Jul, 15, 2014
Great Article for ALL by Greenhouse Yoga Austin! Enjoy!
But I’m Not Flexible!
Thoughts on bending from a non-bendy yogi
“I’d do yoga, but I’m just not flexible at all.” This is the #1 excuse given by people who are disinclined to try yoga. As a yoga teacher, I also get the following a lot: “Oh, you must be really flexible.”
Here’s the thing, guys: our bodies are crazy, amazing, complex machines with a million moving parts that all have to work together pretty perfectly just to get us through our day. However, unlike inorganic machines, our bodies are also subject to certain constraints imposed upon us by our genes.
Flexibility, or the capacity of muscles and connective tissue to stretch around joints and bones, is largely a genetic question. How long are your bones? How large are your joints, and what shape are they; what is their directional orientation? How much elastin is in your muscles and ligaments?
The answers to these questions will largely govern how your body responds to your enthusiastic attempts to touch your toes.
My body is built in a hilariously inflexible way. I have elastin-poor muscles that build mass very quickly and inhibit range of motion. I have tight, closely-packed joints and sockets that want nothing more than to sit happily in their hunched, internally-rotated state. I have short arms and a long torso, a scoliotic spine, and a sacroiliac joint that might as well be a block of cement for how freely it interacts with the rest of my back and hips. I initially got into yoga, actually, because compared to my friends in high school (somehow, I knew a lot of lithe, bendy dancer types), I was incredibly inflexible and I wanted to be able to move like the other girls.
I stuck with yoga because I noticed that, while I still couldn’t touch my toes after a year of practice, other athletic pursuits were suddenly easier, and I felt so damn good when I did it regularly.
So, ten years of practice and two years of teaching later, am I flexible? Not really. I’m more flexible than I was when I started, and I’m far more flexible than I would be if I didn’t have a regular yoga practice, but can I touch my toes, do splits, or stick my ankles behind my head? No.
The canned answer given by yoga teachers to those to give the titular excuse is, “Well, that’s why you should do yoga!” Which, yes, is a valid response, and some people will see gains in flexibility through a yoga practice. But for a lot of people out there, here’s a tough truth: your genes will simply never allow you to be a human pretzel, no matter how much yoga you do.
And you know what? That’s okay.
Because we’re not just on the mat to hit sexy poses. We’re on the mat to open ourselves physically and mentally. We’re there to prepare our minds for deep reflection. We’re there to condition and prime our bodies to excel in other physical activities, to navigate daily tasks a little easier, and to live a long, mobile life.
I think a lot of people go straight to flexibility as their first thought-association with yoga because, hell, it looks so damn cool. There is something mysterious and beautiful about a body’s ability to stretch into positions and shapes otherwise unseen in our daily lives. We’re awed by sights like Briohny Smyth doing her morning yoga with effortless ease. It not only looks cool, it looks like it feels really, really good.
When you’re inflexible, stretching does not feel good. That happy “aaaaaahhhhh” that you hear from bendy people when they do a seated forward bend and rest their foreheads on their knees, or sink down into Pigeon? For the inflexible, it’s more like an “oooowwwww” combined with a “ohmygodithinkmyhammiesaregoingtosnappanicpanicpanic!” There is a reason I routinely either scream or cry in Yin classes, while everyone else is getting blissed out. The simple act of bending over can be a really difficult obstacle, both physically and emotionally. But guess what? I still go to Yin class, and I still test my limits when trying to get my heels to the mat in Down Dog, and I still work at my depth in Pigeon (some days I can even take the block out from beneath my hip!). Because that emotional surge, the sometimes-panic, sometimes-rage, combined with physical pain, that comes from stretching my hilariously inflexible muscles and connective tissue? It builds strength in me that goes way beyond a physical practice.
I was recently explaining to my teaching partner why I keep standing forward bends short and numerous rather than one long stretch. For those who have very tight hips and hamstrings, the amount to which you have to bend your knees to touch the floor while keeping the spine flat is enormous—the pose becomes more akin to a squat than a forward bend, and it fatigues the thighs very quickly. This hadn’t occurred to my teaching partner, because she’s one of those people who can flat-back her way to her toes without bending her knees at all. This is just an example of the little things that make a big difference to someone who’s not naturally flexible. I’ve learned these things because I’m not naturally flexible, and it’s made me work harder in other parts of my practice, and helped me build me focus immensely—it takes everything I’ve got sometimes not to scream in Pigeon!
Perhaps the upside, then, to being inflexible is the never-ending opportunity to practice and develop strength and control—that uber-important containment—both physically and emotionally.
So, even though you may never look like a circus performer, you should still come out for yoga. It’s not just for the bendy among us. You might even find that your instructor can’t touch his or her toes—yet they’re still strengthened and fulfilled by yoga. Moreover, if you engage in any other physical practice, yoga will make you better at it, both mind and body. A regular mobility practice like yoga is essential for an athlete’s body, even if the benefits don’t show on the outside in cool contortionist tricks. Hit the mat, and don’t let those tight hamstrings stop you!