Since the release of my DVD on yoga back bending, I have often been asked about my flexibility: Is it natural? Did I develop this flexibility only from yoga? Is it genetic or anatomical? Was I flexible as a kid?
When I say, “no”, I get some pretty surprised looks. I still remember when the splits were miles from my reach as well as any of the advanced back bends. I stretched upward and saw the ceiling only. It felt like entering a black hole.
Fast forward thirty years,and I am more flexible at forty than as a kid, a teenager or my early twenties. Most people assume you can’t develop flexibility beyond a certain age. I don’t necessarily agree. My husband (who is not into yoga at all) witnessed me developing much more flexibility in my early forties than in my mid-thirties.
From a recent e-mail, I was asked whether or not flexibility is something developed, genetic and/or accessible for everyone. Below are some of my answers:
Do you attribute your flexibility mainly to the asanas?
There is no question that I developed this because of yoga. And when I say yoga, it is not just the practice of the postures, but the entire system which includes breathing, meditation, relaxation and studying the scriptures. Overall, I would say ‘yes’, I do attribute my flexibility to the practice, because I trained and practiced for hours on end, which have turned into years of literally hard work. I think it is nice to consider the notion of hidden flexibility, but having worked through the various stages of releasing blockages in my spine, hips, legs and shoulders, I understand it was a dedicated practice that led to the physical flexibility.
From a physical standpoint, my upper spine is technically on a 30 plus degree angle. Most people do not know this about me. So I have actually taught my body to do these postures despite what would normally be considered a fairly severe limitation.
What techniques you have learned from your Guru?
What made the difference for me was looking at the practice from beyond the physical level. I was compelled to look inwardly at what was blocking me mentally and emotionally. I could see my back was not bending so working on the physical level alone was not going to help me. I made this connection very early on.
When I met Yogacharya Venkatesha, his teachings articulated what I already knew. He focused on working from the pranic (the level of energy). I was taught not to think of the poses as the end-all-be-all, but instead to learn how to be with them, and stay present within them—I was using my body to work on my mind. I am not always successful with the latter, which is a lifetime of exploration, and more difficult than body training.
While I went to different teachers and studied many books, my personal practice informed me the most. But my teacher taught me that.
Which ones are you teaching now?
I remind people to practice beyond the physical level. I say remind, because this is not something I can teach. It is inside of them. My role is to teach students how to breathe, to press at their own edge and to go inside. Without these instructions you simply force the body and grow frustrated when it does not respond. I always emphasize this is a process.
The practice is an uphill battle, which is not a marketable truth. Many people don’t really understand how much is required on ALL levels in order to achieve the flexible back (if that is what is truly desired).
Would you say that you were always a ‘bit’ flexible?
There will always be arguments around the genetics of flexibility. Was I already predisposed to being flexible? Hard to say for sure and no one can answer that. Had I chosen a totally different career, I would have never developed my back bends.
Early on I was taught to apply a theory to the practice. When people see extreme flexibility, they believe it is natural. What is not visible is the struggle – the years of practice and not getting it right. In India, I practiced hard and my teacher witnessed it. From the outside, it might look like something magical happening. But there are no tricks. There is just practice.
I do see a lot of very stiff people, and I’m sure they would benefit from your teachings, but would they ever get as flexible as you?
If the physical goal is flexibility alone then this is not going to happen to these extremes. Yoga works when the theory of the practice is applied. For the postures to emerge, there must be a shift internally and mentally. It is mental determination over the body and purity of heart. The practice does not give results easily. Frustration can be channeled into fuel for practice. It is easy to get down on yourself, but don’t forget that the journey of moving through this practice is far more beautiful than reaching the top of the mountain. I often ask the question, what would change if your feet came to your head? Would you be happier? Calmer? More generous? Less angry? The fruit of the practice comes from abandoning reservations and practicing consistently.
What’s the biggest lesson you learned?
The greatest lesson of yoga is learning to accept your body and its limitations. What I have learned is to work with myself and my various assets as well as my shortcomings. When you start doing this you don’t look at a short torso and longer legs, and sigh. You figure out how it all works because it is the only thing you have. I have learned to appreciate all pains and set-backs (doing this all the time is the next lesson).
Think of the martial artist Bruce Lee: He said he had a leg that was one inch shorter than the other! He used this to develop a better kick over his opponents. This is great inspiration.
Originally published on Elephant Journal, April 2012.
© Copyright of The Yoga Way, 2012- 2013.