For a long time I thought that being inflexible meant I couldn’t do yoga. I was wrong. It turns out all you need is a working pair of lungs.
When I was little, I wanted to be a ballerina—flexible, beautiful, graceful! But my body had other ideas. My arabesques were barely perpendicular, and splits were just a distant dream. I did once get to dance the role of a pumpkin in Cinderella, but long before my teens, I gave up ballet for tennis. Later I added running, something I still love to do.
Here’s a fun fact: running 40 miles a week year in and year out for a couple of decades really does a number on your hamstrings. When a friend suggested that yoga would be a good way to stretch them back out again, I went with her to a class. We went from pose to pose, none of which I knew. Downward dog? Warrior? It was ballet all over again. My hamstrings were screaming. The teacher even came over and tried to push me deeper, without success. I was a freak! I decided yoga wasn’t for me.
Later, living in Europe, another friend invited me to yet another yoga class. “No,” I said. “I can’t do yoga. I’m way too inflexible.” She said it didn’t matter, that this class was mainly about the breath.
The breath? I’d never heard that about yoga. I thought it involved being flexible. This friend didn’t seem particularly bendy. And I did need to do something about those hamstrings. I decided to give it a try. But I made sure the teacher knew just how hopeless a case I was.
To my surprise, this yoga was mostly about the breath. I went back. The six of us met once a week, learning the basic asanas. Our teacher did all the poses with us so we could see what they were supposed to look like. She gently corrected us. No music. No mirrors. No special yoga clothing.
I remember the day we tried camel. My hands groped back towards my heels like caterpillars trying to land on a branch. No dice. But another day—surprise—a seated twist with bent legs, Ardha Matsyendrasana, was easy for me. No matter what pose we did, our teacher reminded us to breathe our way through it. “Life is change,” she said, over and over and over again.
As the months and years went by, my hips, shoulders, and hamstrings began to ever so slowly open up with the flow of my breath, and my life did change. It occurred to me that I could accept and experience my body as it was, instead of wishing it was bendy. This in turn meant letting go of my cherished “hopeless case” identity. (Now I’m just a “case.”)
These days I do yoga in a big Vancouver studio. I’ve gone from one class a week to four or five. I’ve tried kundalini, hatha, and vinyasa flow. Without being too envious, I marvel at the human pretzels from my perch in downward facing dog, my knees still bent, my heels a couple inches off the ground. Headstand is still a distant idea. But that doesn’t matter. I have found my breath and it’s a revelation. I inhabit this body at this moment, in this place. I remind myself of my teacher’s words: “Blessed are the stiff, for they reach their edge just that much more easily.” Because, of course, that’s where the true work of yoga is done—the work of the breath and the spirit—at your edge, wherever it happens to be. You move, you breathe. It really is that simple.
So there you have it. Any stiff can do yoga and even come to love yoga. And because everybody loves a list, here’s one with some well-intentioned advice for the inflexible:
1) It’s better to wade in than dive in if you’re super-inflexible. It took many years for you to get this way, and it’s not going to reverse itself overnight. Give it some time. I can recommend the formula that worked for me: gentle/beginner class, not too big, a teacher who knows his/her alignment, at least weekly for a couple of years. That kept me from getting injured and discouraged. Don’t be afraid to try out a lot of different studios and teachers until you find a formula that feels right to you.
2) Tell your teacher about your limitations and what’s going on in your body. That way he or she can suggest adaptations for you, or props you can use to keep your practice safe. And then listen to that advice!
3) Keep your competitive nature out of it. If you’re coming from another sport, this can be challenging. Getting to the most advanced version of the pose is not the goal. Fitness is not the goal. The goal is to move with your breath as a means of turning inward. Those other things are possible side effects, but not essential. Try closing your eyes or keeping them softly focused on a drishti point in front of you instead of comparing yourself to the bendy Berthas in the class, or, god forbid, looking in a mirror.
4) Pay attention to your breath. If you can’t take a full, deep breath in a pose, or if you’re clenching your jaw, brow and shoulders like you’re Sisyphus about to roll the damn rock up the mountain yet one more time, you’ve gone too far. Back off. As one of my teachers loves to say: “Suffering is optional.”
5) Remember that life is change. While you might come to yoga to increase your flexibility like I did, you might end up staying because you’ve found something else altogether. Set aside your expectations and be open to what arises.
If I were to go back to that first agonizing class today, I’d be fine. I’d do my yoga, I’d bliss out in corpse pose, and that would be that. The difference is huge but amazingly simple, and it’s nothing more than coming home to my breath. We think we’re all such unique little snowflakes, but in reality, we’re all exactly alike. Breathe in, breathe out. Perfection.
I can’t imagine my life without yoga, and it nearly didn’t happen. I may not look like it from the outside, but I am a yogini. And no matter what kind of body you inhabit, you can be too.
Author: Mary Parlange
Editor: Evan Yerburgh