We are all unique. We look different, our genetic background is different, and the way we are built is very different as well. But I daresay we yogis have one thing in common—the wish to become more flexible!
But what is flexibility, really? When we start doing yoga, we often think that if we just practice often enough, we will be able to reach the level of flexibility we aspire to. And while we can advance a lot, we tend to overlook the power of all the elements that are contributing to our flexibility.
The fact is, flexibility is quite complex. So let's take a look at few facts about flexibility that all yogis should know.
1. Know What Stops You: Tension or Compression?
When we think about flexibility or physical restriction, there are two elements at play: tension and compression. Tension happens when the body's tissues cannot lengthen anymore, which commonly feels like tightness in muscles. This tightness can be found in fascia, tendons, joint capsules, and even in the skin.
How do you recognize tension? It can be felt in the opposite side of the movement. For example: in a forward bend, you will feel the tension in the back of the legs. If it's tension that limits your range of movement, you can improve with practice.
Compression, on the other hand, happens when one body part comes in contact with another body part—meaning that further movement is no longer possible. In its hardest form, this can mean two bones are pressing against each other, preventing any further movement. An example of a softer version of compression would be when the flesh of the stomach hits the thighs, also limiting movement.
How do you recognize compression? Whereas tension is felt in the opposite side of the movement, compression is felt in the direction of the movement. In other words, something is stopping you, and the discomfort (or even pain) of limitation is usually felt in a smaller area. When compression stops us, we have to either find a way around it (modify poses), or accept the fact that our body is not made for certain poses.
For our mind-body health, it's important to investigate what stops you from going further in poses. Take your time and try to identify where your flexibility is limited. There's very little we can do when it comes to our bone structure, so learn to practice non-attachment towards the poses we are unable to practice, and let go of the demands of ego.
2. Fascia Can Restrict Us More in Movement Than Muscle
Fascia, connective tissue, is everywhere. It is under our skin, it surrounds our muscles, the inner organs, it houses our fat cells, and it is connected to the nervous system. Because of the matrix of fascia running throughout the body, tightness in one area can have an effect in a much larger area of the body.
Muscles cannot stay contracted for a very long time, but fascia can. For example, the persistent pain many people experience in the neck, shoulders, or lower back is often caused by fascia. Why does this matter? Fascia is not very elastic, and stretching it like we would stretch muscle fiber will not help.
Fascia needs longer, static stretches (like in Yin yoga) to be able to release and lengthen. Therefore, it pays off not to ignore your fascia because it plays a big role in determining your posture and range of movement...plus, it's connected to the nervous system as well.
3. Your Nervous System Can Make Your Body Tighter
We don't often think about the nervous system being involved when practicing yoga, but it actually has a big impact on our flexibility. The nervous system interacts with fascia and muscle (in fact, there are 10 times more nerve endings in our fascia than there are in our muscles), and it is there to provide feedback from our body to the brain, and to monitor the level of stress within.
These nerves sense the changes in the body's tissues, and will make the body react either by increasing or decreasing the muscle tone and making changes into our autonomic nervous system.
When we're stressed, the nervous system communicates with our immune system to combat any foreign infections we may have. Ideally, this is a short-term event. But when the stress is chronic, the immune system can malfunction and we may become chronically inflamed. How does this affect our flexibility? Inflammation can cause our tissues to swell up due to the body releasing water in between our tissues.
4. Emotional and Psychological Limits Require the Same Respect as the Physical
The body is connected with the heart and mind, which means that our emotions cause bodily responses, and our body's movements cause emotional responses. Just as we can injure ourselves physically by going too far too fast, we can also do emotional harm by pushing our emotional edge.
We might be able to go deeper into a pose physically, but the heart knows that should we continue to push, we may release an emotional response our mind is not yet ready to deal with. This explains why you may have had a strong emotional reaction after certain yoga poses.
While exploration and release are beautiful things, you should never force the progress. Learn to respect the limits that we have—in most cases, they are there for your own protection and benefit.
The next time you are in a yoga class feeling all but flexible, keep in mind all of the systems within you that are working together with you. Flexibility is not just about stretching the hamstrings, it's about understanding your bone structure, knowing about fascia, and realizing that your nervous system, immune system, your age, and your experience all come onto the mat with you.
It's time to stop looking around during yoga class, because nobody is built like you are. Focus on the intention of the poses you are practicing, not on their appearance. If you are feeling it in the targeted area, great! Your own development is all that matters.
Image credit: Paige Yeaton