This is the third post in a series called Principles of Asana, looking at how to skillfully apply discernment and wisdom in our poses and in our practice. Catch the first two posts here and here.
Contrary to what Instagram might tell you, yoga isn’t all about flexibility. If you are particularly flexible, your work in the asana practice is to build up your strength. If you continue down the path of flexibility, pursuing only what comes easily to you, over time you can cause instability in your joints and injury to your body.
On the other hand, if you’re particularly strong, your work may need to focus more on finding openness. If you constantly build strength without flexibility, your strength will be thwarted by your lack of mobility, thus limiting its usefulness.
So our work in any pose is to figure out which parts need more mobility and which parts need more stability, and then work from there to find a balance. Let’s take downward dog for example.
If you are very flexible through the shoulder joints, you may be able to press your chest waaaaayayyy down towards the floor, which will look impressive and might even feel good, but you’ll be doing this at the expense of the stability of your shoulders. Without engaging your muscles here, you’re relying on the ligaments, tendons, and other connective tissue to support the shoulders alone, a job that they’re not really designed for.
So instead, try sliding the shoulders forward an inch or two (not going as “deep” into the pose). Then strongly resist the undersides of the arms forward towards the top of the mat. This muscular engagement can help to stabilize the shoulders. It will likely feel wonky at first, especially if you’ve been practicing the other way for years, but give it a shot and see if it doesn’t feel more stable.
Another example: If your legs are really tight in downward dog, it may be very difficult for you to get your heels to the floor, something you may have been taught is important to aspire towards. But when you pull the heels down to the floor without being able to lift the sitting bones (as is often the case for folks with tight hamstrings), you actually limit your ability to lengthen the hamstrings and instead stay stuck in a shape where likely only the calves are getting any stretch.
Alternatively, try walking the feet back a step (taking a longer stance). Then lift the heels way up, coming onto the tip toes. Then, untuck the tailbone and lift the sitting bones way up. Your knees can bend here if you need them to or you can work with straight legs, but prioritize lifting the heels and the sitting bones, rather than trying to get the heels to the floor. You just might feel a much deeper stretch in the backs of the legs (particularly in the hamstrings) than you normally do!
And because the asana practice is so often a metaphor for what happens in life off the mat, you might think about some area of your life where you have too much mobility (loose boundaries with a particular person, for example) and imagine how you might go about bringing more stability there. Contemplate an aspect of yourself where you’re stiff or stuck (feeling rigid about a situation) and feel what it might feel like to have some more space there, to aerate the situation.
This is much more skillful work than just pushing into the places where we easily move or staying stuck in the places where we don’t have mobility. It’s more challenging, but we’re bringing stability to the overly-flexible parts and movement to the stuck parts, and this is much healthier for all our parts (bodily and otherwise) in the long run.