“Ooooh I’d love to do Yoga but I’m not flexible enough”
I really wish I had a penny for every time someone has said that to me !
One of the dictionary definitions of “ Flexibility” is really quite beautiful -it’s “the quality of bending easily without breaking”* and that seems to me to be a lovely reflection of Yoga practice itself. So how come when people say “I’m not flexible” they are not talking about the ability to be fluid or responsive to the circumstances they find themselves in. Instead they’re talking about whether or not they can touch their toes? How have we taken something so intuitive and elegant and turned it into such a rigid requirement?
I came to the conclusion that it’s largely to do with the images that we see.
The media in general and social media in particular is full of photos and videos of beautiful people contorting their bodies into the most unlikely shapes whilst a basic internet search will bring up pictures of Yoga adepts sitting in lotus posture for what looks like hours on end. Now I can understand where these ideas come from and to some extent they do represent Yoga practice but in a very extreme form. The bendy supermodel may be in a traditional “Yoga pose” but to be able to do that she has to have the physical makeup of a gymnast.The Yogi master is using the stability of his posture to maintain a meditative state but the truth is that lots of us can’t sit comfortably for long in any static position and are lucky to be able to calm our minds for more than 20 seconds at a time!
For me Yoga is more than just a set of exercises -it’s a journey towards better physical and mental health and like any journey it starts from where you are now. More importantly it is your own unique journey! So if your hips are stiff or your hamstrings are short then that’s where you begin. The Yoga postures (asana) that you start to work with are designed to keep the body both supple and strong and without that balance there is the real possibility of actual physical damage. Overly mobile joints can become unstable while constantly focusing on stretching can cause damage to muscle tissues and compromise their ability to function properly. A standard yoga class will have a variety of postures that are designed to build strength as well as flexibility. Also people are individuals with very different body compositions based on things like genetics, the work they do and the way they move in general. Yoga will help improve function as far as body structure allows but it isn’t going to make people like me at 5ft 2 into a 6ft dancer. Nor do I want it to. Yoga helps me maintain my comfortable range of movement and also gives me the stability and strength to carry out my everyday tasks comfortably and safely and that’s far more useful to me than being able to wrap my legs around the back of my neck!
So let’s go back to that Yogi sitting cross legged in his cave. What’s that about then? Well the truth of the matter is that Yoga isn’t just a physical practice. It’s also about gaining some mental clarity and a greater understanding of the ways in which our lives are shaped by our thoughts, experiences and memories. All of this is generally happening in the background outside of our conscious awareness. Yoga practice also involves sitting for breathing and meditation and the purpose of those techniques is to make us more connected to what’s going on inside our own heads. It’s not an attempt to “control” or “change” our thinking rather to make us more aware of it and with that awareness comes the ability to respond more skilfully to the demands of everyday life. The best position for those practices just happens to be a seated one. The good news is that you don’t have to be able to sit in lotus and for lots of people that posture puts way too much strain on hips and knee joints. They can be done just as well from sitting in a chair!
Having said all of that there is one final thing to take into account when considering how important it is to be flexible and that is in your choice of teacher and class. Everything I’ve said so far applies to my teaching and to the vast majority of classes that I’ve been to as a student. A good teacher will recognise that everyone has different limitations and will offer alternatives and variations to suit the needs of all students including both the less bendy and the overly mobile as well! However I have gone along to sessions where the teacher has actively promoted the importance of being able to do the “perfect posture” and has even attempted to adjust people into asana that are clearly not suitable for them. Did I go back to those classes? Of course not! So choose your class and your teacher wisely and if necessary be prepared to walk away! Find someone who respects you and is willing to work with you as you are right now and the mental and physical benefits of a regular practice will be yours. Going back to my original analogy Yoga will help you learn how to “bend so you don’t break” irrespective of whether or not you can touch your toes!
*Oxford Dictionary Of English Online last accessed 05/08/2020