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May 2011 I'm Too Stiff To Do Yoga

Dear Yoga Friends,

Frequently when I get into a conversation with someone who has not done much yoga recently, or at all, they say something like "I'd like to do yoga, but I'm really too stiff." This puzzles me. Yes I can understand that yoga poses require flexibility in the classical finished forms, but you can also imagine someone thinking "Hey, I'm stiff. Yoga might help." The reason people don't think like this has a lot to do with the marketing of yoga and public perception. We see pictures of beautiful people in graceful backbends, folding forward with bellies on thighs, sitting in padmasana (lotus), and arms wrapped around and clasped in seemingly impossible ways. Our culture, founded on achievement and comparison, can make the body of water that is yoga a bit intimidating to enter.

When I first started with yoga, my uttanasana looked a lot like the photo below. On a good day I could touch my toes, if I lifted my toes up and rounded my back a lot. That was just where I was. I looked at other people with flat backs and palms on the floor and wondered "Will I ever be able to do that?" Well, now I know. The answer is yes and no. Yes, I might do that some day. But no, if I keep stretching today with the goal of getting my hands on the floor, forgetting about how to work intelligently, I will pull my hamstring or my back and will have to lay off this pose for six months.

But the true answer is yes, I can "do that" right now. But by "do that", I mean, I can experience the essence of this pose the same way the person with their hands on the floor can experience it. I can put my hands on blocks, a chair, or the wall, feel a full stretch of my hamstrings, my calves, the entire back of my leg, feel the pull up the fronts of my legs, lengthen my spine without excessively rounding my back, and release and relax my face and jaw. The practice becomes finding one's edge and working intelligently at that edge. Limits may be real or perceived. Yoga practice involves learning to distinguish a real limit from a perceived limit. Going beyond a perceived limit often requires letting go in some way rather than pushing harder.

Although B.K.S. Iyengar is known for his creative use of props as teaching tools and to make asanas more accessible, it is ironic that his landmark book Light on Yoga contains almost no props. We are presented with a kind of Platonic ideal here, but also a practical path to experience this ideal in the place where we happen to be. Often the real stiffness to be contended with is in our minds. Can we change the way we approach tightness in our bodies? Can we let go and release in some ways as we work harder in other ways? And can we find a way to bring what we learn into our larger life? These are questions I ask myself. I'm interested in your experiences.



Chad Balch