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The Flexibility Myth

Posted on September 25, 2015

skeletal-muscle

By Kate Green Tripp

Perhaps the most common reason for yoga-wary folks to steer clear of the practice is the oft-cited pronouncement of ‘But I’m not flexible.’

It seems a misconception has emerged around the nature of flexibility that leaves people believing they either have it or they don’t. Not true. Flexibility, like strength, endurance, or cardio vascular fitness level, is absolutely something one can improve and enhance over time with practice, patience, dedication, and yes…yoga.

Having said that, it is true (and understandably frustrating to those who can’t touch their toes) that some of us are born into the world particularly bendy. And it is also true that an overwhelming number of the Gumby-like population naturally migrate to yoga, either as teachers or die-hard students. But that trend is the case in so many sub-cultures. The sports of soccer and running, for example, are populated with naturally speedy people. Folks with great coordination are more likely to ski, skate, or play tennis. But the rest of us are just as welcome to step on to the field, hit the slopes, or walk on to the court. And in fact, it is the rest of us who might just stand to benefit exponentially.

Yoga is indeed a delicious medicine for those with tight hamstrings, stiff posture, bulky muscles, and sore spines. As a teacher, it is particularly gratifying to support a new student in finding space and movement in parts of their body that previously refused to yield. Again and again, we hear stories from folks who have long considered themselves inflexible and therefore walk around with chronic aches and pains they have come to regard as normal.

The muscles in the human body are broken down into three types: skeletal, visceral (or smooth), and cardiac. The physical practice of yoga (holding asanas or poses) largely deals with opening, expanding, strengthening, and lengthening the skeletal muscles, which science classifies as voluntary because the human brain commands and controls their use to move the body, arms, and legs.

As long as inflexibility in the musculoskeletal system remains dominant, and muscles associated with movement stay tight and constricted, pain and discomfort will often reverberate to key places (and joints) in the body – the knees, hips, and low back are top contenders. Not surprisingly, waking up, loosening and lengthening the muscles, fascia, and ligaments in the body has profound effects on the ease and functioning of the skeletal structure.

It isn’t necessarily easy to step on to a yoga mat for the first time if you feel profoundly inflexible. But how will you know what it might feel like to live and move less encumbered if you never try? There is no doubt that yoga isn’t for everyone, but there is plenty of doubt that flexibility is simply the birth right of a lucky few. Nope – it is available to all of us, in varying degrees. And it is available with help and support from any yoga teacher worth their salt. Even if he or she looks like Gumby, that doesn’t mean you have to. It is his or her duty and pleasure to welcome you to the mat, make the poses accessible and understandable, and offer methods and tricks to begin coaxing those tight muscles to ease up toward becoming (dare we say it!) flexible.