Saturday, February 26, 2011

Are you either flexible or not flexible? Is this a binary thing?

A friend of mine complained that she couldn't believe after 5 months of taking yoga classes her flexibility hasn't improved at all.

Hmm. I guess people have all sorts of expectations about yoga. Some won't try yoga at all because they aren't flexible. I commend my friend for signing up for yoga to do something about her stiffness, but I wasn't sure how to advise her. Someone from my yoga class told me she's been doing yoga for years and hadn't experienced much improvement in flexibility or in terms of asanas until she started taking this Ashtanga class, where adjustments are more "aggressive" compared to other yoga styles. It's also easier to notice baby step improvements in flexibility given the same sequence is done every class. However, she told me that if she attends class less than 3 times a week (she normally goes 5x/week), she would feel her fascia/muscles tighten right back up.

Back to my friend. She told me she's been going to class twice a week, normally a power class followed by a yin class. No one holds her down for any of the postures in these classes (whereas I'm used to my Ashtanga teacher pinning me down for at least one forward fold per class. Masochistic much?). In an yin class I took with her I could see her wiggling around in poses which are understandably uncomfortable, but the wiggling probably decreased the effectiveness of the stretches.

I don't know if it'll discourage her if I tell her what my classmate told me. Tom Myers mentioned there are two types of fascia - a flexible kind ("temple dancer fascia") and a stiff kind ("viking fascia"). That's discouraging for the stiff people. On the other hand, I have also heard about advanced yogis who started out not being able to touch their toes.

This makes me think that flexibility is a "skill" that can be improved with dedicated practice/training. In addition to repeated routine practice, one must hold a stretch to its edge and hold it for much longer than what most people are comfortable with, co-ordinating with long deep breaths and at the same time consciously willing the muscles to relax. It takes some discipline to do it on one's own. In my case, I have enough discipline to show up to class but no discipline in working hard on my own so I love it that my teacher willingly does half the work  :P

Yoga, especially Ashtanga, provides a systematic approach to improving flexibility, both in terms of sequencing of asanas as well as teacher's adjustment / pressure applying techniques. It's what attracted me to this practice in the first place (I like anything with a systematic methodology that's proven to work). However, since my friend doesn't live anywhere near an Ashtanga shala (or my studio), it's tougher for her to try out the system. Also I don't get the vibe that she's head over heels in love with yoga and wants to spend all her free time attending more yoga classes. Instead of being all overly enthusiastic and evangelical about the effectiveness of Ashtanga yoga, I should probably just back off but remain receptive in answering any questions she has about improving flexibility or about yoga in general.

Anyone reading this care to share your experience with stretching / working on your flexibility? I am very interested in hearing about your insights on this topic.


  1. I know nothing about fascia. In my experience, flexibility is about teaching the muscles to be comfortable in positions/postures that it was not previously comfortable in. The Ujjayi breath and the drishti in Ashtanga help with that.

    Since it is about teaching the muscles to be comfortable in particular positions, the more you practice (especially in the mornings, when the muscles are stiffest and need to get this message the most), the more the muscles (and maybe fascia?) will "get the message" and open up. So I would suggest to your friend to go to yoga classes more frequently. Or maybe even start a home practice. But I know that most people don't like to hear that they need to do something more :-)

  2. Interesting post...and thought provoking.

    Here's what I've seen after about 10 years practice and 4ish years teaching Mysore. While students come in showing everything from gumby-type flexibility to a frozen solid kind of stiffness, the real difference in where they end up in terms of flexibility is amount of time practicing.
    My teacher has been doing advanced practice for awhile now, but started out stiff..couldn't touch his toes, couldn't do a backbend etc. I've had students start out super stiff that are now working their legs behind their head and doing dropbacks. The difference between students who gained considerable flexibility and students who didn't is that the ones who became flexible practiced 5-6 days a week for years.
    The students who come in from the beginnging with lots of flexiblity but no strength, know that it's not really a great benefit. Their practice still feels a bit "unbalanced"...their work is just different. I think it takes just as much consistent practice for a bendy person to build strength as for a strong, but stiff person to build flexibility.

    The other thing I notice in stiffer students as they begin to really work and practice consistently, is that I'll be able to see what to me look like big changes in flexibility, but because the student feels like there is not complete ease in the pose or because it doesn't look like pictures they've seen, they think they're not getting anywhere with the pose. Really it's just that the changes have happened so incrementally that they haven't noticed them while they're happening.

    wow, sorry for the super long comment...just really fascinated by this topic! look forward to hearing what everyone else has to say. :)

  3. Nobel, Tom Myers, an expert of the human body, who studied with Ida Rolf and Moshe Feldenkrais and who wrote Anatomy Trains, is all about the fascia, the netting that packages the muscles and the other connective tissues. I agree with you that she could use more yoga but it's my recent realization that it's up to the individual to decide if she wants to do more to increase flexibility (I used to want to push my ideals on everyone else :P ).

    Christine, thank you so much for this detailed response. It's what I suspected but I've never had the chance to observe gumbies and frozen stiffies transforming over years of practice :) . From my limited observations I also noticed the same thing as you, that the deepness of a pose does not correlate well with how a person feels about his/her flexibility. Oh and interestingly massage therapists will describe someone as stiff or tight whereas the person does necessarily even notice all the knots in his or her own body.

    As you can see I am also fascinated about this topic :)

  4. It has been my experience that twice a week of any kind of activity, mental or physical, is not frequent enough to create muscle memory or to change any pattern. There are seven days in a week so in order to make progress and I know I sound like Amy Chua, you must practice your instrument at least 50% of the time. That's 3.5 days a week. Your body here being your instrument. I used the word least. Nothing gets significantly better doing the least.

  5. Interesting Serene. I never thought about it that way. I was thinking my friend exercises 2-3 times a week and yoga is on top of that. You're probably right.. to CHANGE patterns it's necessary to do one thing more frequently. In this case it would be more yoga.

  6. When I started, I couldn't touch my toes. Hell, I could just about touch my knees! I'm not exaggerating, I was one of the stiffest persons I've ever seen. And now I'm doing Third Series.

    I attribute a lot to a consistent daily practice over 7 years, but I also have to admit I have a "sporty" body that adapts well to the demands placed on it.

  7. What Christine said. Especially the part about practicing every day.

  8. V, that's so inspiring! So when you hear someone say "I'm too inflexible to do yoga", do you have a cool comeback to say to them?

    Thanks for commenting Karen. I'm still working on the "practicing every day" part myself :)

  9. Hi Everyone,
    I am also a non-gumby yogini who's been practicing for 6 years. It took two years just be to able to safely touch my toes (I'm qualifying because going quickly really isn't safe for the muscles or fascia).

    What I realized was that a) asana was not going to become my life every single day and b) the goal of yoga for myself was not to become more flexible or achieve a more 'advanced' pose.
    Heck, I would say that we shouldn't really even be using the term 'advanced' in asana. All asana are valuable and useful. :)

    After six years I have made progress. I can reach my peace fingers around my toes during seated forward folds, I can lift up briefly in wheel and I can safely touch my toes.

    My yoga practice isn't about becoming the 'most' flexible person or to achieve some sort of mythical 'advanced' posture... but it's about doing what is best for my body. :)

    For my body, the 'cranking' in mysore practice into postures really isn't good- I've had injuries from my stiff muscles being forced into postures they weren't ready or warmed up for.

    Yin yoga really does encourage a deepening of the posture in order to allow the fascia to relax and open more than in other styles of yoga. Although uncomfortable, it may be a really great place for your friend to continue working.

    6 months really isn't a long time in stiff-yoga world :)

  10. Thanks so much for sharing your experience Eco Yogini! I am really interested in hearing from non-flexible people because many who are stiff to begin with avoid yoga when they need it more than the gumbies. I do "advanced", or stretchy asanas for fun, but I think for people whose backs and hamstrings hurt just from bending forward and picking up something from the floor could benefit SO much from stretching out those tight tendons/ligaments/fascia.