Ask all the yoga teachers you know what is the first myth about yoga, and they will answer you in chorus: “I’m not flexible enough to do yoga”. Apparently, this is number one sentence/excuse yoga teachers hear from people who don’t practice and have any idea to even try it.
Honestly, I do understand why people say that. They probably saw some random pictures on the Internet of human pretzels performing positions they didn’t even imagine physically possible, and that’s what they think yoga is. How can I blame them for being scared to death of breaking their necks on the mat?
Hey, I’m not here to judge, it took me a few years myself to realise how true this is.
So now, let’s take a step back, and I’ll explain what yoga taught me about flexibility with my personal three embarrassing but enlightening experiences.
Location: Sydney and Milan
It was February 2013, and I was skyping with one of my best friends. I was telling her about my experience as a volunteer in an Australian yoga center, and the conversation went more or less like this:
Me:“So the news is that I started to practice yoga, and I love it!”
F: “Ah, that’s nice. I’ve seen some awesome pictures of Adam Levine doing yoga and man… I need to send them to you! I really could never do yoga. I have zero flexibility.”
Me: “Oh come on you are young, tall and thin, I’m sure you are more flexible than you think.”
A few months after this conversation and hours of yoga practice I went back to Italy and visited her. After hearing me talking about yoga for months, she decided to jump on the yoga mat and try to perform a few positions while I was assisting her.
Me:“Let’s start with something easy, the Sun Salutation.”
F:“Nice name. Let’s do it, but for the love of God remember that I’m like a tree, no flexibility and no coordination. Please be gentle!”
Me:”I’m sure you can do it. You’ll see it’s not that difficult.”
Can you already see where this is going? I’m sure you do.
The next thing I remember was me performing Uttanasana and easily touch the ground with my hands while she could barely reach her knees.
That whole experience (twenty minutes or so) was a disaster and when my friend screamed at me “I told you!“ I had nothing to reply.
Location: Rishikesh – India
It was November 2014, and I went to India for a couple of months to deepen my yoga practice and look for the best yoga teacher training course to join. I ended up falling in love with two teachers (don’t panic, it was just from the yoga point of view :)) and I decided to join both their classes every day.
One day, in the morning lesson, a big and loud group of Japanese women came inside the room breaking the pre-class quietness. From the way they talked and moved I understood they were all new to the yoga field, and I have to admit that I looked at them and thought “now I’m going to show you what a yogi is” (shame on me!).
Anyway, nearly at the end of the class the teacher invited us to perform a split. Oh boy, the split! As you probably understood from the first story, I am quite flexible, but the split is one of my nightmares. It is one of those positions I love and hate at the same time: I hate it because I can’t do it and I love it because it looks cool and I want to be able to do it.
Heading back to the point: while I was stuck in my personal way of doing the split, with twenty-something centimetres dividing me from the ground, I could see nearly all of the Japanese women doing a perfect split without even experiencing a tiny little bit of the physical and mental stress I was going through. So, who is the yogi now?
Location: Cronulla – Australia
It was nearly six months after I started practising and I decided to join a yoga studio a few kilometres away from where I lived because apparently, the teacher was excellent. And she was one of the best teachers I’ve ever met and even tough her classes were a bit repetitive I was enjoying every single moment of them. One evening she decided to make a change and gave us a Yin class. Now if you don’t know what Yin yoga is let me explain you in the most basic way I know: It’s a slow-paced style of yoga where the asanas are held for extended periods of time (that means five minutes, but it can be up to 20 minutes).
I didn’t’ exactly know what to expect before that class, but I am a curious person, and I was happy to give it a go. The teacher explained us every single posture and then suggested to close our eyes and focus on our bodies while she was talking to us.
I still remember that class as one of the best I’ve ever had. I went back home relaxed like I’ve never been before and excited about the idea of combining Yin with my home practice to increase my flexibility and finally achieve my goal: the split.
I downloaded a few eBooks, watched some videos and then I was ready to go. I started with 7 minutes in each position for a total of 7 asanas. After a couple of minutes in the first asana, I had a look at the clock and realised time was passing inexorably slow, but I’d just started, let’s be patient.
Thirty seconds later the only thing my mind was able to think was: “I can’t do it. My right hip is killing me. Seriously, how long have I been in this position?”
Not that long according to the clock but to me, it felt like ages. I didn’t give up and performed all the asanas I planned to do and repeated the exercise for one week before I gave up on Yin yoga.
Do you want to know what I’ve learnt from these three experiences?
I’ve always thought that thin people were automatically more flexible because they don’t have excess weight blocking their range of motion.
Let me tell you, WRONG!
I’ve met yoga teachers with years of experience and practice that cannot touch their toes, and I’ve met curvy people that can perform nearly any kind of asanas after a few months of practice.
What I found out is that flexibility is correlated to a few different factors like age, gender, physical activity habits and last but not least genetics.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that if you have a not-bendy body, you should stay away from yoga. I’m saying the opposite; don’t use your inflexibility as an excuse.
Yoga will eventually help you in a lot of different ways (you’ll sleep better, feel calmer and more concentrated and I could go on, but you get my point). Moreover, your body will get a huge benefit. You’ll improve your posture, strengthen your body and yes, there is also a chance you’ll increase your flexibility. And don’t forget that many forms of yoga regularly use props like blocks, straps, bolsters, sandbags and even partners to help people with different levels of elasticity.
Do not ever compare yourself with your yoga mates. Ever!
No two bodies are the same and deep down you know it. What you might don’t know is that every time we hit the mat, our body responds in a different way. The fact that you could perform a position in the morning doesn’t guarantee that you will be able to complete it in the evening or the following day. You are not getting worse or old; it’s reasonable, and it depends on many causes like your diet, your daily stress, the weather and so on.
Please don’t forget that the point of yoga is not about showing on the mat how good you can perform a position, it’s more about exploring what your body can and cannot do and accept it. Sure you can push yourself and improve your weak spots, but that will not transform you in a better yogi.
You’ll experience that a lot of people struggle with this concept and put themselves in competition with the rest of the class but don’t fall into the trap and leave your ego outside the mat.
The reason I gave up performing Yin Yoga at home is that I felt incredibly bored and couldn’t see such an improvement (or should I say miracle?) When I think about it now, with a few more years of yoga experience, I know that I gave up because I still had the competitive mindset I was talking about, but this time, the contest was with me.
I lacked patience, the one I needed to give my new yoga practice a real chance to have a relevant effect on my flexibility.
All the benefits I experienced in that first Yin class at the yoga studio were due to a fantastic teacher that could lead my mind in the right direction. At home I had no one helping me focusing on relaxing and enjoying the poses because I was just thinking, “maybe in a few days I’ll be able to do a split, and in a few months I will become a proper yogi/pretzel girl.”
That was not the right set of mind.
Do I still practice Yin Yoga? Yes, because I truly love it, and I decided to add a couple of Yin poses at the end of my yoga practice looking for an improvement in the way I perceive my body.
And if you are like me, you struggle accepting that there is something that your body can’t do, please don’t be too hard on yourself and do what I do in those moments: think about the headstand that you can do perfectly, about the pigeon pose you managed to do and about that amazing feeling you experience every time you step out the yoga mat. In my opinion, nothing can beat that, not even a split!
What about you? Don’t be shy and share you experience about yoga and flexibility!