Yoga has been around for thousands of years and flexibility is accessible to everyone. If your time budget is tighter than your pants, then this article may inspire you with some simple advice. Flexibility can benefit the trifecta: mind, body, and soul. It’s worth a shot in this new year to try stretching.
I’ve had this which-comes-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg pondering about Erich Schiffmann for a while now. As a teenager, a simple birthday gift from his older brother catapulted his life into a whole new dimension. The subject of the book was yoga. Was Erich already flexible, and the book just helped him exercise this innate skill? Or was Erich possibly destined for a life of stiffness until the book came along and taught him poses that would develop and ensure his flexibility?
I don’t have an answer, but I can attest that Erich is one of the most dedicated yoga practitioners I have ever met. Dedication is what maintains flexibility. For a few folks, bending with ease is a natural born ability, but for most of us, bending without breaking requires effort. Each one of us will develop varying degrees of flexibility depending on our needs: a well-adapted body with the perfect blend of mobility and strength is actually a very intimate pursuit. Each individual body serves as our own unique masterpiece of muscles and bones and connective tissue.
My question about Erich has led me to a theory about why people are often so intimidated by yoga. Those few folks who are innately flexible make it look so easy-- so then when a stiff or less nimble individual tries yoga and it’s not easy, they feel like a failure. I’m sure many potential yogis just don’t even make the first attempt; certainly, many don’t come back for seconds. More than once, I’ve had a parent tell me their pre-pubescent child is “so good at yoga” simply because the child can contort with ease.
You are not good at yoga because you are flexible. Please please don’t be afraid to try yoga if you are not flexible.
The whole point of yoga is to be on a path, to draw a line in the sand and start the journey where you are. Yoga doesn’t care what you look like or where your starting line begins. Yoga encourages you.
Why be flexible? Blood should be able to go where it wants to go. Muscles should not be so tight that they hinder blood flow. When blood or prana or chi flows freely through the body, we live in a state of ease. Doesn’t that sound nice? The goal is to try to let your blood, chi, or prana flow to every cell without restriction. Just imagine removing tension so that you feel more at home in your body: what a pleasure life could be!
My husband, Legare, took his first yoga class from me in 2002 and has since become a certified teacher, but up until about a year ago he could not sit on the floor without props. In a seated cross-legged position, his knees were closer to his chin than the floor. To achieve a straighter spine for meditation, he would use props or sit on a meditation stool with his feet tucked under him so that he could avoid external rotation of the hip joint, the same hip on which he had surgery in 2004 to repair damage from an old surfing injury. We just assumed he was not flexible in the hips and never would be.
Legare saw a new light in 2019 during a natural movement training. He excelled at all the natural movements of jumping and climbing and balance, but tightness in the hips made a simple floor sit for a lecture very uncomfortable. Props were allowed at the training but it was clear that they were discouraged for their potential to become a crutch. Legare recognized his reliance on props and wondered if he could actually change this dependence.
Now, over a year later, I am astounded to report that my husband can sit with a nearly straight spine using no props-- and his squat is a sight to behold. His dedication has paid off.
How did he make such progress? He humbly acknowledged that his body required and deserved daily attention. He went into his little daily experiment with the desire to see what would happen if he truly gave time each day towards the flexibility of his hips. He spent his time with an attitude of curiosity and an openness towards his body. (We also got rid of our couch and started sitting on the floor, but that’s another story.)
I recall the great Papa Schiffmann saying numerous times in trainings to practice “more often and gently.” I have finally heeded Erich’s advice, and I can say it’s remarkable - extraordinary in a way that only something so unadorned can be. Most days, I don’t even use a mat or props. I don’t put on “yoga clothes.” In the morning, Legare and I set a timer for our boiling eggs and do ten minutes of gentle movement and stretches while our eggs tap in the pot.
It doesn’t have to make you sweat to count. You don’t have to be out of breath. You just need to move often and gently to break the pattern of over-focusing on the life outside of your body. Pause and feel the life inside your body.
By focusing on the body (the breath, the twitch of the muscles, the movement of blood) you take the unruly mind out of the worry of the future or the wrong of the past. You become peaceful. Less flustered. Less grasping. Less bothered. Less needy. Developing flexibility has the bonus side-effect of psychological calm. When the muscles release tension, the mind seems to follow.
Allow yourself to be humbled by your stiffness, but not deterred. Stiffness is like oral plaque: it accumulates each day. You can internally complain, or you can get curious and open to the possibility of a new you. Set logical goals. Easy goals, even. Make your time dedicated to the body feel good. You’re the only one who can make it feel good. If it feels good, you’ll come back tomorrow and do it again.