January 8, 2014

Help! I Have WD-40 in My Joints: A Conversation on Yoga & Flexibility.

You know how fish flop when they’re out of water?

Yeah—sometimes I feel like that.

My body is built in such a way that I can force it into doing a lot of floppy, gummy things—my foot will reluctantly go in foreign directions and my back will bend in ways that may worry bystanders.

Flexibility has not been the issue of my yoga practice—my body has opened up to me pretty quickly.

I find that this has created internal shifting as well. It took me a year to evolve my forward fold from fingers-to-toes to forehead-to-shin. It took me six months to open my shoulders enough to bind myself in side stretches and twists.

I’ve noticed that because of this (or maybe not because of this, perhaps just coincidentally), I encounter and move through a lot of emotions. The jump-start to my flexibility (which I didn’t have until I started yoga—when I came to my yoga mat, I could barely touch my toes) creates swells of emotion moving in and out of me, as my body moves through dramatic shaping.

I realize that most people are built oppositely: their body opens up much slower and it might take three years to find one more inch in the hamstring. I realize that for a lot of people, the continual transitions from standing to folding to sitting to standing to lying down to pushing up to squatting is a nightmare on par with being told that you missed the calling of your ticket at the DMV and will have to get a new number. I realize that my practice may elicit eye-rolling from the students in the back who stop midway through project poses to look at other people and feel bad about themselves.

But here is what I think: my body is not better than your body.

I know that there are a slew of time-lapsed yoga videos online (I have some myself) where beautiful, slim bodied women film their practice as if they are trying to show you that they are a wire hanger that can bend back and forth forever and never break.

I know it’s easy to look at all this “yoga” and think that the point of it all is the bendiness. But I think I was given bendiness because it’s exactly what my inner-body practice needs: I have lived a life full of emotion, and it needs to move through and out of me somehow.

I think I have what Iyengar might call an organic body type: it’s not flexibility that I need to look at, it’s integration.

It feels like I have WD-40 in my joints, and although I appreciate the range of motion my body allows me, my awareness is needed in my alignment. I need to make sure that as I move into poses that open me up in various ways that I align my body specifically and stay honest with myself that just because I banged out king pigeon yesterday doesn’t mean my body necessarily wants to align itself into the pose today. 

It’s easy for me to allow sloppiness in my practice, where my body flows from (almost painful) shape to (almost painful) shape. It’s easy for me to let go of my attention to alignment because my attention to alignment is something only I can hold myself accountable for.

My teacher cannot make me align my body properly, only I can do that. And it’s easy to justify not doing that when there’s a room full of experienced yogis and my initial instinct is to be part of the race. No one will know if I skip my principles of alignment in pyramid pose to get a deeper fold, and my practice becomes a continual reminder: I am not practicing for other people, I am practicing for myself.

Alignment of the body means alignment of the mind.

When I’m not paying attention to the alignment of my body, I hurt myself. When I’m not paying attention to the alignment of my body, it’s because my mind has aligned itself with my ego and I am feeling distracted and foggy.

This entire practice is designed to clear us, and our bodies are our instruments of learning: each body encountering the gift of resistance in unique ways, whether we experience that as flexibility or in-flexibility.

Here’s the secret of a lot of really flexible people: we aren’t strong.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m stronger than I’ve ever been, and I could probably do a fairly decent job in an arm-wrestling competition right now, but strength does not come easily to me. It takes me a long time to build strength, regardless of my diet or personal habits.

In fact, I need to supplement my yoga practice with strength training two or three times a week so that when I come to my mat, my body is more integrated in its strength and my flexibility is supported by that.

WD-40 in my joints means that my joints need way more support: my muscle systems around my joints need to be strong, and I can straight-up forget about trying to do a downward facing dog without engaging my fingers and forearms into a fire to protect my wrists.

I am prone to injury because of all of this, the same way that my emotional life is prone to injury when I move through my emotions carelessly.

We all have our own things, and our lives are constructed specifically for our growth. To think about life this way creates the space for me to realize that comparing myself to anyone else just doesn’t make sense. Why would I look at the lessons other people are going through and think that they are somehow more relevant to my life than my own lessons?

Come on, Brentan, that’s not what this is all about.

If you’re a bear thundering on a mountaintop, be a bear thundering on a mountaintop. If you’re a rabbit feeding under a bush, be that; if you’re a grazing lion, be that comfy king.

I’ll just be over here, the floppy fish that I am.

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Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: 416style/Flickr

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