by guest author Alys Titchener
It took me years to turn up to a yoga class.
Years and years of liking the idea of yoga before actually appearing on a yoga mat.
Whenever I confessed I’d never done a yoga class; I’d always append the confession with – I’m not flexible enough.
Never have been.
I got dropped from the gymnastics club at the age of eight because I couldn’t reach my toes. I could do handstands, I could vault, I could balance on the beam, but I couldn’t touch my toes.
Perhaps there was a trajectory right there; I threw myself into running and cycling and other ‘flexibility not required’ activities. I withdrew from stretching because of the awkward shape my body took when reaching for those ten toes, and I most certainly did not dance the limbo – how low can you go!
My body was tight, and I reasoned, yoga just wasn’t meant for me.
I appreciate ‘reasoned’ is probably an illogical choice of word, but it turns out this ‘reason’ is pretty pervasive in yoga-ain’t-for-me circles.
And a very common response to such an excuse goes something along the lines of this:
That’s like saying that you can’t go grocery shopping because you don’t have anything in your cupboards. Or your teeth are too dirty to brush.
Flexibility is a product of yoga, not a prerequisite.
The illogical nature of this excuse is worth exploring, because I’m sure others, like me, don’t intend on being illogical.
It’s more likely that we know, without a doubt, we’re not going to measure up to the body ideals that yoga throws in our path.
I appreciate this may be my bag here, but I have genuine admiration for a plump body that displays ease and softness. This still fits into my yoga-ideal.
But when I see a stiff body, gangly or otherwise, trying so hard to stretch into something that body isn’t capable of doing, I feel… sorry for them.
I ask myself; do we fit in to the yoga scene?
Alienating myself from a practice that I know will give me so many benefits started to make sense when I read a post by Marianne Elliot last year on her blog. She writes about body shame.
…for most of the women I know and most of the people who come to my classes, I’m aware that yoga can all too easily become simply another place in which to beat ourselves up about the inadequacies of our bodies
Of course, I didn’t know that when I was actively avoiding yoga, but, simply put, I was avoiding another way of shaming myself.
Turning up to a yoga class, scared stiff
Even though I was steering clear of yoga, my circle of friends got thicker and thicker with yogis and yoginis. Some part of me was drawn to the counter-culture yogic lifestyle, but, sadly, I lacked the flexible body-type I thought I needed to participate in it.
One day, a friend in a similar space to me, suggested we support each other in our first ever yoga class. Knowing that I’d have at least one ally, I agreed to the class.
We stood at the back and followed along as best we could.
Now I was a reasonably fit person at that point, but this class busted me. Even in the warm ups of bending forward to release our back and then hang there, my thighs screamed out. I could see other students flopping into this posture while I had to hold the position. There was no suppleness in my back, my thighs were tight and my calf muscles were crying.
I was working way harder than everyone else. I was running a marathon. These guys were … sunbathing!
My friend and I didn’t go back. We’d been fairly light-hearted throughout the class, getting giggles as we struggled through even more ridiculous postures. But enjoyable at a body level? Nop; that wasn’t our experience. Not only did I feel I lacked the flexibility for yoga, I now believed I lacked the strength and fitness as well.
I had periodic skirmishes with the yoga mat over the next few years but there was no juice to my commitment. More often than not, I talked myself out of attending a class. I simply didn’t enjoy how much my body hurt as I held a posture, nor ravished the idea of being next to an amazing example of flexibility.
And all the while I KNEW that if I kept turning up to yoga classes, I could become one of those flexible bodies.
I needed a motivation that was more aligned with my lifestyle and values.
Why can’t I commit to a practice that will give me the body I want?
I think if I’m honest with that question, creating the body I want has never been a good enough motivation for me.
Oh for many reasons; there’s too much striving in that little statement. I felt worn out just picking up the idea, let alone the practice. The goal post was too far away and I felt defeated before I began.
Even today, after several years of practicing yoga regularly, the motivation to ‘create the body I want’ causes such a heavy energy to descend on me that I literally end up crawling off my yoga mat defeated and depressed. Aspiring to a body ideal is the least motivating sentiment I’ve ever encountered, and one that, personally, I can’t work with.
Finding my motivation to practice yoga
My motivation to practice yoga arrived in due course. I’d just completed my first ever silent retreat with the meditation group Art of Living. I’d sat on the floor for the five days of meditation and satsang, and by the end, I was neck, shoulders, spine, hips, butt, knees and ankles, full body s-o-r-e!
In love with meditation, yet not in love with my body. I dedicated a new willingness to practice yoga.
For the sake of alleviating the physical discomfort while meditating I would commit to practicing yoga.
At about that time, a gentle yoga class started up at my work that had a playful approach to postures, sometimes crawling around on the floor like a toddler, holding our feet like an infant, breathing slowly with matching limb articulations and so on.
It didn’t really feel like ‘real yoga’ to me – I wasn’t working hard and we didn’t often do any classical looking asanas either. I kept on coming back to the class though, something soft was coming through and it made me feel good.
These quirky classes of a half dozen or so colleagues (brilliant scientists as it happened) helped me to get over myself and the ideas I had about what yoga ought to look like, and more importantly, what I thought I ought to look like doing yoga.
That admission alone changed my attitude to yoga. I started enjoying it. I started enjoying me doing yoga.
I wanted to commit to a yoga practice that would give me ease.
With growing confidence, I let myself experience a real yoga studio. I chose a couple of classes with teachers highly recommended by friends; they use words like ‘allowing’ and ‘what’s available to you today’ I was told. And they play music. I booked myself in.
I went to yoga classes that encouraged me to pay attention particularly to alignment and to keeping integrity within the confines of my body.
I began taking pride in not pushing myself into ridiculous stretches despite the deep stretch of the person next to me. And I began to foster a dialog between me and my breath that would become my cue to self-adjust in my own personal practice.
In essence, I became curious.
Given my still limited range of movement when opening in to a posture, I was quite naturally drawn and attuning to the subtleties of the practice. I became curious; when did a posture feel like it was flowing? Finding adjustments to suit my body became my thing. Feeling light and buoyant became the ‘stretch’.
I entered into an exploration of my body and the practice. I questioned what was happening when I felt heavy and burdened; was I actually holding when I could in fact be relaxing into that space?
This question was important because as a self-identified stiff-bodied person, I’d forgotten that my body was capable of finding a bit more space for exploration. One day I spontaneously relaxed in down-ward facing dog, and my heels literally dropped a centimeter or two towards the floor. I almost yelped in surprise.
I couldn’t help but feel the joy of those tiny signs – my body was learning to soften.
I yearned for a soft body; in fact I had dreams where my feet were touching the ground in downward facing dog. It felt so visceral, like my body knew what that sensation was like. I felt compelled to stretch myself.
For about 6 months I went to the yin classes at Hot Yoga. The heat in my body meant that I could move further into postures, and for awhile there, I started orientating my practice towards those sorts of accomplishments; awesome! I can get my forehead to the floor in pigeon. I stopped going when a friend I’d brought along to the class hurt her neck doing an unsafe shoulder stand.
I realised, without correct instruction, I could be pulling off moves that my body wasn’t necessarily equipped to handle. I felt at some level, that I’d started to take short-cuts, in order to get results.
So I returned to my basics. Given that what was available to my body was often the first variation, I had more time than others to explore that one posture. And I had more time than others to tame the mind.
Learning the essence of yoga.
I remember, after a monumental heartbreak one day, I turned up to a yoga class determined not to torture my experience with my grief-laden mind. For that whole practice – given the wild chop of emotions off the mat – I gave every ounce of my attention to being on the mat. To being totally present to that practice.
And I did it. Every time my attention slipped off the mat, I could feel the crashing grief right at my doorstep. This became a useful gate-keeper to pulling my attention back on to the mat.
While I don’t advocate resisting emotions in that way, it sure was a useful first step in experiencing the domain of mind and suffering versus being present and finding peace.
These conscious moments are what keep me coming back to yoga.
Feeling my body soften is a slow process, and compounded by me turning of an age where my body has naturally started to stiffen again, the effects of the practice on my body flexibility are subtle to notice. Perhaps this is the nature of form /substance /material /earth.
The more malleable element of air, or mind, however is providing a swifter window into the flexibility I have gained in my life.
In the course of my practice, I often experience an aligned mind. A buoyant mind. A light mind. A soft mind. An easy mind. And yes, a flexible mind.
For myself, I needed to find the motivation that could steer me past my body issues in order to give yoga a fair chance. Focusing on perfecting the body amplified my lack of worthiness.
Focusing on enjoying my experience by quieting my mind provided a natural incentive for me to turn up to class again, and again, and keep going.
A wise teacher once said:
‘Its not about touching your toes, but about what you learn about yourself on the way down’.
I would be interested to know…
If you’re inflexible – like me – what helped you to give yoga a try? What kept you going back for more?
And if you’re a yoga teacher; how would you respond to someone who says “I’m not flexible enough to do yoga”?
Editor’s Note: That photo is Kara-Leah circa 2005.
Listen to Kara-Leah talk about flexibility & yoga