When people find out I’m a yoga teacher, what do you think the most common thing they say to me is?
Over and over, I hear, “Oh, I wish I could do yoga but I’m not flexible enough.” The runner up is, “I can’t do that. I can’t even touch my toes.”
I understand. Who wants to try something if we expect to fail? It’s hard to do something that we’re not very good at doing – especially as adults. I get it but I have never responded by agreeing. My answer is always the same. “That’s why you should come to yoga!”
Yoga is not about touching our toes. Yoga is about feeling better.
You don’t need to be flexible to start yoga and you don’t need to ever contort your body into a pretzel shape to stick with yoga. Practicing yoga will help you become more flexible wherever you start but that’s not the goal. Feeling better is our goal.
People with tight muscles will notice themselves becoming more flexible faster than people who already have a large range of motion. Meaning, they will feel their bodies open up quicker. For example, people with tight hamstrings most likely struggle to hinge at their hips, to keep their backs flat, and might end up far from reaching their toes in a forward fold pose. This doesn’t make them bad at yoga! This just means they have tight hamstrings. Yoga can stretch tight hamstrings and relieve pain caused by stiffness.
We all come to yoga for our own reasons, but we all come back for the same one. We all come back to feel better whether we can touch our toes or not.
A recent survey of my Instagram followers showed that the overwhelming majority of them practice yoga to increase their mobility, flexibility, and range of motion when compared to getting stronger. It shocked me. I didn’t think we were all here to get super strong or hang out in crow pose all day but what shocked me was that the choice between increased flexibility and increased strength was not even close. Three out of four of you said you show up for increased mobility!
Yoga increases flexibility and it takes work.
Yoga is not just about touching our toes or putting our legs behind our heads. It’s about being in the present moment. It’s about noticing how we feel. It’s about checking in with ourselves. The more we practice the closer we get to our toes but that’s not the real goal.
Yoga helps us feel more comfortable in our own bodies.
What should we do when our body feels tight during yoga? Notice your breath and slow down. Move slowly into each pose and focus on your breath. Breathe slowly and deeply. This will let your body open up and naturally expand.
After about five breaths in a pose, our bodies usually relax open or stretch out. You’ve probably heard me say that it takes the body that long to trust the mind and know it is safe to go in deeper. The science behind it is that when we first go into a stretching pose (like forward fold is for the hamstrings), the muscles’ first response is to freeze. This is known as the stretch reflex and the muscle initially resists the strain as a form of protection for the muscle. This freeze reaction typically releases after about a minute. Then the muscles release and lengthen.
Yoga will help you become more present and less stressed. Over time, this will help your muscles relax and eventually improve your flexibility and get deeper into each pose.
Flexibility or an increased range of motion from yoga takes time. Getting on your yoga mat three to five times a week will help tremendously because it will challenge your baseline but will also give your body time to recover and heal between sessions.
Regardless if you are brand new to yoga or you are an experienced yogi trying to learn a new pose, don’t expect to see results overnight. It may take three to six months before you really start to notice increased mobility but stick with it. That time and dedication will pay off not only on your mat but outside of yoga too. You will physically feel better in your day to day life when you’re able to release muscle tightness. Imagine how good that will feel.
And just remember, being more flexible in your body does not make you a better yogi. Listening to your body and its limitations makes you a better yogi.
I have students who have practiced for years and have never touched their toes while keeping their legs straight, but they are still “good at yoga.” Know why? Because they continue to show up week after week for one reason. They feel better after their yoga class than before. Like I said before, it’s not about touching our toes. It is about feeling better in our own skin.
Being more present and less stressed from practicing yoga helps us become more flexible in another beautiful way. We start to become more flexible in our thinking as well. Flexible thinking is the ability to change our way of thinking to find new ways to solve problems. The mindfulness we learn in yoga from staying in the present moment and paying attention to our breath, allows us to take a step back and think before we react.
Stick around. This is the first in a series of four articles about cultivating flexibility through yoga. You don’t want to miss the rest.
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Here are the other articles in the Yoga for Flexibility series: