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The right order of things

It goes something like this: "Oh, I have to lose weight before I get a personal trainer." Or: "I have to get some energy before I start exercising." Then there's: "My life has to slow down a little bit before I can get some balance in it." And of course, every Yoga teacher's favorite excuse: "I am way too inflexible to do Yoga!" Each time a teacher hears this line she must wonder whether people are merely grasping at the obvious excuse or truly believe that flexibility is a pre-requisite for doing Yoga. For those who truly believe that statement, clarification should be given: it is not that one needs to be flexible to do Yoga, but that one does Yoga to BECOME flexible.

Our short-hamstringed friends will often ascribe their inability to touch their toes to short arms. To them the teacher can point out the multitude of toe-touching bodies devoid of simian arms. Perhaps their present inability is due to lack of stretching rather than some genetic characteristic. Yoga is full of basic stretches which lead to flexible hamstrings. One willing to do the work will eventually get to touch their toes despite the lack of arm growth; the unwilling won't because of it.

The shoulder joint, as the rest of our body, is designed for optimal efficiency. This includes full, 180-degree rotation ensuring ability to scratch our backs, tuck in our shirts, tie things behind our necks, etc. Barring injuries, operations, and other trauma, inability to perform these actions is not because shoulders "just don't work that way!" They do in fact work exactly that way. Tight shoulders are not genetically predetermined. They happen as a result of excessive muscle bulk around the joint and lack of circular movement. Yoga offers opportunity for movement in all planes and leads to increased muscular and joint flexibility. Those willing to part with some muscle size and take the time to stretch, can decrease shoulder, neck, and upper back discomfort through consistent practice.
The spine can bend in any direction with varying range of motion. Conditions like kyphosis, lordosis, scoliosis, stenosis, injuries, etc, limit certain movements and can cause discomfort or pain. For an average spine, inflexibility is generally due to lack of or limited movement. The spine requires very correct and specific movement; anyone with spinal conditions will attest to this. A subtle shift can remove or add an unwanted twist, move the stretch from the lower to the upper back, make the same pose beneficial or detrimental, etc. Yoga teaches us poses which lengthen, straighten, strengthen, and loosen the spine. It teaches the correct work at the right place with the appropriate intensity. One does not need to be able to do a full back bend but wouldn't it be nice if the upper back got just a little straighter? Lack of movement leads to bent or inflexible spines, not age, genetics, etc. (again barring special conditions as mentioned above)

The ego is probably the least flexible appendage and the one that causes the most discomfort. How does one know when the ego is tight? Annoyed? Afraid? Dissatisfied? Needing? Wanting? Uncaring? Disconnected? Removed? Tight ego! While the ego is not always bad and can serve as the impetus behind wonderful, positive change, it is more often responsible for creating emotional pain and disturbances in relationships with those around us. Yoga practice teaches us how to develop a more flexible ego, one which does not twitch painfully every five minutes. And while entirely dismissing its call may never happen for many, one can at least learn of it, of its effects, and at least recognize when under its influence. Whether a student trying to understand a topic, a rigid body aspiring for the fluidity of the dancer, an individual reluctantly looking down the thousand mile road following loss, or the newly diagnosed patient, many are the tears of the courageous but frustrated beginner. So while the awkwardness and embarrassment of being unable to do something in front of strangers can be quite daunting for the healthy ego... there are worse things.

So maybe one does have to lose some weight before getting a personal trainer, get some rest before starting an exercise program, or get through an especially busy time of life before aiming for more balance. But one thing is for sure: muscles, physical or emotional, will not become more flexible without stretching. So just in case, the correct statement is: I do Yoga so that I may become more flexible.


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