Fitness trainer, yogi and Instagram sensation Shona Vertue explains how yoga can help you be a better person.
Look at Shona Vertue’s Instagram grid and you’ll find photo after photo of her in very impressive yoga poses. From the standing splits to her head on her shins to handstand holds, she nails all of them in a slightly contortionist way. When you struggle with a downward dog, her feed makes for quite the inspirational scroll – or it’s tempted us to practice our splits, at least.
But, Shona says, those photos are not yoga. “Some people do really respond to ‘Instagram yoga’ and it makes them want to get on their mat. In Buddhism, you call it the trick of desire, which is to lure someone in with a sort of pleasure.”
In fact, yoga asana (which refers to the physical poses and flows) is only actually a tiny portion of the practice, she says. “As a strictly physical practice, yoga isn’t the most superior,” she admits. “I can honestly say that, hand on my heart, other things like mobility are more beneficial for your joints, but that’s not the only reason we practice yoga.
“Something that isn’t mentioned enough in the conversation around yoga is the philosophy around trying to become a better person. Not a better person because you can do splits but because you’re actually trying to become a kinder person.”
It is this, Shona says, which brings together all of her values when it comes to fitness and training. She points to the Harvard Study of Adult Development for a reason to practice yoga. One of the longest pieces of research on human health shows that our relationships, and how happy we are in our relationships, have have a more profound influence on our physical health than anything that we do in the gym.
“If yoga helps you become a better person, you would assume that that’s going to help your relationships. How much effort do we put into our fitness regime, thinking about intricacies like glute activation and making sure that your core is working properly when, actually, what will make you healthier physiologically long term is how well you interact with the humans around you,” she says.
This means that, unlike other forms of exercise when physical output determines success, you don’t need to be amazing at the practice to reap the benefits: “People give up on it quickly, saying ‘oh no, my body can’t do that, it’s not for me.’ But it doesn’t matter if you can’t quite do it the same as the person on the mat next to you. Not being in the full splits will not impact your ability to become a kinder person.”
So where do all of these internal, holistic benefits come from? Firstly, the meditative aspect. That means not skipping Shavasana. If you’ve ever followed one of Shona’s YouTube tutorials, you’ll know she strictly instructs that you don’t exit the tab before the last five minutes of stillness begins.
“Making sure that you are taking part in the meditative aspects allows that philosophy to come into play. You’re learning to control more of your internal experience,” she says.
Secondly, it’s about honouring the lineage of yoga. “You aren’t expected to sit down and chant for 20 minutes when you’ve never done yoga before,” she says. But, especially in this era of cultural appropriation, I think we need to not avoid the more traditional aspects of yoga. Be willing to go to a class where there is a little bit of philosophy sprinkled throughout and be willing to hear that.”
And lastly, it’s about what you do outside of those classes that counts, too. Taking yoga off the mat is hard, Shona admits: “It’s one thing to preach non-attachment and non-harm, which are a part of the philosophy of yoga but I love French cheese and I know that the way that we produce it is not conducive to other animals having good lives.” However, she encourages that everyone considers the ways in which they can reduce harm in their lives. “There’s no other form of fitness that asks you to do that,” she says. And she’s right.
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Images: Sophia Spring / Shona Vertue
Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).