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.

heather@theyogaway.com

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?


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Editor Tanya L. Markul

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About Heather Morton

Heather Morton currently teaches classes and retreats internationally including in India. She became known for her work on yoga backbends by producing Freedom of the Body DVD ; an instructional practice video on backbending. Since its conception it has continued to reach students all over the globe. For 15 years, Heather directed The Yoga Way (TYW); a Toronto yoga school she founded offering structured yoga programs and no drop-ins. Over the last 17 years she has returned 17 times to India to study yoga under her teachers including Shri K. Pattabhi Jois and Yogacharya Venkatesha in Mysore. Coming to yoga, however, was not her original aspiration after starting what looked like a promising modelling career. Heather left Canada to live and work in South Korea; a pivotal shift in search of 'herself'. After extensive travelling and teaching, Heather returned to Canada to study yoga and founded TYW. As a post-graduate student she also conducted ethnographic research on Yoga for children in Mysore and obtained a Masters of Education. Heather has been featured in The Globe & Mail, Toronto Life Magazine and other media sources. In between teaching, practice and motherhood she writes for YogaLife, HelloYoga and MindBodyGreen. Find her on facebook.

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8 Responses to “The Flexible Journey.”

  1. Tanya Lee Markul Tanya Lee Markul says:

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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?
    Namaste.

    • 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

      H.

  3. Tanya Lee Markul Tanya Lee Markul says:

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

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