I can’t count the number of times I’ve greeted a new yoga student whose first words to me are, “I’m not sure I can do yoga. I’m not that flexible.”
I get it. Starting anything new can be intimidating. It can be especially challenging when we believe we will be expected to bend our bodies into shapes worthy of display on a glossy magazine cover.
Here’s the good news: Physical flexibility is not a requirement or even the goal of practicing yoga. The benefits of yoga extend far beyond touching your toes or standing on your head. They can include helping you sleep better, feel better and manage your stress.
But I believe the greatest benefit of yoga is empowerment. It’s recognizing that there is something that you can do to improve your life. A running joke among yoga instructors: “If you love your life just as it is, don’t start yoga!”
Each time you step onto your yoga mat, it’s like slipping into the driver’s seat of your car. You are in charge. Like driving, you are practicing being alert and attentive — only instead of focusing on the road, your attention is devoted to you. You notice your thoughts, your breathing, your state of mind and the sensations in your body. This careful, nonjudgmental attention to the present moment is called mindfulness.
There are many benefits to mindfulness practice and yoga, including:
- Learning to respond, rather than react. When practicing mindfulness, you come to realize there’s so much to notice. And you realize that there is a cushion of time between what you are noticing and your reaction to it. This cushion of time helps us learn to respond rather than react.
- Recognizing our limits. If we push the pedal to the metal when we drive, we’re probably going to approach our yoga practice the same way. That’s when we realize that our bodies, just like our vehicles, are subject to a lot of wear and tear. This helps us recognize and consider the choices we have in how we use our bodies.
- Considering the consequences. After recognizing that we have choices in how we use our bodies, we start to recognize that we have choices in everything – how we speak, who we associate with and even how we feel. We start to link our choices to their consequences. For example, if I have that second glass of red wine, I know I am going to wake up in the middle of the night and be unable to fall back asleep.
- Managing stress in healthy ways. Practicing yoga also can help us manage our stress effectively and creatively rather than simply turning to behaviors that can exacerbate the cycle of stress, like overeating or undereating, skipping exercise, or neglecting sleep. For example, if I routinely wake up in the middle of the night, slow deep breathing, mental repetition of positive affirmations, or other mind-body approaches can help me drift off.
- Aligning intention with action. As we gain awareness of consequences, we start to ask questions like, “Do I really want to take on that extra work project?” “Do I value what people think of me over how stressed I will feel if I take that on?” This helps us make choices based on our values, rather than outside pressures.
When thinking about all these benefits, it should be clear that for anyone beginning to practice yoga, a willingness to learn is far more important than the tightness of their hamstrings.
So what’s my response to new yoga students who confess that they’re “not flexible”? I welcome them warmly and remind them that all flexibility begins in the mind.
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