Stretching is good for everyone
In high school I could not touch my toes. It was a real struggle, but I was incredibly active. You name the sport, I played it. Then one day I picked up a yoga book by Beryl Bender Birch called “Power Yoga”. I was flipping through books and that one drew me in. Power Yoga as it was taught in the book was ashtanga yoga, which is a series of flowy movements to various poses. I started regularly following the book’s instructions and noticed my flexibility improved. Now that I am in my 40’s, I am not into jumping and I only got to a certain level with the book, but I learned in that process that if I commit to an exercise modality that involves some stretching then my flexibility improves.
Now there seems to be a million different types of yoga and each teacher puts their own spin on what is yoga or what yoga is the best for stretching. If I talk to our friend from India who studied yoga for years with a guru, yoga is breath work (pranayama). The majority of the time he said they studied breath in order to help in centering the mind for meditation.
However, in the West we focus mainly on the exercise aspect of yoga (asanas) which is the physical practice of stretching and movement with breath. Probably because our fitness is often the last thing to be given our time and attention.
For many people who have mobility issues practicing yoga or stretching is uncomfortable and often can seems impossible to do. How many times do we see Instagram posts of people doing an advanced yoga pose and think, “Yeah right. That is never going to happen!” Even as flexible as I am now, I find myself saying that all the time!
Unfortunately some teachers love to show off while teaching. You also meet teachers who love to physically adjust their students, which can be a good experience, but can also be bad for your body. I know quite a few people who have been hurt in a yoga class because a teacher adjusted them with zero warning into a position their body was not ready for.
I believe the best teacher is our own body. If something does not feel right, stop. If you want to stay in a pose longer I encourage students to do so. Also, if you want to make slight adjustments to accommodate your body then do so. In other words, I view my calling as a teacher as more of facilitator to you forming a deeper connection and appreciation to your body.
In my experience if you force something you are more likely to get injured. You will get much more success with your fitness if you work within your limitations in the spirit of love and kindness then you will ever get from treating your limitations as the enemy. Our bodies know if we hate them.
My flexibility and yoga classes are meant to help foster that connection to your body and working within your limitations. I love helping people who think they are stuck physically because they are often completely unaware of how much they actually CAN DO. When they have that a-ha moment in class it is a beautiful thing and their relationship to their body changes.
We aren’t all meant to be super flexible. And honestly if we were do you really think you would be that much more of an amazing person? I highly doubt it. Actually super flexible people have their own issues as well. They are more prone to injuries in different ways. People who are contortionists often get injuries. Having some stiffness in our joints can actually help to protect them. Conversely having too much restricted joint mobility can also be equally harmful. Balance, in my mind is the key.
Flexibility training and strength training can actually enhance one another. Helping to maintain joint range of motion means our body can continue to move as intended. My background in personal training, yoga and movement means I tend to draw from all three modalities in every class I teach. In my mind all three translate into movement. Yoga is movement and stretching with breath, lifting weights is movement with breath and movement/dance is also movement with breath (we just may not be as conscious of this). When a person gets into lifting heavy weights breath is especially important in helping to protect our spine.
But as always I view my role as your teacher as more of a guide. Your body is always your best teacher. Learn to listen and challenge your body with a loving and curious mindset and your body will respond in kind.
For those people who view stretching as difficult work today, know that with practice you will get more flexible and it will get easier. You may never be able to do advanced yoga poses, but you will start to feel looser and build better range of motion in your joints. For those that are already very flexible, a stretching practice will help you maintain your current mobility.