The Myth of Flexibility in Yoga

“The success of yoga must not be measured by how flexible your body becomes, but rather by how much it opens your heart” – T.K.V. Desikachar

“I would love to do yoga but I am inflexible”

“I am a bloke you know and I do not have the right body type to try yoga”

“I can’t touch my toes”

“Mate, I am really stiff, you got no idea”

“No worries, I will register for your workshop and start working on my flexibility straightaway”

I don’t even have to prompt or ask. As soon as people find out that I am yoga teacher, they straightaway start giving me reasons for not practicing yoga. One of the most common reasons given or excuse made is the lack of flexiblity. A lot more by men and a few  by women. I can understand why, one look at popular media and you will see images of thin, statuesque, people with their leg wrapped around their head. In fact the yoga industry has long been using such images and unsurprisingly yoga has come to be associated with a certain image and it is usually of female perfection. Flexibility seems to be a pre-requisite to practice yoga. Furthermore, there are very few yoga teachers in the public eye that are unable to do a full split or twist themselves like a pretzel.

Thousands of years ago when yoga was first taught in India, the students were all men. For thousands of years, yoga meant stilling the thoughts of the mind in order to connect with the self. As such yoga is a pretty equal-opportunity pursuit. As recently as the 1930s, Mr. Krishnamacharya, one of the founders of “modern yoga”, taught at a school for boys and developed a physically demanding sequence of yoga poses that included elements of gymnastics and wrestling. At that point women were not included in the classes. However, since moving to the west, yoga has mainly become a female-centric activity. Yoga was never an inherently female practice. The roots of yoga and the growth of yoga as a practice is by males for males. 5 years ago when I decided to start a regular practice by joining a yoga studio, I discovered that I was the only male student in the class; that became two and recently I have being to classes where almost half the class comprises of male students. Does that mean that the myth of flexiblity is being challenged? The answer is yes but not enough.

I practiced yoga for three years before becoming a teacher and let me share the good news, you don’t have to be flexible to practice yoga. You don’t have to be able to touch your toes or stand on one leg. When we start working out in the gym it takes some time to build muscles and strength. Similarly, yoga is a practice that needs time and dedication to see results. The practice of yoga is not about attaining the full expression of a certain pose or being flexible enough to do a full split – all of these things come as a result of immersing yourself in the practice. Significantly, the practice of yoga has more to do with self-awareness, becoming more in tune and grounded in our own body, and learning as well as honouring this ancient art and tradition. All you have to do is just go as far as you can go in each pose.

Ultimately, flexibility referes to our ability to move muscles and joints through their complete range. We are born with this ability (I have never seen an inflexible baby) but lose it over time as our lives become sedentrary and restricted. Even if we’re active, our bodies will dehydrate and stiffen with age. By the time we get to adulthood, our tissues have lost about  15 percent of their mositure content, becoming less supple and prone to injury. The normal aging of our tissues is similar to the process that turns animal hides into leather. Stretching slows this process of dehydration by stimulating the production of tissue lubricants. Yoga helps with the stretching of the ligaments, tendons and fascia. You don’t have to be flexible to reap these benefits.

Along with stretching connective tissue, much of the work in yoga aims to enlist neurological mechanisms that allow our muscles to release and extend. Yoga poses will stretch your muscles and increase your range of motion. Yoga, however, is more than a form of exercise or workout. Yoga is a way to become aware of your body and mind and for this we need patience. Initially I practiced yoga for the physical benefits. After about 18 months of practising, I started to experience the mental benefits of yoga. Here are a few things you can do if you are new to yoga or wish to try yoga:

  • Do some basic stretching before the yoga practice. I have very tight hips so I always got to the class 10 minutes and early and spent that time stretching my hips and activating my glutes
  • Connect breath with movement i.e., breathe slowly and consciously
  • Stop when you feel any pain in any pose. With time the body will get used to stretching and pain will disappear
  • Practice regularly, I practice everday but I understand this is not possible for everyone, so practice as regularly or as often as possible
  • Do the poses slowly and regularly. Yoga is meant to nourish the body and mind and not act as a punishment. You can always pick up the pace once who feel more comfortable and confident
  • Be kind to yourself, do not be too harsh on yourself if you are next to someone who can do the poses easily as you are not aware of their yoga journey and life story

Yoga helps you to practice mindulness, learn how to listen to your body and reduce stress. Each pose will allow your body to sink, deeply stretching muscle fibres and loosening you up. It will take time, but not as long as you assume. The body and mind simply have to make the connection. Increased flexiblity can be one of the fitness goals, provided it is paired with strength and stability.

Yoga is for everyone. Tall or short, thick or thin, young or old, yoga is meant to adapt to you, not the other way around. Even though I am not as flexible as some of my colleagues, there are things I can do now which I couldn’t five years ago. Flexibility is the by-product of a regular yoga practice not the other way round. I urge you to ignore the crazy flexible poses on your social media feed and learn how yoga can benefit your physical and emotional health. Yoga is not for the flexible, it is for the willing.