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“Yoga’s no good for me, I’m too stiff.” But she’s still in the yoga studio, standing square on, hands defiantly on hips. I look back at her. She blinks.


“I don’t even know why I’m here. What on earth made my daughter give me a gift voucher for yoga? It’s not as if she even does yoga herself. Anyway, seems stupid to waste it.” Again, she stares hard at me. I look back at her. She blinks.


“I can’t do any yoga, my knees won’t let me. And my lower back’s never been good.”


“Can you lie down?” I ask. She looks startled. “Yes, I can do THAT” she snorts, and lies on the mat. I arrange a blanket under hear head and place a bolster under her knees. “How’s that?” I ask. “That’s really nice, actually,” she replies.


And so began Angela’s love affair with yoga.


Three years later, Angela’s a regular and devoted yogi. She still scoffs at what she calls ‘the new-age stuff’, but my yoga studio isn’t big on crystals and wind-catchers. We keep it simple. Just like Angela’s practice.


What turned Angela from skeptic to devotee? Did she miraculously experience an end to her back pain? Did her knees heal to the point where she can practice complicated vinyasa sequences? Nope. It’d look great on the testimonial if that happened.  But, like most things in yoga, the transformation was gentle and understated. Through the regular practice of personalised yoga techniques, Angela started to feel better about herself and her relationships. She experienced peace of mind.


That, my friends, is the definition of yoga. Peace of mind. I didn’t just make that up, either. It’s the definitive description of yoga from Patanjali, the great sage who codified the practice of yoga 2,000 years ago in his famous text The Yoga Sutras. Patanjali defines yoga as a state of mind in which all activities of our conscious and unconscious mind stop. The niggling worries about day to day life. The big, dark fears subconsciously driving your behaviours. The way you feel about yourself when you look in the mirror. All of that stops and, in that moment, you experience reality free from the distorted lens of your life experience. That’s yoga.


Why then has yoga become exclusively associated with physical perfection? Why do so many people believe they have to be thin, strong, flexible and healthy to do yoga? The truth is, you don’t have to be any of those things (and, contrary to the marketing efforts of many yoga teachers, doing yoga may not transform you into those things either).


Well, we’re living in a visual culture that, above all else, loves objectifying a particular version of the female body. If your idea of a yogi is a thin white woman with the flexibility of a circus performer, your perception has been shaped by that culture.


The irony is that, until very recently, yoga was almost exclusively the domain of men. The physical practices the ancient yogis undertook were part of a much broader framework of techniques designed to achieve moksha – liberation. These techniques were developed as a technology for transcending attachment to the material world (our bodies, our thoughts, our possessions) so that a state of yoga – one in which all the stories and attachments of the mind stop – could be experienced.


Yoga in the west has, by and large, chosen to forget the purpose of yoga.  Practices that were designed to help us transcend the physical body are now used to glorify it (or at least a particular type of body). The thought patterns we hoped to subdue have taken over.


It’s not surprising that Angela, and many like her, believe that yoga is not for them. People whose bodies, minds and lives could benefit enormously from yoga are turning away from it.  From the media hype to yoga-hybrid classes that pretend they are connected in some way to the state of yoga, the Emperor’s Clothes have never been more garish.


But despite the distortions, magical thinking and blatant commercialization of the modern yoga industry, the traditional teachings are still there. The texts and techniques of classical yoga still have the power to move and transform us beyond our attachment to the body. And the peace that we crave is always within our reach. Like much of yoga, it’s all in the mind.


Nikola Ellis is the founder of Adore Yoga, yoga therapist, counsellor and teacher trainer. She's passionate about inspiring yoga teachers and the wider community to create healing, joy and purpose. Join her for Yoga Therapy Teacher Training and Yoga retreats in 2015.Got a question about yoga or ayurveda? Ask Nikola here.  


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