Anyone who tells you that yoga isn’t about being flexible is lying.
Maybe I should explain myself, because even I’ve said that yoga’s not just about stretching your hamstrings. While the sole purpose of yoga isn’t to expand like a rubber band, absolutely yoga is and should be about flexibility in the body—after all, it is a physical practice.
The first yogis knew this. They practiced asana for the purpose of preparing their bodies to sit for long periods in meditation. That’s because flexibility in the body breeds another sort of flexibility: freedom in the mind.
Which is more difficult: changing your range of motion or your school of thought? After a month of practicing yoga several times a week, it’s reasonable to expect you’d be able to touch your toes. But getting over heartbreak or losing your job or your friends or family?
Some thoughts never leave your mind.
There’s no shame in trying to escape the mind by crawling back into the body. Sometimes, it’s the only way through. Similarly, there’s no shame in admitting that you’d like to be able to touch your toes or put your foot behind your head.
It’s through these physical goals that discipline returns to a mind sidelined by life’s everyday heartaches.
Flexibility happens in layers
During my yoga teacher training, I visited a cadaver lab to learn about the body’s internal structure. The lab had several human dissections, from bones to muscles to the various preserved organs.
What fascinated me most was the fascia, the binding connective tissue that surrounds muscles, nerves and blood vessels like a giant bandage. Until that day, I hadn’t really thought about what holds our innards in, or that it also could become tight and constrict movement.
Year after year, I tried my best at the President’s Sit and Reach test, and year after year it reinforced the idea that my body just wasn’t flexible. (Thankfully, the test is going away in 2013, while yoga is added to the new activity list!) No one ever told me how to become more flexible—only that I should if I wanted a certificate with the President’s name on it.
What I wish I’d known sooner is that flexibility happens in layers. Our joint structures, muscles, tendons, ligaments and fascia all play a role. Yoga poses stretch the tendons (which attach muscle to bone) and the surrounding fascia, giving muscles more room to move and grow.
In other words, there’s a lot going on that determines our flexibility and inflexibility. And no matter what you believe now, you are not relegated to one or the other by nature.
The only thing keeping you from being flexible is actually doing the work.
The habits in which we move (or don’t move) our bodies are key to unsticking what’s stuck inside—and this includes the mind.
For physical flexibility, there are chiropractors and stretch therapists and fitness instructors. There’s no shame in seeking out these folks to get our bodies working again.
But a mind on the mend? The path to freedom isn’t easy, and we’re often ashamed about the means we take to get there, whether that’s taking medication or talking to a therapist or spending a couple days weeping in your pillowcase.
I’ve done them all. What helped most, however, was none of them. Instead, it was getting on my mat day after day. It was putting my head below my heart. It was trusting that my present mental hang ups would not hang around forever.
This is what being flexible really has to do with yoga. When you cultivate mental hope through your physical yoga practice there’s no inflexibility that can’t be thoroughly stretched.
Try this: Wide-Legged Forward Bend, Prasarita Padottanasana
Ah, my love-hate relationship with wide-legged forward bends. Abduction has taken a long while to achieve in my legs, but I got there more quickly when I commited to practicing this pose. Inner thighs will loosen while you safely invert your head, allowing for blood flow back into the brain to clear your fog.
P.S. Little dogs are excellent motivators for this pose.
- Step wide on your mat and stretch your arms wide, lining your ankles underneath your wrists. Place your hands on your hips. Turn your big toes in and heels slightly out.
- Inhale to lift the chest and crown of the head, then exhale and bend from the waist to a flat back, bringing the palms down to the mat underneath the shoulders. If the hands don’t reach the floor yet, support the palms on yoga blocks.
- Root the outer edges of your feet into the mat to lift the inner ankles and avoid collapsing your arches. Lift the knee caps up to engage the full length of your legs and tuck the thigh bones up into their sockets. From rooted legs take a deep inhale and on the exhale forward fold deeper, leading with a lengthened spine.
- Relax the head and neck, letting it hang loose. Walk your fingertips in line with your toes and bend into the elbows if accessible. Perhaps the crown of your head can touch the floor (if not, a benchmark to work toward). On smooth inhales and exhales, continue to wrap the shoulder blades on the back and away from the ears.
- Stay for about a minute in this pose, breathing deeply. Return your hands underneath your shoulders and lift to a flat back. Place your hands on your hips and inhale your way to standing. Walk the feet together.
What do you think is more difficult: changing your physical or your mental flexibility? Solidarity in the comments.