The Flexible Journey
With pictures like this one, and the release of my DVD on yoga backbends, I have often been asked about my flexibility.
Is it natural? Did I develop it only from yoga? Is it genetic or anatomical? Was I flexible as a kid? Do I think others can achieve this?
When I say, “no”, “no” and “nope” I get some pretty surprised looks. I still remember when I was far away from the splits as well as the advanced backbends. I stretched upward and saw the ceiling only. It felt like entering a black hole.
Fast forward 30 years and I am more flexible at 40 than as a kid, a teen-ager or my early 20’s. Most people assume you can’t develop flexibility beyond a certain age. I don’t necessarily agree. My husband (who is not into yoga at all) witnessed me developing much more flexibility in my early 40’s than in my mid 30’s. We also have pictures to prove it.
From a recent e-mail, I was asked whether or not flexibility is something developed, genetic and/or accessible for everyone? Here are some of the most common questions I receive with my answers:
Do you attribute your flexibility mainly to the asanas?
There is no question that I developed this because of yoga. And when I say yoga it is not just the practice of the postures, but the entire system which includes breathing, meditation, relaxation and studying the scriptures.
Overall, I would say ‘yes’, I do attribute my flexibility to the practice, because I trained and practiced for hours and hours, which have turned into years of literally hard work. I think it is 'nice' to consider the notion of hidden flexibility, but having worked through the various stages of releasing blockages in my spine, hips, legs and shoulders, it was from a dedicated practice that lead to the physical flexibility.
What techniques you have learned from your teacher?
What made the difference for me was looking at the practice from beyond the physical level. I began to look inwardly at what was blocking me mentally and emotionally. I could see my back was not bending so working on the physical level alone was not going to help me. I made this connection very early on.
When I met Yogacharya Venkatesha, his teachings articulate what I already knew. He focused on working from the pranic (the level of energy). I was taught from the beginning to be with the postures and not taught to consider them as the be-all-and-end-all. It was emphasized I was using my body to work on my mind. I was not always successful with the later which is a life-time of exploration and more difficult than body training. And while I went to different teachers and studied books, my personal practice informed me the most. But my teacher taught me that.
Which ones are you teaching now?
I remind people to practice beyond the physical level. I say remind, because this is not something I can teach. It is inside of them (re: their own inner teacher waiting to be awakened). My role is to teach students how to breathe, to press at their edge and to go inside. Without these instructions you can force your body and get frustrated when it does not respond. It is a process, which needs to be emphasized.
The practice is an uphill battle, which is not a marketable truth. Many people don't really understand how much is required on ALL levels in order to become to achieve the flexible back (if that is what is truly desired).
Would you say that you were always a ‘bit' flexible?
There will always be arguments around the genetics of flexibility. Was I already pre-disposed, however, to being flexible? Hard to say for sure and no one can answer that. Had I chosen a totally different career I never would have developed my backbends.
Early on I was taught to apply the theory to the practice. When people see the extreme flexibility they have the idea it is natural. What is not visible is the struggle – the years of practice and not getting it right. In India I practiced hard and my teacher witnessed it. From the outside it might look like something magical happening. But there are no tricks. What there is – is your practice.
I do see a lot of very stiff people, and I'm sure they would benefit from your teachings, but would they ever get as flexible as you?
If the physical goal is flexibility alone then this is not going to happen to these extremes. As I mentioned, Yoga works when the theory of the practice is applied. For the postures to emerge there is a shift internally and mentally. It is mental determination over the body and purity of heart. The practice does not give up results easily. Getting frustrated and upset can be channelled into fuel for practice. It is easy to get down on yourself forgetting that the journey of moving through this is far more beautiful than reaching the top of the mountain.
I often ask the question what would change for yourself if your feet came to your head? Would you be happier? Calmer? More generous? Less bitchy? The fruit of the practice comes from abandoning reservations and practicing as consistently as the ancient texts speak about.
What’s the biggest lesson you learned?
The greatest lesson of yoga is learning to accept your body and its limitations. What I have learned is to work with myself and my various assets as well as shortcomings, and bring it all together. When you start doing this you don't look at a short torso and longer legs, and sigh. You figure out how it all works because it is the only thing you have. I have personally learned to appreciate all pains and set-backs as well as limitations (doing this all the time is the next lesson).
If you remember the martial artist Bruce Lee, he said he had a leg that was one inch shorter than the other! He used this to develop a better kick over his opponents!