Strength. Grounding. Balance.
How flexible is too flexible?
When I tell people that I teach yoga, by far the most common response is, “I would be hopeless at yoga – I can’t even touch my toes!”
Naturally flexible people are often drawn to yoga because they get results quicker: the shapes of the asana are more immediately accessible to them, so they feel they are “good at it”. And those who are less flexible are put off, because the ability to get fully into the posture eludes them. It makes me sad, this idea that you have to be naturally flexible to enjoy yoga. I always tell the non-toe-touchers that they are ideal candidates for my class: it’s those of us who are rather inflexible to begin with who benefit most from the physical stretching that yoga asana practice entails.
But stretching is only part of the story, of course. Sthira and sukha: strong and stretchy. What yoga should offer to everyone is a balance between strength and flexibility, and that point of balance can be approached from either side. The hyper-mobile student should practise in a way that emphasises power and stability; the stiff student should work more on lengthening muscles and freeing up joints. As TKV Desikachar said, “Anybody can breathe: therefore anybody can practice yoga. But no one can practice every kind of yoga. It has to be the right yoga for that person.”
Over-stretching – extending the range of joint motion further than is necessary for healthy functional movement – can destabilise the joints and their supporting structures, and make people more prone to injuries. But there’s another problem which I think is more pernicious because it’s harder to see. Yoga is an embodied philosophy, which means it has the trick of turning the body into a working metaphor for the mind. The goal is strong and flexible bodies, with strong and flexible minds. But when we emphasize yielding and extending and melting at the expense of grounding and resisting and consolidating, we risk becoming too flexible at the emotional/psychological level. We are liable to bend over backwards, to surrender too soon, to bow down when we should rise up.
This week, yet another of the cornerstone 20th century yoga systems, ashtanga vinyasa, was rocked by allegations of physical and sexual abuse against its late founder, K Pattabhi Jois. The offences in question are alleged by nine different women; they took place over many years, often in the presence of other workshop participants. When a powerful male guru persuades thousands of devoted students that pain is a necessary part of practice; that strong hands-on adjustments from the teacher are essential to progress; that submission to the guru is a prerequisite for advancement in studies: for me, that’s a striking example of when flexible becomes too flexible.
But I also see it in subtler, more everyday ways. I see women using mindfulness or yoga to help them stay in a shitty job or a spent relationship – just as I have done at different times in my life. Perhaps you’ve heard yourself say something like, “This is a great exercise in sublimating my ego,” or, “I just have to open my heart more.” Well, maybe. These are valid concerns. But sometimes we also need to stand our ground. We need to take up the space we were born to occupy, instead of trying to bend ourselves, soften ourselves, flex ourselves around other people’s priorities. Yoga itself isn’t the culprit: as I mentioned already, its watchwords are strength and flexibility. It’s the ways in which we use it that we need to examine.
If you’re a flexible yogi, you probably enjoy the feeling of reaching far into a stretch. This month, spend some time contemplating what you get from that. Is there balance in your practice, and in your life? If you were less flexible, what would you lose? What might you gain?
If you’ve always felt you are not flexible enough, or worried about the fact that you can’t get into ‘advanced’ asana, contemplate those fears. What would it prove for you if you could do those things with your body? Are there good reasons for your resistance?
Chances are you’ll find yourself tweaking your practice to bring it more into balance.
- Postures that help cultivate sthira, strength: standing balances, warrior poses, horse stance, bandha work.
- Postures to reduce or avoid if you’re feeling over-flexible: strong forward and back bends, bound twists
My May guided relaxation emphasises the need for grounding. Relaxation is, of course, an exercise in yielding and letting go. But we can also use that time to get in touch with our own innate power and our right to be here. The affirmation is, “The earth supports me, and meets my needs.”