Yoga and Flexibility: Do You Have to be Bendy?

This entry was posted on Jul 3, 2014 by Charlotte Bell.

Fred is hands down the least flexible person I’ve ever encountered. In 33 years of teaching asana, I’ve never seen anyone who came close to his lack of mobility. His Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) was little more than a forward nod. Before coming to my classes, he had not sat on the floor since childhood, and required tall stacks of yoga blankets to do so. But he didn’t mind using props for every single pose. They helped him feel more relaxed. He came to my classes weekly for more than two years, and consistently reported how much better he felt because of yoga and what a difference it made in his life.

Fred had other physical issues as well. He had clubfeet, making balancing and standing poses very challenging. But he was happy to make use of the wall. His biggest physical challenge though was one that in retrospect might have been an advantage, at least for asana practice in the context of a class. Fred was blind.

Fred’s experience of asana was completely internal. He had no idea how inflexible he was because he couldn’t see what everyone else was doing. He was free from the idea that he “couldn’t do yoga because he wasn’t flexible,” a statement all yoga teachers have heard from reticent students. Fred’s practice was entirely in the moment. His restrictions were not something to be ashamed of; they were simply felt sensations. What the rest of us interpreted as limitations in his body held no charge for him. In some ways, his practice was the purest of any I’ve seen.

If Fred had been able to see himself compared to others around him, he likely would have come to one class and never returned. But because he was unable to compare himself to others, he was completely content with his practice. He understood the true value of practice—that it can add a measure of grace to your movements through life.

Why We Practice Yoga Asana

TKV Desikachar said, “The success of yoga does not lie in the ability to perform postures, but in how it positively changes the way we live our life and our relationships.” Yoga asana is an incredible healing technology. The melding of breath and movement can revitalize us as it smooths out edgy nervous systems. When practiced with humility and mindfulness, it can change the way we live in our bodies, creating an environment that can facilitate the transformation of our minds and emotions.

But these benefits have absolutely nothing to do with whether or not we can perform fancy poses or how far we can push our bodies into standard poses. In fact, the sutras’ definition of mastery of asana says nothing about performance:

“[Asana] is mastered when all effort is relaxed and the mind is absorbed in the Infinite.”

If this is what mastery is, anyone living in any body can master asana. What is required is, in my experience, much more challenging than simply performing fancy poses. What’s required is a mind/ego that can be present, without preference or longing for “more” or “better.” It is the calm presence that can be with what is no matter what our pose—or someone else’s—looks like.

Yoga and Flexibility Are Not Synonymous

Yoga and flexibility may go hand in hand in popular interpretations of practice. But that’s just a coupling we’ve decided on as a culture. Yoga and flexibility are not synonymous. Yoga resides in the deeper layers of our being.

This is the lesson that Fred taught me. Despite his barely moveable body, he embodied mastery of asana. He left class with a peaceful mind that continued throughout the week. No inversions, backbends or toe-touching (or even knee-touching) required. Fred’s gift was his presence and his gratitude, gifts that do not fade as our bodies age and evolve. May we all discover this timeless grace.

About Charlotte Bell
Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. Her third book is titled Hip-Healthy Asana: The Yoga Practitioner’s Guide to Protecting the Hips and Avoiding SI Joint Pain (Shambhala Publications). She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.

3 responses to “Yoga and Flexibility: Do You Have to be Bendy?”

  1. Avatar Rogelio Nunez says:

    Hi Charlotte, thank you for sharing this story, it is beautiful…
    I wonder how you felt when this student first came to class?
    OH the one definition of perfection/mastery of asana, that i’ve read is perfection is achieved when it becomes effortless effort.
    which for me has a different meaning than the quote above…in other words there is effort/actions one must do in order to be in the asana, but it is not perceived as an effort. Effort for me = action, not movement/motion…without the action to sit or stand or lie, one cannot maintain a pose with proper alignment…what do you think?

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, as always. When Fred first came to class, I thought, “OMG, how am I going to fit this guy into my classes?” His restrictions were so far beyond anything I’ve ever seen. I really had to hone my verbal skills, because he couldn’t see demonstrations, and he had very little body awareness. He was in such a different space from the rest of the students, but they all welcomed him and many told me how inspired they were by his commitment.

      My teacher, Pujari, who lived at RIMYI for periods in his younger days and did very intense practices with Iyengar every day, talked about the effort/no effort question this way: He would talk about how whenever we go to perform an asana, it begins with a gesture. Effort is implicit in that gesture. We set the intention to create a particular shape in our bodies, we move into it, and then we use mindfulness to make whatever adjustments are appropriate in order to allow the pose to become effortless.

      Of course, if you’re practicing a standing pose, there’s always going to be effort exerted in order to keep from falling onto the floor in a heap! But all the attention to alignment is to help us set up our structures in such an efficient and harmonious way that the pose becomes self sustaining. Does this make sense?

  2. Avatar Rogelio Nunez says:

    HI Charlotte,
    I thought you might have reacted that way, I know I would have…I have worked with persons with disabilities, but they seemed to be very well adjusted, more so than some healthy folks…
    As far as the effortless asana, I agree with your teacher, but in a sense we are in the process of mastering poses within our capacity, all poses not just sitting or lying down…and perfection or mastering a pose is lofty goal…maybe for me, if i still have effort in poses but can keep the mind detached/quite, that would be more valuable than being physically in effortless state….I am still figuring things out and testing new ideas and concepts…thanks for letting me bounce things with you…Namaskar..
    Oh I could not respond to the blog on Anyanasana, the lunge w a twist, i did try it and it seemed that it put quite a bit of torsion on the shoulder of the arm that stays still grounded and the bent knee on the ground hmm not comfortable…for an experienced student ok but for less practiced hmm not sure about it…if i want to get into my thoracic spine, which i do often, Parvritta upavista konasana and Parvritta janu sirsasana, do the trick. much more stable and with practice students can work into it without dealing w shoulders…
    but that is my body…for the lower spine there are many basic poses for that as you know….

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