It’s a common assumption that people bring with them to a yoga class: I have to be flexible, otherwise I cannot do yoga. Or: yoga will make me flexible. This is not necessarily true. Yes, practicing yoga will help you stretch your muscles and other tissues in your body, but don’t forget the anatomical differences between individuals that determine how far they are able to stretch. Yes, if you practice yoga regularly, you may be able to stretch deeper in time, but this is not the ultimate goal.
Let’s have a closer look at the anatomy. If we take a hip opener, such as the butterfly or bada konasana, we can see that some people can touch the ground with their knees, whereas others have them closer to their ears. This is not just a matter of flexibility in the muscles. The shape of the pelvis, the bones in the upper leg and the hip joint play an important role as well. When these bones touch, it is simply not possible to move further – this is called compression. These differences explain a lot of the variation in the angle people can move their legs away from their hips. So next time you’re frustrated about your pose, keep this in mind. Also keep in mind that the goal of yoga is to feel and observe your body from within. Try to be gentle toward yourself and accept what the asana looks like when you perform it – every body is unique.
A similar approach can help you understand your ability to stretch your hamstrings. In a seated forward bend or paschimothanasana, some people can easily reach their toes, while others can hardly touch their knees if they keep their back straight. Again, it’s more than the flexibility of the hamstrings that is at play. Other tissues than the muscles, such as the fascia and the ligaments, can be sources of tension as well. You will often hear about the fascia in yin yoga, in which these tissues around the muscles and bones are affected. When the fascia gets more flexible, the muscles have more space to stretch. In addition, the flexibility in other areas in the body, such as the lower back, also may determine the range of motion in forward bends. If your back is very tight, you may be limited in deepening your stretch even if your hamstrings are flexible and would allow reaching further. In that case, bending your knees to release tension in the back may be a good idea, and you can stretch your hamstrings in different postures. The beauty of yoga is that all poses can be adapted and practiced in various forms and options. You can take your time to find out what works for you.
Now, with these things in mind, try the following poses and observe what is happening in your body. Do you feel your muscles are stretching, or do you feel your bones are touching? It may be a new experience to listen to your body in this way – remember, the more you practice, the more body awareness you will develop!
- Dragon pose: in dragon pose, you are stretching your hips and quadriceps. Start in tabletop position and step your right foot forward, and place it at the outside of your hand. Let your hips sink toward the mat, and relax your left foot on the ground. You may lean on your hands or elbows, and if you have enough space, let your right knee fall to the side. Breathe deeply and fully, and release tension on each exhale.
- Half split: stretching the hamstrings. Start in a low lunge with your right foot at the front of your mat and your left knee resting on the floor. Move your hips back, until they are above your left knee. Pull the toes of your right foot towards you, while pushing your heel away. Then you will feel a stretch at the back of your right leg. You may keep your knee slightly bent, or stretch your front leg and bring your nose toward your knee. Stay for a few breaths.
Repeat on the other side. You may discover that there’s not only differences between individuals (you and your fellow yogis), but variation also exists within an individual (yourself)!
Do you want to know more about sources of tension and compression and how these play a role in practicing yoga? I can highly recommend reading ‘ Your body, your yoga’ by Bernie Clark.