Flexibility is one of the top reasons to start a yoga practice.
Ask any yogi how their body has changed from practicing yoga, even after a few short months. The response “I’ve become more flexible” would be no surprise. When I first started doing yoga, flexibility was part of my motivation to get on the mat. Although my practice has evolved over the years I still see why yoga’s physical benefits are a game-changer. Flexibility on its own can improve posture while reducing the risk of injury to joints, muscles, and tendons thanks to a healthy range of motion. It can even improve sport performance! It’s clear that flexibility does matter, but by how much? And is it possible to have too much of a good thing?
How Much Is Too Much?
Flexibility can feel amazing. But, every person is different in terms of “how much” is perfect for their body. Everyone has a unique structure starting with their skeleton. This creates the framework for the rest of the body, including the muscles and tendons that determine flexibility.
Dr. Stuart McGill, an expert researcher in back pain, explains that each person has different body proportions, muscle insertion lengths, muscle to tendon lengths etc…. with this is mind, does it really make sense to do a “one size fits all” approach?
I’ve had this experience in a few different ways. For example, in downdog my heels don’t touch the mat. If I took a shorter stance, sure, I could make it happen. But is it really worth it? It makes my transition to plank really awkward, plus it’s not an ideal position for my pelvis. Some teachers might say it’s ankle flexibility, but if I’ve been practicing almost 15 years and if I’m not feeling a stretch in my ankle, is it really the tissues? The answer is no. This is a prime example of compression, which is when bone makes contact with another bone. And the ankle isn’t the only place where it can happen. Depending on the structure of the hip socket and how it’s oriented, compression can often be a factor in mobility. These are just two examples yet compression happens literally all of the time. It’s one of the ways range of motion becomes limited to create stability for the body.
While in Paris I visited the catacombs, a series of underground caverns with neatly organized human remains. Yup, you read that right. Real bones. As eerie as it might sound, seeing the grooves, notches, and lengths of the same bones from thousands of different bodies made compression even clearer to me. The bodies built around those basic structures will have distinct strengths, weaknesses, and ultimately, flexibility.
Flexibility vs. Stability
This is the biggest trade-off when it comes to flexibility. When it comes to practicing yoga it’s important to understand that stability is a priority. The yoga sutra “stira sukham asanam” suggests that every asana (aka the poses) should be steady, stable, and comfortable. This relationship can be seen in the shoulder vs. the hip. They’re both ball-and-socket joints but the shoulder joint has way more range of motion than the hip. This range of motion in the shoulder can be a huge advantage but there’s a downside: it’s more susceptible to dislocation and other injuries related to instability. It makes sense that the hips need more stability for walking, running, or jumping. Can you imagine worrying about your dislocating your hip during a hike? Or walking up the stairs? This is why the stability relationship is an important one.
Ok, so how can I tell the difference?
This is where it gets tricky. Every body is different so unfortunately, there’s no rule of thumb. Luckily, there are a few tips I can offer that might help you discover your own uniqueness:
1.) Play with your “edge”
Can you find that place where it feels a bit uncomfortable without pain? Where are you experiencing the sensations in a pose? Does it feel like the muscle tissues or is it elsewhere? These are all important questions to ask yourself while you’re practicing yoga. Generally, experiencing the stretch along the tissues (i.e the muscle) rather than close to the attachment points (usually a joint or a bony prominence) can help increase flexibility without sacrificing stability. With some time, that “edge” might start to shift, but it also might not which leads me to the next point…
Patience is key. With my example for downdog it took me years to get close to the mat, but actually sinking my heels down? It never happened! Did I let it bother me? No. I saw lots of other “gains” in my practice and learned to embrace my 3rd tip…
After nearly a decade I realized my heels were never going to settle on the ground. But you know what? I was OK with that. I only did my best while sticking with the overall intention of the pose rather than splitting hairs.
There’s no doubt that flexibility does matter when it comes to overall health and well-being. The key realization is that it’s not the only piece of the puzzle. In yoga, flexibility and stability have a working relationship and that balance is unique for each person. With some curiosity and understanding, anyone can discover the right amount of flexibility for their practice.