THEM: Hi, what do you do for a living?
ME: I’m a yoga teacher
THEM: Oh God, I would die if I did yoga! I’m just not flexible enough.
Hmmmm… 9 times out of 10 this is the response I get when I talk to someone about yoga. Rarely do I hear that they don’t do yoga because they’re scared, don’t have enough money to join a studio, don’t have time, or because they think yoga is weird. This is ALWAYS my response: “That’s exactly why you NEED to do yoga. Yoga helps you become flexible, in your body and in your mind.”
So, let’s talk about this. How can yoga help the inflexible become more flexible, on and off the mat.
What Is Yoga?
So what the heck is yoga anyway? What’s all the fuss?
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Sri Swami Satchidananda, explains it like this:
“When the word Yoga is mentioned, most people immediately think of some physical practices for stretching and stress reduction. This is one aspect of the Yogic science, but actually only a very small part and relatively recent in development. The physical Yoga, or Hatha Yoga, was primarily designed to facilitate the real practice of Yoga – namely, the understanding and complete mastery over the mind. So the actual meaning of Yoga is the science of the mind.”
Light on Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar, explains it like this:
“Yoga is a timeless pragmatic science evolved over thousands of years dealing with the physical. moral, mental and spiritual well-being of a man as a whole.”
Neither of these definitions even mentions the need to be flexible in order to practice yoga. They don’t mention having to be physically strong, being able to twist your body into a pretzel for Instagram photos or looking good in a bathing suit. Yoga is for EVERYONE. There’s no need to fear that you’re not capable, flexible or fit enough. You just have to show up in comfortable clothes (this does not mean fancy yoga pants, anything comfortable will do), and an open mind. You will practice because you care about your physical and mental health, but that is the only prerequisite. When I really got into yoga, like practicing every day, I was at the peak of my disease, Lupus. I could barely get out of bed most days. My joints and muscles hurt, I was tired, flaring almost every day. Yoga made me better, I didn’t need to be better in order to do yoga. Yoga is for EVERYONE.
Yoga & A Flexible Body
Some people are super flexible when they start yoga. Some people can’t touch their toes. Every single person’s body is completely different. In teacher training I learned of two physical deviations of the human form; Structural and Functional. (This information was provided by the Anatomy For Asana manual, from my school YogaWorks, and was written by Olivia Barry).
Implies that the bones have formed and aligned in ways that are slightly different from standard anatomical position. This is primarily dictated by your genetic makeup. Since your skeleton is composed of hard connective tissue this makes it a relatively fixed aspect of your physical constitution. Asana practice cannot change this structural variation BUT it can minimize compensatory patterns of imbalance that may develop as a response of this structural variation.
Patterns of soft tissue that can be changed with a dedicated, conscientious practice. We can re-train our muscles to work in new ways, and repeatedly choosing a more optimal pattern eventually becomes embedded in muscle memory. You can be vulnerable to falling back into old patterns though so a consistent practice is key.
Not only is everyone’s body different regarding structural and functional deviations but also height, weight, health issues, illness, and disabilities. Also, my body feels different from day-to-day depending on my level of energy, how much sleep I got the night before, what I ate that day or the day before, if I’m dehydrated, and more. So don’t be so hard on yourself and remember that yoga is for EVERYONE.
I also learned a very valuable lesson about flexibility when I began yoga. I’m a very flexible person and tend to hyperextend my elbows and knees in certain poses. To hyperextend means to: extend (a limb or joint) beyond its normal limits. This is actually fairly common in students who are extremely flexible. In order to keep myself from hyperextending and being too flexible in poses I had to develop an awareness and strength in my muscles to protect my limbs and joints. My point is, being super flexible is not actually a good thing when practicing any form of exercise. You must combine flexibility with muscle awareness and strength. A combination of the two is the right recipe for practicing any form of exercise safely. Educate yourself on ways to become more flexible, as well as how to engage your muscles to protect your limbs and joints if you’re too flexible.
That being said, let’s take a look at some yoga poses that can help you become more flexible. Here’s a Yoga Journal link with some flexibility building poses for you to check out. REMEMBER to always consult your doctor first. Pay attention to the cues for each pose and know the contraindications for each pose as well. Some poses should not be practiced if you have pain in certain parts of the body, if you’ve recently had a surgery, pregnancy, menstrual cycle, certain health issues, etc. Take care of you and pay close attention to detail when practicing any poses.
Yoga & A Flexible Mind
A flexible mind? What does that even mean? Let’s start here:
Most people think that Yoga is simply the poses that we do, or asana. Yoga is so much more. There are actually 8 limbs of yoga, and they go a little something like this:
- Yama = absinence (social discipline)
- Niyama = observances, training (self discipline)
- Asana = meditative posture, posture practice (poses)
- Pranayama = breath control
- Pratyahara = withdrawal of senses, inward flow of senses
- Dharana = concentration
- Dhyana = meditation
- Samadhi = contemplation, absorption, superconscious state
These are described in the book, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Sri Swami Satchidananda. This book contains about 200 Yoga Sutras, “sutra” means “thread.” Each sutra in this book is a piece or thread of the science of Yoga. They describe the necessary practices, obstacles you will meet, how to remove the obstacles, and descriptions of the results that will be obtained from these practices.
The point of all of this is to help you understand that yoga is so much more than just the poses. Our mind, the science of our mind is the main component.
To be flexible means; to be able to be easily modified to respond to altered circumstances or conditions. The conditions that we face everyday might come from work, friends, lovers, current events or even internal conditions that our mind has created. The practice of yoga can teach us to be more flexible in life. If we can learn: Yama/social discipline, Niyama/self discipline, Pranayama/breath control, Pratyahara/withdrawal of senses, Dharana/concentration, and Dhyana/meditation; than we will learn how to have a flexible mind. We will learn how to be flexible with others, how to be flexible when the world is not, how to be flexible with ourselves when we need to care for our own positives and negatives. We can learn to calm our minds, to breath when times are uneasy or frustrating, to care for those around us even when they are not caring for us, to understand that we are all equal; black or white, animal, bug or bird, citizen of the U.S. or not.
It is this practice that teaches us to be an entire man/woman. To have a strong body, to eat well and to have a healthy mind. It is a practice that evolves us as a whole. It’s the complete package. So the next time you think you’re not “whatever” enough to do yoga, stop for a moment and think, maybe this is exactly what you need to be “whatever” it might be that you want to be.
I hope you enjoyed this blog post. Practice safely and often. Shoot me any questions you might have, and set-up an appointment to start or advance your journey with yoga today.