Stiffness is a natural state of the body.
Most of us begin our yoga journey here.
As a yoga teacher, I often come across people who are worried about being stiff. Men, especially those who work out in a gym, may have more muscular mass and shortened muscular length which both can prevent them from going deeper into various yoga poses.
They feel awkward in group classes where they can see very flexible people who are either more advanced in their practice or are simply more limber because of their age, gender, due to inherent composition of their muscles, the length of tendons and ligaments or the bone shape (especially femoral and humeral heads).
On top of that, gym-goers often develop a belief that their muscles should be rock hard and have a habit of achieving their fitness goals through powerful muscular effort. This will further hinder their ability to lengthen and soften the muscles during asana practice.
If you are a goal-oriented fitness practitioner, overcoming stiffness may become a fight within your body, as if there is this desire to get rid of this unwanted “condition” as soon as possible.
But what is actually the meaning of flexibility in yoga?
Yoga means “to reach a point we have not reached before,” according to one of the interpretations of the word by T. Krishnamacharya. That is why yoga is a never-ending journey on which we will have to take an infinite number of smaller steps.
On the physical level, yoga is a progress in our ability to lengthen and soften the muscles, tendons, ligaments and fascia, achieve a balanced muscular tone (often in muscles we have never known existed!) and master our sense of balance.
If you complain about your current flexibility, I would tell you that stiffness is your best friend in yoga.
The real obstacle to doing yoga is unmindful practice and lack of awareness of breath and body.
Stop worrying; stiffness is a natural state of the body with which most of us begin our yoga journey. In fact, during yoga practice, various levels of stiffness can have multiple benefits to your body and mind.
Being stiff protects the joints from hyper-extension, especially if body awareness is low.
In my teaching, I am as much concerned of adapting postures to stiffer practitioners as modifying them for supple people who tend to overextend their joints. Both conditions can lead to injuries and require constant awareness on the sensations and the shape of our joints during practice.
The stretching sensation we feel in the muscles as we move into a pose helps us focus our awareness on our actions in the present moment.
This frees us from casual thoughts and brings a peace of mind. As much as gaining a limber body, this awareness is one of the greatest benefits of yoga practice.
The gift of being stiff is the best tool to master mindfulness—the gentle sensations we feel in our muscles as we stretch will help us stay more mindful, which will eventually enhance our quality of life. This is a different goal than being able to touch our toes in paschimottanasana (seated forward bend).
Stay calm and tune in your senses to these bodily sensations and let them feed your awareness of the current moment.
The more limber our bodies become, the more we will need to modify our asanas to achieve the stretching sensations which help us stay mindful.
Flexible people may not feel much when they assume the most common yoga poses. Whereas achieving this kind of flexibility will probably take you a few years, practicing more advanced asanas and having looser muscles and joints will make most of us even more vulnerable to injuries (see point 1). Even yogic gurus are victims to this and some had to stop their asana practice due to serious joint or back issues.
Stay curious about your lack of flexibility.
Mapping the stiffness in the body allows us to sharpen our body intelligence and can be a way of self-study (svadhyaya). Nobody is stiff (or supple) to the same degree from tips to toes. I’ve met students with extreme hip flexibility whose shoulders were so stiff they couldn’t clasp their palms in garudasana (eagle pose).
Find out what limits the movements the most in your body and you will know what is causing (or will cause in the future) possible health problems off the mat. For example, if you find it difficult to open your chest in chakrasana (wheel pose) or raise your arms in bhujangasana (cobra pose) you may also have forward-shoulders or forward-chin posture or chronic upper back pain.
Cherish the positive aspects of your body.
If you have well developed muscles, but are on the stiffer side, enjoy the postures that require more strength than flexibility. Take pleasure in staying in arm balances, warriors and planks for longer.
When you are enjoying all of these postures, remember to minimize the muscular effort and economize energy (brahmacharya).
If you work out, this will further improve your strength training outcomes.
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Assistant Ed.: Stephanie Sefton/Ed: Bryonie Wise