One of the most common issues that keeps people from starting yoga is lack of flexibility.
Because marketers portray yogis and yoginis as uber bendy twenty-somethings twisted into pretzels, yoga newbies tend to get the wrong impression.
They’re led to believe that yoga is the pursuit of flexibility. And if they’re on the stiff side, they then dismiss yoga altogether.
As a yoga teacher, I hear comments like, “I’m not flexible so I can’t do yoga” all the time.
I tell them “No, yoga has nothing to do with flexibility.”
They look at me like I know nothing about yoga. But this reaction is to be expected. To the uninformed, yoga looks like gymnastics for young and bendy ex-dancers.
But they’ve got it all wrong. Yoga is for stiff people. It’s also for the bendy, and for the old, and for the young. For men and for women. Yoga is for everybody. Every BODY.
If you practice yoga long enough, you will become flexible — it’s a side effect of its greater purpose: spiritual evolution.
However, in this article, we’ll stick to the beginnings of the yoga journey, which starts on the mat.
Yoga is for stiff people if you keep these three guidelines in mind:
1. Flexibility comes with time
If you’re starting out with a stiff body, please have patience. Flexibility comes with time.
You will see improvements after only a few yoga sessions, especially if you practice it multiple times a week.
You might find that your fingers are just a few inches closer to your toes in a forward bend. Or mild backbends feel a little less straining. But for the big stuff like the splits and advanced backbends, accept that these take time and a lot of practice to master.
When I first started yoga I was 18 years old. I’m also a female, so in theory, I should have been quite pliable. But this was not the case.
I was fit, I worked out often, but yoga asked me to bend in ways that seemed unnatural. It reinforced just how stiff I was. I found the whole practice extremely challenging.
My first attempts at wheel pose (which is supported by the hands and feet, belly toward the sky in a graceful arch) were fruitless. I wasn’t flexible enough to even push off the ground. It was as if I was stuck to the floor, and I was sure that wheel pose would never be within reach.
It took me a long time, but with dedicated practice, I slowly unknotted my tight back. Little by little I was able to lift myself from the ground.
Now I’m a bendy backbend expert and sometimes other yogis comment on my flexibility. Me… flexible? I wouldn’t have believed it in the beginning of my yoga days. It just took time.
So have patience. Be consistent in your practice and you’ll see results. Yoga slowly undoes stubborn muscular knots. It lengthens and elongates, eliminating body pain kind of like a self-massage.
2. Don’t compete with anyone else
The flexibility-impaired are prone to messages from the ego, putting themselves at risk of injury.
An ex-boyfriend of mine (his name is Matt) is the perfect example. Matt was a fit guy and wanted to learn yoga. He began his yoga journey accompanying me to challenging power yoga classes.
They were beyond his level and flexibility, but given his athleticism, he wouldn’t accept the idea of starting smaller. And so power yoga we did. He was shocked at how hard these classes were — much as I was in my early yoga days — but he pushed on.
Our mats placed next to one another, I watched Matt out of the corner of my eye with baited breath. I feared his body would snap in two. The man pushed and pushed and pushed. If his body didn’t want to fold into a particular asana, he didn’t care — he’d make it happen. His face grew red, he oozed sweat, and he panted — but if another guy in the class was flying in side crow, then Matt was going to fly in side crow, too.
It was a dangerous hour and a half. Matt was competing not only with other students in the class but with himself. He was ready to sacrifice the integrity of his current physical structure for the satisfaction of his ego. Thankfully he never injured himself, but this is exactly how yoga injuries happen.
I’ve witnessed this behavior all too often with both men and women. Ironically, competition is very non-yogic. Yoga has nothing to with competition against others or against yourself.
It is an individual practice where progress is not measured by physical shapes. If ego gets in the way, the risk of physical injury ensues.
Do your best to set aside ego, especially if you’re stiff. Accept that your body is not so bendy now but it will be because you’re going to practice.
3. Ask for help
Every yoga asana (yoga pose) can be modified in a myriad of ways to fit a myriad of bodies. If a posture is simply not working for you, don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Yoga teachers expect and want their students to ask for assistance when needed.
They’re specially trained to know how to modify postures for different bodies. They don’t want you to force yourself into a shape that’s painful or awkward. They want you to have a safe and fruitful practice that grows with time.
But ego can get in the way of asking for help. I speak from experience.
My tight hips used to make me feel very unwomanly. I would scan the room wondering how my hips were even tighter than those of the men in the class. Embarrassed, I didn’t dare ask for help. As a result, I got less out of the poses and my hips took longer to open.
Now, despite my 13 years of yoga practice, I unabashedly ask for help in yoga classes. I take advantage of being with a trained teacher who can guide me into variations that are more appropriate for my body. And I encourage all of my students to do the same.
Yoga is for stiff people, but sometimes it needs a little tweaking. There’s nothing wrong with that. So set aside ego, and raise your hand if you’d like your teacher’s assistance. They’ll be more than happy to help.
Oh, stiff yogi or yogini, have patience, don’t compete with anyone else nor yourself, and don’t be afraid to ask for help! Flexibility will come, along with yoga’s abundant other benefits.