Yoga asana appears to be, among other things, a seeking of more mobility, more freedom, more space in our bodies. This increased capacity allows for exploration of new territories, healing of old holding patterns, and finding more fluidity so that our energetic selves can be more fully embodied.
This is why we feel so alive after we stretch, why our minds calm down a bit once we move and feel and breathe into our bodies. We bring ourselves to the present moment, and we move through tensions and holding patterns that keep us from relaxing.
Your body may have amazing flexibility. You may be able to do some of the most advanced poses. But have you noticed that your hips continue to feel tight and restricted? There are still unexplored spaces where you feel tension. And you stretch and stretch and continue to increase your flexibility, and still the pesky tightness persists. Or maybe you are one of the super flexible yogis who can slide right into Hanumanasana or easily get that leg behind your head in Eka Pada Sirsasana, but it is difficult for you to find the strength to safely get out of the pose. Have you ever wondered how this could be possible?
Our bodies are built with a brilliant system that monitors the movements and ranges of motion that we make. It sends out signals to us when it feels unsafe to move further. When movement is within a range that our body deems as safe, our nervous system allows us to go there. When we push it too far, those signals alarm and our nervous system sends a message telling us that this motion we are performing may not be safe.
One of the fundamental benefits of yoga is that it helps us to breathe through discomfort and adapt to a new edge. This helps us to increase our capacity. When we have a faulty message from an old injury or trauma that has already healed that tells our hip that it isn't safe to stretch across our body, it becomes useful to gently expand that range of motion so we can restore good functional movement there. But if that old injury also caused some weakness in our hip or back, these same gentle stretches will be met with a constant re-engagement of those safety signals. Our body will test out the new motion and then make a determination if this new range is indeed safe.
The same alarms that go off after an injury also go off after an emotional trauma. If we have developed fear of driving after being in a car accident, it becomes useful to breathe through the edge of our discomfort to start getting back behind the wheel of a car. But if you have created adaptive tolerance to an abusive relationship, overriding the warning signals and breathing through it may not be the safest or healthiest course.
Sometimes the body simply needs some repetition so the nervous system learns that you aren't going to re-injure yourself. But other times the body needs more support and stability before it allows that hip to stretch out. Sometimes we need to create boundaries or have the wisdom to exit the pose, both in yoga and in life.
Patanjali's yoga sutras gave us only a few hints about yoga asana in Sutra 2.46:
Sthira-Sukham asanam: Yoga is steadiness (stability) and ease.
If you find that balance in, during, and out of Hanumanasana, you are finding yoga. If you haven't yet found equanimity in Warrior 1 or Low Crescent Lunge, then I suggest starting there and letting the stability and safety guide you to the next level. And if your heart has been broken, maybe it’s not wise to push up into a Wheel today - perhaps Child’s pose is your medicine until your system feels a little bit safer.
Having the ability to do poses has little to do with yoga. Your relationship with your body, how much you listen to and what you say to her as you bend and twist and stretch, does. The actual effects of the practice and how it influences your life off the mat tells you much more about your relationship with yoga than your ability to slide into splits or flip up into forearm stand.
Yogis often think that because they don't have an injury to an area that it becomes okay to constantly override the messages of discomfort and agitation that tell our bodies of possible danger. Yoga is an amazing tool to help us expand past our comfort zones. But realize that without proper levels of safety, stability, and strength, the body will continue to react with those alarm signals, even if you have adapted your body so that it isn't alarming as much when you get into some of those poses.
Pay attention to how you feel between yoga classes as well as during them. If that nagging hip tension never seems to resolve, no matter how much you stretch it, you likely need to find a way toward more stability. Perhaps the stability will come from building muscular strength, or from an emotional change that needs to be made in your life. In more severe cases, your hip or your back may have lost its integrity completely and requires more drastic stabilization.
Don't let your body or your emotions get to a place of crisis if you can help it. Practice finding your stability and safety, and let that place be the platform for wisely exploring your capacity. Be gentle and kind to yourself and see how much more gracefully and wisely a safe body and heart can expand.