Popular Yoga Practice

The Secret Life of Inflexibles

My teacher’s spine was obviously removed at birth, and it’s wheel time…. ugh… the most dreaded part.

I consider whether I should play the card of the super confident yogi who just knows her own practice so well and choose to take child’s pose instead (trying to make it look like it’s not because my wheel pose is more like a weird square pose, but because I am so awesome, I don’t want people around me to feel inferior). But no, my ego loses out and my inner yogi convinces me that the fact I hate the pose is the exact reason I should do it…

And so I do. My shoulders are screaming and my left psoas is trying to escape my body and run away… and then my contortionist yoga teacher walks up. “Breathe into the pose… You just need to let go of whatever emotions are holding you back and open your heart.” Open my heart??? My heart is fucking open, lady! I made out with a stranger at the bar last night—that’s how open my heart is. And he was hot, so I’m feeling extra open-hearted today!

This was pretty much the first few years of me as a yogi—hiding in the back row of shame, a prisoner of imagined (and, full disclosure, sometimes real) judgement and my own ego.
I spent years convinced I just wasn’t dedicated enough to my practice, maybe I swore too much or maybe I had just managed to piss off some Hindu deity in a previous lifetime and this is how she had chosen to get her revenge on me. It took me years to realize that there are 2 kinds of people: people who have varied degrees of natural inclination to flexibility and those who don’t. I have met plenty of yogis saying, “I’m not naturally flexible, I couldn’t touch my toes when I started. It took me like 6 months to get the splits.”

Six months??? How about 6 years??? No, sweetheart… you do have natural flexibility. Most teachers are naturally flexible, because they are people who start yoga and go, “Hey, I’m fucking awesome at this. I should teach.” The downside is that if these teachers have not been well-trained, they feed us mere mortals lines like, “You just need to relax,” or, “You just have a lot of built up emotions trapped in your hips.”

But us Inflexibles have to give ourselves a break. It is not that we are not putting enough effort in to our practice, that we are not opening our hearts, or that we are emotionally stunted. We have a different body type—that’s all. Flexibility adds no real value to your worth as a yogi. The good news is that yes, with consistent practice and dedication, we can improve our flexibility. It’s a long journey into patience, but the journey will probably make you a better yogi. Transformation, be it physical or mental, never happens within your comfort zone; so in reality, that piss-poor backbend will get you a little closer to enlightenment… or at least closer to letting go of shit you cant control anyway.

As annoyingly frustrating (and at times verging on embarrassing) as my inflexibility is, it has also made me the yoga teacher I am today. I understand where that person whose fingers hardly reach their knees, let alone their toes, comes from. I can truly resonate with their journey as it is something I have felt on my own body and battled with in my own mind. Instead of telling them they need to relax and open their hearts, I quietly say, “I know, it fucking sucks doesn’t it? Sucky is OK though, it’s part of the journey and if you keep at it, it will get better.”

What do you think? Is inflexibility an underrated gift or a frustrating burden for a yogi?

Yup! over a decade of practice.. thats my backbend...

Yup! over a decade of practice… And that’s my backbend…

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13 Comments

  1. Amanda

    Amanda

    June 3, 2016 at 8:08 am

    I wouldn’t say it’s a gift or a burden….it’s just a part of the person, and it provides an opportunity to learn lessons that maybe couldn’t be learned as well through other means. Well, I guess that makes it more of a gift. 🙂 But it’s not like you’re missing out on a gift if you ARE flexible…it’s maybe just that inflexibility isn’t the best available way for you to learn whatever it is you stand to learn.

    I’m probably “above average” as far as flexibility goes, but I’ve always struggled with flexibility in my back. Even when I was a gymnast in middle school, back walkovers and handsprings were major accomplishments (and never very pretty). I, too, generally avoid wheel….though I have been making an effort recently to include it, because I know I need to work on it. And what do you know…it’s been getting easier, especially mentally. 🙂

  2. Jennifer Pollio

    Jennifer Pollio

    June 3, 2016 at 4:07 pm

    It’s like you took the words out of my mouth! It’s strange for people to believe me when I say I am not flexible. I grew up practicing gymnastics and I am now a Yoga Teacher. Growing up I really struggled with the fact that my peers would able to do these beautiful split leaps and jumps or just drop into a split on command. I mean I was practicing the splits EVERY DAY and I was getting no where close to the ground. Our coaches would sit or press on our shoulders and my legs and hips would scream back at me with resistance. I literally have a recurring dream that I go to stretch and all of a sudden I able to to just sink into a full split with no resistance. It was the best dream! When I discovered Yoga in college it made me sad that I did not have Yoga in my life when I was younger and competing as a gymnast. Although I do not think my hamstrings and hips will ever allow me to sink into a full split, yoga has allowed me to sink a little closer. Yoga gave me the tool of my breath, something that was never taught to me as a gymnast. It’s amazing the resistance you are able to break down by the visualization of the breath relaxing your muscles. It is funny to me when people tell me they are afraid to try yoga because they are not flexible, and when I reply with- “neither am I!”- they look at me like I have 4 heads. I may reach the ground in my splits but I am still reaping all of the benefits. In fact, I am probably reaping more benefits than the barbie legged Yogi beside me. IT’S THE POSES THAT WE RESIST THE MOST THAT WE NEED THE MOST!

    1. Amanda

      Amanda

      June 4, 2016 at 8:47 am

      Jennifer, I often have the same thought: that I wish I’d known yoga when I was competing in sports! Everything it has taught me would have been so useful. 🙂

    2. Avatar

      WildGrok

      June 4, 2016 at 9:40 pm

      Agree with this 110%
      “IT’S THE POSES THAT WE RESIST THE MOST THAT WE NEED THE MOST!”

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    WildGrok

    June 4, 2016 at 6:21 pm

    Nina thanks for posting this. I am the person who started with hands barely reaching the knees and after being told (by a 30 year old) “you will get it in 6 months like I did” I diligently worked on it, the carrot of the 6 months in front of me. Short story: took me two solid years to put my palms on the floor. I know my timeline is different from the super bendys out there. And that is ok, good for them. By the way, I am 64 years old 🙂

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    Joanna

    June 4, 2016 at 7:28 pm

    Hahaha ? I love you! You sound exactly like me! And Whereas I can do a wheel (as long as my back is warmed up) that’s is a better camel backbend than mine!
    Funny how you can be so flexible in one pose but not another of a similar type.
    I have moderate scoliosis so it’s a miracle I’m as flexible as I am! I feel like I’ve hit my limit in my forward fold, I can get my fists to the ground and I just haven’t advanced past that which is frustrating. I’d love to teach but feel I’m just not strong enough yet, my flexibility is deplorable, don’t want to be looked upon as the child playing pretend at training.
    Love headstands, working on my strength to start handstanding could be a while.

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    Hari Berrow

    June 5, 2016 at 2:54 am

    It goes both ways though – I’m hypermobile and so am ridiculously flexible and that messes up my practise too! I get frustrated because I’m sometimes not strong enough to hold simple things like Warrior 1 – and it’s no one’s fault, just long tendons and muscles that aren’t used to doing the work!

    We have a culture in yoga that tends to be very results-based. The best advice anyone’s ever given me is that the only person who knows if you’re improving is you – if your body feels like it’s being worked/getting stronger/becoming more flexible, that’s the only thing you need to answer to 🙂

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    Lel

    June 5, 2016 at 3:08 am

    After a break of many years I am now a relatively new yogi – this is my fifth month of practicsing four or five times a week. I am reassured to hear all of the above. I have always known that I am not super flexilble and co-orientation is not a strong point either. When I first saw people flipping into handstands and headstand so easily I thought it would make me feel bad about myself, but in fact becuase I am getting so much out of the sessions myself I just see them as an inspriation. The general tone in which they are encouraged is really light-hearted and offered as a fun option rather than anyone feeling crap. Oh and last week I did my first ever (aided of course!) headstand!

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    Mer

    June 5, 2016 at 12:27 pm

    More or less flexilbility is neither a burden or a gift more or less than having blue or brown eyes… It is what it is…. Journeys can make you miserable or happy depending on expectations….. More Yoga phylosophy??? I think it is what it is….
    Everyone is perfect as we are.

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    Beverly

    June 5, 2016 at 5:04 pm

    Thank you for this! So real – so funny – so perfect for me to read right now 🙂

  9. Donna May

    Donna May

    June 5, 2016 at 8:50 pm

    Wish there was a like or love button here! 🙂

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    Lisa

    March 14, 2017 at 1:24 pm

    Oh my gosh. THANK YOU for this post.

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    David

    December 19, 2018 at 7:01 pm

    Great! Where can I find a Yoga instructor who is sensitive to others limitations, and actually modifies the class to accommodate those whose toes seem so far away?

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