Folks often come to yoga saying they either want to get flexible or declare that they are NOT flexible.
How we view flexibility is so different. It’s like this alluring Siren. We are drawn to it and fear it and know that it could hurt us so we also avoid it.
This week’s Home Yoga Practice explores Flexibility in multiple ways as a theme for a yoga plan.
Flexibility can mean so many things. Some feel it’s just stretching. Others feel it’s contortionism verging on the fantastic.
Basically, we have flex that takes on elastic and plastic traits.
Elasticity – the ability of something to pull apart and away and return back to its shape and form.
Plastic – the ability of something to pull apart and away and hold its shape and form.
Our skin, muscles, fascia, tendons and ligaments all have elastic and plastic abilities of varying degrees depending on our health and age.
Take skin for example. If you make a fist, the skin is moving and stretching and holds the shape of the curled up knuckles and bones. When you release the fist the skin to a certain degree, returns to its shape. But the skin of an infant comes back to a shape with fewer wrinkles. The older we get that skin loses elasticity – so it’s going to move, but not go back because it got stretched out and hit its max on resilience.
Now muscles. When we extend our arm, the bicep lengthens (or stretches). When when bend at the elbow, the bicep contracts. The bicep has a limit on the amount it can limit due to the bones locking in the elbow preventing any further extension or lengthening.
But the hamstring muscles (there are three main ones) contract for you to bend your knee (think bring your heel to your butt while standing). It’s the same as a bicep curl, kinda.
But to extending your shin forward, like kicking a ball, you will stretch or extend the hamstring muscles.
When we bend forward, the hamstring muscles are being stretched upward from the back of the knee as your upper body pulls forward.
If we sit a lot, and don’t walk or take long strides a lot, the hamstrings are almost always in a bicep curl, so lengthening it out feels intense. These are powerful muscles.
The extension and holding is the plasticity of that muscle. But if holding in a forward fold is excruciating you have a lot of elasticity (bounce back), not a lot of plasticity and probably range of length of that muscle area.
There’s a lot we can go into about the insertion points and attachments of the muscles into the bones. But let’s just stick to what moves and what wants to stop and how we can find some harmony or balance (sattva) and peace in the intensive.
Ultimately, if we are using yoga for physical balanced health, we want to find the fullest range of motion in any given area of the body AT THAT MOMENT with ease and steadiness. Finding that SATTVA. Because that range of movement helps our circulation, digestion, respiration, nervous system, elimination and our mental balance. As ranges of movement and body functions progress in ability we can change levels of intensity to test the capacity and possibilities, but all within a healthy respect of what is going on NOW.
Flexibility of the Mind
What happens when you encounter something that doesn’t go your way, or gets stuck, or causes an obstruction in your life? Do you tend to push, mind over matter and make it bend to your will? Do you give up? Do you feel it’s a failing on your part? Do you blame others?
Generally how we deal with the outside world is how we’ll deal with our inside world.
So as you position your body into a pose that lengthens a muscle area that’s resistant what happens in your mind?
Do you get mad? Do you recall a time when your body was able to do it with ease and get frustrated? (not accept the present by living in the past)
Do you push hard to force the area to stretch to a greater degree and risk injury? (show lack of patience for the process, only desiring the outcome)
The mental practices in yoga help us find new capacity and possibility and to let go of expectations. The mind is one of the most challenging landscapes of work in yoga. We have to find an honesty about what we’re avoiding and acceptance of the behavior and emotional patterns within us.
Do we accept truths or think we’re supposed to dominate our will over them?
What do we believe is worth our effort and what isn’t?
Does our mind get bored or is it really avoiding something that’s hard and we don’t want to admit it?
And in the end, are we willing to practice looking at what’s happening in our mind as we sit and hold a stretch in our bodies and confront what is truly being stretched with humility and a healthy dose of kindness?
Use the stretch and the breath as a meditation on intensity levels, ranges of sensation, and the ability to soften rather than double down on intensity.
This is a good thing to journal on, when we sit and hold something intense and watch it dissipate or fight. It reveals so much about what is really going on in our minds. (What to do about what’s going on in your mind? Let’s not worry about that just yet and just practice observing rather than looking away or attacking 🙂 )
Capacity and Possibility.
This is what the last two books of sutras help us ponder.
And in some ways you can see capacity and possibility as mirroring elasticity and plasticity.
Because we’ve got to get into them to feel them out and test the limits of the boundaries, just as in a stretch. Capacity can be seen as holding the shape, or the plasticity. And elasticity can be seen as possibility – how far can it go and come back?
The yogic journey connects us to our perception of the world and challenges the truths as we understand them.
How do we know how long we can hold something unless we try? And try again? And again? Because each moment is a single moment in time, not forever.
The Sutras in Book 3 start to take us into learning about holding a point of focus and holding our attention in an undistracted way. Within that we get to learn and understand states of change.
Stretching and flexibility are states of change on a physical level, but our mental focus on them take us to an understanding of the mental and spiritual landscape of change and how we react to them. The longer we hold them the more we become familiar with nuance and subtleties. It builds focus and equilibrium.
It takes this journey beyond the physical body house into the mental and spiritual channels.