The most common (and unsubstantial) excuse people use in order to avoid attending my yoga class is, “I’m not flexible.” Stop there. Before going further, let’s get one thing straight – yoga is not about flexibility, its a damn good perk though. The reason I say this excuse is unsubstantial is because it is misguided, reflects ignorance of what yoga is truly about, and (please don’t be offended) it reveals insecurity. Before you stop reading this and move on, let me explain:
First, if you have not maintained a yoga practice or any similar type of physical activity then it is a given that your muscles are going to be tight. Isolated weight training, cross fit, cycling, sprinting – these activities are repetitive and restrict range of motion in the muscles they utilize. Yoga trains muscles in a balanced manner, conditioning them for performing daily tasks. That is why you need a yoga practice. I watch looks of horror cross people’s faces when I invite them to my yoga class. Images of twisted pretzels and straining hamstrings flash across their eyes because that is what the commercial image of yoga looks like. By saying that you “can’t” practice yoga because you are not flexible, you also reveal that you know nothing about yoga, which leads me to my next point.
Yoga is a discipline rooted in strength, not flexibility. The poses, also called asanas, condition and strengthen the smaller muscle fibers. They tighten the connection between muscle and your body’s frame. Think of the long, sinuous tendons that connect the exterior, fleshy meat on a chicken leg to the leaner tendons that connect to the bones. The interior muscles are stronger and more taught. They are same as the muscles you are strengthening through yoga. That is partially why yogis are strong, but not necessarily bulky. Via strength, you then find the proper alignment for each pose and visa-versa. As you maintain proper alignment, you also condition the body, strengthen it, and prepare it for the next stage/variation of the pose. Nifty huh?
Think about it this way, you would not start a beginner climber on an advanced 5.12 route. Not only do they lack the strength, but the technique, muscle conditioning, mental awareness and control of their body… the list goes on. The same goes for a yoga pose. Take rajakopatasana, pigeon pose. It requires steady opening of multiple muscles in your hips: the psoas, quadriceps, glutes, hip flexors, etc. The first time you practice this pose, you will most likely feel incredibly off balance and tight. Over time you will open enough in the hips and have the core muscles to do galavasana, flying pigeon (pictured above). Natarajasana, dancer pose, is another variation of pigeon pose. It utilizes similar muscle groups, but instead of the arm balance variation or the seated variation, it is a standing balance. At least 20 separate groups of muscles work simultaneously in this pose. Careful training and conditioning will eventually allow the body to fully express and enjoy this pose. However, just like that 5.12, you might not get it perfectly each time – it is a project.
So remember this when you arrive on your mat for either the first or thousandth time – it is better to take a modified variation of a pose than to push your body into some contorted resemblance of a pose. Do NOT look at the other people in the class and try to recreate what they are doing because (need I say it?) their body is different from yours. Trust your body. If a pose feels painful, then modify. If it just feels uncomfortable, then stay there, breathe, and allow your body to learn.