressions of what yoga is and isn’t.

Even the widespread custom of classifying yoga classes as beginner, intermediate and advanced is fraught with complications. ‘Beginner’ may be a very apt term as it invites the possibility of introducing people to yoga in its rich complexity. But what do ‘intermediate’ and ‘advanced’ labels mean? Well, they likely mean your physical abilities, and while there is good rationale in creating classes that cater for different physical abilities, by omitting the word ‘physical’ here, even well-intentioned yoga teachers can be inadvertently contributing to some impressions around what makes someone “good at yoga”. (We lovingly accept this may viewed as nitpicking! But it demonstrates how engrained our unconscious tendencies are, for all of us).

An advanced asana practitioner does not necessarily mean that person is an advanced yogi.

Every yoga professional has a role to play in the general public’s perception of yoga. For every yoga teacher that endeavours to soften the overly-strong association with physical fitness and body image, there are others that yield to the path of least resistance, so for the time being, the general public can be well-forgiven for assuming that yoga is some kind of exercise class with a nice lie-down at the end.

2. Why We Can’t Help Evaluating Ourselves and Others

Experienced yogis grow accustomed to practising a feeling of satisfaction with their yoga practice efforts, without attaching to results. Intentions clarify a target for our energies – both on and off the mat – but at the conclusion of practice, results are surrendered to a greater power.

Analysing and evaluating our practice pulls us away from the relaxed mindset that allows us to feel whole and grateful. Suddenly we’re finding examples with alarming speed of where we “couldn’t do” that pose and so on. Those thoughts will trigger certain chemicals in our body that impact the way we feel and very soon we’ve lost the state of being that allows for repair, healing and creativity.

So why do we feel inclined to evaluate ourselves and others so much?

Scientists suggest humans are hard-wired to judge.  We used it to help us survive, quickly evaluating who we could trust, with whom we might form alliances with, who might be a threat.  Fast forward not that many thousands of years and now we wield this superfast instinct at the girl with the “bad taste” in clothes at the train station, the driver who cut us off in traffic,  and the colleague with the “annoying habit”. And yes, we put ourselves in our own crosshairs too. 

We have to use a lot more mental energy to think, understand, and summon compassion. Judgement is the more energy-efficient route to evaluate.

Now put these ancestral drives into an environment now so inextricably linked to fitness – the home of competition – and where results are easy for our energy-saving brains to see.  If someone has been working on their knowledge of history for example, it may not be evident to you.  If someone has been consciously doing lots of physical activity, it may be quite evident.  Low hanging fruit for our brain, very easy to make judgments.  

So with yoga so enmeshed with fitness over the last four or five decades, and a natural inclination to judge, it’s little wonder our brains have been quick to create and perpetuate a phrase like being “good at yoga”. Now that you know all this, when we notice ourselves analysing our yoga practice for what we did “well” or “poorly”, resist compounding it by judging yourself for judging! Simply acknowledge the thought, “Ahhh, I see that thought!” and let it go.

What Yoga Is Really About & The Role of Asana

The study of yoga is about learning how to manage our human condition, and to help body, mind and emotions fall into a more harmonious and aligned rhythm. 

It is about truly understanding that physical, mental and emotional health are all linked and influence one another.

Like picking our way through a jungle, it is about slowly removing the beliefs and stories we’ve unconsciously put in our own way that prevent us from seeing what is really in front of us, to know our real selves, to see what’s really possible, and to connect with that which is greater than ourselves.

It’s important we look after our physical health because illness and injury can be a difficult and distracting obstacle for our mind and mood to overcome if we want to turn our energy towards contemplating our human condition. Asana practice can play a wonderful role in our physical health, nourishing our physical body and moving stagnant energy.

But we are also using our body during asana as a tool to learn insights about ourself and to practice new ways of being.

Advanced Asana

Given that yoga is not really about creating impressive shapes with our bodies, does this mean there’s no place for advanced asana? Not at all. It’s simply about how we use advanced asana (if that is indeed accessible to us). The misapplication of this one very specific aspect of yoga can mean that instead of helping us let go of an attachment to ego and separation, it actually feeds the ego and moves us further away from union. One need only spend a few minutes on social media to observe this phenomenon. Validation produces chemicals in our body that make us feel good so it’s understandable humans might seek validation. But these chemicals can be addictive and make us think we need another hit of validation.

Before we know it, instead of balance and harmony from within, we’ve given away our power and put our happiness and sense of self, in things outside of us. (“Why didn’t that get more likes!”)

The very thing that could have been part of our medicine, becomes our poison with misuse.

With correct and relevant application, however, advanced asana can move us further along in our personal growth or spiritual journey. Recall that the human body is fantastically adaptive. For example, what once perhaps took you a lot of concentration, strength or even courage, may now lack challenge for you, so it may follow suit that you need to explore varied physical poses to help you continue your journey of self-awareness and self-growth.

Where am I meeting resistance? How does it feel to explore beyond my comfort zone? And so on.

Similarly, varying up your asana practice does not necessarily mean just making it “harder” in the commonly-understood sense of that word. Our life circumstances will change and we will grow and change. What we need to attend to and what lessons we need to learn will change with time.

Perhaps we’ve all known people who could fly like members of Cirque du Soleil through the movement part of class, but the resting pose (savasana) challenged their ability to stay still, quiet and present? Being with our own thoughts is uncomfortable for many people. For some people, treading new ground may be extending their savasana in order to observe habitual tendencies and learn to sit with discomfort. To notice uncomfortable thoughts without engaging with them, or seeking distraction.

How Social Media Can be Unhelpful

It would be difficult to argue that some of the social media displays are about meeting the public’s existing beliefs about yoga being primarily a physical activity. A great deal of social media claiming to be about yoga is in fact misconstruing what yoga really is, and may even be intimidating some people away who could have benefitted from the healing techniques of yoga.

For example, take note of how many social media posts are about helping you achieve a goal pose.  A lot, right? This is different to tips around finding a safe way to move your body. Too many social media posts offer tips “Do this in order to one day be able to do this!” Immediately, the public is given the misconception that yoga is about achieving certain shapes and anything other than that is somehow falling short. If you have ever felt this way looking at social media, take heart. Feeling your body work in any safe version of a posture with curiosity and breath awareness is the practice.  It’s not about achievement of some idealised pose.

Some people with physical limitations will never be able to ‘progress’ towards an idealised end-goal, but they can obtain the true benefits of yoga every bit as much as the next person (sometimes more so, because their ego is not getting in the way!)

We use the body as a tool in our holistic yoga practice to notice the patterns and tendencies in our mind. It’s similar to how we might use a flickering candle flame for a particular type of meditation practice in a different part of our holistic yoga practice. The candle is just a tool.

The pose is not a goal.  It’s time to stop this misinformation.   

In yoga, we practice without attachment to a result or outcome.

Remember, if you value yourself based on physical prowess, what happens if you injure yourself and need to radically adjust your physical practice?  Does this mean you criticise your beautiful self that you are no longer ‘good at yoga’?  We may enjoy and feel gratitude for a strong, healthy body, but your hamstring length does not make you better or worse than anyone else.  Through yoga we learn to value that which is unchanging within us

Further, some social media posts are contributing to a dangerous diet culture through a sexualised portrayal of yoga poses, devaluing this ancient healing practice, and fostering a society of competition, and emphasis on outward appearance.

For the social media observer, this leaves many vulnerable people with harmful feelings of inadequacy and deteriorating mental health. For the so-called yogi, this type of action moves them further away from the benefits of a sense of humility, and a feeling of connection to humanity as equals. The peaceful mind will remain elusive.

The true yogi does not seek to flatter themselves at the expense of other people’s mental and emotional wellbeing. The true yogi does not seek to make others feel inferior, envious or inadequate (while attempting to pass it off as ‘inspiration’).

Let’s recall, being able to do advanced poses is not necessarily an indicator of an ‘advanced yogi’

Using Awareness to Monitor Judgemental Thoughts

When we practice monitoring our thoughts, we create space to be curious around what will arise for us as we move our body through our asana practice, to remind ourselves that we are not our thoughts and that no thought can set up shop in our head without our permission.

‘Good at yoga’ is a misnomer. Let’s let it go.

Instead of spending energy aspiring to be more acrobatic in our yoga practice, we can feel excited about what might occur when we truly begin to master ourselves:

  • We can catch our thoughts quickly, they don’t get past us without our awareness
  • We are observing our state in being in varied situations, from a mundane task like cleaning the floor, to confronting a problem.
  • We are practising summoning emotions like gratitude, wonder and awe until they are so strong they spontaneously come forth
  • We are practising embodying the qualities we wish to develop, and perhaps rather pointedly……
  • We don’t feel it necessary to label everything as good or bad.

How To Know If You’re Ready For Teacher Training

We’re not overly concerned with how long you’ve practising yoga and we’re not at all concerned if you have any physical limitations (acquired or inborne).  A wonderful teacher training candidate for us is someone who

  • has practiced yoga long enough to know for themselves that they love it, and to have had firsthand experience of some of the benefits of yoga
  • feels motivated to make time for study and practice at home on their own, as well as with us in the classroom
  • genuinely enjoys helping other people and wants to be of service (not an instructor)
  • is keen to learn all the various component parts of holistic yoga and how they weave together, and
  • nurtures a curiosity about how yogic philosophy can improve the quality of our lives  
  • is open to (or keen for) feeling transformation in their own life
  • feels super-excited about the prospect!

Sound like you? Connect with us for a chat, we’re waiting for you 🧡

Written by Nicole Small, The Yoga Institute

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