A quick scroll through Instagram yoga hashtags could have you thinking that the ability to audition for Cirque du Soleil is a prerequisite for practising yoga. While some of the poses on display are wonderful to look at, others are downright scary (or even dangerous), and have little, if anything, to do with yoga. It’s likely they’re part of the reason for the number of times I’ve heard that sentence I hate to hear: “I’m not flexible enough to do yoga“. It’s a misguided idea that keeps many people who would really benefit from a regular practice well away from ever setting foot on the mat.
It’s a little like saying “I’m not fit enough to start working out”, “I’m too overweight to think about losing a few pounds”, or “I’m too tired to think about a good sleep”. Developing, enhancing and maintaining flexibility is one of the many benefits of a regular yoga practice. So if you think you fall short in the flexibility department, a yoga class is exactly where you should be.
No-one expects you to show up on the mat on Day 1 with the ability to touch your toes, let alone get your legs behind your head. If, in fact, you can do these things, you may well find it’s a longer, slower journey to reap the real rewards of yoga. If things come too easily to you, you don’t have to put in the work in terms of breath and focus, which is what really works the magic on the mind. You’re also more likely to risk injury unless you work very hard to build the strength your body needs to support its flexibility.
Being one of “The Blessed Stiff People”, as the great Ashtanga teacher Richard Freeman calls them, means that every time you get on the mat, you have to connect to your breath, focus your attention and move your body with very real awareness if you want to work through the sequence. You’re much less likely to over-stretch a ligament, for example, when you can’t stretch very far at all. You’re probably going to stop yourself before you do any damage.
If, on the other hand, your flexibility lets you just flop into, say, a full forward fold, without too much awareness or focus on the breath, as many super-bendy people can do, your mind is missing out on the real benefits of yoga.
The ability to get your leg behind your head, or your hands to your ankles with your back in full extension, is no reflection of whether or not you are practising yoga, well or otherwise. There’s no doubt that for even the most flexible people, acrobatic feats like these take many months, or even years, of practice. But not necessarily yoga practice, as we see with the extraordinary performances of the dedicated artists in Cirque du Soleil. What they are doing takes a long time to master, is beautiful and thrilling to look at, but it’s not yoga.
A beautiful yoga practice can in fact look really simple. Yoga Sutra 11:46 is “sthira-sukham-āsanam.” In his book, “Light On The Yoga Sutras”, BKS Iyengar translates this as “Asana is firmness of body, steadiness of intelligence and benevolence of spirit”. A more contemporary translation is that a yoga posture should be steady, stable and comfortable.
When we practise Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, we get to a place of “sthira-sukham-asanam” using the Trishtana method, which is posture, breath and gaze. By moving into a pose and maintaining it, with a steady, even breath, and a fixed gaze (drishti) that withdraws our awareness from all that’s trying to distract us, we direct our awareness internally. This stimulates the flow of energy in the subtle body, releasing stress and tension and helping us relax. Over time, practice by practice, things start to happen. Your body begins to feel more fluid and light. Your mind becomes calm. You start to cultivate deeper awareness. Your reactions are more conscious and considered. You start to notice what Victor Frankel, author of “Man’s Search For Meaning”, calls “the pause between the stimulus and the response”. That’s when you know that the energetic work of yoga is really happening.
With a regular Ashtanga practice, transformation creeps up on you, whether you like it or not. And here’s the thing, not everyone is a fan. When yoga starts to tell you what your body and mind need, it may not be what you want to hear. You might be very stuck in your ways, accustomed to certain habits, whether they’re good for you or not. Richard Freeman says “Usually, there’s about a three-month love affair with yoga. After about two months of practice, people think they are practically enlightened. Then, usually around the third month, something happens and the yoga actually starts to work. And the first thing the ego structure does is to look for an escape route. People start heading for the door just at the moment when they should stay.”
Whether you stay or not is up to you, of course. But if you do stay, it’s worth remembering that nowhere in the Yoga Sutras, or anywhere else, does it say that a posture has to be complicated to be “good”. Someone in a modified Trikhonasana (Triangle pose) maybe using a block as a prop, maybe with legs not entirely straight, but who is steady, focused and connected to their deep, ujjiya breath is practising beautiful yoga. I love to look at that just as much as I love to look at an advanced practitioner floating through 3rd series.
It’s all yoga. It’s all good.