I have lost count of the number of time I’ve had conversations with people where they state I can’t do yoga because I’m not flexible enough and/or can’t touch my toes. I try not to be evangelical about yoga- so I don’t necessarily think it’s the answer to everyone’s problems all the time. But I do still find it depressing that so many people are closed to the idea of trying yoga because of their perceived lack of ability and the tightness of their hamstrings.
Perhaps more strange than the conversation described above, is the other common conversation I have with people that do practice yoga that goes along the lines of “i should be able to …” or “I used to be able to …” do that pose. As a yoga teacher I’m not worried about shoulda/ woulda/ couldas – I’d rather focus on what is happening now. Even day to day your practice can change so much – you wake up stiff, you injure yourself, your emotions show up in the body or even the cold wet weather makes everything feel different.
The problem with the shoulda/woulda/coulda mentality is it places the biggest value in yoga on achieving the “perfect pose”. I’m not sure I have ever seen this mythical perfect pose to be honest. If you’re in downward facing dog and your heels touch the floor what does that really give you – a nice stretch? smugness that you’re “good” at yoga? instant enlightenment? Just in case you’re wondering I’ve never seen the last one on this list happen. Sri Pattabhi Jois, founder of the vinyasa/astanga style which dominates modern western yoga practices famously said: “yoga is an internal practice. The rest is a circus”.
But even when we know this on an intellectual level, the thoughts often sneaks into our practice, whether beginner or experienced yogi. There is a striving, pushing, demanding part of us that wants this perfection. When we don’t have it we can feel frustrated, disappointed or like giving up / tuning out of our practice.
But actually there is so much power in recognising this force and seeing if we can soften to it. In the Yoga Sutras, an ancient text written by Patanjali, the opening line can be translated as something like “yoga is now” (sutra I.1 atha yogā ‘nuśāsanaṃ). It’s not for some distant point in time when the hamstrings (or other body part) opens up. It’s not only paying attention when we find a satisfying level of perfection. It’s now. Whatever that is for us today – tightness, stiffness, immobility and all.
I have been inspired by many great yoga teachers who practice these lessons. Tara Judelle, a US Anusara teacher often says there is no better, no worse, just yoga. Whilst Alexandra Crow and Brian Aganad recently discussed this very topic on a podcast (available here).
Ultimately we need to consider how flexible do we really need to be? Leslie Kaminoff puts it well in this video you need the amount of flexibility required to support you in your life. For many of us, we probably already have the right level of flexibility for our functional needs. Actually Leslie argues that counter intuitively overly flexible people really need to work harder to maintain safety and avoid injury when they practice yoga.
I also really like this account by Kathryn Ashworth who in her article confessions of a reluctant asana practitioner, describes the moment in a bowling alley where she stops taking herself seriously and engages with a sense of play in the postures. So next time you catch your mind starting down a track of woulda/coulda/shoulda see if you can soften a little bit to an acceptance of how your yoga is right now.