In the last year, a lot of the things that people fear most about yoga have been central to the discussion. I think this is a good thing. If yoga has taught me anything about fear, it's that the reality is usually not as scary as what I've made it out to be in my mind. The more often I practice Handstand (even though it's scary), for example, the less afraid I am of it. I think the same is true for the practice as a whole—the more we confront the things that might scare us away from the practice, the more we'll see it for what it really is: a highly individual practice that can be modified to help people from all walks of life.
Here are the 5 scariest things I can think of about practicing yoga (and my .02 on why they're not so scary after all).
Yoga injuries. Injuring yourself doing something that is supposed to be healing is pretty scary. The threat of injury is very real—both students and teachers make mistakes—but if you weigh the myriad benefits of the practice it's well worth the risk. Finding a knowledgeable teacher reduces the risk of injury. Committing to honor your own body, and not pushing yourself into positions that don't feel safe, is even more important. For me, NOT practicing and dealing with the stress, physical discomfort, and monkey mind is a lot scarier.
Power-hungry gurus. I hate hearing the stories about teachers who take advantage of their relationships with students. As a student, you can choose to adopt a guru or you can just find a good teacher who you trust to guide you through poses and share some insights along the way. Either way, you should never be afraid to say "Nope. That doesn't seem like a good idea for me, teacher."
Religious indoctrination. I'll never forget the time I brought a friend with me to a yoga class. We unrolled our mats in the crowded San Francisco studio, and immediately I saw my friends eyes widen as she pointed to the Shiva statue at the front of the room. "What is THAT!?" she asked. When I told her it was just a statue she said, "Well, I'm not going to worship it." OK, great. Neither am I. Yoga can certainly be a religious experience if you want it to be, but it's also OK to make it just about being present in your body. You're allowed to take to heart the things that resonate with you and leave the rest.
Commercialism. It's true. Yoga teachers are out to get your money—that's how they pay their bills. In fact, yoga has become such a big business that it sometimes feels that someone is trying to sell us something everywhere we turn. Expensive yoga retreats, yoga clothes, yoga doodads—how do you know what you really need? Here's a clue: You don't NEED any of it. Unfortunately, commercialism can shift the focus of the practice to things that don't matter, but you don't have to let it. Focus on your practice—tune out the bells and whistles.
Not fitting in. It can be scary to walk into a room and feel like you stick out like a sore thumb. Thankfully, there are teachers who are working diligently to make the practice more accessible are debunking the perception that you have to look a certain way or fit a certain stereotype to practice. Yoga is for every body, no matter what your shape, size, age, or gender.
Erica Rodefer Winters is a writer and yoga teacher in Charleston, SC.