A Stiff Body Can Be a Blessing. ~ Szymon Jarosławski

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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

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Szymon Jarosławski

Szymon Jarosławski’s childhood interest in nature led him to study molecular biology, pursue a PhD in biophysics and conduct advanced research on health systems and innovation. He has practiced meditation and visualization since he was 16, which helped him regain inner peace and led him to study Western and Eastern psychology in addition to yoga and other mind-body disciplines. He currently lives in India and devotes his time to instruction and mastering these disciplines, as well as writing.

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anonymous Jan 25, 2015 3:16pm

Stopped reading at :"Men, especially those who work out in a gym, may have more muscular mass and shortened muscular length"
If you don't even know that muscles cant be shortened, i am not interested in a word you have to say… get your facts straight before you give out advice.

anonymous Oct 1, 2013 12:14am

very beautiful article. thank you.

anonymous Sep 30, 2013 9:59pm

Good points.

And I would like to point out the continual co-mingling of two different terms with very different meanings: "stiff" and "short". One refers to elasticity and the other distance. A person who can't touch their toes w/o bending their knees might be very limber – they just have short hamstrings, which is not the same thing. The length (distance) of the muscle and tendon between the two attachment points is mostly what determines range of motion, irregardless of how "stiff" or "limber" they may be.

"A stiff body can be a blessing" might be true for various reasons, as such a person may not be "stiff" at all, just have shorter distances between attachment points, which limits range of motion – which limits injuries as well! Having a wide range of motion as an athlete is dangerous, as hyperextension is easier.

So back to the breath, eh?

    anonymous Sep 30, 2013 10:17pm

    Thanks for the comment. In fact in my understanding being stiff is a symptom of having shortened muscles, fascia etc be that a result of lifestyle, psychological factors etc.

    For yoga practitioners, stretching these structures (or releasing psychologically induced muscle tension) can be a way of self-study, which is one of the pillars of yoga. The journey of yoga is reaching where he have not reached before and on the physical level it means overcoming gradually the "stiffness".

    In that sense, being naturally stiff is our gift, which we gradually transform (or "consume") on the path to achieving a greater Mindfulness in our lives.

anonymous Sep 30, 2013 11:45am

Hi Szymon, Very good article, you are a growing number of Yoga teachers, who focus on posture and alignment. The tides are turning with each yoga teacher sharing this vital information to our students. In my perspective the number priority is protecting the student from hurting themselves, bys performing poses that goes against the natural design of the spine. Michaelle Edwards author of YogAlign and contributor to Elelphant journal, her latest article " Flexibility can be a LIabilty." has written a book which explains in detail the benefits of balancing the fascia, proper alignment, not overstretching, and stretching while maintaining the curves of the spine and more. Happy to see more articles like this, because yoga should not hurt, but help make lives go better. Well done!

    anonymous Sep 30, 2013 10:22pm

    Thanks Joe,
    My article refers to both physical and psychological benefits of being naturally stiff and gradually overcoming that state on our path of yoga. Being naturally stiff can be seen as a gift and yoga asana practice is a tool which allows us to gradually transform it into a greater Mindfulness in our lives.