I Am Not a Pretzel: A Twist on Flexibility
My goal in life is to put my leg behind one ear, then behind the other ear and then wrap it around my neck… Just kidding! I am not Mister Fantastic from The Fantastic Four, and my bold guess is that neither are you.
So let’s take a closer look at flexibility and bust some myths around it.
Comparison: Super-Flexi Teachers & #Instayogis.
Have you ever attended a class and started comparing yourself with a fellow yogi with greater flexibility than yours? Have you ever pushed yourself deeper and deeper into a pose ignoring the desperate cries of help from your hip or hamstring? Have you ever felt frustrated gazing at the bendy yoga teacher flowing undisturbed from lizard pose (utthan pristhasana) to splits to impossible backbends?
Well, this defeats the purpose of a yoga class, doesn’t it?
It is a little sad that we associate yoga with the almost supernatural photos of yogis bent like a pretzel, a lot of whom have a history in gymnastics or dancing or are naturally extremely flexible. Those are beautiful and artistic photos -- I too enjoy admiring the wonderful potential of the human body -- but they send out very specious messages:
You must be flexible in order to practice yoga.
You “become” an actual yogi once you are flexible.
You will “get there” if you practice yoga.
Feeling demoralized already? Please don’t, because none of the above applies to actual range of motion.
Good to Know.
Flexibility increases the quality of life and has a lot of health benefits. It is influenced by many factors, such as gender, age, genetics, weather and it even differs from one day to the other. In spite of the aforementioned factors, which are out of our control, we do have a say in this (hurray!) and can increase our flexibility through regular, consistent and sustained practice.
Absolutely, your flexibility improves with practice and the feeling you get when you realize that your heels touch the ground in squat pose (malasana) for the first time is heavenly. But, I’m sorry to break it to you, there are still some things you will never be able to do. It is not because of lack of desire, ambition or consistency, it’s because your anatomy doesn’t allow it. You can actually feel when anatomically (e.g. because of bone alignment or shape) your body is not able to go further, as opposed to when there is room for more.
One the other hand, we have different shapes and our proportions are not necessarily the same as the ones of the dummy in the anatomy class. You might have longer arms than I do, which means that even if we have the same leg length and hamstring flexibility you will be able to bring your arms lower than me without being more flexible.
As in any case in this life, the biggest gift you can give to yourself is to know yourself, honor your strengths and your limitations. Remember, yoga is (also) about acceptance and honoring your beautiful and perfect self, as is.
What To Be Careful About.
You will often hear your teacher talking about “knowing your edge.” No one is in your body but you, so you are the only one who knows how deep to go in a pose. As soon as you feel a tingling sensation or shooting pain, do yourself a favor and come out of the pose. As long as you feel that juicy sensation in your muscle, you’re in the stretching heaven, baby!
If you do hot yoga, be mindful that warmed up muscles allow you to get deeper into the poses. Assess how you feel after your muscles have cooled down and decide if the depth of the poses was right for you. Always stay connected to the signals that your body sends you.
Know the difference between:
A juicy stretch that doesn’t go past your current “edge,” as opposed to the tingling feeling or shooting pain, when you’ve gone too far.
An edge that can be pushed further through practice, as opposed to a limit due to anatomical factors.
It’s All About the Benefits.
If you remember one thing out of this article, let it be this: each of us gets the benefits of a pose at different depths of that pose. Please read that again.
Whether you can or cannot put your palms on the floor in forward fold (uttanasana), you still get the calming benefits of the inversion (when the heart is above the brain) and the hamstring stretch. Whether you can come onto your forearms in lizard pose or need blocks for support, you still get the releasing effects of the hip-opener. Whether you can do wheel or “only” baby-cobra, you’re still stretching the front side of your body and opening your heart chakra.
It really doesn’t matter how flexible you are, you get the benefits of a pose in particular and yoga in general, as long as you play at your personal edge. Isn’t that great news?
What Happens When We Stretch?
Muscles, ligaments and bones influence the flexibility and stability of the joint. Stretching lengthens the muscles and increases the range of motion of the respective joint. Bone shape does not change (it better not), while ligaments have limited stretching ability and little elasticity (meaning they might not be able to return to their initial shape, i.e. being damaged permanently if overstretched). We are thus left to work with the muscles, and that’s what we’re targeting in yoga.
So Then, How Do We Increase Flexibility Safely?
1. Go gradually.
Please do not "jump" into a stretch just because you know you did it in the previous yoga class, last week or when you were a child. Flexibility differs even from one day to the other, depending on our posture and positions (e.g. if you sat all day or cleaned the house), sleep, and even our mental/psychological state. Ease your way into your stretch slowly and mindfully (as cliché as it sounds) without releasing the whole weight of your body onto that joint. Also make sure you have a way out of the pose, i.e. you are able to get yourself out of the pose without external help.
2. Try different variations.
Teachers usually suggest different variations for each pose to accommodate everyone, as much as possible. In extended side-angle pose (utthita parsvakonasana) you may want to place your forearm on your thigh or the palm on on a block, or you may want to take the bind behind your back. Ask yourself: What works for me today? What does my body need today? Trust the infinite wisdom of your body instead of what your ego temporarily desires.
3. Come in & out of a pose several times.
Your breath is truly one of the most powerful tools you have, it’s almost miraculous. When in a spinal twist, use your inhale to come to center and lengthen the spine and your exhale to twist a little more – repeat several times, until you settle in the pose. For a side stretch, inhale to come to neutral, exhale to lean to the side – repeat. With every exhale you are creating more space, coming deeper into the stretch. Be patient, be kind to yourself and send your breath to the parts you’re working on. You will be able to stretch more deeply.
4. Increase depth throughout your practice.
Start with mild stretches and work your way up to the deeper poses. For your hips for example, you may want to start with a yin pose like supine butterfly (supta baddha konasana) supported by two blocks, then come to seated malasana, followed by a seated figure four adjusting the intensity of the stretch by moving the foot of the opposite leg towards the buttocks. You can progress to different variations of lizard pose, frog (mandukasana) on each side alternatively and lastly allow yourself to come into full frog, once your body is open and joints are warmed up.
5. Engage & release.
I find this yet another proof of how amazing our bodies are. I will not go into details of how this works, but if you engage the antagonist muscle (the opposite muscle) of the agonist muscle (the one you want to stretch), the latter will stretch more. For example, if in forward fold you engage your quadriceps muscle (antagonist), your hamstring (agonist) will lengthen and will be able to stretch more. This happens because our genius body, in order for a muscle to be able to engage and contract, relaxes the opposite muscle. Try it out, you’ll love it!
6. Invite more flexibility into your life.
Flexibility works two ways: when doing yoga you become more "flexible" in your life off the mat. At the same time, tightness in the body might be a reflection of rigidity, judgement, and/or lack of acceptance in an area of your life, such as the relationship to yourself, a relationship to another person, a situation, your past… Ask yourself: In what areas of my life can I invite more flexibility, kindness, acceptance and love? You might notice not only a release in the muscles and an increase in your flexibility, but also an overall improvement of your state of well-being.
Flexibility vs. Hypermobility.
For the ones of us who seem very flexible from the outside, we may want to test our hypermobility with the Beighton Score. It is actually not desirable to be hypermobile, as this reduces the stability of the joints and can lead to injuries. To be clear: I score 9 out of 9 at this test, indicating hypermobility, so I need to be extremely careful of how deep I come into a pose, especially when I practice yoga in a hot room.
My point is that each of us should be aware of our body. What applies for one, mustn’t necessarily apply for everyone else. Stop comparing yourself to others, listen to and trust your internal compass. No one knows better than you what is good for you and what your body needs.
A Feel-Good Article Deserves a Feel-Good Conclusion.
I was once in a class where a gracious lady was able to take an incredible bind of the leg behind her back. We all admired her pose and I could sense a love-hate mixture of feelings in the room: love for the beauty and ability, hate for the perceived inability of the observers.
Then our teacher said: “Being witnesses of this, it means that a part of you can do this pose, as well. Yoga means unity and we are all one. When someone does something, everyone else is part of it, too. Well done, everyone!” No comment… just sounds of jaws falling on the floor. My take-away is: embrace, encourage, support and celebrate the success of others, as their success is yours. Be happy when someone achieves something, because it means it’s possible, it means you are part of it, it means it’s your success, too.
Remember, yoga is for everybody and every body. Yoga is more of a mind and heart set, a way of life. You become a yogi once you begin practicing and commit to your practice, irrespective of what you can or cannot do.
Flexibility is not a goal in itself, it is rather a beautiful by-product, which, indeed, increases the quality of your life and has wonderful health benefits. It is not about “getting somewhere,” but rather uncovering the journey that is already in you. Honor where you are right now and trust the process. You are already perfect and exactly where you need to be at this moment.
NERD alert: Watch Physics Girl break down the science of flexibility.
Hyper-mobile, far-from-perfectly-shaped or insanely strong, but always smiling yoga teacher, Diana Firican believes that yoga classes need to be inviting, joyful and empowering.
She is a life coach and founder of the AHA Community, where we believe good health, continuous learning, close relationships and unconditional love are the recipe for a fulfilled life. We know that this can be achieved by you and you and you, when you have an open mind, an open heart, the right tools and the right people to support.