Yogi Assignment: Flexibility
Every day I get at least a few messages from students at all levels of their practice who want to learn how to be more flexible. It’s frustrating to feel like your body is stuck. Whether you’re a long term practitioner who meets a difficult pose or a beginner who doesn’t understand how the body will ever bend, flexibility is a mystery that every yogi has to solve for themselves.
So many people assume I was naturally flexible or that I was a gymnast or dancer. But I was never a dancer or a gymnast or anything physical before yoga. When I first tried to put my leg behind my head it didn’t just go. My chest felt like it was going to collapse and I could barely feel what was happening in my body. But slowly, with practice and patience my hips opened. I’ve seen yoga students of all shapes, sizes and ages put in the work of practice and have their hips and their whole bodies open. It’s not about forcing or willing your body, it’s actually so much more about listening. Yoga works best when you focus on the process and don’t get too attached to the goal. If you put too much attention to the pose and you make the pose your goal then you might end up making sacrifices along the way that could harm your body. The real goal of yoga is the inner experience and every pose is merely a tool to wake up your awareness. The interesting thing is that the moment your paradigm shifts to this state of non-attachment the body usually opens right up.
This week’s Yogi Assignment is Flexibility. There are physical, mental, emotional and spiritual lessons in flexibility. My teacher Sri K. Pattabhi Jois used to say to some students, “Body is not stiff, mind is stiff.” While this isn’t true for everyone, there are certainly times when our mind is our biggest obstacle. If you notice rigidity or dogma forming along the yoga path, it may be time to stretch your mind. Or, if you find yourself getting triggered repeatedly by something in the practice or reacting strongly to a pose mentally while your physical body is safe, there may be a mental, emotional or spiritual lesson that needs attention before you’ll find the ease and flow of flexibility.
There is no greater feeling in the body than the pure freedom that flexibility allows. In the rare moments when everything flows it feels like you’re flying. Those moments may be few and far between, but they are often life changing. In the limitless space of the inner body you have the potential to feel a spark of the spirit within yourself. Experience your essential nature is the real reason we practice. But if you come to your mat and feel blocked and stuck, you may feel far away from the lofty highs of spiritual realization. What to do?
The first instinct is usually to apply the same paradigm of forcing and pushing to the body that many of us bring from our goal-oriented attitude to life. Unfortunately that usually doesn’t work. If you meet tightness with tightness it begets more tightness. If you fight and force your body you end up beating yourself up.
Flexibility is like untying a knot. If you just pull and force it, you’ll end up making it worse. The body has its own time to release the tension, it will unwind when it’s ready, like a flower blooming, and not a moment before. Spring flowers don’t open in winter for a reason. The fall harvest isn’t ready in the spring for a reason. Your body has its rhythm and its reasons. The yoga practice is about tuning in, feeling, listening and respecting the intelligence of the body.
When you approach an asana that demands new levels of flexibility the best approach is to go slowly, move with body awareness, apply your intellect and practice non-attachment. If you don’t understand the anatomical and technical elements of the pose, it helps to break down and study the movement mechanics of the body. If your own body awareness is lacking, meaning that you can’t feel your muscles or joints, then it may be best to start your flexibility quest with bringing more attention to the subtle sensations of the body. Feel your body first and foremost because the feeling is really the work of yoga.
The real discipline is often internal. While you’re waiting for your flower to open, you may notice other flowers blossoming around you. Doubt sets in. When everyone around you seems younger and more flexible it can be hard to accept yourself and not judge yourself. But the work of processing your response to uncomfortable situations is actually part of the journey of yoga. Flexibility is both a state of mind and an experience in the body. Flexibility of the mind could be equated with the equanimous mind, which is not disturbed by any situation. Rather than being born in this state, it’s actually something that demands a great deal of effort to achieve. That may sound paradoxical, but keeping the mind in a calm, harmonious and flexible state is an act of discipline. It’s easy to lash out, feel jealous, get bitter and beat yourself up. It’s hard to observe without reacting, be present to all your emotions without acting them out and harder still to keep the heart open amidst struggle. But this is yoga!
Flexibility is the essence of the yogi’s mind and it starts with a decision to root your sense of self within yourself. The poses are merely vehicles for you to experience the deepest truth of who you really are. When your mind settles you move into a state of ease and flow that is beyond any pose.