Can a goal ever justify the means?
Can striving to achieve a yoga pose, regardless of how you get there, lead to a nourishing and sustainable yoga practice?
After almost two decades of practice, I can assure you that it cannot.
Quite the opposite will happen, actually. The way we move into poses is the core of a nourishing yoga practice. It determines the quality of our alignment and presence upon arrival into the pose.
Or, as we say in zen, the process is the goal.
The aforementioned means that understanding the biomechanical principles behind the movement is essential for an optimal alignment in the pose. On top of that, being well informed about the body’s range of motion, supports a holistic communication between mind and body. Physical practice becomes a gate to deeper aspects of yoga such as presence, non-violence and clarity.
And when it comes to flexibility, more is not necessarily merrier.
Have you noticed how visuals of physical yoga practice in media mostly promote hyper flexible bodies? Flexibility equals “advanced” yoga in contemporary media.
But is that really so?
In order to achieve the excessive ranges of motion required to perform such poses, most “regular” yoga practitioners would need to undergo deformational changes in the body. There is nothing wrong with that, if it’s a conscious, informed choice. Dancers and athletes make such choices in order to pursue their disciplines, for instance.
However, when hyper flexibility is declared and promoted as a highest goal of physical yoga practice in general, it becomes a highly questionable ideal.
I think the more important question to ask ourselves in physical yoga practice is – do we want to be healthy or flexible?
Physical yoga practice should create flexibility while simultaneously building strength, endurance, balance and harmonious flow of energy through the body.
Mobility is a combination of strength and flexibility. You can’t have one without the other. Trying to get flexible without developing strength leads to instability (read Jules Mitchel’s excellent post on stretching). It makes you more susceptible to injuries!
So what, if you can bring your chest to your thighs if your connective tissue is damaged in the process?
It takes a much more mindful practice to learn yoga well and to adapt it to your own body.
And often, less is more.
Instead of overdoing it and forcing your tissue into shapes they are not ready for, take time to learn the principles of movement. Understanding each individual action of a pose and adapting it to your own individual circumstances is the best way toward developing a healthy mind-body connection and integration.
Once the body is strong AND flexible, experimentation within different aspects of the practice can be fun, beneficial and sustainable.