The number one excuse for not doing yoga that I hear all the time is “I’m not very flexible”. Well guess what? Neither was I.
I know that many people assume yogis are naturally flexible, but they aren’t. I’m not an ex-gymnast or dancer. I did handstands and cartwheels as a kid but that’s about it. You probably think this is me as I write this…
You’ll hear me say all the time in class that ‘flexibility is a by-product of yoga’. A by-product is something that’s produced in the process of making something else. What this means is that it’s not a pre-requisite and it’s not the end result either, it just happens along the way. We become flexible on our yoga journey, the journey isn’t about becoming flexible. One of the biggest barriers to our flexibility is not our short arms or tight hips, but our mindset. Our mind is rigid and tight. It is often fixed on these pre-conceived ideas we have of what yoga should be. The thing is, being able to sit/lie still is more like ‘real’ yoga than some of the gymnastic feats that people often attribute to yoga. With so much yoga porn out there (pictures online of scantily clad people, doing impossible poses in exotic locations), one can easily be misguided as to what constitutes real yoga – anyway, I digress.
Mental flexibility is the way in which we can re-arrange our thinking and shift our perspective. No longer getting stuck on one idea, belief or perspective. It’s an attitude, a habit. As we get older we tend to get more stuck in our ways as we conform to our beliefs and stories we tell ourselves, creating our reality through our way of thinking. But we have a choice. Just as we age, our posture can worsen and we can slump and hunch our back, eventually shortening our spine; or or we can actively work on improving our posture, straighten up, change the way we hold ourselves to maintain mobility and flexibility of the spine – reaping the benefits into old age. The same applies to our mind. Our perspective can shrink, we can become fixed in a certain position and we can feel it’s impossible to change because that’s just who we are. Or we can maintain mental flexibility, see things from various perspectives, overcome habitual patterns and adapt to new situations.
So the mentality of not being flexible enough to practice yoga is one that needs to shift. In order to learn anything new we need to start with an open mind, what’s often called a beginner’s mind. When we have no pre-conceived ideas about how things ‘should’ be, we are often more receptive to the message and the lesson. How does your idea of what yoga ‘should’ be interfere with your experience? Do you get disappointed or frustrated that your toes are out of reach because you think you ‘should’ be doing better? Or do you enjoy watching your body open and transform over time? The difference may just be our attitude, our mental flexibility. Our yoga practice is a journey to ourselves. It is not a race to see who gets there first; each of us have different anatomy, injuries and issues. The intention of the physical poses is to rid our body of tension and stress so that we can sit still in meditation and contemplate bliss. Who cares if you can touch your toes? The goal isn’t the toes, it is to be comfortable in our body, inhabiting our skin. The highest form of yoga is meditation and the ‘ultimate’ yoga pose is lotus or padmasana.
One of the joys of our practice is observing our own transformation, both physically and mentally. For those who can’t touch their toes, you will notice the transformation much sooner than a gymnast will. You will feel the benefits earlier than a dancer will. You will experience more satisfaction when you attain a pose because you’ve worked hard to get there and now you can be proud of yourself for the achievement.
Yoga doesn’t come naturally to me. It is something I work at because I’m interested in feeling good. By the way, I can’t touch my toes first thing in the morning, my core is not that strong, I can’t do a handstand and my first down dog of the day is hard…