On flexibility and balance

Posted by on Nov 8, 2013 in Breath and Body | Comments Off on On flexibility and balance

On flexibility and balance

Last Sunday I was reading the New York Times and came across an article entitled “Women’s Flexibility is a Liability” by William Broad.  It’s not his first dramatic piece about yoga, outlining all of the risks and associated injuries, surgeries and the like.  His last article about yoga and injury drew all sorts of feverish responses from the yoga community, some hailing his article as a beacon of Truth, others defending their practices or teaching saying that all physical activity has inherent risks and that his angle was sensationalistic.  This latest piece is aimed more specifically at the injuries supposedly experienced by the female practitioners.  Broad proposes that yoga may actually be too much for women’s bodies which he claims are already too flexible.  Sigh.  Where to begin…

First of all, I should say that I am coming at this reading from the perspective of one such flexible woman.  I am overly mobile in my lower back and hips and shoulders.  I am soft in all of the ways that women are described as being soft in this article.  What I would like to contribute to this conversation is that not all yoga takes the form of seemingly endless deep stretching.  The yoga that I practice (and that I teach) involves some stretching of course, but there is also a strengthening of muscles both big and small and everything feels more stable and integrated.  Where I used to click and clack, I now feel resistance when I stretch.  Yoga, in other words, has not been a poor choice for my flexible body; on the contrary, it has provided me with what I needed to hold myself together.

Last year I took a class with Eoin Finn when he was in Toronto, and he made a comment off the cuff that has stayed with me.  We were working with a deep shoulder opener, and one student asked, “what do you do if you’re deep in the stretch and you don’t feel anything?” He replied, “If you don’t feel this stretch you need to get out there and paddle a surf board on the Pacific Ocean!”  It was a Eureka moment for me.  Of course if you are flexible and long of ligament and all sorts of Gumby through the joints you don’t need to be spending all of that time doing deep long hold stretches- you need to be building strength in your muscles so that when you do move into that stretch, there is work to do.  On the other hand, if one is constantly engaged in strength-based activities (think rock climbers, runners, long distance bikers, heavy weight lifters among other athletes) then those deeper, slower stretches are more of what you need.  What we find coming up again and again in terms of finding your optimal health is to strike a balance for your own individual body.  Perhaps informed by my own experience, I ensure that my classes are a balance between the lengthening stretches and the powerful holds- if it’s a general admission class, I find it best to balance the offering.

I must have instinctively known that yin classes were not for me.  I was not interested in stretching further and climbing deeper into poses- I walked into my very first yoga class being able to press my forehead to my knees in a seated forward fold without any effort.  I went into teacher training knowing that I was flexible and could therefore “demonstrate” some of the required poses, but I also knew that strength and muscular sustain were lacking.  After the birth of my son, my destablized sacrum and hips became even wobblier, I sprained an ankle, and my shoulders were clicking in chatturanga.  The only solution for a body like mine was to get strong.

Women are not too flexible for yoga.  Some of us have bodies better suited to a stretching class and some have bodies that need more power.  But this goes for men as well.  We need to look at our own bodies with honesty and transparency and let the ego go.  It’s not about bending deeper or floating through your arms to seated.  It’s about creating a favourable state to support you in health as you live your life- a supportive core, a curved spine, open shoulders, a smooth gait, a strong pelvic floor and a balanced distribution of strength in sets of opposing muscle groups.  Add to the equation the importance of a more harmonious mental/emotional state and you’ll find that you also need to track down a practice that settles you in times of overactivity or revs you up when you’re in an energy slump.  Be acutely aware of the unique needs of your body as it takes the shapes which will carry you to that balanced place.

It’s important to note that “yoga” is not purely these physical postures under fire.  Yoga is also meditation, study, and breath work.  No one is too flexible for centring the breath, for mindfulness, for equanimity.

For an interesting and informative take on this most recent article, check out this reply by Paul Grilley on skeletal variation, tension and compression.

All content by Lisa Veronese. Please do not publish or copy my material without my consent.