Have you always been so flexible?
In yoga practice we fold forward, standing feet together or wide in a straddle to reach toward the floor, seated to reach toward our toes, drawing legs and torso toward each other in a seated balance pose that is frequently featured as a cover photo for Yoga Journal, a smiling, nimble yoga model making a difficult pose look easy, and even rolling over onto our backs, drawing the legs over our heads toward the floor. Energetically, forward folds invite the practitioner to go within, to cool a heated body or calm a flustered mind. Not everyone is a fan.
Forward folds tax tight hamstrings and hips. For people with low back pain, a forward fold may be appealing but it could be counter-indicated before, at least, the person is fully warmed up and has done a series of back extensions. Nonetheless, forward folds are such a standard measure of “flexibility” that they are included in the twice-yearly presidential physical fitness tests run in our public schools. In conversation with people who are telling me why they think they want to practice yoga, I often hear, “I’m not flexible; I can’t even touch my toes.”
At the studio I’ll encourage a class to take the first few forward folds of a practice with knees bent to avoid over stretching the hamstrings. If we lengthen and release from the bottoms of the feet along the entire back body and all the way to the crown of the head, we move from a dedicated hamstring stretch (and potential injury) to a full body experience that recognizes the connected nature of all of our parts.
That said, touching one’s toes is both an admirable goal and a reasonable expectation to arrive with on the mat. It is not, however, so accurately a measure of flexibility as range of motion.
I have in most of my joints noteworthy range of motion. Even following childbirth, it only took a few yoga classes after Twelve was born for me to give up arm-lengthening blocks and place my hand directly on the floor in poses like Triangle and Lateral Angle. When I talk about compression—the point at which a joint can move no further because of the way it’s built—in class, I invariably hear a gasp if I use my own wrist or even ankle to demonstrate. And when the inevitable question arrives, about whether I’ve been flexible my whole life, I smile and quip that I wouldn’t be a good advertisement for yoga if I weren’t flexible.
As ever, yoga offers me the metaphors that I need. When I first started practicing regularly in 1998, I believed I was flexible. I have never not been able to touch the floor. In just a few classes I found I could fold my body in half, laying the length of my torso along my legs. I can interlace my fingers behind me and drawing my hands over my head in a standing straddle, bring my arms parallel to the ground. What I have, naturally, are joints with significant range of motion. Yoga keeps my soft tissues limber, preventing tension that can constrict a joint. But like anyone, my joints stop moving where bone finds bone, what Paul Grilley calls “compression.” Compression doesn’t hurt, when you reach that point with all tension gone. But most of us find muscular tension restricting mobility before we reach joint compression. Still, range of motion isn’t the same thing as flexibility—one is physical, the other is much more about how we adjust.
A few Thursdays ago I was driving east, early in the day. Grateful I don’t normally have to flow with the rush hour traffic downtown, I figured out where I needed to be, parked, and thought to put money in the meter even though enforcement doesn’t begin until 8. The quarter jammed. I hopped into my car and maneuvered one space over. This meter swallowed my coins but gave me the appropriate time in return. I bounded up the stairs, not really late but arriving just overneath the wire as so often happens. The appointment, passports for Twelve and Fifteen, went smoothly and we were back in the car and heading to school just a little later. I’d already called in my daughter’s late arrival, so we dropped Fifteen first. On the way from his high school to her middle school, I mused that I would take my editing (due later that afternoon) out for breakfast, and then I head to my entrepreneurial buddy’s house for the morning. Twelve said, “That sounds like a nice day,” as she collected her belongings and stepped out of the car. I watched her to the door.
On my way to breakfast I realized that I only had with me the first four pages of a twelve-page newsletter, so I switched lanes and navigated toward home. I got out a pan to make my own breakfast and checked my phone—a message from my entrepreneurial friend revealed she was ill and in bed. I finished making my plate and told my mother, “I’m going to take my breakfast back to bed.” It’s one of my favorite treats and I had a book I was almost finished reading.
A half-hour later I got up for the second time and decided that since my day had shifted, I now had time to change my bed and put my laundry away before diving into the editing. It felt good to leave my room tidier than I found it. Downstairs I filled my water bottle and spread my editing out on my desk when an email arrived from a woman with whom I’d been corresponding—could we meet at the yoga studio at 11:35? I fired back that I’d see her there and in no time at all I was back on the road. The studio meeting and a few work items attended to, I decided to go over to the coffee shop, where I greeted my friend who telecommutes and sat down to attend to the editing pressing hard against the deadline as morning had become afternoon.
It was almost time to pick up Twelve when a mother and son hailed me as I was getting into my car—did I know the way to a specific address? I started to show them on my phone and when they looked concerned, like they couldn’t possibly find it on their own, I invited them to follow me and lead them to where they were going. They honked happily as I waved, tore back to collect my daughter, and we drove home to fax in my work, start homework and dinner, and regroup for a private session and a class. I couldn’t help but think about how differently my day had gone from the way I said it was going when I dropped her off. Not bad, just different.
Indeed, every day is interesting—a blend of different types of work, parenting, and socializing. Like so many, I move from one to another, sometimes smoothly, sometimes in fits and starts, often derailed by a fire to put out or a phone call to answer. Am I flexible? Sometimes. When I can decide en route to change my plan and decide to change again in response to a request or someone in need, that feels like flexibility to me. When I cope with my car breaking or my mother’s computer having a sticky q key, that, too, feels like flexibility. When I feel overwhelmed trying to get everyone fed and my son announces that he needs to be at school early in the morning for a guest speaker, in comes the tension. When I know there’s something big that needs to be attended to, it can feel impossible, in a way that makes me feel paralyzed and powerless. My mind whirls and often creates a block against any action, like a computer screen frozen mid-sentence or a stiff, swollen joint that doesn’t move through its full design.
That’s the physical; yoga definitely keeps my physical tensions at a minimum. So, yes, I don’t often get tight or sore or lose much in the way of full range of motion. On a good day, it is quite a different muscle, my brain, that yoga is tasked with keeping flexible. Some days are more successful than others.
A post catching me up to the full moon, the spring temperatures, and the greening and budding and nest building that are happening all around us. Happy spring & thank you, as ever, for being a part of my journey. Namaste & big love, Rxo