I tried to hide in the back of the room but they found me anyway – the adjustment police that is. They had eyes everywhere, particularly on me as I was definitely the least flexible person in a sea of Cirque Du Soleil ready yoga teachers, so I was easy to spot. And they wanted me bad. Because that’s what you do when you’re an assistant in a famous, flexible yoga teacher’s workshop – you adjust, and you make the inflexible flexible.
There were two levels advertised for the workshop, one for “beginners” and the other for “advanced” students.
And though I wasn’t very flexible, I also wasn’t a beginner. I’d been practicing for 13 years and teaching for 7. Still I knew, even way before we got to Hanumanasana, that I would stick out like a sore, stiff, inflexible thumb. But I went anyway, the teacher was huge and everyone was talking about how great he was, so I wanted to see for myself.
He called a student up in front, put his pelvis right up to the guy’s, held his lower back and told him to drop back into a backbend. Which was effortless and gorgeous. Peals of approval from the room. The teacher said, “The reason (I’ll call him) Evan is so good is because he does exactly what I tell him too.” More peals.
I felt relieved that I wasn’t up there because there was no way I was going to be doing anything exactly the way he told me to. I would simply hurt myself. So, I kept trying to hide in the back, but the police were watching.
Next was pigeon. We were instructed to do it as a group.
I felt the hand of the law on my shoulders and then a lot of pressure sinking down into my lower back and hips. She was determined to get me into a good-looking pigeon. But I resisted arrest – it wasn’t the first time I had been adjusted in that workshop but this was the strongest and it was feeling dangerous. I put my hand up and said, “Enough. You need to back off with the adjustments, I’m okay thanks.” She was a little shocked, but she didn’t touch me again for the rest of the weekend, thank goddess. And she must’ve spread the word because the rest of the police in the room left me alone too.
The woman next to me fell over onto a pile of blocks next to her mat. She was curled up into a ball wincing. The teacher came over and made her stand up. “Open your eyes,” he said. “Do not indulge the pain. You are okay.”
My eyes rolled like a coaster.
Two days was enough for me to know that any trip I thought I might go on with that guy was cancelled.
But it would be another decade after that workshop before he and his style came crashing down like a house of cards. In retrospect, I believe that crash marks an important shift in the yoga world from a focus on flexibility to a growing interest in function.
In yoga practice, in general, function trumps flexibility.
If you are moving in a functional way, you will have no pain and your practice will support your overall functionality, not torment, torture, or injure you. How do you know what’s functional? Well, you have to experiment, because what’s functional for one person may be dysfunctional for another.
In general, you have to slow it down and do less.
Staying well below the end range of motion is a good rule of thumb.
I’m not saying the quest for the flexibility grail has ended because it definitely hasn’t. The conversation and focus need to continue to shift away from flexibility and toward function. Sure for some folks more flexibility is useful, but once you have a achieved a reasonable level of it, pushing it further is generally not a good idea.
Here’s what I think most folks want: to be functional and pain free for as long as they can, for as long as they live.
That goal doesn’t require a gymnastic worthy amount of flexibility – but it does require a keen sense of your body, and your movement patterns, and a capacity to adjust the patterns that cause pain and dysfunction toward patterns that are more freeing and functional.
Yoga practices can teach people to move with ease and comfort so why not use that for that purpose rather than chasing the ruse of flexibility?
Beautiful & solid wisdom Kristine. I practice Bikram hot & Hawtha. The instructors always say “this is yoga PRACTICE, NOT yoga PERFECT”. I’ve learned yoga is not about the goal – it’s definitely the journey. We practice yoga as we practice life – To show up (to your mat) is more than 80% of the effort. The rest is simply about BE-ing. Content & accepting without judgement of who, what & where you are right now. Showing up as your best possible self (which is more than enough – It’s everything). Working the edges, looking within to see where/what you can let go of, just a little bit more – but never to the point of pain or injury. Pain is a one way road to more pain – So just chill out, back off & relax into this moment. It & you have everything required to simply BE. Is a flower trying to be a flower? Is it trying to smell good?
Thanks you for everything you do to help others & help create a better world for All. May you always have everything you need to continue your great work.
With love & light – Namaste,
PS: Thank you for the helpful tips!
Thank you for that, Clint!
great analysis of how this goal oriented culture has influenced even such a sacred practice as yoga. So glad you shared this Kristen and so glad you stood up to this authoritarian way of teaching. I would have been out of there as soon as I saw the touching pelvises.
well, it was a long time ago (2003 I think!). And even though I felt like a total loser because I would never be that flexible, I knew back then even that it wasn’t about flexibility. It’s nice to see the tides turning somewhat.
Thank you Kristen for a great article .It saddens me that our culture has turned this sacred journey that is our yoga practice into a competitive ,gymnastic sport .
I so agree. I teach yoga from a space of functional movement. I want my students to understand “their” body in the poses. I encourage them to work at their pace to create change and open to the pose the way their body works.
lovely! Your students are quite fortunate Paula!
Thank you again Kristine. Eloquently said and so true.. reminder about listening to and being compassionate to oneself both on ( and off) the mat.
Thank you Carole!
Beautifully said! As yoga teachers we have a responsibility to respect our students as individuals with unique body structures. Let’s stop glorifying hyper-mobility and support our students to build functional movement patterns.
Thank you Kristine for bringing a balanced view into yoga instruction. I have been practising yoga for over 40 years off and on. 10 years ago I did my yoga teacher training at a 90% female studio on the Gold Coast of Australia. Coming from a sporting background, I followed what seemed like a challenge to in sport to agonisingly get my body into pretzel like postures. After 10 intense weekends and doing some reading on the principles of yoga I started to truly see why my striving wasn’t serving me. My ego was allowed to take a back seat. Through many years of right side dominated sport I had what appeared to be a very lopsided physique. Most of the adjustments that the instructors were trying to get equal depth on each side put me into increasingly more pain. Your words of what suits one individual may be unsuitable for another ring true for me. So, it is fantastic advice that each person needs to experiment to find what works for them. Take responsibility for their own unique body and know when to say NO. When to ease back and when to push forward without pain recognising the difference between pain and discomfort. Keep up the good work! Gerry
Thank you Kirsten for your beautiful perspective . It saddens me that this ancient , sacred practise has been turned into a competitive, gymnastics arena often taught by very young ,inexperienced teachers who have been taught to contort their bodies but not hold space for students.
Thank you Kristen for sharing your story! Sad that the yoga world today still struggles with the goal oriented practice. I do think the tides are turning but very slowly. I teach from a functional stand point and wanting students and clients to feel with in their own bodies and recognize what is best for them.
Thank you for your work and spreading the word through your blogs and trainings.
Thanks for this discussion of a subject that can be difficult to engage with sometimes, the number of injuries caused by forceful adjustments for example. But….I am coming to the opinion that relying on external physical and mental feedback can limit the process of developing interoception. In MA there is a gross distinction between external/muscular vs internal/feeling, the objective being the development of the ability to feel and recognise conditions as they are in the present moment and then adjust accordingly. As I study my way through your courses it is something I recognise that subtle slow yoga is able to do. I like that. The whole slow approach is more accommodating and self empowering and inclusive, I like that too. Thanks again, I am really enjoying your approach.
I agree Chris, sometimes when we try to over adjust or to “correct” someone’s way of doing a postures, we are simply reinforcing the idea that they can’t do it “right” themselves and that they can’t possibly do yoga without us. It’s a shame. I feel like we should be teaching interoception – it’s a skill that that can be developed, but we don’t have many places in our culture where folks can learn it.
I work with chronically ill and injured students. I never physically adjust them. I feel I have no business doing that. Instead I use verbal cues or a gentle touch or simply demonstrate with my own body. Great wisdom in this article. Thank you
lovely Cindy – thank you for sharing and for doing the work you are doing. So many people need to come to yoga to find gentle and compassionate support.