In reference to my previous blog “What is Yoga?” there are many misunderstandings of what Yoga really is. In this blog, I want to address the illusion that being as flexible as possible is the goal of yoga or that the most flexible person is the “best” yogi. This is a huge misunderstanding! Do not let images of overly flexible students deter you from yoga. I have heard so many people say, “I cannot do yoga because I am not flexible.” No, no, no! Not only is this insignificant to the journey of self discovery yoga offers, but there are also very real challenges to the hyper flexible student that do not get addressed. In fact, stiff students have some major benefits in yoga. I would like to examine this subject more closely.
You must keep in mind that the goal of yoga has little to do with external form. The goal of Yoga is Enlightenment, which is concerned with mind control and meditation. In my experience, I have discovered that this state of mind has the quality of equilibrium and equanimity. Balance seems to be an important quality to maintain mental stability. Of course, balance is a state that fluctuates in every moment, but I do believe it is a key to achieving a sense of inner peace.
There is a direct relationship between the physical practices of yoga and our mental patterns. I have learned that there is a point where trying to find more extreme movement can take you off the path towards Enlightenment or self realization because it is so wildly out of balance. It is too far to the extreme.
Being as flexible as possible should not be your goal as a Hatha Yoga practitioner. There is a point where your body might reach a maximum of healthy flexibility. At that point, it is important to maintain your practice and focus on directing your mind.
The truth is hyper flexible students sustain injury just as much if not more than a stiff student. The reason is because there is so little resistance in the body and a lack of strength and control to support the flexibility injury and pain is experienced. Being too flexible can de-stabilize your joints causing a lot of pain and discomfort in the body and possible long term damage. The solution is to make sure your strength is balancing your flexibility.
Being hyper flexible is not as glorious as it might appear. The work a highly mobile student must do on the mat is intense. David Williams, a Senior Teacher in the Ashtanga Yoga Lineage, said to me once, “flexibility is the same thing as fragility.” I have found this to be very true.
My advice to hyper flexible students is instead of trying to achieve greater movement which takes the mind into more extreme places, work towards stabilizing the joints by increasing the strength in the muscles surrounding the joints. Do not go to the end point of your possible movement. Instead, stop short of that point and stabilize the posture. This will bring greater fulfillment and help maintain long term health in your practice.
The other huge mistake that students make when trying to find more flexibility is when stretching is happening in the wrong places. Muscles can stretch more, especially if they learn to let go of unnecessary tension. However, ligaments and tendons should NOT stretch too much because they are supposed to hold bones in place. When ligaments and tendons stretch too much the body becomes too loose and bones begin to slide out of place. This is not a good thing and can cause permanent damage!
Obviously, there is no stretching to happen with cartilage or the meniscus either.
I am not suggesting that we do not work towards increasing openness in the body, but to a student that is already extremely flexible and open by nature, strength and proper control of movement is where the work is instead of opening more.
How does this relate to our deeper spiritual path? When a hyper flexible student reaches this point in their practice which is bound to happen eventually, this may be the point you ask, “How do I further myself in my yoga practice?” It is as if you have hit a plateau. To further and deepen body movement is not the answer, which can be daunting to someone highly mobile. “Now what?”
Well, you must search for new alternatives and directions and I mean this in both your physical movement and the way it relates to your life. “How do I continue to grow through my yoga practice?” In this scenario, more is not better, and this is where a deeper growth of spirituality is achieved.
I often tell my students, “when you have chosen a spiritual practice that is as physical as Ashtanga Yoga, your body has a lot to do with your lessons. I believe you chose this before coming into this world and your DNA carries your code and perhaps your Destiny.” The different body dimensions that practitioners have stimulates the various problem solving they must face which in turn relates to their particular life lessons.
From years of practice in a hyper flexible body I can safely say this….
This is a VERY different journey than being stiff. Imagine having NO resistance in your body. None, to very little and you keep hitting edges that hurt, that are painful, mostly because you lack BOUNDARIES.
Boundaries are a very positive thing and are so important in the maintenance of your emotional well being and your relationships with others. Lessons surrounding boundaries are related to deep issues of self-esteem. Having a difficult time saying “no” and knowing where to draw your line which is about self confidence and taking care of yourself properly. People pleasing may also fall under this category and always wanting to be “nice” so people will “like” you.
Not being able to say ‘no’ stems from a feeling that if you do not give a person in your life what they want you will lose this relationship. First, a relationship under this premise will never work, and second, this is clearly an issue of self esteem. I think this could also pertain to raising a child. Children like adults need to hear no sometimes. They want to know their boundaries. It is a healthy quality to any high functioning relationship.
These are not easy lessons. These are lessons in strength and will. Having enough love for oneself to draw your line, know when enough is enough, if someone does not respond positively to a healthy boundary, that might be an indication it would be a toxic relationship anyways.
I see this dynamic operating especially in a person who has been victimized sometime in their life. Strength work can be very positive in healing feelings of disempowerment and victimization. Operating in a “victim” mentality is not a productive place to be, especially if it is an old mind set being carried over from childhood. This also means it is deeply ingrained and the work is intense and heavy.
You can be too open both physically and mentally. When do you know you have reached that point? When you are so out of balance, it has become a detriment to your health.
In conclusion, there is a lot of psychological work we can do through our bodies. As a teacher, I relate my physical experience to my spiritual lessons and try to help my students unlock their own journey and heal.
Being stiff is healthy to some extent because you have a natural resistance in the body. This is good and your lessons may be very different than what I described earlier.
There is a saying in the Ashtanga Yoga Lineage, “Blessed be the stiff yogi because they learn yoga. The flexible student learns boga.” Although I understand what is being conveyed, I disagree with this quote.
In an over flexible body, movement comes so easy you are not always asked to go deeper, and it does not even touch you. However, the stiff student is in the present moment when those hamstrings start to scream when bending over!
As a hyper flexible practitioner and teacher, I say this….we do learn real yoga and our journey and life lessons are just as challenging as a practitioner in a stiff body. I do, however, recommend a skilled teacher because David Williams is right, there is a fragile quality to flexibility. Move forward with awareness, compassion, love, and respect for yourself on all levels.
Yoga is a path to help us increase self knowledge. There is something for everyone and everyone faces their own unique challenges. We all must travel our own pathway to reach truth but this is what is so exciting! Stiff, flexible, we all have much to learn and grow from. Best to do it together with a loving heart.
Owner, Director, Teacher – Ashtanga Yoga Center, Outer Banks, NC