“I’m not flexible enough to do yoga” people say, as if flexibility is fixed, like blue eyes. But saying you are not flexible enough for yoga is like saying you are not thin enough to go on a diet.
Making flexibility a pre-requisite comes from labelling yoga as a kind of sport. Sport is by nature competitive and assumes you have to be “good” at something if you’re going to get anything out of it. No point taking up basketball if you’re 5-foot-tall. And whatever sport you choose, you have to push and strive and train to improve. But yoga is not a sport. As a much older yogi told me some decades ago – when I suggested that if I kept pushing myself I might one day become as flexible as her – “don’t push, my dear, just let the breath draw you on.”
Yoga is not about striving and training to be good at something. It’s a series of practices that over millennia have proved their value in helping people live more happily inside the body and mind they have this lifetime. It’s not about getting somewhere, but being curious about where we are, right now.
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjalis says the purpose of yoga is to remove the root causes of pain and suffering. That requires flexibility because the root causes of pain and suffering are embedded in the fixities of human nature. They start with our demand for things to be different to how they are, with our avoidance of stuff we don’t like and craving for stuff we do, with our poor little defensive egos and the way we muddle up our real selves with our thoughts.
Then there’s that other tendency – toward habit. We keep doing what we’ve always done, and getting what we’ve always got. To do something different, we need to be flexible. And flexibility – whether it’s physical, mental or attitudinal – takes some effort.
You may not believe it if you haven’t touched your toes in 20 years, but flexibility of the bodyis easiest of all. Flexibility in the body can be improved with a bit of movement and a bit of practice. Flexibility of in the mind is harder, but we know it can be done. We all know now about neuro-plasticity – if we keep doing crosswords and Sudoko we’ll continue to build happy synapses long into our dotage. Flexibility of attitude, however? That’s the toughest of all.
The ancient yogis knew that, so they started with the easy stuff: the body and breath. Yoga uses the simple vehicle of our physical body and works from the outside into the more subtle layers of being. Spending a little time focused on controlling small, precise movements; focusing on breathing; focusing inward; detaching from all the madness of life for just a few minutes – these are the first steps towards removing the root cause of pain and suffering in our minds.
Your root causes are in your mind. And mine are in my mind. They can be found deep in our habits and in the habit patterns of thought and attitude we’ve developed over a lifetime. To some extent imposed from the outside, but always nurtured from the inside.
Yoga practice starts out as a bit of a holiday from all that baggage. Eventually, with constant practice, some yogis reach enlightenment but, if you’ll forgive me, I’d call that a stretch goal. Just having better balance or good range of motion in your shoulders is not a bad place to start.
Yoga Nanna’s goal is to encourage people to become interested in maintaining knees that work, hips and shoulders that do what we need them to do for us late into our life span and to develop some skills for slowing down, being present and finding balance.
And, if you become one of those evolved souls who make the leap to enlightenment along the way, would you keep it to yourself? You might make the rest of us feel inadequate and start thinking that we’re not flexible enough for this yoga stuff.