During yoga teacher training, my instructor told a story about a class she was leading. She referenced two students in the class. One was a young woman, maybe early twenties, lean and bendy. The other was an older man, stiff and awkward. The pose was Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide Legged Forward Fold). The woman folded in half with ease, head to the floor, spine and legs perfectly straight. He struggled to fold halfway, barely reaching the stacked blocks. She breathed naturally, a bored look on her face, as she picked at her toenail polish, waiting to be cued to the next posture. His concentration in the moment was painted on his expression. You could hear his Ujjayi breath as he struggled (with bent knees) to find length in his spine, not waiting for the next thing. So, what’s yoga and who was practicing it?
If being flexible and moving your body into a particular shape defined yoga, then all gymnasts, ballet dancers and cirque du soleil performers would be fully enlightened beings. There’s nothing wrong with practicing asana (yoga poses) as a fitness discipline. Different types of yoga offer many fitness benefits including strength, flexibility, mobility and even cardio, in some cases. Yoga, however, is so much more than Sun Salutations and Warriors. In fact, asana is just one of the eight limbs that make yoga a complete mind-body-spirit system. (1. Yama - moral disciplines, 2. Niyama - positive duties or observances, 3. Asana - posture, 4. Pranayama - control of energy through breathwork, 5. Pratyahara - withdrawal of senses, 6. Dharana - concentration, 7. Dhyana - meditation, 8. Samadhi - bliss, enlightenment, self-realization.) This ancient Eastern technology aims to bring its practitioners to a state where worldly attachments are left behind, and one’s true nature is remembered.
Reducing yoga to just asana is like reducing strength training to just biceps curls, but since we need to answer the question at hand, let’s talk about asana. Asana is the third limb of yoga and refers to the physical practice of yoga, the poses. If you take a yoga class, mostly like you are really taking an asana class. There might be a little breathwork (Pranayama - 4th limb) and possibly a few minutes of meditation (Dhyana - 7th limb), but for the most part, Western yoga classes are highly centered around the physical body and moving the body in and out of postures. It makes sense that your perception of your body’s flexibility might determine whether or not you take up the practice, especially when we live in a culture informed by social media influencers doing backbends on the top of mountains and calling it yoga.
The yinyoga website says it best: “When you come into the pose, drop your expectations of how you should look or be in the pose. There is a destructive myth buried deep inside the Western yoga practice. This myth is that we should achieve a model shape in each pose. That is – we should look like some model on the cover of a yoga magazine. To this end we use our body to force ourselves into a required shape. To dislodge this myth we should adopt the following mantra: We don’t use our body to get into a pose; we use the pose to get into our body.” I think that’s worth repeating. “We don't use our body to get into a pose; we use the pose to get into our body.”
Being flexible does not equal good alignment. Alignment in asana is important, but it’s not the goal to mold your body into a precise shape. Yes, doing something with poor alignment could cause injury, but proper alignment doesn’t look the same for all bodies. Forcing your body into a shape that is inappropriate for your individual anatomy, most likely will cause injury over time. However, if we use the pose as a tool for self discovery, as a way to deepen our body awareness and strengthen our proprioception, the gains will be greater, even if we never touch our toes.
Flexibility vs. Mobility / Tension vs. Compression If touching your toes is part of your intention for your practice, however, let’s explore what it means to be flexible. In the context of yoga, when we are working through various body postures, flexibility and mobility should be considered. Flexibility is the ability of a muscle to fully lengthen; mobility refers to moving a joint through a complete range of motion without pain or discomfort. Oftentimes, what we think is a flexibility issue is actually a mobility function. This is why it is so important to be in tune with your body and understand the sensations you feel when holding poses and moving in and out of them.
Knowing the difference between tension (muscles) and compression (joints) is game changing for your yoga practice. Tension refers to tissue sensations activated by stretching, sometimes likened to a feeling of lengthening or opening. Compression is what we feel when one bone comes into contact with another bone and squishes everything in between. Identifying the source of your restriction is not only significant for enhancing your asana practice, but can also help to prevent injuries.
Tension or tightness in the muscles is something we can manipulate with regular stretching to increase flexibility. Compression in the joints has to do with your unique bone structure and cannot be changed. Holding Parsvottanasana (Pyramid) for five minutes isn’t going to change the structure of your bones. So how can you tell if what you’re feeling is tension or compression? Let’s get back to touching our toes. In many yoga classes, you’ll be cued to come into Standing Forward Fold (Uttanasana). This is one of the first postures we learn as beginners to the practice, and it’s highly misunderstood as touching your toes, leading us to feel like complete failures when we can’t.
Practice Let’s explore what’s going on in your body and from where your limitations might be arising when you come into Standing Forward Fold.
1. Stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose).
2. Soften your knees and hinge from the hip, not the back.
3. Keeping your spine neutral (not rounding or arching), fold until your body naturally stops.
Pause here, and notice what sensations arise. Forget about reaching your toes or the floor. That’s irrelevant to this posture. If you’re feeling a stretch in the back of the legs or anywhere along the back, this is muscle tension. If you’re feeling pressure in the front of your hips or anywhere in the pelvis, and minimal to no stretch sensations in the back body, this is compression.
Knowing the source of the restriction informs what we can do about it. If you're experiencing tight muscles, and compression of the joints isn’t a factor, a regular stretching routine (including asana) is a great way to lengthen muscles and feel an increase in movement. If you’ve determined that joint compression is what’s limiting you, even though you can’t change your bone structure, there are some things you can do. Whether you’re working on increasing flexibility or improving mobility, here are some tips to help you reach your intentions in your yoga practice:
Let Go! The simplest (and possibly the most difficult) thing you can do is to let go. Let go of the idea that your body needs to look a certain way. Let go of the attachment to forming into a particular shape. Let go of the desire to achieve a certain pose because of the way it looks on someone else’s body. If you can do this, you are already practicing yoga on a deep level.
Talk to Your Teacher Let her know what’s going on in your body. Let her know if you are or are not comfortable with hands-on adjustments. Some teachers are trained in a lineage that is highly alignment based (meaning poses must look the same on all bodies) and encourages moving students' bodies into shapes that might not be appropriate for their anatomy. No judgment. This is the way yoga teachers were trained for many years, but science evolves. We know more about anatomy and more about the diversity of bodies.
No Pain, No Pain Yoga should feel good. Pain sometimes presents in our bodies for many reasons, but your yoga practice shouldn’t be one of them. If a certain posture causes pain (or increases existing pain), sometimes changing the angles of your body can lessen compression and free up space to move the body more freely. This is ok, even if it doesn’t fit the mold of the traditional Extended Triangle (Utthita Trikonasana) or any other pose. If Happy Baby (Ananda Balasana) hurts and you can’t breathe…not ok and not yoga. Remember, if it feels good and you can breathe freely, you are practicing yoga even if it doesn’t look like your neighbor. Eyes on your own mat!
Props to Props! Make friends with all the props. For tight hamstrings, using blocks brings the floor closer to you, allowing you to keep the spine neutral and not put strain on the lower back. For tight hips in seated positions, sit on a folded blanket or bolster, so your knees can fall below your hips reducing tension in your back and allowing you to sit up straight with ease. Straps can be used in many positions where one limb is reaching for another. A chair or wall is essential for learning balancing postures. There is no shame in using props. This is how we learn. This is how we create neurological connections that inform our brain of the safe and proper way our body should be positioned. This is how we increase flexibility and improve mobility, without creating imbalances and injuries. Don’t wait for the teacher to cue you to grab a prop. Know what your body needs, and accommodate it!
The Truth There are many perceptions and myths about what yoga is and should be. There are many perspectives on who should practice, where you should practice, what a yogi should look like, why you should or shouldn’t practice. There are many confusing and harmful images depicting inaccessible fitness routines and calling them yoga sequences. The true practice of yoga comes when we can overlook these illusions and turn inward, connecting to our bodies, our breath and our hearts. Yoga is for everyone, and asana is just one tool to help you build your own path to freedom, freedom from attachment, aversion and delusion. Whether or not you can touch your toes, or sit in full lotus, the ultimate truth is you are a divine being in a human experience. You are infinite, eternal and whole.