Yoga teachers hear about flexibility a lot. It’s almost a cliche to write about now, because most of us know the conversation by heart. Here’s how it goes:
Friend: I’d love to do yoga, but I’m not flexible.
Teacher: So do yoga.
Of course it’s a perfectly reasonable scenario: if you can’t touch your toes, try to touch them every day anyway, and you’ll get further in that direction in the future than if you’d never tried. Yet I continue to meet people who believe that flexibility is a God-given gift, and no amount of yoga will help their unblessed, rigid bodies. And I continue to meet yoga teachers who are frustrated with students who believe they are hopeless.
One of the most interesting articles I’ve read this year is called Stretching is in Your Brain, over at YogaDork.The gist of this piece is that your nervous system controls your range of motion, and will not allow your body to move to a place that feels unsafe. As much as you want to put your leg over your head, you body says no, that’s not a place where I’ve learned legs go, thank you very much. Your body isn’t failing you – it’s trying to protect you! It’s up to you to teach your body what is safe by stretching it out every day.
You can try it out now: sit on the ground with your legs stretched in front of you. Now reach in the direction of your toes. Don’t grab for them, don’t bounce, just reach and breath. After just a few deep breaths, you’ll find yourself able to move just a fraction of an inch further, or maybe more. If you come to this place every day, your body will deem this position “safe” and allow you more depth with time.
Working on physical flexibility is an excellent chance to work on the metaphysical in our lives, too. Charles Darwin said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” Flexibility in our lives is crucial, especially with our over-scheduled culture where stress is a status symbol. And I don’t mean that you should text to cancel that RSVP to your friend’s birthday party, either; the most powerful flexibility we can demonstrate is when someone does that very thing at our own birthday party.
Feeling slighted, under-appreciated, or blown off can make us angry and self-righteous (“I would never do such a thing!”) but when we feel centered in our own place in the world, we can be more accepting of life when it doesn’t go our way. Think about it this way: a rigid structure, like a mailbox, is susceptible to damage by wind or passing cars, or other forces that aren’t seeking to harm the mailbox necessarily but nevertheless can. But something just as tall but more giving, like a reed, can move with the wind and even be run over by a car, but still survive.
There is so much in our world that is actually unsafe, so much violence actually intent on destroying us and the things we love. When you allow every little affront to chip away at us, we are not practicing flexibility, and we are more easily damaged.
You can help yourself become more centered by working towards becoming more flexible. Just as you reach for your toes everyday, you have the power to practice letting go everyday, too. Flexibility is daily work. A spill in the kitchen, a bump of your knee in the dark, or a bail text from your friend when you’ve already arrived at the restaurant are not fun, but also not things that must ruin your day or even your moment. Practicing letting these things go, one by one, will eventually teach your body that even in somewhat alarming moments, you are safe.