In the last few weeks I’ve been getting a lot of questions from my students that are based in what I’m going to call “yoga myths,” so I thought I’d send out the common questions I’ve been getting and my responses to them since often times I’m asked these more than once. Here we go!
1) Do my heels have to touch the ground in downward facing dog?
Big NO here. Your heels getting to the ground in this pose is going to be dependent on a few different things:
- Your calf flexibility
- Your shoulder flexibility
- The length of your achilles tendon – some people are born with long achilles tendons – these people can most likely get their heels down. Some people are born with shorter achilles tendons – these people probably won’t ever be able to get their heels down. This is an anatomical difference that can’t be changed (tendons should not be stretched).
Most important thing here? Listen to your body and don’t push past your end range of motion just cause your neighbor is. If you really want to know what it feels like to get your heels down, then put a yoga blanket or a pillow under your heels in downdog. Voila! Your heels are down.
2) Does my shin have to be parallel to the front of the mat in pigeon pose?
Another big NO here. Mine can’t do that. From what I’ve seen in my teaching career, most people don’t have that kind of range of motion in their hip joint to be totally honest. When you don’t have range of motion in one joint, but you’re forcing yourself to do a movement, your body is going to try to find that range of motion somewhere else. In this case it might come from your knee – a joint that bends and straights but doesn’t have a lot of twist.
So what’s the better option? Find your external rotation in the hip and just have your heel closer to your groin than this cue directs you to do. Honestly, most likely you’ve been practicing this pose this way naturally (which should tell you something – always trust yourself and your body 😊), but this is a common cue in yoga so I wanted to cover it.
3) Relax your glutes (butt muscles) in bridge pose and other backbends.
NOOOOOOOO!!! Without getting super bogged down in biomechanics and anatomy – your butt muscle is IN CHARGE of helping you backbend. When your leg goes behind you into hip extension, (which causes a backbend) your glute is the major muscle involved in bringing it into that position so WHY would you want to relax your glute muscles when you’re trying to backbend? This is an antiquated yoga cue that I haven’t heard a lot recently but it’s one that I DID hear when I was brand new to yoga, so I wanted to cover it just in case. Your backbends will get so much better if you use your butt muscles to help stabilize you – I promise. There’s also a chance that that lower back crunchy feeling or the SI joint pain you sometimes experience will diminish if you start learning how to engage your glute muscles as you practice certain poses like backbends.
4) Will yoga help me lose weight?
This is a sensitive subject for some people because they have seen results with a constant yoga practice. Short answer? No – it’s not the best method to help you lose weight. Long answer? It depends. If you’re a generally an inactive person and have no physical exercise practice, and one day you decide to start moving your body more, you will start burning more calories and there’s a chance you can lose weight from this…BUT the best way to lose weight and the actual reason you end up losing weight with yoga? CALORIE DEFICIT. Weight loss is very simple: calories in < calories out. The reason yoga may have helped you lose weight in the past:
- You started burning more calories but didn’t change your eating habits to account for the extra calories being burned (aka calorie deficit)
- You became more mindful about hunger signals and what you were eating (also probably related to moving towards maintenance at the very least rather than a calorie surplus)
If you want more info on this there’s a guy on Instagram who talks about this a lot: @JamessmithPT. Warning: his content is not children appropriate.
5) You can’t get injured doing yoga
WOAHHH is this wrong. I think because doctors often tell their patients to do yoga, people get misled into thinking that means they can’t hurt themselves. Anytime you move your body you can get hurt. I’m going to tell you a quote from a t-shirt I bought 18 years ago from Taos, New Mexico:
“You can fall off a cliff and die. You can fall down the mountain and die. Or you could roll over off your couch and die. Ski Taos”
It’s a little grim but I’m a dark humor lover. And for those of you who aren’t familiar with Taos – it’s notoriously a challenging mountain that is terrifying from the base looking up at it. But the point here is that you can hurt yourself doing literally anything, as long as your body is involved. And this includes yoga. I’m not trying to scare anyone here – I’m just saying I think it’s important to remember this. This is why teachers always tell you to do what feels good to you and not your neighbor – listen to your body.
6) Having muscle means you won’t be able to be flexible
FALSE. This is an Alvin Ailey dancer. Case and point:
7) Your shoulder blades should never lift
Again, without going into the biomechanics of this, when your arms go above your head, anatomically your shoulder blades lift. Period. So in poses like child’s pose, high lunge, crescent lunge – anything where your arms are above your head – your shoulder blades should also lift. Now, don’t go jamming your shoulders up to your ears, but DO let those blades lift. It will feel better too. Don’t believe me? Try it both ways and then tell me which felt better.
8) “Practice and all is coming”
I might get some backlash on this one, especially from those of you who practice Ashtanga Yoga. If you’re unfamiliar, this phrase was coined by Pattabhi Jois (the big Ashtanga Yoga honcho) in the context of practicing yoga. Now, before everyone starts freaking out – sure, yes, practicing yoga will make you get better at yoga. That’s not what I’m arguing here. I’m arguing the extreme that this quote has been taken to. Here are some examples of what I mean:
- Backbends. I used to HATE HATE HATE them. I couldn’t do it without pain, if I could even get close to doing them at all. Now? I LOOOOOOVE them. What changed? Well it wasn’t that I just kept doing backbends until one day I woke up and magically loved them. The change was I started deadlifting regularly. This practice of regularly deadlifting increased the strength in my hamstrings, my back, and my butt. Guess what needs to be really strong in order to backbend? You guessed it! Your butt, hamstrings, and back. So practice did get me there, but it was a different movement practice that got me into the backbends. One that targeted and strengthened these particular muscles and made me hyper aware of how to engage them. Not just hoping that one day I would magically wake up and start loving and feeling good in backbends if I kept doing them over and over again.
- Another reason this quote is taken too far into the extreme? It doesn’t account for anatomical differences. Like I said in the very first bullet point of this email – if you were born with short achilles, your heels are really unlikely to ever touch the ground in a downdog. Practice as much as you want, this is your anatomy and it’s not changin’. Sometimes our bone structure just doesn’t allow for these giant movements that yoga asks us to do, AND THAT’S OK. The point of yoga isn’t to nail all the crazy shit (although I agree – it’s fun when you do). The point is to connect to your body, connect to your mind-body, and maybe find a little bit more peace and maybe feel better as you move through your daily life.
So those are my 8 yoga myths. Do you have any others you think belong on this list? Leave me a comment below and let me know. Not sure about a cue you heard in class? Let me know and we can go over it. Anything not clear? Definitely leave a comment and let’s talk so can explain it!