"I am just not flexible enough for yoga" is not unlike claiming "I am just not articulate enough to speak." We hear excuses like this over and over again, and sometimes there is no convincing those who have yet to try a physical yoga practice that anyone and everyone is capable of practicing asana.
Where there is a will, there is a way, and having that will means choosing to remove the blinders that might be narrowing the perception of what is and is not feasible. All we need to do is shift perspectives and get a little creative.
Teachers have students' best intentions at heart, but in group classes we just do not have the bandwidth to be with each and every student for every pose. We do what we can to thoughtfully instruct and assist when possible, but ultimately the act of being mindful enough to take good care of the body is up to the practitioner themselves.
To our knowledge, the student-teacher relationship began mostly as a one-on-one practice. Today's society obviously poses much different circumstances. If a student has not, will not, or is not able to have a private session with a teacher for one reason or another, it is not always easy for them to know what to do during those confusing moments in class in regards to flexibility. It can be frustrating, disheartening, and can also cause injury if students are not able to figure out how (or why) to back out of their pose in the interest of keeping the body safe.
That being said, many of us have read or heard stories and studies about how asana can result in tremendous benefits, which of course includes increasing flexibility in both the body and mind over time. If we are patient enough to explore the path of self-inquiry inside and out, we might notice the difference as we continue to come to the mat with equal amounts of challenge, compassion, awareness, and lightheartedness.
Here are eight helpful tips for those moments when you or someone you know are feeling intimidated and or too inflexible to go to yoga class:
1. Practice compassion.
When we enter into any situation with limiting expectations attached to emotions, we may block ourselves from fully experiencing our experience. Ahimsa refers to non-harming, which we can execute by being open to the moment and patiently watching our yoga practice unfold instead of expecting ourselves to immediately understand every single thing about yoga. Just like our minds and bodies, yoga is a constant, evolving, ever-shifting practice, and it is most certainly not a competition.
2. Forward fold.
Sometimes we think that touching our toes is a measure of our flexibility/capability, when really all we need to do is bend the knees evenly (with equal weight distribution in the center of each foot) to let the spine drape over the thighs and passively allow the fingers to hang toward the floor. It is not worth it to reach for dear life to touch the fingertips to the ground, which unnecessarily cranks the back, shoulders, neck, and hamstring muscles into undesirable strain. Yoga is a balance of effort and ease—very important to remember when overexerting one or multiple parts of the body.
3. Befriend the props.
Props offer amazing feedback and are wonderfully useful for days when you feel extra tight. For example: Blocks under the hands will help bring the floor higher up to you when you feel it is too far of a reach, straps help to create more space if you cannot yet clasp the hands behind the back in certain postures, or if you are not yet comfortable bending forward over the legs in seated postures (i.e., hook the strap around the ball of the foot and hold a piece of the strap in each hand to assist).
Blankets are helpful boosters when you feel like your back is very rounded in seated forward bends or when sitting upright in a cross-legged position. Play around with props and do not be afraid to use them in class—they are not a crutch unless we make them one. Until you gain flexibility, or if you are just "having a day," enjoy the unconditional assistance that props can offer.
4. Cultivate a sense of stability and evenness.
If you feel like you are overworking your back to touch your toes in a forward bend, refer to tip No. 2 and bend the knees, then bring attention to your equal weight distribution and even space all around your torso. If an instructor tells you to step forward to a low lunge from downward dog, or to step back to a lunge from a forward fold, take several steps instead of one big step to maintain your balance. If you are asymmetrical or balancing on one foot/leg/on your hands this is especially important.
How can you find a sense of stability when your body is uneven? How can you reach long through your limbs while remaining connected and grounded to the floor using your centralizing core muscles? Explore and investigate the sense of opposition by noticing how it feels to ground down and lift up, reinstating a delicious amount of space in the joints and limbs (and mind).
5. When in doubt, back out.
Asana postures are a step-by-step process, hence the development of vinyasa or a "flow"-style practice to prepare for and transition into poses. So if, for example, the instruction from a standing position is to fold your torso forward over your legs and put the hands on the floor, you have several options: Bend the knees and stand evenly on the feet or take blocks at any height underneath the hands in order to keep the back from overworking.
Blocks can also be used under the hands in poses like low or twisting lunges when you cannot yet comfortably reach the floor: If the instruction in a twisting lunge is to hook the opposite elbow outside of the thigh and that is too deep for you, simply lift the torso higher and just hook the forearm or wrist, or take the twist with your bottom hand on a block placed under your shoulder instead of hooking the arm in any way. If downward dog is too much, bend the knees in the pose or come to puppy dog (below). Backing out of a posture does not mean copping out of it; sometimes taking a more intelligent route requires stepping back a bit to clarify what is best for your body.
Make sure you can breathe and that the breath can flow smoothly, in whatever pose you are practicing. This comes with practice and time but is something to continually pay attention to. If you find yourself holding your breath, first try breathing calmly in the posture. If this is too intense, refer to the tip above and gently back out until you can inhale/exhale with more ease. Nostril breathing, if available to you, is more calming than breathing through the mouth (unless it is instructed, or you just need a good sigh).
7. Have fun.
Do not be afraid to try something new, even if it is uncomfortable at first. It is not about winning or losing, and it is good for both the brain and body to feel out of our element or challenged sometimes. One of my very wise and skilled teachers, Rodney Yee, says to "let pain be your teacher." This is not to say we should always be in pain; it is a means of reminding ourselves to look within, feel what we feel, and learn from the sensations our bodies are experiencing instead of always trying to quickly change them.
8. Pay attention.
Yoga is the practice of coming back to yourself and your experience, over and over again. Another teacher of mine, Nikki Costello, says that "the mission is the same," which is simply to keep practicing coming back to the light, truth, or clarity—whatever that means to you. If and when you feel like you cannot hold downward dog when you first start a yoga practice because your hamstrings are going to pull, practice pratipaksha bhavanam by approaching the situation from a new perspective and bend the knees for more relief, or take puppy dog by lowering onto the shins with the knees over the hips and keeping the torso/arms extended like downward dog. In other words: Keep investigating your body and mind and what is true or clear for you in that moment. There is no "can't" in yoga; there is just a different way of perceiving things and acting accordingly in order to benefit your own unique body and experience.
Sometimes in the asana practice we do have to push ourselves to our edge; the result can surprise us in regards to what we are or are not capable of. It does not mean we are more or less advanced if we are not feeling flexible enough to arrive in a full expression of a posture.
The point is not to look like the old-school teachers or "Insta-famous" yogis in everything we do. The point is to pay attention to our bodies and act with intelligence in lieu of reacting with frustration.
How do you deal with the days when you feel inflexible physically and mentally, and what supports you in stepping into a new perspective?Peace, love, and flexibility.