“I’m not flexible enough to do yoga!” – we’ve heard this all before.
You heard it from a friend who ditched you on your planned yoga date over a last full show of Mad Max instead. Maybe it came from your brother (or sister) who preferred “stronger” workouts to “stretching” body parts. Perhaps, you yourself used this as an excuse. You used it as a mind-bargaining chip to spare yourself of the self-flagellating “I told you so” at the end of class. In fact, you used it to form some sort of storyline in your head; your internal monologue revolved around it. That was, of course, long before you finally just took the courage and, quite simply, gave yoga a real shot. No judgments, no drama playing out in your head, you just jumped. That wasn’t so bad now, was it? Props to you!
But what if, and just maybe, this IS you still. You are still using it as an excuse. You are still having that internal monologue in your head; right this second, right here right now. You still have that Deal Grocer coupon stored somewhere on your mailbox waiting to be redeemed. You hate to be right—to find out that, yes, you do need to be flexible enough to practice yoga! So now you choose to be that person.
Whoever that person is (as this could be where you are now) or was, at some point in time, we have experienced or still experiencing some form of anxiety as the thought of starting our yoga practice came up. We probably all shared that experience, regardless of how flexible we were prior to taking our first yoga class. We managed to conjure images of super bendy people getting their foot behind their head and twisting themselves into shapes that reminded you and would only resemble that of a pretzel. You vowed to yourself, “I will never be able to do that!” You are not entirely to blame. Social media played and, is in fact, still playing a huge role. #ekapadasirasana – yes, I mean it, take the time, go to Instagram, plug the hashtag, scroll. Get my drift?
That got me wondering. Funnily enough, strength or even the idea of “being strong enough” just is or was not an issue to most people prior to starting their practice. I had a couple of years of dance training to help me out when I started my yoga practice. Perhaps unlike others, I had no fear of not being flexible enough. In fact, I rejoiced in knowing that, with this flexibility, I will not look like a fool in class. Well, guess what? I still looked very much like a fool, at least in my eyes. See, in my first ever yoga class, there were no splits (or legs behind the head) at all in the entire sequence. We did, however, have to hold our Warrior II’s, our Triangles and our Side Angles. (#virabhadrasana2, #trikonasana, #parsvakonasana – these are for your reference, should you need it ).
So why then was strength, for most people, not an issue? Why is flexibility the main issue for most, if not all, people? Is it because we naturally think of ourselves to be strong but not flexible? Or as a society, do we put a premium on strength (thinking that it is the be all and end all) without ever pushing the envelope in defining what TRUE strength is truly about? In any case, I believe that to be another topic in itself worth exploring in another piece. But for the purpose of this piece, perhaps, we settle on something. Perhaps it all stems from the images that we conjure, and these are the ones that truly persist and linger often, when we think yoga.
Now going back, as I held those poses throughout class, my legs shook violently. My arms felt like Jell-O. Those of you who already mustered enough courage to take your first yoga class could probably relate to my experience. You did not mind holding Downward Facing Dog (#AdhoMukhaSvanasana) for 10 breaths (or even for more) though the back of your thighs certainly felt like rubber bands being stretched to their limits. That was because you listened to the teacher and actually kept your knees slightly bent and opted to straighten your spine instead. Like me, you probably dreaded most what came before and after Downward Facing Dog. You dreaded holding Plank position because your arms shook violently and your “six-pack” could not help keep your hips lining up with your shoulders. As for the infamous Chair Pose (#utkatasana — Let’s not even begin to talk about the feelings that arose as we held it for what probably and always felt like an eternity!)
In sharing that, my main goal either is not to preach about how yoga is truly all about strength and not really about flexibility. I share it to provide a little perspective, I hope. Regardless of how flexible you are, more often than not, yoga challenges more of our strength. But that regardless of how strong you are prior to first yoga class, it asks of you a different type of strength. Now, perhaps for others it will demand them to be flexible, perhaps not really. I believe it requires both and asks that you be both, sometimes a little more of one than the other.
In my year and a half of practicing yoga, I have come to realize two main things, among many others. First, there are no real requirements to starting out a practice; just that you can breathe is more than enough. Second, there really are no premiums placed on being strong or being flexible when you start out. In fact, I would like to take that further and say that, in yoga, there is no dichotomy between strength and flexibility. It is not one or the other (even though we might be starting out or have started out in a particular spectrum). It is not an either-or issue. In truth, possessing one or the other does not make yoga easier or harder.
Yoga does not ask you to JUST be strong. It does not ask you to JUST be flexible. At least speaking from my own experience, it asks you, instead, to be supple – to find a middle ground, a sweet spot. It requires you to find a place wherein you can hold a certain pose or sustain a particular muscular effort for 5-8 full breaths. There should be a balance of effort and ease, something that you probably heard your teachers say. Translated, it simply means not only to build enough strength but also (and at the same time) to cultivate enough flexibility – again, to be supple.
Yoga is never just about the physical practice. Beyond the mat, it teaches you that in dealing with life situations, you can never just approach them with one method over the other. It asks of you to be supple as well. How can we balance being firm with being tolerant? If we live our lives based firmly on just responsibilities, how may we cultivate experiences done purely out of our own satisfaction? Do we take more than we give or do we give more than we take? Point being, as always, that it has to be equally both. Can we show a sense of compassion or a mere glimpse of vulnerability when the situation calls for a high degree of seriousness and strength of will and character? Can we allow our minds to be like our body – to be supple – in both thoughts and actions? The really happy, successful people, I think, are such because, long before we understood or starting to understand this, they already did. Now you ask, what do these happy, successful people and foot-behind-the-head yogis have in common? Practice. I think that while we spent time creating drama in our heads and indulging in these internal monologues, those people were practicing their thoughts and actions. They were already working towards being supple.
So whenever you catch yourself or someone saying, “I’m not flexible enough to do yoga,” first, you ask him or her, “are you strong enough to do yoga?” Now, this is only meant to disorient them, never to make them doubt their own abilities. Before letting them answer that question, tell them it is never about being flexible or being strong. It is about accepting how flexible or inflexible and how strong or weak you are and working towards finding the middle ground. We all start somewhere. Never nowhere, never a definite somewhere. We do, however, have it within ourselves, within our capacity, to work towards the sweetest and supple spot, in and out of the mat. #suppleisthenewstrong
by Ron Habla
Ron graduated from his 200-hour teacher training last year and currently teaches FNR and Vinyasa Flow in Urban Ashram Manila.