Nowadays, yoga has been associated with flexibility. Yes, in yoga classes we tend to do a great deal of stretching. However, do we need to be flexible to actually do yoga?
Yoga can be done by everybody, with any level of flexibility. Yoga is so much more than stretching and so flexibility is not a prerequisite. There are different types of yoga, some more dynamic than others. All can be tailored to different body types, so you don’t have to be flexible to do yoga.
I have so many new students coming to my yoga studio asking me if they can do yoga even though they are not flexible. And here’s the funny thing. I said the exaact same thing before I started practicing yoga 12 years ago.
My sister would go to a yoga class and I would hang out with her for a coffee afterwards. One day I went to meet her at the yoga studio and she introduced me to her teacher.
And what did I say?
“I’d love to do yoga but I’m not flexible enough..”
That was a long 12 years ago, and since then I’ve been practicing Ashtanga yoga for 11 years, I have been to Mysore, India 5 times to practice with my teacher Sharath Jois, I am now an Authorized Ashtanga teacher (Level 1) and I have been a yoga studio owner for the past 6 years..!
Was I actually inflexible at that time? Well, let’s just say I am more flexible, stronger, and more experienced now.
And so this has helped me relate to my new students and helps me put them at ease when I say: “You don’t need to be flexible to do yoga”.
Yoga and flexibility statistics
Before we move on to the 8 reasons of why you dont need to be flexible to do yoga, let’s have a look at some statistics.
There was a national study carried out in the US in 2016 titled: ‘Yoga in America‘. This study was conducted by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance.
Here are some of their key findings:
- 28% of all Americans have participated in a yoga class at some point in their lives.
- 48% thought that “Yoga is for really flexible people”.
- 74% thought that “Yoga is a physical activity designed to increase flexibility”.
- 61% stated that ‘Flexibility’ was the main reason they started yoga.
- 59% stated that ‘Flexibility’ is the main reason they continue to practice yoga.
1. A yoga body is everyone’s body
Many of us associate yoga with thin, young, and flexible women. One reason for this could be rise rise of social media and the images that are protrayed there.
Go on to Instagram, type ‘yoga’ and you will see hundreds if not thousands of beaufully set up images and vidoes of people performaing rather challenging yoga poses.
I won’t say that is not yoga. It is. But it is only one small slice of what yoga is.
Yoga is for all ages, all genders and all abilities.
Going back to the ‘Yoga in America‘ study, here are some more interesting statistics:
- Over 70% of yoga practitioners are women (Ok we expected that given that the majority of students in yoga studios tend to be women).
- 51% of yoga practitioners are aged 40+ (And this is encouraging to see as this shows that just over half of yoga practitioners are actually over 40).
- 23% are aged 30-39 and just 18% are aged 18-29.
And so form this we can see that actually the majority of yoga practitioners in the US are actually 40+. Incredibly, an amazing 21% of yoga practitioners are actually over 60 years old..!
Closing, here is a quote related to Ashtanga yoga particularly but could be applied to any form of yoga:
“Anyone can practice. Young man can practice. Old man can practice. Very old man can practice. Man who is sick, he can practice. Man who doesn’t have strength can practice. Except lazy people; lazy people can’t practice Ashtanga yoga.”Sri K. Pattabhi Jois
2. You have to start somewhere.
A growing number of studies are finding that yoga can help improve flexibility and strength. What this means is that we don’t have to come to yoga with this flexibility and strength. Instead, with time and dedication, we will be able to find it through yoga.
If you are trying to figure out what type of yoga to try, you may find my article useful: Beginner’s Guide To The Popular Types Of Yoga And Their Benefits
“If you practice yoga once a week, you will change your mind.
If you practice yoga twice a week, you will change your body.
If you practice yoga every day, you will change your life.”
When you go to any beginner’s yoga class, the teacher tailors the postures, the sequence of postures, and the pace of the class to be suitable for beginners.
What this means is that more complex postures will be broken down and modified so that most people will be able to attempt them.
For any beginner with tight hamstrings, calves, and shoulders, some yoga poses may be exhausting and very demanding. And yet, give it time, give your body time to open up and understand the poses and you’ll see that what was once challenging is now just another pose.
They key is to start practicing and give your body time to open up.
3. Yoga is so much more than stretching
Yes, you will stretch a lot in a yoga class.
When I first started practicing yoga, rather quickly I noticed my flexibility improve. With time some poses were becoming easier and more accessible. Almost a decade after my very first yoga class, I am much more flexible than I was when I first started. And so a normal question to wonder is whether yoga is just stretching.
Most yoga classes do involve a great deal of stretching, which means that in the long term you will see an improvement in your flexibility. However, this is just a small part, or more accurately, just a small advantage of what yoga can really offer.
Yoga can be considered as India’s gift to the world. All those years ago in ancient India, yoga poses and flexibility were not the focus f yoga. Actually, far from it! Yoga practitioners focused instead on other practices, such as expanding spiritual energy using breathing methods and mental focus.
Nowadays, yoga has evolved into it’s modern and more Western equivalent. Yes, it involves a great deal of focus on the physical side of things, however, that is not it’s only advantage and focus.
These are the various factors that form a more ‘complete’ yoga class:
For more information check out my article: Is Yoga Just Stretching?
4. Embrace your body type
There are many different body types. According to WebMd, bodies can be divided into three distinct types (somatotypes):
- Ectomorph – This type has a narrower frame, thinner bones, and smaller joints (think ballerina)
- Endomorph – This type has more body fat and muscle, and larger bone structure (think American football player)
- Mesomorph – This type has an athletic, strong build and low body fat (think sprinter).
We are all some form of these three types of bodies. And may I point out that none of these are ‘yoga bodies’ They are all bodies.. if of course they practice yoga!
As an ectomorph, yes you may look slim, but you may not have the strength to hold your body up in headstand. As an endomorph, yes flexibility may be an issue, and yet you may be able to do headstand from your first yoga class.
We all come to yoga with the body we were born with and part of the yoga process it to make peace with that.
And so perhaps if we change our way of thinking, it may be more beneficial to think that yoga is a way of living, a lifestyle if you wish, and the yoga asanas are just one part of the journey.
And it all ready does come down to:
Practice, patience, and a good teacher that can guide you.
Flexibility and strength will come with time. So embrace what your body can naturally do and be patient and it will be able to do so much more with time.
5. Yoga is so much more than touching your toes
Here are some quotes to help with this point:
“Yoga is not about touching your toes. It’s about unlocking your ideas about what you want, where you think you can go, and how you will achieve when you get there.”Cyndi Lee
“Yoga is not about self-improvement, it’s about self-acceptance.”Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa
“The success of yoga does not lie in the ability to perform postures but in how it positively changes the way we live our life and our relationships.”T.K.V. Desikachar
“Body is not stiff, mind is stiff.”Sri K. Pattabhi Jois
And so hopefully, you were able to see that flexibility is actually one of the last things of what yoga really is. It is a mindset, a way of life. It teaches us how to listen to our bodies and work with what we have.
6. Use props to make things accessible
The main equipment you need for yoga is a yoga mat. However, there are a number of yoga props which can make your yoga practice more accessible. Some are there to make your savasana more relaxing (e.g. the blanket and the eye pillow), some are there to help you explore yoga postures in a more accessible and perhaps creative way (yoga blocks and strap).
- Blanket – This can be used to cover up in savasana to really help relax at the end of your practice. However, it can also be placed under your knees if you find your knees are a little sensitive.
- Yoga blocks – These can be placed under the shoulder blades for a wonderful and gentle chest opener. They can also be used is side stretches when we can’t reach the floor. Instead, place your hand on the block and enjoy the stretch.
- Yoga strap – Yoga straps are helpful when we can limited hamstring flexibility as they work as an extension of the arms. When folding forward, if you can’t touch your toes, wrap the strap around your feet and hold onto that instead.
- Bolster – My students love using yoga bolsters. Simply lie on one lengthways and you will get to experience a wonderful chest opener. Perfect for anyone you wors in front of a computer screen all day.
Some teachers like to use props while others prefer to teach a more minimal class. If you practice at home, you are your own teacher so you can use them to your advantage and really tap into things that you may be struggling with.
7. Flexibility may come with time
For anyone who has never practiced yoga, they may find ceratin limitations in their flexibility. And that is only normal!
Our bodies need time to adjust and open up. This means being patient with the practice that is helping you find some flexibility where up until recently there probably was none.
If we were to look into the science of whether flexibility comes with time will come across many studies that found that yoga does indeed help improve flexibility.
For example, a study was carried out examining the effects of Iyengar yoga on hamstring flexibility specifically. This study was carried out in the UK and 16 participants took part in one 90-minute Iyengar yoga class a week for a total of 6 weeks.
Interestingly, the results showed a significant increase in both hamstring and lower back flexibility. After once one yoga class per week for 6 weeks, the authors found flexibility to have increased from approximately 29.5cm to 30.87cm.
This change in flexibility may not seem like a lot, however, keep in mind that this was only one yoga class per week!
8. Yoga is much more than flexibility
I end each of my yoga classes by chanting an Om. And then we open our eyes.
What I notice after every class is calm smily faces looking back at me.
And this is what the essence of yoga is. It is not about stretching, not about flexibility. It is about taking a break from our everyday lives to create space to find peace listen to our innermost thoughts and emotions.
According to yoga philosophy, yoga is the stilling of the mind. It is the removal of the fluctuations of the mind. Our thoughts and feelings are no more to us than the waves are the ocean.
Yoga is there to help us experience life through the clearest of lenses. And the desire is for these lenses to not be tainted by thoughts of good or bad, better or worse, old or new, mine or yours. When the fluctuations of the mind are totally removed, we are at one with everything and all that is.
Our yoga practice is there to calm the fluctuations of the body, breath, and senses. In the stillness we create, we’re able to recognize the unhealthiness of our limited and self-limiting identity. What remains, is the self, able to exist in its true essence.