Yoga for Stiffies
Yoga for Stiffies
Contrary to popular belief, you do not have to be flexible to do yoga. As so eloquently stated by Ashtanga yoga teacher Richard Freeman, at a workshop I attended at Kripalu Yoga center, “Inflexible people are the lucky ones.” Those that are hyper-flexible such as dancers and gymnasts can easily get into the postures that are difficult for the average yoga practitioner. Flexibility may limit some of the ‘feeling’ that brings us deeper into the practice. Pain on some level is what we usually feel as we move into the yoga postures, also called ‘asanas’, and pain is a direct link to awareness. I’m not saying that you should be in pain while doing yoga, but there is a comfort/pain point where you move into an asana with correct alignment, and stop when your body gives you a signal that this is as far as it can go. Flexible people can easily transition through the asanas and must use other forms of concentration such as the breath or focal points, also called ‘drishtis’, to ground themselves in their practice. For example, imagine that simply raising your arm is a yoga posture. The actual act of this movement is easy for most without disabilities; however, there is not much substance to it unless you are concentrating on the movement of the arm through space and/or your breath. Going further, if your eyes stay focused on your thumb while raising your arm, you remain in the present moment through a point of concentration; this helps to control the ever-active mind and brings it in the proper direction for the asana that is being performed. All of the information I’ve given adds to the fact that flexibility has nothing to do with yoga, but that relaxed awareness and concentration is where we begin and complete the postures and movements.
So if you are a stiff and inflexible person like me, don’t let that stop you from doing yoga! I have been practicing yoga for many years and have popped tendons and ligaments trying to get into the advanced postures. It’s been a long process of letting go of my ego, and thinking that I had to complete every asana to its textbook form. I tore the MCL of my left knee trying to get into Lotus posture, one of the toughest for Westerners as you sit with one ankle crossed over the other on your lap. Your hips have to be very open to get into Lotus pose, and mine are welded together from surfing in cold water most of my life. The result of the accident was months out of the water and having to stop much of my asana practice, however the event also guided me to the realization that yoga is more of a life path than an asana, more off the mat than on it.
The lesson is that there is no physical destination in any yoga posture, and that the postures are just a vehicle to stillness of the mind and a connection with all that is. Through practice and discipline, you can advance your asana practice, but should never use it as a barometer of your progression on the path of yoga. During your asana practice, simply move your body, with proper alignment tips from an experienced yoga teacher, as far as you can go, breathe, and relax into the moment. The untamed mind needs something to fixate on during the movements, that is why the original yogis started using ‘drishtis’ or focal points of which there are nine. During each asana, in certain yoga traditions and styles, you concentrate on one of these points as you move into the posture. This stills the mind, builds concentration, and brings you into the present moment, thereby completing the asana no matter what form your body has taken. Once again, having proper alignment in any asana is the key to avoiding injury, as well as starting your practice under the supervision of an experienced yoga teacher. Yoga’s benefits are many, and the beauty of yoga is that its umbrella covers people of all faiths and religions, and you don’t have to believe in anything to do it. As you practice yoga stiff or flexible, its magic will enter your life and will guide you on your own personal journey. Even if you’re in a wheelchair you can practice yoga by closing your eyes and sitting in silence, this is called meditation and the pinnacle of the yogic path.
Christopher Lane is a cert. (E-RYT) and founder of Playa Negra yoga center in Costa Rica.