Last night I went to Flavorpill‘s monthly decompression, Get Your Dance On. It’s kind of my ideal situation: great DJs, friendly people, lots of gorgeous space, and healthy snacky treats. All before 11pm. They serve free kombucha, wine and chocolate all night, plus coconut water and granola bars. (Well, I guess it’s not free — it’s $20, but that gets you a week at Yogaworks, too.) Totally hippie but WAY fewer men with ponytails than the old Body Temple parties. Maybe zero. And like 90% of the crowd is dancing.
Last night at the park, after my run, a girl was practicing yoga next to me. (A cute assortment of yogis had gathered at one end of the track.) She did lots of stretchy poses, the ones I like to do: Standing Crescents, High Lunges, Wide-Legged Forward Bends. And after enough peeking, I noticed a certain drama, and emphasis, on the flexibility. A prevailing hardness, not so much softness. And I realized, “That’s me. That’s how I (used to?) practice.”
I hadn’t escaped the showmanship. I was very conscious of the shapes I could or wanted to make. The more flexible I got in my practice, the more I felt the temptation to show off how flexible I was. Yoga was still an achievement, a skill, a linear path. Challenging the body, pushing towards an idealized shape, gave me a goal on which to focus, and a feeling of actually DOING something. I only started breathing deeply in yoga a couple years ago.
I’m studying therapeutic yoga now, and anatomy, and it’s made me close my eyes to go for feeling instead of shape. “Ugly Yoga”, someone called it. Permission is granted to differ from the pictures on the posters. Deeper layers of muscles are being found. Practice feels like conversation with the body, not mastery. And old poses have acquired new energy.
But still, it’s hard to practice without performing. Our extroverted culture encourages beautiful entertainers, and we’re all social beings. (Shantitown has a good post about acknowledging the desire to be recognized.)
I try to remember that recognition, once received, is actually an obstacle, just like the Sutras say about siddhis. [III.37 — “These faculties are obstacles in contemplation, but powers in active life.”] Recognition may serve me socially, but it’s one more thing I have to battle on my mat. Once I get it, I expect it again. If I don’t get it, I wonder “why not?” And there are much cooler things to focus on.
When I talk to random people about yoga, one of the most common things they say is, “I should do yoga… I want to be more flexible.” Then we talk about Bikram versus Hatha versus Vinyasa, and how to get flexible safely, but how it’s really about MENTAL flexibility…
Finally, I realized that yoga has an image problem. Not that it has a BAD image, but that it’s incomplete. What stands out is the contortionism, so yoga = flexibility. People don’t realize how much strength yoga requires. (Until they start practicing!) It doesn’t isolate muscles like weight training; you learn to use your whole body to support each movement. And, because yoga lengthens the muscles as it builds them, you get long, ropey muscles and a lean silhouette. People do not realize how strong you are; my last set of movers was SHOCKED at the boxes I could carry.
Our current images of strength are Mr./Ms. Universe contestants with bulging everythings. Body building typically shapes each muscle through repeated contractions with increasing weight. But concentric contractions build mostly the belly of the muscle — the middle — to get that iconic bulge. Over time they also shorten the muscle, leading to the notorious stiffness of men and athletes. The stronger you get, the less flexible you become.
Yoga, on the other hand, tends to use a little more eccentric contraction (lengthening the fibers as they fire), and a lot more isometric (holding them still as they fire). So you’re able to maintain or even lengthen your muscles as you build them. And, over time, the poses take less and less force, as you start to stack and link the bones and muscles in an easier, more integrated way. You experience the poses, and daily life, in a lighter, less stressful way. But you’re incredibly strong, physically and mentally. When a reed is flexible as well as strong, it doesn’t break.
I think our images of yoga need to broaden and come down to earth. As mentioned in my last post Yoga for Bigger Bodies, we don’t see a lot of plus-sized yoga models. And a cursory glance at the back issues of Yoga Journal shows women on the cover 54 out of 58 times. Slender, flexible women, and those who aspire to be them. It’s the circular loop of marketing: current users = marketing targets = new users = same old same old. (And of course magazine covers are tied into the reality of media culture: what sells.) When we see a broader range of people and personalities represented doing yoga, we’ll get a broader sense of its effects. We can appreciate flexibility, but also look to yoga for strength.
I’ve really felt this personally, lately, as I’ve tried to rein in my rampant flexibility. Eight years of “going deeper” a little too literally is starting to speak up in my joints. My knees will go anywhere, my hips too, and I’m starting to hear pops not just in my spine but in my hips, sacrum, sternum, and collar bones. (They occurred over the months from bottom to top; I’ll call it my cartilaginous awakening.) Which is fine, it’s a gross party trick, but when there’s pain in the joints it’s a warning. Flexibility cannot be the be-all end-all goal of yoga; otherwise we’d practice til our heads flopped around like stroke victims. We have to draw back from pushing too far. Even though it’s boring.
Leslie Kaminoff warns of “the unbridled pursuit of unlimited flexibility.” He’s been beating the sthira / sukha (strength / space) concept into our heads for months now; it’s a dichotomy, where one cannot exist without the other. Each bone, each muscle, each system must have mobility and stability, in varying ratios. He pulled me up front again last week to show me that Warrior II does not HAVE to span the length of the mat; it can be built, from the ground up, as a chain of muscular actions. The joints fall more naturally into place, instead of bearing weight. A narrower Revolved Triangle woke a chorus of trembling muscles, and much deeper breathing. I have new places to go in those poses, now. (Thanks, Leslie.)
I’ve heard that flexible people get bored and quit yoga much more quickly than those who are limited by their tightness. Once we’ve gotten our heads to the floor in Full Splits, there’s nowhere else to go — if we’re focused on achieving flexibility, or achieving poses. If we learn to stay put, and work with the burn we’re feeling instead of the image we’re pursuing, there’s transformation still to be had. (The Yoga Journal blog has a great post on Ana Forrest’s approach.) Yoga is strength training, working from the inside out.
In these chilly winter months, it’s good to remember that the root of flexible is FLEX. When you’re tugging away in a yoga pose, remember to support whatever you’re stretching by FLEXING the opposing muscles. This creates heat, which is essential for safe stretching. For example, in a Forward Bend, the more you flex the front of the legs (the quads), the more the back of the legs (the hamstrings) can release. You should feel a burning heat, not a pulling tweak, when you’re stretching.
Flexing also creates a safe boundary. If you pull and pull and pull with no resistance, you will eventually overstretch or dislocate something. Ligaments and tendons receive very little blood flow, so they are slow or impossible to heal once you’ve overdone it. In Warrior II, for example, you are stretching the hands away from each other at about 80% effort — not 100 or 110% — and pulling the shoulder joint BACK into its socket with about 20% effort.
If flexibility is one of your goals, I think Extended Side Angles (all the many variations) are the best poses ever. You get deep stretching in the hips, thighs, and hamstrings, as well as the chest, shoulders and neck. BUT to get there you must:
- keep pressing the outside edge of the back foot firmly down
- keep flexing the back quad strongly
- keep dropping the hips
- keep rotating the front hip under and the back hip over
- keep the front knee directly over the ankle, in line with your second toe
- keep pressing 1/3 of your weight into the bottom hand
- keep pressing your bottom arm into the front knee
(unlike the picture, I prefer the hand inside the foot)
- keep lifting the navel up and in
- keep spiraling the heart towards the sky
- keep spiraling the neck towards the sky (gently)
- keep straightening the top arm
- breathe calmly and slowly!
Just try doing all that at once, and imagine a yoga practice with that much engagement in every pose. You’ll break a sweat in the first five minutes.
Happy New Year’s Resolutions!
Images courtesy of Yoga Art & Science, Creative Commons license