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.