The Flexible Journey.

Via on Apr 19, 2012
Photo courtesy: Heather Morton

Since the release of my DVD on yoga back bending, I have often been asked about my flexibility: Is it natural? Did I develop this flexibility only from yoga? Is it genetic or anatomical? Was I flexible as a kid?

When I say, “no”, “no”, and “nope” and I get some pretty surprised looks. I still remember when the splits were miles from my reach, as well as the advanced back bends.  I stretched upward and saw the ceiling only. It felt like entering a black hole.

Fast forward thirty years, and I am more flexible at forty than as a kid, a teenager or my early twenties. Most people assume you can’t develop flexibility beyond a certain age. I don’t necessarily agree. My husband (who is not into yoga at all) witnessed me developing much more flexibility in my early forties than in my mid thirties. (We also have pictures to prove it.)

From a recent e-mail, I was asked whether or not flexibility is something developed, genetic and/or accessible for everyone. Below are my answers. Enjoy!

Do you attribute your flexibility mainly to the asanas?

There is no question that I developed this because of yoga. And when I say yoga, it is not just the practice of the postures, but the entire system which includes breathing, meditation, relaxation and studying the scriptures.

Overall, I would say ‘yes’, I do attribute my flexibility to the practice, because I trained and practiced for hours on end, which have turned into years of literally hard work. I think it is nice to consider the notion of hidden flexibility, but having worked through the various stages of releasing blockages in my spine, hips, legs and shoulders,  I understand it was a dedicated practice that led to the physical flexibility.

What techniques you have learned from your Guru?

What made the difference for me was looking at the practice from beyond the physical level. I was compelled to look inwardly at what was blocking me mentally and emotionally. I could see my back was not bending so working on the physical level alone was not going to help me. I made this connection very early on.

When I met Yogacharya Venkatesha, his teachings articulated what I already knew. He focused on working from the pranic (the level of energy). I was taught not to think of the poses as the end-all-be-all, but instead to learn how to be with them, and stay present within them—I was using my body to work on my mind. I am not always successful with the latter, which is a lifetime of exploration, and more difficult than body training.

While I went to different teachers and studied many books, my personal practice informed me the most. But my teacher taught me that.

Which ones are you teaching now?

I remind people to practice beyond the physical level. I say remind, because this is not something I can teach. It is inside of them. My role is to teach students how to breathe, to press at their own edge and to go inside. Without these instructions you simply force the body and grow frustrated when it does not respond. I always emphasise this is a process.

The practice is an uphill battle, which is not a marketable truth. Many people don’t really understand how much is required on ALL levels in order to achieve the flexible back (if that is what is truly desired).

Would you say that you were always a ‘bit’ flexible? 

There will always be arguments around the genetics of flexibility. Was I already predisposed to being flexible? Hard to say for sure and no one can answer that. Had I chosen a totally different career , I would have never developed my back bends.

Early on I was taught to apply a theory to the practice. When people see extreme flexibility, they believe it is natural. What is not visible is the struggle – the years of practice and not getting it right. In India I practiced hard and my teacher witnessed it. From the outside it might look like something magical happening. But there are no tricks. There is just your practice.

I do see a lot of very stiff people, and I’m sure they would benefit from your teachings, but would they ever get as flexible as you?

If the physical goal is flexibility alone, then this is not going to happen to these extremes. Yoga works when the theory of the practice is applied. For the postures to emerge, there must be a shift internally and mentally. It is mental determination over the body and purity of heart. The practice does not give results easily. Frustration can be channelled into fuel for practice. It is easy to get down on yourself, but don’t forget that the journey of moving through this practice is far more beautiful than reaching the top of the mountain.

I often ask the question, what would change if your feet came to your head?  Would you be happier? Calmer? More generous? Less angry? The fruit of the practice comes from abandoning reservations and practicing consistently.

What’s the biggest lesson you learned?

The greatest lesson of yoga is learning to accept your body and its limitations. What I have learned is to work with myself and my various assets, as well as shortcomings, and bring it all together. When you start doing this you don’t look at a short torso and longer legs, and sigh. You figure out how it all works because it is the only thing you have. I have learned to appreciate all pains and set-backs as well as limitations (doing this all the time is the next lesson).

Think of the martial artist Bruce Lee: He said he had a leg that was one inch shorter than the other! He used this to develop a better kick over his opponents. This is great inspiration.

© The Yoga Way, Toronto, Canada 2012.


Read more:

The Eight-Fold Path: Who Cares?

What’s in a Teacher?


Editor Tanya L. Markul

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About Heather Morton

Before yoga, Heather's life aspirations were very different than the path she ultimately took. After starting what looked like a promising modelling career, Heather Morton left Canada to live and work in South Korea. This was a pivotal shift in her life's map where she began teaching not only English but yoga. And by the way, she had no idea what she was doing! Today, she is a dedicated teacher and student of yoga having made 17 trips to India in 17 years to study Yoga under her teachers. Her passion for learning includes staying in ashrams and returning to university to obtain a Masters of Education. Combining her love for yoga and children she conducted a 2-year ethnographic thesis on Yoga for children in the Indian educational system. Meanwhile back in Toronto, Canada, she founded and directed her own yoga school for 15 years. The Yoga Way (TYW) was a niche school in that it was the only one not to be a 'drop-in' centre. Heather also produced podcasts, manuals, videos, a teacher training text and DVDS and CDS. Freedom of the Body DVD is one of the first instructional practice videos on back bending yoga. Heather has been featured in The Globe & Mail, Toronto Life magazine and other media sources like YogaLife, HelloYoga and MindBodyGreen. More recently, Heather jumped over the pond and into family life. She resides in Germany near the Swiss border where she is a mum of a beautiful boy. Find her on facebook.


8 Responses to “The Flexible Journey.”

  1. Tanya Lee Markul Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Posted to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
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  2. Beth M. says:

    Great article and totally inspiring, thank you for sharing.
    Would you mind sharing the books that you have studied and got the most from?

    • Hi Beth…..Thanks for reading! A lot of my work has come from self-practice and being committed to it. Yet, several books have been the guide while I was not physically with my teacher. There have been a WIDE assortment of books from the hugely popular to the ones probably no one really knows about.

      Here is a list of what comes to mind…..

      Asana books ~ more than a picture book:

      1) These have included ALL of Iyengar's work and in particular The ART of Yoga. It's not the postures that I study BUT what he says about the asanas and the process. If you are familiar with his work he is known for saying that the postures are his prayers. READ Iyengar…again and again. Another good one is ~ The Tree of Yoga (1988).

      Philosophy and Meditation:

      2) I read many books by these authors…

      Ajhan Chah, Pema Chodron, Chogyam Trungpa, Swami Rama and Thich Nhat Hanh.

      What I don't study too much are:

      3) I don't absorb too many books that are written by Western seekers unless they have travelled far down the path such as Ram Dass. Nothing personal but I prefer to go more directly to the source.

      Surprisingly enough, my greatest resource has been Rainer Maria Rilke…~ Letters to a Young Poet.
      Once you learn the techniques of the asana practice ti needs to go further into the mind of the practitioner.

      Hope this helps:-0


  3. Tanya Lee Markul Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
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