How to Get Flexible Without Injury in Yoga
How can I be more flexible?
It’s a question that comes up a lot in our Strala Guidebook on Facebook. Partly because most people want a little more flexibility in their lives, a little less feeling of stuckness and tension. And it’s a question that comes in many forms. Most recently, “Should I follow the stretching strategies used by dancers and gymnasts? These people work and push massively hard to be flexible, clearly it works, shouldn’t I do the same?” I think this question is double-important.
Always people are wanting to be more flexible. And, always people are wanting to get there with the kind of force that keeps them from getting there. Because it’s kind of programmed into us this way.
If you’re teaching it’s good to explore here, you want to give people what they want. And if you’re practicing it’s also good, because there’s a very different program for how you approach challenges, that will always give more of what you want, and less of what you don’t.
Programmed to push
If you’re a performance artist like a gymnast or dancer, it’s not only the movement that matters. It’s what it looks like. And it’s also not time or sustainability that matters. It’s just, can you do it right now.
So, you’ll probably do things with your body to achieve near-term results, without so much focus on longer-term impacts. Forced lengthening of tendons and ligaments can be useful for creating the right appearance in these arts. But, the longer-term result isn’t so good, including joints that are less stable and capable, more open to injury.
It’s a strategy that gives your fastest path to becoming an X: ex-dancer, ex-gymnast, ex-runner, athlete, climber, ex-anyone whose body still goes along for an easy and pain-free ride, in whatever you want to do. And this isn’t just about sports.
It’s also worth noting that adult bodies don’t work the same as children’s bodies. One of our Strala friends in New York was an olympic gymnastics coach in the 1980s, and regularly remarked on this one. You can force a stretch on a child, and their body will hold the gains over time. Adult muscles don’t work this way. There can be lengthening within a stretching session, but it’s not sustained over time the way it is with a child.
Build a new program
Pushing and forcing for flexibility isn’t likely to work. Maybe for a little while, you’ve probably noticed that nearly anything new can appear exciting and promising for a little while. But not sustainably, and not without injury that ultimately turns you in the opposite direction from what you want. Does this mean we should just take it easy and never work hard? Not exactly, not even close.
As a start, this isn’t about “not feeling any stretch.” Of course if we just sit on a couch and do nothing, except maybe flop from side to side a bit, not much is going to happen. At least, not in a direction we want.
There’s a general guideline for movement and healing practices that works well here: Move easy, everything you’ve got, in every direction you can. And it’s a guideline followed alongside of practices like softness so you’re movable, connection so you move as one whole body rather than isolated parts, unweighting so always you’re entering challenge rested rather than depleted – all this isn’t all a way of avoiding challenge or sensation. It’s something very different.
First it’s a way of protecting vulnerable areas like joints, from a harmful practice of using force against resistance. You’ll see this in yoga when people try very hard to put feet behind their head, pushing the opening of hips or lengthening of hamstrings. Which leads to yoga teachers (funny enough, it’s almost always the yoga teachers) walking around with a strap around their thigh, to remind them of their problem.
I was told in my Jivamukti days that this kind of injury was good, simply karma coming to fruition. That’s one way to see it. Another is, don’t do things that make no sense, just to get in a pose. There’s always a better way. And for all kinds of reasons, it’s good for you to learn how to find it. It’s how we each learn to explore around challenge and find the best solution, rather than go to war with it. Which mostly means going to war with our selves. And this brings us back to yoga teachers with injuries.
And second, it’s how to get where you want to go, in a way achieves more of what you want, and less of what you don’t. More good, less harm.
Change how you practice
What does a good practice for flexibility look like? As a start, it means heading toward a stretch, say a forward fold, without using the muscles of your arms to combat resistance in your hamstrings. Instead:
Be movable, before you try to move. This means not holding yourself rigidly, locking joints and bracing muscles for battle. Instead, make sure from wherever you are, it’s easy for you to move in every direction you might want to move. First, you can be moved just by breathing. And second by using your center, and allowing the rest of your body to follow.
Head for where you want to go, but not as an endpoint.You want more flexibility, more mobility, in your hamstrings? That’s great. You won’t get it by going to war with your hamstrings, then retreating when it’s done.
Instead, head toward the challenge, while remaining soft enough to be movable. And once you get somewhere near this challenge, rather than hold a stretchy endpoint and wait for it to be over, keep a relationship between your body and breath.
There are no endpoints this way. Every breath makes where you are someplace new. Every inhale picks you up out of where you are just a bit. Every exhale takes you someplace that is completely new. It could be right back down, it could be someplace else, maybe a little left or right, forward or back. You don’t need to decide.
Allow your body to go along a bit for the ride with your breath. For this, you simply need to be movable, head where you want, and stay movable once you get there. It’s how you avoid going to war. It’s how you get out of your own way. And it’s how you get to be flexible, movable, even where things all around are inflexible and immovable.
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