It’s week 3 of my #bestyearyet and this week it’s all about flexibility.
A tree that is unbending, is easily broken. Lao Tzu
When I was younger I dropped into the splits without a care in the world, often staying down there examining to see whether I had sprouted any leg hairs well before puberty started.
Now I am lucky if I can touch my toes. Seriously.
I was reminded just how inflexible I had become last October whilst at YogaFit Retreats. I was there to give a few talks and take out running groups, whilst there I took a few yoga classes.
One of the classes I really enjoyed was led by my wonderful friend Amy.
I love everything about what Amy represents as an instructor. She is kind, softly spoken, encouraging and has a no-bullshit approach to yoga and flexibility.
Don’t get me wrong, if she caught you chatting in class she would probably give you ‘a look’, but she is there for you and wants to you feel the best you possibly can.
I told her that the focus of my week was flexibility and she came up with some wise words for us all:
“I can’t do yoga, I’m not flexible enough.”
The universal excuse.
So why do we do it? Most people I talk to, when they think it through for more than a millisecond, realise the ridiculousness of the above statement. I think most of us know It’s one of the benefits of yoga to become more flexible, not a requirement.
So why are we so fearful about touching our bloody toes?!
Is it the pain of the actual stretch, the fear of the unknown, or dealing with what we consider to be our own inadequacy? Maybe all three.
It also doesn’t help that yoga is not now just a spiritual practice. It’s big business. And in order to sell the business, we see images everywhere of beautiful yogi’s in shapes that can look somewhere a little close to contortion for the average joe.
In my classes, I’m more of a fan of mobility than flexibility. Strength plays a massive part in that. It’s great that you can hold a beautiful dancers pose, but can you let go of the foot and keep it there using the strength in your hamstring? No? Then that’s where your work is.
It depends on who I’m teaching, but realistically do we practice yoga so we can drop into a full split, or so that tying our shoelaces is a little easier? So that our bodies stay a little taller? So that we stop and consider before we snap at someone? I know what most of my students would say.
The aim of the pose is not to achieve it. It is:
- Not to grab the toe or put your leg behind your head or lick your elbow.
- The sensation you feel because of the way you’re moving your body.
- Settling into your breath, increasing the mobility in your joints whilst keeping them strong so your legs can keep on holding you up for longer.
- Getting to know yourself a little better.
- Being flexible enough to try.
I started off the week with some research (my favourite thing!) and found some interesting tips and videos.
Interestingly, a lot of the research out there states the opposite of what we have been led to believe – that in fact stretching for many sports offers little to no benefit.
(If you have a spare couple of minutes – this is worth a read)
Phew. In all my ultra training I barely stretched at all (and didn’t suffer injury).
It turns out that mobility is what we should be striving for and not whether or not we can limbo under a foot-high pole.
Could Yin Yoga help with my flexibility?
I have always been intrigued by Yin Yoga. I think it is because it is the opposite of my usual approach to life i.e. ‘go go go’.
The principle behind Yin Yoga is that it doesn’t just work the muscles that we are all driven to make stronger, longer, bigger etc. Yin Yoga targets the connective tissues, such as the ligaments, bones, and even the joints of the body that normally are not exercised very much in more dynamic exercise. It is these connective tissues that can become stiff, unyielding and immobile.
A few years ago a friend sent me a link to her authority on all things Yin – Bernie Clark.
Bernie has been teaching yoga and meditation for 20 years and has a bachelor’s degree in science, enabling him to apply logic and understanding to the nature of things.
When I first tried his Yin Yoga class, I was surprised just how hard I found it.
It sounded so simple – a set of asanas (postures) that you get into and hold for varying lengths of time.
I imagined it to be relaxing.
I clearly remember being in a posture called Dragon.
His soothing and gentle voice acts as a guide in the video and yet all I wanted to do was scream expletives out loud. Everything was shaking.
A more flexible (sorry!) approach was called for…
So I revisited Bernie’s Yin Yoga approach this week and I can honestly say it has made a big difference!
Instead of trying to make each posture perfect, I used all the props he recommends to get more comfortable in the postures. Pushing your way through it doesn’t work.
Breathing and just allowing the feelings and resistance to come up, work wonders. I feel lighter, taller and well less rigid.
His website is an incredible resource – links to classes, videos and his excellent book meant that I could spend this week really getting more flexible and thus more mobile.
I really recommend you all try it – I am going to spend 15 minutes every day using Yin Yoga for mobility.
This week I also focused on mental flexibility.
I had become dogmatic, unbending and stuck in my routine and ways.
So I spent the week attempting to just ‘go with the flow’.
Karl Albrecht writes for The Psychology Today and had some excellent advice on this matter:
“For many, many years I’ve been teaching executives, managers, and professional people, in seminars all over the world, three simple statements that seem to have a magical effect on their success in dealing with others. Consisting of only 11 words in total, each of these three social mantras is a declaration of your right to be wrong.”
The three magic mantras are:
“I don’t know.”
“I made a mistake.”
“I’ve changed my mind.”
It hit me on Tuesday (when deep in Dragon Pose) that these three statements are three that I struggle with.
So they became my new mantras for the week.
Albrecht also mentions “These three semantic strategies are also cognitive and emotional strategies. They bypass the usual feelings of guilt, shame, inadequacy, or self-disapproval that we too often attach to our mistakes. Indeed, they might form the core of a personal bill of rights – paradoxically, the right to be wrong.”
It makes so much sense to me, I have been carrying around this need to get it all right and to cling on to my need for approval for things. It is a short lesson that I encourage you to try to see if it makes a profound difference to you as it has me.
Flexibility in action
One of the biggest discoveries I made this week was how I could go back to running and stay healthy (and have a life!)
For those of you who aren’t familiar with my journey – I trained for and ran an Ultra last year but really battled with my health. I stopped running at the end of October after a half marathon left me feeling exhausted.
This week, whilst in one of those challenging yin yoga postures, I remembered a podcast episode I had listened to whilst out on a long training run, a year ago.
It was an interview with Jeff Galloway, where he talked about his run/walk/run method.
Jeff has quite a pedigree – an American Olympian and the author of Galloway’s Book on Running. A lifetime runner, Galloway was an All-American collegiate athlete and a member of the 1972 US Olympic Team in the 10,000 meters. He has run hundreds of marathons and claims his method makes running more enjoyable as you are less prone to injury and recover much faster.
Reported benefits using this method:
• A smart way to run – by giving you cognitive control over each workout.
• Allows you to carry on all of your life activities – even after long runs
• Motivates beginners to get off of the couch and run
• Bestows running joy to non-stop runners who had given up
• Helps improve finish times in all races
• Gives all runners control over fatigue
• Delivers all of the running enhancements without exhaustion or pain
Could this be for me?
I love to run. I think it’s in my DNA. It makes me feel alive.
During this week, learning to be more flexible, it really emphasized just how black and white I can be in my approach to life. I tend to be all or nothing. When I was coached through my ultra marathon training I became so hell-bent on getting it all right.
A flexible approach to life (which is ultimately my long-term goal) means that I CAN run. I just need to approach it differently.
Jeff’s approach to training and racing is built on the premise that by having regular walking breaks means that you don’t allow the body to fatigue and tighten up. My concern about the approach was that it would mean starting a race by running for 1 min 30 seconds and then walking for 30 seconds.
My monkey brain immediately taunted me with “Everyone is going to think you are a loser Bridget…. You can’t start walking just after you have started”.
Well, do you know what my response was? “F**k them. I am doing this for me”.
I don’t really negotiate with my monkey mind for too long these days.
On Saturday I tried it out on a nice 4 mile run in the pouring rain. I finished the run breathing normally and smiling. That’s got to be good right?
For those of you who would like to listen to the podcast interview with Jeff, you can listen to it here.
So that’s it for my recap of last week. This week’s project is learning to draw – I spend so much time typing on a computer these days, it will be nice to do something creative!
Before I go, I am going to leave you with the incredible talent that is Nokulunga Buthelezi……. she takes flexibility to a whole new level….
If you would like to go and experience one of Amy’s classes she can be found at www.yogaamy.co.uk or by email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Until next week