The Myth of Flexibility and Yoga

Flexibility is as much about the mind as it is the muscle.

One of the most common notions people share with me when they learn I teach yoga is that they think they must be flexible to do it. It seems the pervasive cultural model of a skinny girl in over-priced stretchy pants with her leg wrapped behind her head makes many people assume yoga is not for them.

While that’s understandable, it’s also an excuse. And you know what they say about excuses.

Having been around the yoga block a few times (pardon the pun), I’ve come to understand that flexibility is as much about the mind as it is about muscle. So now, when someone tells me they are not flexible enough to do yoga, I say with a twinkle in my eye, “You’re right.” This is usually surprising enough to get their motor turning, and the conversation that follows depends on the kind of person they are. My response is akin to Henry Ford’s famous quote, “Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re right.” I gently nudge them to recognize that it’s the belief that matters.

It’s important for teachers, trainers, therapists, and generous hearts from all walks of life to spot chronic excuse makers, so we don’t waste our efforts on someone who has no intention of changing. Before I understood this, I poured so much precious energy into animated dissertations on toe-touching, shoulder mobility, hip rotation and the like, trying to convince the unconvincible that they were indeed flexible enough to do yoga.

Even when I took someone through an exercise that showed them how they were indeed flexible, my efforts failed. Why? Because their mind was made up!

As it turns out, some people have learned to use excuses as a way to get attention and energy from unsuspecting, generous souls. Unfortunately, this energy is wasted, like putting gas in a car that has no engine, because the person has no real desire to change. This leaves the giver depleted and the receiver right where they were, blissfully basking in their bed of excuses.

Having made that distinction, what follows is for those of you with a willingness to change. Not your body, though that will come soon enough, but first we have to work on your mind. With few exceptions, your body can only be as willing as your mind. If you’re still reading, you must have learned somewhere along the way, as I did, that willingness is the harbinger of possibility, so here we go.

Yoga 101

Let’s start with a little overview on yoga. Along with yoga’s rise to popularity in the west, a morass of marketing, designed to sell expensive clothing and studio memberships, depicts yoga practices geared to make you sweat, give you a workout, and the body you’ve always wanted, all to the backdrop of loud music.

Yoga is a big word, and I would be doing you and me a disservice to say I knew what “it” is. For the sake of constructive conversation, I can share some helpful jumping off points that I’ve found useful.

Yoga can be thought of as a noun and a verb. As a noun, it describes the unity and essence of everything, as a verb it describes the practices that help us connect with the awareness of the essence and unity of all.

One of the main texts on yoga, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, describes yoga as “…the practice of quieting the mind.” This same text lays out an eightfold system to assist the practitioner in achieving that. One of these practices is asana, or yoga posture. While current perception has it that yoga is yoga postures, yoga posture is only an eighth of the whole yoga pie.

Since the flexibility argument is nearly always referring to yoga poses (or asana – words which I’ll use interchangeably), let’s center our focus here for a bit.

Using the Sutras as our guide, we learn that asana is about finding energetic balance between two different forces—the forces of steadiness and ease, or strength and flexibility. Knowing this is crucial! And not knowing it is often detrimental, and leads to strain, injury, and self-condemnation.

This simple principle relieves us of the pressure of trying to make the pose look a certain way, and makes yoga poses accessible to everyone. One of my master teachers always reminds us that we are looking for the best version of the pose for our body at that particular moment in time; as opposed to trying to make our body mold itself to the way we think the pose is supposed to look based on a concept.

Physics and the New Science of Stretching

Basic physics tells us that an atom is 99.99999% empty space. When people say they are not flexible, this points to a feeling of constriction or lack of space wherever their tight zone is. But if our bodies are made of atoms and atoms are mainly space, then what causes tightness or lack of space? Is it matter or mind?

This is where new research in bio-mechanics sheds light. Whereas we once envisioned our muscles like taffy that we could stretch through effort, with the goal being to make short muscles longer; we now understand that stretching is not so much about the physicality of our muscles but about the nervous system that controls them.

The brain which controls the nervous system is a survival mechanism whose sole aim it is to keep us safe. The brain interprets familiar movements or body positions as safe ones. Anything new sends a threat signal to our muscles causing constriction. The way around this is to go to the edge of your stretch enough that the nervous system starts to warm up to the movement and gradually allows more range of motion.

The approach toward stretching that I’ve observed in the past is one of strain, pulling, and effort to get past the edge. No pain, no gain.

My work involves guiding people away from strain and toward their breath, and ultimately to an awareness of how the area they are stretching is connected to and affecting the rest of the body—especially their spine. Often, it’s a completely different area of the body keeping the target zone from stretching.

For example, in a seated forward fold (paschimottanasana), the tendency is to fixate on the hamstrings, because that’s usually where most people feel the resistance most. What happens next is the individual grabs their shins or feet (barely), rolls back on their sitz bones, and rounds the upper back, completely avoiding the hamstrings and the connection between the backs of the legs and the back of the torso.

A more constructive way to do this stretch is to elevate the buttocks on a blanket or pillow if needed to allow the student to roll forward on their sitz bones and gain length through the lower back. And rather than straining to reach the feet, the student wraps a yoga strap or towel around the bottoms of their feet and holds that.

These adjustments in support already bring a calmness to the nervous system and allow the student to connect with their breathing. I’ve witnessed huge shifts in range of motion in one session from working this way. As students learn to visit their edge and relax into it. rather than try to get beyond it, the range of motion increases rapidly.

Be sure to watch the short video below to see these principles in action!

What about the other two “abilities?”

Let’s End the Mobility Versus Stability Debate