Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Pep Talk for (Physically) Inflexible Yogis (& for those who think about doing yoga but don’t feel flexible enough for it)

OK. It may not matter to anyone else but me. But I’m going to begin with my own personal bombshell drop: I’ve been practicing yoga for years (more than I care to mention in this context) and still can’t do the splits. Or stick my foot behind my head. And, with my tight shoulders, an advanced pose like Eka Pada Viparita Dandasana (a.k.a., “Vip”)? – yeah, right, well, I’m thinking, maybe in my next life, if I’m lucky.

True, I know, for most of the population, just touching your toes would be a tremendous coup. But it’s hard not to measure yourself against your peer group – which, in my case, includes a lot of friends popping effortlessly into Vip. So, even though my beginning yoga students may think that I’m really flexible, I know that I’m really not – at least, not on the terms that matter to my often noisy ego.

But, hey, it’s just another opportunity to learn, right? So: here’s my Top 10 “Reasons Why it’s OK to be an Inflexible Yogi (or Aspiring Yoga Student)” – (drum roll, please):

1. Let’s start with the concrete, mundane, but very important fact that, on the whole, naturally inflexible bodies are less likely to get injured in yoga practice. Why? Our muscles and joints are more stable – much as we’d like to, we simply can’t throw our bodies into radical poses. That reduces the likelihood of having our muscles rip and tear, or joints thrown out of alignment.

2. The astute reader may have noticed the reference to “naturally inflexible” bodies. Pause for a moment and let that sink in. There is a natural, biologically determined range of flexibility. It’s not just that you are less dedicated – or less enlightened. 

The benefit here: if you’re naturally inflexible you have a vested interest in embracing this aspect of human diversity – sort of a biological multicultural cred booster . . .

3. Hmmm, nonetheless, 10 reasons is going to be hard. But here’s another: once we inflexible types do get in the habit of yoga, our bodies tighten up again so fast that we want to keep practicing every day! I skipped yesterday and can feel it in my body right now as I type – stiffness, contraction – and I want to get back to my mat simply to feel more physically open again. 

4. For those who get to the point of becoming yoga teachers, being physically inflexible may make it easier to connect with the many students coming in with similar issues – we know what it’s like to struggle with feeling inadequate because you can’t do some move that others around you can easily do.

5. Traditionally, Hatha yoga was always a bit suspect in the larger cannon of Indian yogic practices, as it too easily produces a preoccupation with the body that can knock you off your spiritual path. Well, we naturally inflexible types have a hard time being too proud about our bodies, at least in the context of the gung-ho yoga community, which is full of people doing really cool stuff that we can’t do. So, a bit of a built-in insurance policy against at least some of the temptations of the flesh . . . 

6. Help with Satya, or truth telling. As in, well all that’s fine enough, but really, I still wish that I could do a mad Vip.

7. More help with Satya: that’s so true that it’s hard for me to keep coming up with reasons about why it’s OK to be an inflexible yogi.

8. OK, only three more. Here’s an important one: as you get more advanced in yoga – on the internal experiential level, as opposed to the what-cool-poses-can-you-do level – it’s more and more all about using asana to process your emotions, access your subconscious, and connect with Spirit. You start to realize that really, how flexible you are doesn’t matter – at all. Being naturally inflexible gives you an added incentive to embrace that realization ☺.

9. I think of someone amazing like Matthew Sanford, an inspiring yoga teacher with paralysis due to a tragic car accident. I think of the untold millions of people struggling with basic survival issues every day. I get out of my egotistical box and am humbled to see how worrying about something as trivial as whether or not I can do Vip is a luxury that most people will never be able to afford.

10. Yoga is not gymnastics. The measure of a good practice has no correlation to the measure of your physical flexibility. There’s much bigger fish to fry. Anything that can help me keep coming back to the deeper dimensions of the practice is, really and truly, a blessing. Even when it’s something as ultimately trivial as physical flexibility, yoga enables me to learn how my limitations can become my teachers, and through that process, eventually if paradoxically evolve into strengths.

Note: Above image, the mantra of Avalokiteshvara, OM MANI PADME HUM, in Tibetan script on the petals of a lotus with the seed syllable HRI in the center, created by Christopher Fynn, 2008. 


  1. the ability to do certain poses -- i.e., flexibility -- has to do with the way our skeleton is put together.

    "yoga is all in the bones" is one of the favorite phrases of my teacher (one of my teachers) Paul Grilley, who I study yin yoga with. when I first started studying with him in 2003, it was like a light bulb went off over my head.

    I write extensively about the "yoga is all in the bones concept in my blog:


  2. Thanks, Linda. Your blog is really informative on this issue. I haven't studied with Paul Grilley yet, but would like to. I did take a short anatomy course with Ellen Heed, who is also a wonderful teacher. She emphasizes that people have natural differences in the elasticity of their connective tissue - some bodies more flexible, but prone to injury; others are less flexible, but have more natural stability in the joints.

  3. Thank you so much for the insight Linda! I`m a fitness instructor and can see myself wanting to be a yogi in the future (I practices probably 1-2 times a week as of right now). However, I feel intimidated becoming a yoga instructor because I`m not naturally flexible. I`m built like a sprinter!

    This post really has given me an awesome perspective on the world of yoga!