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Why Yoga and Flexibility Are Not Synonymous

in Featured, In Class, Yogitorials

pretzel-shapesby Charlotte Bell

Fred was hands down the least flexible person I’ve ever encountered. In 28 years of teaching asana, I’ve never seen anyone who came close to his lack of mobility. His Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) was little more than a forward nod. Before coming to my classes, he had not sat on the floor since childhood, and required tall stacks of blankets to do so. But he didn’t mind using props for every single pose. They helped him feel more relaxed. He came to my classes weekly for more than two years, and consistently reported how much better he felt because of yoga and what a difference it made in his life.

Fred had other physical issues as well. He had clubfeet, making balancing and standing poses very challenging. But he was happy to make use of the wall. Fred’s biggest physical challenge though was one that in retrospect might have been an advantage, at least for asana practice in the context of a class. Fred was blind.

Fred’s experience of asana was completely internal. He had no idea how inflexible he was because he couldn’t see what everyone else was doing. He was free from the idea that he “couldn’t do yoga because he wasn’t flexible,” a statement all yoga teachers have heard from reticent students. Fred’s practice was entirely in the moment. His restrictions were not something to be ashamed of; they were simply felt sensations. What the rest of us interpreted as limitations in his body held no charge for him. In some ways, his practice was the purest of any I’ve seen.

If Fred had been able to see himself compared to others around him, he likely would have come to one class and never to return. But because he was free from the ability to compare himself to others, he was completely content with his practice. He understood the true value of practice—that it can add a measure of grace to your movements through life.

TKV Desikachar said, “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.” Yoga asana is an incredible healing technology. The melding of breath and movement can revitalize us as it smooths out edgy nervous systems. When practiced with humility and mindfulness, it can change the way we live in our bodies, creating an environment that can transform our minds and emotions.

But these benefits have absolutely nothing to do with whether or not we can perform fancy poses. In fact, the sutras’ definition of mastery of asana says nothing about performance: “[Asana] is mastered when all effort is relaxed and the mind is absorbed in the Infinite.” If this is what mastery is, anyone living in any body can master asana. What is required is, in my experience, much more challenging than simply performing fancy poses. What’s required is a mind/ego that can be present, without preference or longing for “more” or “better.” It is the calm presence that can be with what is no matter what our pose—or someone else’s—looks like.

This is the lesson that Fred taught me. In his barely moveable body, he embodied mastery of asana. He left class with a peaceful mind that continued throughout the week. No inversions, backbends or toe- touching (or even knee-touching) required. Fred’s gift was his presence and his gratitude, gifts that do not fade as our bodies age and evolve. May we all discover this timeless grace.

~

Charlotte Bell is a yoga and meditation teacher, oboist and writer living in Salt Lake City. She writes for Hugger Mugger Yoga Products’s blog and Catalyst Magazine, and has published two books with Rodmell Press: Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life and Yoga for Meditators.

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34 comments… add one

  • Stacey

    Beautiful!

  • Vision_Quest2

    Best definition of “beginner’s mind” in yoga asana, that I have ever read!!

    Let’s hear it for the real Zen in the practice!

    :-)

  • Thanks! It was such a teaching for me to have Fred in class for those two years.

  • Terri Major

    Very inspired by this post. I am working up enough courage to join your class. It is slowly coming.

  • I’d LOVE to see you in class, Terri. I think you’d enjoy the group a lot.

  • Being in a deep and dark space when I started yoga years ago, it wasn’t the asanas that healed me, but rather the smile on my teacher’s face. I’ve come to believe that yoga has little to do with poses. Thanks, Charlotte, as always for your insight.

  • The poses are a brilliant technology, I think. Depending on your approach you can use them to create a peaceful physical environment for the opening of the mind, or you can use them to fortify the ego. I’ve definitely done both over the years. These days, I’m learning to let go of a whole lot of poses I realize are not serving to create a peaceful environment, and in the process I’m becoming less attached to the performance I once thought was important. Having Fred in class taught me so much about that, because that is where he started.

  • Very little, or I would have given up years ago! Charlotte’s description of real yoga epitomizes every story in my book :)

  • Vision_Quest2

    I actually came BACK, I was in danger of totally petering out … particularly since I need dedicated actual (real lower-body in rapid use/rapid breathing whether deep or shallow) CARDIO in heavy rotation, after I processed through a yoga teacher I’d once had whose body shapes would have been very worthy of a County Fair, were she Barbie Doll-sized and made of dough … luckily for me (even THEN, when in wannabe mode!), she did not teach quite like how she showed off …

  • I loved reading this and needed the reminder. I absolutely love the quote by “TKV Desikachar: “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.” and with that in mind thank you and than you Fred for being my teacher this morning.

  • Thanks for your comment. Fred taught me in other ways too. Since he couldn’t see my demonstrations, I had to hone my verbal skills. When he first came to class I thought, OMG, how am I going to fit this guy into my class?, because his restrictions were so great. But he did what he could and came to class every week without fail. Even getting to class wasn’t easy for him because he couldn’t drive. His commitment, despite his challenges, was so inspiring to me.

  • Vision_Quest2

    And, of course, you don’t beat yourself up at home, either!

    I just love it — as always — when local students are the only ones who have the guts to agree with an old-school article writer.

    Where is everybody???

  • Vision_Quest2

    And, of course, you don’t beat yourself up at home, either!

    I just love it — as always — when local students are the only ones who have the guts to agree with an article writer.

    Where is everybody???

  • A follow-up for interested commentors: After two years or so of coming to class faithfully every week, Fred moved to a distant suburb. Because he couldn’t drive, he relied on public transportation, and there was no way at the time to get from where he was living to where my class was. He was in his 70s at the time, so I found him a class in a senior center close to where he lived, and I assume he continued practicing.

  • Vision_Quest2

    If yoga were music, my home practice would be like this cover of a popular hit, done in my own style, devoid of any pyrotechnics (unless I am more than good and ready for them!), devoid of any thoughts of my (former) teachers … and devoid of blind following, even if (should I choose to use it) the instructor on video or download, had some LOAD ….

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z9s57UBMWdk

    Emphasis being on interpretation and accuracy …

  • Vision_Quest2

    … in a fiery commercial yoga world likened to Nelly Furtado covering Maneater … still good like the (old school) original, still done in that minor key and with that blues note; but done in a style not suitable for each and every yoga person … particularly older, infirm, non-Type-A, mild of temperament, wanting to relax, stressed out … (yet still not wanting the sleepytime restorative, yoga nidra stuff as the class’ main offering …) …

    Nelly in this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PLolag3YSYU&feature=kp

  • I’d like my classes to be like a cross between a Mahler symphony and a Grateful Dead concert.

  • Thanks for your comments on music and asana. I’d like my classes to be like a cross between a Mahler symphony and a Grateful Dead concert.

  • Vision_Quest2

    Although I practice at home, music-free, I do like the classical music angle … and the relatively relaxed pace of The Grateful Dead is not too shabby; and trippy … rather than fast paced.

    I used to need a banging, though New Age, playlist … to get me through … the pace of my practice is less harsh, though faster than some classical (commercial) practices (which had given me a hard time)… a LOT less bendy (I’ve got to be realistic, and meet myself where I am) …

    Good news is that slower-paced practices (and disarmingly mild! Just like in the old days!) are becoming popular in commercial yoga again …

  • I always practice without music. As a musician, I get highly distracted by music, and I really enjoy having as few distractions as possible when I practice so that I can be more aware of what’s happening in my body/mind. When I referred to the Mahler symphony along with the Dead, I was thinking in terms of Mahler’s ability to plumb the depths along with his mastery of orchestration, combined with the Dead’s penchant for free exploration and openness to whatever comes.

  • Vision_Quest2

    I get your meaning — about the music — on that level as well. You mentioned you practice. I know you teach, so do you have them practice totally without music?

    To complicate matters, technically, the practice I came back to is not exactly yoga and music exists in away. I DO have music again. If you consider a capella Sanskrit chants (e.g., The Sahanavavatu Mantra, and various) music. Yes, to myself, at home. I cannot be without singing.

    The Master Swami has told me recently that I have a nice voice. I still take call-and-response sessions … not always done in Sanskrit, but always done with intention.

    I also am not quite capable of doing a real ujjayi breath. Maybe I do it anyway. My mind blanks out, can’t really know. I never felt I had been Type A enough, ironically, even for the supposedly mellow yoga classes I’d taken. Most of my practice is a fusion practice. And whatever classes I take in yoga (sparingly), are fusion classes (yes, they all have music, and I have to ask they turn the volume down because I can’t hear the instructor over it). But there is chanting and breathwork. That they deign to teach to us perennial advanced beginners. Because their guru’s playbook did not prohibit this.

  • Phillip Bimstein

    Love the article, and love Charlotte’s musical analogies to yoga. Both offer such depth and integration of the practice. Orchestration and openness indeed! And, as a musician, I agree with Charlotte. I’d rather focus on my yoga when practicing yoga, and music would pull my attention away.

    Fred was so fortunate to have you as a teacher.

  • I guess because music was my first love—I probably heard my mother singing before I was born—it takes me into its world. It is a form of mindfulness, of course, but I always seem to go to the music and leave the asana when given a choice. So I enjoy the music of silence in my practice.

  • Vision_Quest2

    Sorry, modern commercial Yoga, for insulting you and calling you, in essence, non-euphonious …. anyway, though not much less euphonious than Nelly Furtado’s video of Maneater (with its lurid, expository scenes and sensuous, near-Satanic motifs, dancing and themes … and those threatening lyrics ….) ….

    But somebody teaching modern commercial Yoga didn’t do their math:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pCrD9N_3Jkw

    This video explains – in essence – the mathematical elegance of musical euphony.

    I really did not mean it. Why not continue to give hope to young gymnastics class drop-outs and/or people my age who do not care to act it one bit … ? And yoga classes are a form of “third place”, but that’s stretching it (pardon the pun) …

    I am in favor of harmonious and pleasing movement, though!

  • Vision_Quest2
  • Ramapriya Ramanuja

    Great story! It proves that yoga is every person’s unique experience because we all have to be where we are with our practice and work with what we’ve got. If we understand that and we realise that every asana is a work in progress for every one of us then comparisons end and asana becomes the tool it’s meant to be: a means of introspection so that we experience the self as the pure consciousness (the inner witness) and; also a means for healing and aligning every organ and system in our body to create health, harmony and grace in our lives and hence more love in the lives of others around us too.

  • lovely – thanks

  • This is a beautiful piece of work. Your insight has touched me profoundly. I am going through a moment where my mother and father have been affected my glaucoma and have recently been declared fully sight impaired . To my mother the affliction has been debilitating and casused her to shutdown, all other senses. Almost to the extend of wanting to barter all her current senses for the return of sight. I have tried to make her aware of the beauty and strength she has in all the remaining senses, trying to encourage her to explore the untapped wealth these senses carry, but to no avail. It has become challenging for me to witness. Nonetheless, after reading your article, which I shall read to her, I feel inspirited to continue my own exploration and investigation. My expectation of her reflect more me and there maybe beautiful things that she feels and smells and hear, so possible my journey is more about asking questions and listening to replies than offering a direction.
    Thanks you for your article
    Love&Light
    Stokely

  • Thanks so much for sharing your story. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for your mother. She is very fortunate to have you there to support her. I hope you can guide her to appreciate all that is still available to her, and I hope it gets easier for both of you as time passes.

  • What a beautiful story and an amazing reminder of what the practice is about, not to mention the healing power of Yoga! Three cheers for Fred! I also had a blind student once Peter. It was the best test of my ability as a teacher

  • What a beautiful story and an amazing reminder of what the practice is about, not to mention the healing power of Yoga! Three cheers for Fred! I also had a blind student once Peter. It was the best test of my ability as a teacher

  • Yes. Working with a blind student really helped me hone my language. I couldn’t rely on demos with him. He was a delight to have in class!

  • Rachael

    Thank you Charlotte, it’s so easy to get caught up in the idea of the perfect pose, your thoughts remind me why I need yoga in my life. I will be quoting some of your words in my yoga class to inspire the students as you inspired me.

  • You are so right. It’s sometimes easy to forget that yoga is a practice, not a performance. What we practice becomes a part of us, and that’s what makes it so powerful!

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