or, Why ‘I’m Too Inflexible’ Is Kinda Legit
When I hear someone say “I’m too inflexible to do yoga,” I take it that on some level, they are experiencing fear. Fear is not a bad thing, as long as you recognize it for what it is and treat it with compassion.
Fear is wonderful for keeping us alive and safe. Fear is why I didn’t shortcut down that dark alley in Chicago. Fear is why I didn’t hike ‘Olomana on that windy day. Fear has saved my life over and over; however, fear can be a little trigger-happy in its enthusiasm to protect me. It’s like a well-meaning guard dog, but it’s scaring off some good stuff. Like yoga.
If you’ve never experienced a yoga class before… ahem, I mean, your friend… there’s a lot to be afraid of. What if you don’t know what to do? What if you hurt yourself? What if you can’t understand what the teacher is asking? What if you can’t keep up? What if you look or move differently from everyone else? What if you fall down? What if you have to leave? The “what ifs” pile up and you might decide at that point to quit before you even start. That’s fear, barking like a nervous and very loyal dog, trying like hell to keep you in your comfort zone where no bad happens — and no change, either. Woof woof woof.
When you attend a yoga class, you’re asking your body and mind to enter a space that you’ve never visited to do an activity that you’ve never done. The unknown is scary. Change is scary. The thought that we might not be up to the task is very, very scary. Woof.
Consider the possibility that what you think of as physical inflexibility is actually mental inflexibility. There is no rule book that says you must touch your toes to practice yoga; however, you may have decided for yourself that that’s a necessary qualification. I encourage all would-be yogīs to stretch their mindsets, firstly, to imagine that yes, you can practice yoga and be just the way you are right now.
You might hear someone say in protest, “If I did yoga, I’d probably hurt myself.” When I hear statements like this, I understand that the underlying concern is physical safety. To those individuals, I offer this reassurance:
Your yoga teacher is dedicated to helping you feel good in your body. The chance to help people is why we got into this yoga teaching thing in the first place. (It’s definitely not for the money and prestige.) We want you to feel safe, strong and spacious. If you show up in class, we will do everything we know how to do to support you. If you tell us your limitations, we will work with them. If you share your fears, we will ease them. Different teachers have different approaches and personalities, but I promise that we all want the best for you.
I’ve heard a different response to the “I’m too inflexible to do yoga” statement, and it goes like this: saying you’re too inflexible to do yoga is like saying you’re too dirty to take a shower.
This answer is funny, but it doesn’t work for me. If you’ve never taken a shower before in your life, okay, maybe this answer fits. If a shower has ever left you feeling sore, or made you question your ability to live successfully in your body, sure. Otherwise, I find this response avoids addressing the person’s concerns and makes a joke instead, and with that I disagree.
One of the greatest lessons of the beginning yogī is the fraught journey to your first yoga class. You might feel mountains of doubt, anxiety, inadequacy and confusion, and that’s before even rolling out your yoga mat. I find the best way to ease these feelings is to connect to the deep values underneath. For example, a strong value for integrity might rise up as self-doubt. Your core values of clarity and security might activate your anxiety.
Allowing yourself to recognize and honor these values is a compassionate way to work with uncomfortable feelings. When you give yourself the space to hear the beauty in these underlying values, you let your fear know that you’ve heard its warning and determined it’s okay to proceed. A shift occurs, a softening, an opening to new things.
Yoga practice is a safe way to look your fear in the face and say, “I see you. I honor you. I thank you. But I’m doing this for good reasons, and it’s not going to kill me.” In yoga class, with love and consistency, you send a clear message with each new movement and every breath, “You can bark all you like, I’m listening to a deeper voice.”
Seeing things from a different perspective can feel like a stretch. When you practice yogāsana, this stretch is literal. Taking a new position is not comfortable nor easy, but the understanding you gain from the effort is worth it. As you learn to approach your own edges, you get to know yourself in a way you wouldn’t otherwise. You may realize that a certain pose is not for you, at least not right now. When you experience first-hand the struggle of a new pose or a new angle, you naturally gain empathy for the struggles of others.
I love this quote from Judith Hanson Lasater, “Yoga is not about touching your toes. It is about what you learn on the way down.” I’ve offered this very quote to my own friends who are hesitant to try their first yoga class.
And finally, here are a few words you can share from my heart to your friend’s, or even yours:
You will live in your body for your whole life. I imagine you might enjoy it more if you explore it more, fear and flexibility and all. Yoga class is a great way to do that.