Rethink Flexibility

October 14, 2014    BY Shawn Kirby

Most of us have read amazing stories of miracles performed by great masters. Tales of yogis levitating, transmuting matter, and even disappearing into thin air tantalize and fascinate us by virtue of their seeming improbability. An entire section of the Yoga Sutra is dedicated to descriptions of various siddhis, or powers, which it claims are the fruit of diligent practice. For many of us these stories remain just stories—the rarified experiences of adepts in faraway lands seem irrelevant as we stand on our rubber mats, working through yet another trikonasana variation. Yet it was in a simple asana class that I first experienced what could only be described as a miracle.

...it was in a simple asana class that I first experienced what could only be described as a miracle.

At the time, I had been studying privately with a teacher in the Viniyoga tradition for more than two years. After instruction in asana, pranayama, and meditation techniques, we would sit in her kitchen and discuss the next week’s practice over a notebook of stick-figure drawings and a cup of tea. During one such conversation she asked me how I thought I was progressing in my practice.

“I guess I thought by now I’d be more flexible than I am,” I replied. “I’ve been practicing asana for years and I can barely touch my toes.”

She smiled, a bemused look crossing her face, and then asked me to come back over to the mat, where she began to guide me through pashchimottanasana, the seated forward bend. I had seen pictures of the posture in various yoga magazines and books—lean yogis or yoginis stretched across their legs, noses tucked gently between their knees, looking for all the world as though they might drop off to sleep at any moment, such was their level of ease. I had never managed much more than a grunting strain, my hands hovering somewhere above my shins.

As I went into the posture my teacher instructed me to close my eyes. Then she began to give me verbal cues: to allow my skin to lengthen along a certain part of my back, to breathe into a part of my hip. Moment after moment, she would find the area in which I was hanging on and ask me to find that place in my body and let go. After a period of time, which could have been an hour or five minutes, I found myself in perfect pashchimottanasana. Had I not been so focused on my body and breath I might well have panicked. I remained in the posture as my teacher went back to the kitchen counter and began shuffling through her notebook, signaling that I could rejoin her when I was ready.

“How did you do that?” I asked, still in a daze.

“I didn’t do anything,” she replied. “You did the posture.”

“But…how is that even possible? I don’t understand. What happened just now that hasn’t happened before? How is my body even capable of that?”

She looked at me steadily for a moment, and I noticed a glint of steel in her kind eyes. “Flexibility is not a product of effort. The harder you try to become flexible the more you will fail. This is true of the body…and the mind.”

Yoga for Flexibility

The Western, namely American, idea of flexibility is that it is a product of “stretching.” We tend to think of our bodies as being rather like shoe leather—tough material that we can manipulate over time to make it more pliable. It is this competitive attitude that often causes injury from doing yoga asanas. Asana practice performed with a spirit of competitiveness and ego can often become an act of violence performed on your own body. Nothing could be further from the spirit of the sages who first formalized yoga practice.

To illustrate why the common notion that the body is made of inert and unintelligent “stuff” that needs to be “stretched” is false, you need only to perform a simple test. Most yoga practitioners don’t incorporate the splits into their asana practice. Consequently, many extremely limber yogis and yoginis cannot achieve this posture unless they were ballet students or gymnasts in their youth. The “difficult” nature of the posture makes it perfect for my purposes.

Go into your kitchen and place one foot on the counter. Unless you are unusually stiff you should be able to position yourself so that your legs form a ninety-degree angle. (Make sure you inwardly rotate the upraised leg, and allow a slight backbend in the lumbar spine. You can also bend the knee of the supporting leg.)

What’s stopping you?

Here’s the thing—no muscles, no tendons, and no ligaments from the upraised leg are connected to the leg standing on the ground. Each leg is completely independent from the other. As you can plainly see, you already have all the “muscle length” you need to perform the splits right now. So why can’t you perform the posture? What’s stopping you? It obviously isn’t that your muscles need “stretching.”

The Nature of Restrictions

As a Certified Rolfer, working with connective tissue is my stock and trade. I began my training at the Rolf Institute in Boulder, Colorado, after having received the Rolfing Ten Series and seeing the difference that it made in my body and in my yoga practice. Rolfing deals almost exclusively with connective tissue, the fascia that connects and gives form and structure to the entire body. The Ten Series is Dr. Ida Rolf’s systematic intervention to bring the body into alignment in gravity. At the end of the Ten Series I was better able to breathe and stood almost an inch taller. Yet I still couldn’t touch my toes, even after all the work that my Rolfer had done on my hamstrings. As my yoga teacher had demonstrated years earlier, my lack of flexibility was not due to a need to “stretch” the connective tissue in my legs—significant intervention on those tissues had done little to improve my flexibility. This connective tissue restriction is an adaptation of the body to cope with stress; it does not cause a restriction in the range of motion. So what does?

The Proprioceptive Nervous System

A person with frozen-shoulder syndrome regains complete range of motion while under a general anesthetic. As this phenomenon illustrates, it is your nervous system that governs your range of motion, namely the proprioceptive nervous system. Within your muscles are a number of different “sensors,” such as muscle spindle fibers and golgi tendon organs. These sensors help keep you from injuring yourself from a sudden tear or strain by governing your range of motion in active movement. The reason you can’t do the splits or a perfect pashchimottanasana is because your body, having adapted to a limited range of motion in your day-to-day activities, has set these limits as the baseline for all your movements. Attempt to move beyond these safeguards and your nervous system causes your muscles to shut down to keep you from sustaining what is perceived as a potential injury. These responses can be manipulated to dramatic effect through visualization and concentration—techniques that we tend to think of only in terms of our meditation practice.

Try this experiment. Stand up and kick your leg up in the air in front of you as high as you can. Now close your eyes and visualize your sacrum. Allow it to become heavier and heavier, as though it were made of lead. Take your time and really focus on this. Open your eyes and kick again. The first time I did this, my leg floated a full foot higher than it had only moments previously, and another six inches on the next attempt. Obviously the extended range of motion gained from the visualization wasn’t the result of stretching—you didn’t do any. What did you do?

Your sense of your location in space is what allows the antagonists to completely relax while the agonist is contracting. To understand what I mean, grab a can of soup, or some other moderately heavy object. Place two fingers gently on your biceps, and “curl” the can of soup by lifting it to your shoulder. You’ll notice your biceps (the agonist here) flexing as it does the work of lifting the soup can—this is obvious. What isn’t so obvious is that in order for the biceps to do its job, it must work in direct partnership with your triceps (the antagonist in this motion). If the triceps doesn’t completely relax as you attempt the curl, your range of movement will be restricted. If you perform the curl again and feel the back of your arm carefully, you’ll not only feel a relaxed triceps muscle but a subtle, yet palpable, difference in the energetic quality of the tissue.

Like everything else in life, for there to be strength, weakness must be present. How could we know the strong but through the contrast of the yielding? Incongruence between the agonist and the antagonist partnership, which can cause a restriction in the range of motion, is common in the shoulders, the hips, and the upper legs—all areas commonly targeted by yoga asanas.

By bringing attention to an area of the body, such as the bone or the skin, that is inactive during a movement, you allow the muscle to let go. It seems odd, almost unscientific, but the mere act of bringing your conscious attention to an area or even type of tissue in your body can trigger that release. You have made a crucial shift: from an ego-centered activity—stretching your muscles—to observing the body from a place of witness.

Surrender

So what does all this have to do with Self-realization or the deeper dimensions of yoga? My answer is that the way to flexibility of the body is the same as the way to the Self—surrender.

Alan Watts used to joke that Buddha’s four noble truths were actually the first koan, a nonsensical puzzle designed to reach a dead end. Since, according to the Buddha, the cause of all suffering is desire, his disciples set out to overcome desire. After a great deal of struggle and effort, they eventually realized that they were desiring not to desire. The point is, no matter what you do from a standpoint of ego, it is still ego. To quote Watts: “You cannot get rid of the ego through an action of the ego. It simply won’t work.” What will? Surrender.

When asked who the greatest devotee is, Sri Ramana Maharshi answered: “He who gives himself up to the Self that is God is the most excellent devotee…Whatever burdens are thrown on God, He bears them. Since the supreme power of God makes all things move, why should we, without submitting ourselves to it, constantly worry ourselves with thoughts as to what should be done and how, and what should not be done and how not? We know that the train carries all loads, so after getting on it why should we carry our small luggage on our head to our discomfort, instead of putting it down in the train and feeling at ease?”

If we can learn to observe the body from a place of witness, then we can begin to allow it to take on postures we never imagined possible.

Asana practice is an ideal forum for experiencing this truth. As long as we intend to change ourselves from a place of ego, we will remain as stiff and inflexible as the egocentric frame of mind from which our actions originate. If we can learn to observe the body from a place of witness, then we can begin to allow it to take on postures we never imagined possible. All yoga practice—from meditation, to asana practice, to washing the dishes—is an opportunity for Self-realization. When we begin to identify with the Self and not the limitations of our physical bodies, we have taken the first step toward yoga. As this happens, we will begin to see the miracle of flexibility in our own bodies, and lives.

Shawn Kirby
Shawn Kirby is a Certified Rolfer® and yoga student. He lives and practices in Arvada, Colorado.

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