Is Flexibility Over Rated? by Stacy Dockins
It’s interesting how we see a pose that requires a great deal of flexibility. Why is it that we instantly correlate beauty and success in yoga with unusual ranges of motion?
Admit it—we’ve all had moments of envy while glancing at Miss Yogi in the middle of the room who can touch her foot to the back of her head!
The fact is, a hyper-flexible joint – while not necessarily a bad thing – can be just as harmful as an overly tight joint. In fact, an over-flexible joint is probably more at-risk of injury than an overly tight joint. It’s interesting then, how we have become a yoga culture of always striving for more stretch, more range of motion, a deeper pose. What exactly are we practicing for?
To a certain degree we are born with or without flexibility at our skeletal level. Bones are created in a helix formation resulting in all bones having different twist, torque, shape and orientation. These bone factors lead to unchangeable limits – or lack of limits – in any particular joint. We are also born with longer or shorter muscles / tendons / ligaments that naturally allow for varying range of mobility. Our body proportions also have much to do with how far we can go in any particular posture. Some of us have very long torsos and short legs, some have long arms with big feet (sorry)…but seriously, body proportions will greatly affect how postures look from mat to mat. So why do we worship people with certain bone configurations over others? Is it true that a certain bone configuration makes one better at the practice of yoga? Does the ability to touch your toes even have anything to do with yoga at all?
Now, having said this, I do believe there can be a huge benefit to our health and well being found through increased flexibility – but only if it brings us back to balance.
Our soft tissues get out of balance by the repetitiveness of our day-to-day routines which informs our muscular shaping. Of course, any regular athletic training – like running or weight lifting – can produce over-used, over-tightened muscles. If we sit all day it makes sense that the muscles in front of our hips will be shortened. If we forward slouch on a keyboard all day then it’s probable that soft tissues of the chest and abdomen will be tightened. Imagine all of the time that most of us spend using a smart phone. The next time you are sending a text, notice the position of your body!
I also believe that our brains/nervous systems contribute to the relaxed/non-relaxed state of our soft tissues. This means our emotional state can create patterns leading to imbalance. Stress triggers cortisol and adrenaline release which in turn triggers the fight or flight state of the body which includes the firing and tightening of all muscles required for battle. Shallow breathing can be triggered by stress or fear which can lead to a tightening and restriction of our breathing muscles and all other muscles with which they articulate.
So is it possible- on any given day-that most of us will find some sort of relief in a stretch? Absolutely.
However, I do think that anyone who practices yoga regularly should keep in mind what they are practicing for. Is extreme flexibility the goal? Are you stretching to bring back balance or are you stretching towards imbalance? Joints are healthiest when they are balanced with strength and flexibility.
Next time you are on your mat become aware of the stretch. In any particular posture, go in just far enough to feel a gentle tightness. Now instead of striving to go farther, trust that the stretch is happening just right and stay. Focus primarily on the simple stretch sensation and breath awareness. As you practice more and more breath awareness you will access a deeper body wisdom. You will know precisely how far to go. Keep in mind the over-all health of your body. Can you feel yourself moving towards balance between strength and flexibility? Or are you heading towards imbalance?
Say you go into a posture like half pigeon and you just don’t feel a stretch. I have so many students and teachers ask me, “How do I find more stretch?” My answer is usually, “Do you really need more?” If you are already accessing an extreme range of motion in any posture my guess is that it is time to work on more strengthening & stability in that particular area—not more stretch! You might try lifting up a bit out of the pose (out of the stretch) and work on activating muscles instead of relaxing them. A huge tool for body awareness is zooming in so closely that you can access activation of muscles that are hard to isolate. For instance in half pigeon, what does it feel like to actively engage gluteal muscles in this position? Can you feel superficial muscles engage as well as deeper situated muscles? Can you create the sensation of hugging into your joint with all muscles that immediately surround it at the same time as accessing stretch? Get curious about what is actually happening in your body. This will have huge pay-offs in your practice of presence as well as the health of your musculo-skeletal body!
Just like so many other things in life, the key is awareness. Keep practicing yoga and enjoy your practice (even your full range of motion moments) but always pay attention. And continue asking yourself the question: What am I practicing for?