It's easy to think we practice yoga just to be able to touch our toes. But Cyndi Lee reminds us that true flexibility means having an adaptable mind as well as a limber body.
What did the Buddha say when a musician asked him how to tune his stringed instrument? "Not too tight and not too loose." This famous anecdote shows us the importance of staying on the middle path between two extremes —a guideline that certainly holds true when it comes to our yoga practice.
You see, there is a common misconception that yoga is just about becoming flexible. In fact, many people who practice regularly and ought to know better are still hooked on the dream of getting super stretchy. But if all we do is get looser and looser, we run the risk of becoming out of tune, just like the musician's instrument. Strength and discipline are needed to help us hit the right notes.
A truly flexible home practice includes both ends of the spectrum: effort and release, structure and fluidity, discipline and freedom. Such a practice allows us to shift our mind away from any specific outcome, so we really feel the sensations in our muscles, the energy of our breath, and the wide repertoire of emotions that rise to the surface of our consciousness.
The courage to be open to whatever is happening and to work with that discovery in a kind, intelligent manner is at the heart of flexibility—and yoga. However, many of us have fixed ideas about what we can and cannot do in yoga class or, for that matter, in the rest of our lives. We tend to place ourselves in categories: "I'm a forward bender" or "I'm a backbender."
Yoga practice shows us that true flexibility is as much about an adaptable mind as a pliant body. In fact, the word yoga comes from the Sanskrit yuj, which means "to yoke or bind." This very definition suggests that our practice is based on the notion of connection—for our purposes, between a flexible mind and a flexible body—and that this connection is what leads to balance. We can set up certain arrangements of our bones, use props to support ourselves, and order our movements in logical sequences that will prepare the body for opening. But a flexible mind is what allows us to adapt, modify, and explore our situation intelligently and soulfully.
The following sequence is designed to help you cut through any solid preconceptions by working on Hanumanasana (Pose Dedicated to the Monkey God, Hanuman), otherwise known as a split. It's a perfect pose for a flexibility practice, since Hanumanasana is both a forward bend and a backbend. The following vinyasa includes preparatory poses to help you slowly open your mind, connect to your sensations, feel what you feel, and make appropriate choices for how to move forward. In the split, see if you can rest your spine in the middle place between your two legs and rest your mind in the middle space between too tight and too loose. You may find out that you are more flexible than you think. Good luck!
12 Poses for True Flexibility
Come onto your hands and knees with your knees together and your ankles far enough apart so you can sit between them. Then lean forward and reach your hands around behind you and into the back creases of your knees. Draw the flesh of the calves away from the backs of the knees, creating more space in those areas. Sit between your shins, as high as you need to for your spine to be vertical and your knees to be pain-free; place your sitting bones on a block,
a cushion, or both to make this happen. Make sure your sitting bones, not your thighs, are supporting you. Align your head directly over your spine, soften your face, place your palms on your thighs, and breathe. It's interesting that such a calm and meditative posture is called Hero Pose; perhaps the true hero is the person who has the courage and flexibility to face his fears with an open heart and still stay steady on his seat. Stay here for at least 8 to 10 breaths.
2) Adho Mukha Svanasana
(Downward-Facing Dog Pose)
From Virasana, shift forward so you return to your hands and knees. Tuck your toes under and, on an exhalation, slowly press your thighs up and back; at the same time, reach down with your palms and heels, coming into Adho Mukha Svanasana. Try to feel equal work in all four limbs, so your spine lengthens and your ribs and pelvis move apart to create space for your inner organs to function better. Feel how the strength of the arms and legs creates the potential for spaciousness and mobility in the spine. Find the balance between strength and flexibility that's required for a truly flexible yoga practice. Stay here for 5 to 8 breaths.
From Adho Mukha Svanasana, on an exhalation, bring your left heel to the floor (if it's not there already) as you step your right foot forward between your hands, coming into a high lunge. On an inhalation, lift your torso upright and bring your left arm alongside your ear, fingertips reaching up toward the sky. Extend your right arm out to the side, internally rotate it, and bring it behind you so the back of the right hand touches your back, fingertips facing up. Then move your arms into Gomukhasana position by externally rotating the left arm, bending it, and bringing the left hand to meet the right hand behind you. Can you find the long opening from left elbow to left heel? If this is not your favorite pose, ask yourself how you might feel if it were. Remember that a flexible imagination is a valuable part of your yoga practice. Stay here for 3 to 5 breaths.
(Intense Side Stretch Pose) with Reverse Prayer Position
From Virabhadrasana I, press your feet down into the floor and, on an exhalation, straighten your legs. Swing your top arm out to the side, internally rotate it, and bring it behind your back. Press your palms together in reverse prayer position. If this is not available to you today, try it with your fingers pointing down instead of up. Then step your back leg in about 8 inches and turn the toes forward to allow both hip points to face forward, like headlights. As you inhale, lift the sternum up but allow the front ribs to drop down toward your feet. As you exhale, fold forward over your legs. Let the breath move into the side body to create opening in the ribs. It may seem like this pose is all about stretching the hamstrings, but remember that it's called Side Stretch. See if you can find a balance so your pose is not too tight and
not too loose. Hold for 5 breaths.
5) Parivrtta Trikonasana
(Revolved Triangle Pose)
From Parsvottanasana, release your hands from behind your back and place them on the floor or on blocks alongside your feet. On an inhalation, lengthen your spine so it becomes parallel to the floor. On an exhalation, bring your left hand to the floor (or a block) to the outside of your right foot and
rotate your torso so your chest faces to the right. Begin your twist from the base of the spine, deep inside your body, and let it unfurl outward toward your muscles and skin. Let the right arm unpeel up to the sky at the very end of the twist. Take a peek at your front foot and make sure that your nose is aligned over your toes. Then slowly spin your face up to the sky. If you feel some shakiness and wriggling, that's OK. Relaxing with these movements is one way to practice becoming more flexible with all the changes in your life. Stay here for 3 to 5 breaths.
6) Virabhadrasana II
(Warrior Pose II)
In Parivrtta Trikonasana, look down at your bottom hand. As you inhale, cartwheel all the way up so you end
up reaching your arms parallel to the floor and gazing at your front hand. If you shortened your stance in Parsvottanasana, lengthen it by stepping your left leg back a few inches. Bend your front leg so the thigh is parallel to the floor. Firm the shoulder blades onto the back. Can you feel how this leads to softness in the neck and a sense of infinite extension through the fingertips? Arrive here on an exhalation and then move
right into the next pose on your next inhalation.
7) Low Lunge
From Virabhadrasana II, spin your hips and torso around to face front as you lift your back heel. Swing your arms overhead and come into a high lunge. Slowly lower your back knee to the floor. Let your sacrum shift forward. It's OK to let the front knee go over the front toes as long as the front heel stays grounded. Firm your belly a bit to lift the hip points. See if you can bend your left leg so your left foot lifts off the floor. Just see what happens. Then lower your right hand to your right knee as you reach back with your left hand and draw the left foot toward your left buttock to create a yummy quadriceps opening. Be precise and gentle in equal measure to stretch the quad without pulling anything. Hold for 5 to 8 breaths.
8) Runner's Lunge
From the low lunge, release your back leg, place both hands on the floor on either side of the front foot, and shift your hips back until your front leg is straight. Engage the leg muscles to protect the whole situation, especially the hamstring, and fold forward to wherever you can
today. Press the top of the back foot and the back toes down to help keep
the tailbone long. Feel how strongly engaging the front leg leads to the release and lengthening of the spine and the muscles of the back. Discovering the connections between each part of the body is how we learn to cultivate flexibility in our relationships and in our lives. Stay here for
5 to 8 breaths.
(Pose Dedicated to the Monkey God, Hanuman)
From the runner's lunge, shift into a low lunge again. You might want to have a towel under your front foot to help you slide into Hanumanasana. Most people need to put their hands on blocks; make sure the blocks are below your shoulders so your spine is vertical. You can also place a block under the front sitting bone, which might allow you to extend your arms up once you're in the pose. Come into the pose by slowly inching your front foot forward. Keep the back toes tucked under to maintain awareness in the back leg. Hug the muscles of the arms and legs onto the bones to help lift the spine. Smile with your collarbones and maybe with your mouth—Hanuman is a laughing god! If you aren't using blocks under your hands, lift your arms up next to your ears. Listen to your body: If what you are feeling seems like too much, then it is too much. Back up and wait; flexibility requires curiosity and nonaggression. Stay here for 5 to 15 breaths—let your intuition decide.
10) Ardha Dhanurasana
(Half Bow Pose)
From Hanumanasana, press your palms down, lift your hips up, and in an incredibly graceful fashion, step your front leg back and come into Adho Mukha Svanasana, then inhale forward into Plank Pose. With your elbows close to your body and your body as straight as a plank of wood, slowly lower yourself down to the floor—think “up” as you go down so you make a nice landing. Place your forearms on the floor and lift your head, neck, and chest into a low Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose). Then bend your left leg and hold on to the outside of your left ankle with your left hand. Inhale as you lift your leg up. It's amazing how much effort it takes for such
a little lift. What would happen if you spread the effort throughout your whole body? Keep the bent leg from straying from your midline (place a block between your thighs to help if necessary). If this position feels OK, press your right palm down and straighten that arm. If you feel an opening, that's great. If your lower back feels crunched, come back down, engage the belly, tuck the tailbone, and activate the straight leg, then try coming up with a halfway straight arm. Stay here for 3 breaths. On an exhalation, release and come back down to your abdomen.
11) Windshield Wipers
Rest on your belly for a few breaths. Then roll over onto your back and bend your legs so your feet are on the floor wider than hip distance apart. Open your arms into a T shape and slowly let both knees fall to the left as your head rolls to the right. Then bring the knees back to center and allow them to drop to the right, turning your face to the left. Like windshield wipers on the slowest setting, move your knees from side to side. Going even slower is always an option. In this exercise, your body is fairly loose but your attention is keen as you notice the interesting topography of the back of your pelvis and skull. This is a gentle twist and spinal neutralizer that is nice to do after backbends. Rock back and forth 4 times, finishing with the knees to the right.
From the Windshield Wiper position with your knees to the right, continue to roll all the way over to the right side. Let your head dangle
and be the last thing to come up, and use your hands to walk yourself up to sitting. Place the soles of your feet together about 11/2 feet away from your pelvic floor. Then fold over your legs, taking your time. Your back will round and
your head might rest in the lap of your feet;
if it doesn't, you can place a block under your forehead. Can you be flexible with your
choices and let go of what you think this
pose should look or feel like? Stay here for 10 breaths, then inhale and slowly sit up. Cross your ankles, shift forward onto your hands
and knees, and jump or step into Adho Mukha Svanasana. Shift forward into Plank Pose; lower down onto your knees, chest, and chin; inhale into a low Bhujangasana; and exhale back to Downward Dog again. Lower down onto your hands and knees, then begin the
entire sequence to the second side by coming into the first pose, Virasana.
Cyndi Lee is the founder of OM yoga studios in Manhattan and East Hampton, New York. She is the author and artist
of OM Yoga: A Guide to Daily Practice; OM at Home: A Yoga Journal; the OM Yoga in a Box series; the book Yoga Body, Buddha Mind; the OM Yoga Mix CD series; and the OM Yoga DVDs.