September 26, 2013

Touching the Toes: It Matters. ~ Terra Milander

In classical yoga today, we are uniting the mind, body and spirit.

So, when I see all these pinterest quotes and facebook posts that “touching your toes doesn’t matter, it’s what you learn on the way down,” I start to ask myself …. but, doesn’t it? Isn’t that a point of yoga, to bring that balance back to your life?

I often remind my students that the focus of class isn’t to become more flexible or stronger, that will happen on its own. What should be focused on is the breath, how the body feels in that moment and how your mind reacts to the situations on your mat.

But a very real benefit and reason to practice yoga is the physical aspects, the “body” of mind, body and soul. I totally understand that those posters online are great encouragement for those people who cannot-yet touch their toes, and for letting the public know that toe touching is not a pre-requisite for a yoga practice. That’s all ego play.

It’s a common concern of all new students that they will look out of place in class and the other gumby yogis in the room will scour at their bent knees in forward fold.

As yoga advocates, we should share all the glories that a yoga practice can offer and inform everyone of the very simple ways they can balance out their life.

It’s a little misleading: touching your toes doesn’t matter, but hold this forward fold for 10 breaths and keep reaching the crown of your head to your toes. “What?! Not just hands to feet? Head to feet! Liars, you said I didn’t have to do this, you said I just had to learn!”

The physical truth is that flexible hamstrings can prevent injuries to the body and keep you in balanced health. As our society becomes more sedentary and we find ourselves sitting for the majority of our day, the hamstring (a group of muscles that run along the back of the thigh) shorten and stiffen as the knee stays bent.

Then as we get up to walk or even run, the tight hamstring has strain placed on it when it is extended as it pulls the body forward through your stride. Doing this work from an extended position places a greater risk of injury on this group of muscles.

Keeping the muscles supple, flexible and strong are great ways to keep the balance in the body and reduce the risk of mild to sever strain. Not to mention how it can strengthen your torso and improve your posture, allowing you to stand with a neutral spine that can take off pressure from so many other points in the body such as vertebrae, neck and shoulders and hips.

Keeping a long, straight torso in uttanasana can help counteract the daily rounding and weakening of the shoulders and back muscles.

And, if you can get to the point in your forward fold where your head is below your heart, you get all those great benefits of inversion such as calming the mind, relieving stress and depression and bringing that fresh rush of oxygen to the brain.

I am not at all saying to tell current of prospective students that the goal of yoga is for them to touch their toes. Obviously, we can all agree that it doesn’t really matter where you start, just that you start. And we never want to cue students to go past their abilities and hurt their bodies.

But, bringing that balance and flexibility back into tight hamstrings can bring a lot of relief to the body. And, after all, the body is an equal 33 percent of that trio we are uniting!

So don’t forget to unite the body with your practice, let your students know the physical benefits of poses as well as the mental and then gently remind them that this isn’t the focus of our practice, however, it is an important aspect of balancing the body overall that a yoga practice naturally brings.


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Assistant Ed: Bruce Casteel/Ed: Sara Crolick


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