March 4th, 2019

DO I HAVE TO BE FLEXIBLE TO DO YOGA? Part I

As a yoga teacher, I hear it all too often. An apology, clause, and excuse:

“But I’m not very flexible”, “I can’t touch my toes”, “Yoga- isn’t that the thing I saw on some talk show where a guy wrapped his legs around his head?”, and: “I’m too old/fat/insert pejorative here to do that!”.

The truth is, you CAN- and will benefit from- yoga, regardless of your size, age, or any other physical distinguishing factors. In fact, when I first came to yoga, I had little awareness of its association with a certain type of body. Yoga was one of the choices offered to fulfill the physical education requirement at my liberal arts college, and as an active but not particularly athletic person, it appealed to me more than choices like basketball or tennis. The class was held in a gymnasium free of frills. Class was held without music. The teacher wore simple clothes, and so did my classmates, who usually headed straight from yoga to religious courses, and were dressed accordingly in modest clothing. The asana (physical postures) we learned were simple but challenging. Most classes ended with pranayama, or breathwork, a vital component of  yoga practice that is often a footnote in the fitness-oriented classes commonly found in the West.

It was only later, as I outgrew my college requirement and began to attend classes, that I realized many bodies were  missing from the yoga class. Usually bigger bodies, older bodies, non-white bodies. And I saw many teachers encouraging the most advanced version of a pose even when students were struggling or showing poor alignment in basic variations of the pose.

My training in Gentle Therapeutics Yoga was a return to my roots of recognizing that yoga is a process, just as life is. It’s not about whether you can do that fancy arm balance (or touch your toes), not about whether you look a certain way, but rather about meeting your body where it is TODAY to nourish and challenge it. Of course, feeling good in our respective body shapes, strengths and mobilities can be part of the equation, but it’s only one part.