There are a few things that I find myself repeating to people interested in yoga or to new students. The first thing people say to me is “I’m not flexible.” My answer to that is you don’t have to be flexible, it’s about becoming flexible. Closely related to that is “I can’t do ____ (fill in with any yoga pose).” Again, it’s not about that. I choose not to do a lot of the “tricky” poses for reasons that will be discussed later. Lastly, I hear that the teacher had them do something they didn’t like or that hurt. My response is that you don’t have to do every single pose the teacher offers. It’s your body and your practice; you know what you are comfortable doing. I tell my students they don’t get extra points for doing everything I say, except when it comes to safe alignment; outside of that, take care of your own body.
Yoga is a lifestyle practice that has been around for many, many years. There is great wisdom behind the philosophy that is not learned overnight. I do my best to explain my experience below based on my current understanding of what I have learned as I continue to study yoga.
1. You don’t have to be flexible.
It’s about becoming flexible.
Flexibility is not a prerequisite to take a yoga class. Neither is being a certain weight, height, gender, color or age. (Disclaimer: You do need to be healthy enough to engage in physical exercise, please consult your physician with any concerns.) A favorite quote of mine: “If you can breathe, you can do yoga.” Yoga asana, the flow through physical postures, is only one element of YOGA. Being able to touch your toes, bending in half, is not what it’s all about.
Yoga asana (or hatha) is a practice in mind-body-breath connection. If you can breathe, you can learn to listen to your body and calm your mind, even releasing pain and tension. Erich Schiffmann teaches in “Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving Into Stillness:”
As you free your body and become more flexible, you not only restore lost movement, you actually erase all the tensions and internal conflicts that would otherwise accumulate and eventually erupt as pain. The more flexible you are, the harder it is for pain to lodge in your body.
When I get stressed, my shoulders tense and round forward, it becomes difficult to breathe deeply, resulting in being tense and guarded; it then transforms into a backache or headache, eventually leading to grumpiness because of discomfort. Finding compassion or perspective is difficult from a place of discomfort or pain. I cause more pain by not being patient with my situation, and lose sight that there may be other solutions to the “problem” that is causing the stress in the first place. In order to free up my mind, I need to free up my breath; and to free up my breath, I need to free up my body. I take my body to the mat (or a clean, quiet space) and rest in child’s pose to calm and ground my body. I will continue through cat-cow spinal rolls to downward facing dog to invite movement and flexibility into the spine and length to the back. To open the chest and relax the shoulders I will spend time in supported fish pose, focusing my breath and awareness at heart center, breathing deeply in and out of my nose. Sometimes I will choose to rest in savasana (corpse pose). After my body is relaxed, it is ready to meditate or practice pranayama, breath work. Breath meditation is the easiest for calming, alternate nostril breath for balancing, or a guided relaxation to further relax the body and mind.
The “problem” may not have gone away but I’m able to come back to it with a clearer mind and possible inspiration from practicing yoga and meditation. Being flexible is more than being able to touch your toes, it’s being able to see the possibilities in any situation, on or off your mat, and allowing space for inspiration that comes to a clear, calm mind.
On the flip side, being too flexible – hyperflexible – is also a problem. Just because you can touch your toes, doesn’t mean you should. Yoga is about healing, unfortunately, many people are getting yoga related injuries due to hyperflexibility and not practicing safe alignment or muscle engagement. Personal story, recently I was beginning to have SI and low back pain. As I researched, I learned that by forcing my body to become too relaxed (i.e. not engaging core muscles appropriately) I was stressing ligaments rather than stretching muscles. I also learned that my low back has a deep natural curve; the cue to “tuck my tailbone” was causing harm and deep backbends were crunching my low back.
2. Not about looks and tricks (although they can be fun).
It’s about creating strength so that you feel strong and light.
In my opinion, many of the misconceptions and fear about yoga come from the photos that are seen on magazine covers, internet searches, and social media sites. Typically, the model shown, is a person who has a natural, body-accessible ability to do the chosen pose and she is usually a thin, beautiful white women. Now, I am a naturally thin white women, I do fall into the stereotype but that doesn’t mean I can do every. single. pose. As I explained above, my deep natural low back curve requires a lot of core muscle strength to do deep backbends safely (and I do them rarely). Building core strength is something EVERY SINGLE yogi must do before attempting any “big, fancy” yoga pose. Those poses are the cherry on top after all the work done before, sometimes coming after years of practice.
Now I’m not saying to NEVER do the more challenging pose, I am encouraging you to come from a place of strength and lightness. This quote from Erich Schiffmann sums up how I feel about what your practice “looks” like:
When you feel tired and weak, you also feel heavy. […] When you feel energetic and strong, however, you feel light, and life doesn’t seem so difficult. […] A consistent yoga practice will make you strong and light.
The whole tone of your body will change as your strength increases. You will have an easier time handling your own body weight. You will feel sturdier and more sure of yourself. You will have a lighter step […] work to increase your strength.
When you have your strength and lightness, it’s easier and more fun to play with the fancy inversions, or those challenging arm balances, and even a big backbends. But don’t do them until your body is ready. It will and can vary from day to day what “big” pose you can do. It’s okay.
3. No extra points for doing everything I say.
It’s about your experience.
I used to think that becoming a true yogi meant that I would start with a gentle class and work my way up to a power class. I used to (sometimes still do) feel frustrated when I can’t keep up with the class; those times when my arms start to shake in downward dog or my legs are weak during warrior II.
However, there is a certain level of respect to follow when coming to a public class. Showing up to a class and doing your own entire practice may be distracting, and rude, to the others in the room who came for a community spirit.
You do have the option to rest in child’s pose when you need to, or to skip that extra flow through Chaturanga Dandasana. If you aren’t feeling head stand, then choose an option like legs-up-the-wall (one of my favorites). Usually a teacher will offer up the options, but if she doesn’t, listen to what your body is telling you and do that. Do what you can to stay with the intention the teacher has set for the class while maintaining a safe practice for yourself. Sometimes that means ignoring a cue that doesn’t seem right to you, like I mentioned above, I now ignore the cue to “tuck your tailbone” and instead hear “engage your core.” (Fun trick: to “engage your core” exhale “ha” like you were about to laugh; it works like a charm.)
How do you know what your body is telling you? Your breath. The moment you have lost the ability to breathe, you have lost your practice. So back off to a place where you can breathe and be in the pose, or rest. It’s easy to do but difficult on the ego. But it really is all about the breath.
When the breath wanders the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still, and the yogi achieves long life. Therefore, one should learn to control the breath.
-The Hatha Yoga Pradipika
I hope that helps newbies feel more comfortable about joining a class. I hope that experienced yogi’s find inspiration to better their practice.
Disclaimer: This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Please consult your physician before engaging in a new physical exercise.