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Why I No Longer Care That I Can’t Touch My Toes

I found myself grasping, rather than simply reaching, for an arbitrary benchmark.

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As a PE teacher, I’m in the business of fielding surprising remarks. Like the time I explained the rules of badminton to a class and a second grader asked if we were also going to play “goodminton.” Or the time a third grader ran the 400 meters and asked, in between heaving breaths, if he could go to the nurse. “I’m only eight and my heart feels so, so old,” he explained.

I’m used to coming up with pithy responses that match the weirdness with a little wisdom. But I was truly stumped in early January when a student asked if I had a New Year’s resolution. It honestly hadn’t occurred to me to come up with one. So like Steve Carrell in the scene from Anchorman, I looked around the gym, desperately grasping for filler. We happened to be stretching, so I whimsically responded that my resolution was to touch my toes.

It might have seemed like a joke coming from a phys ed teacher who also practices yoga, but the truth is I’ve never been able to touch my toes without bending my knees. Whenever I would lead a class through Sun Salutations and it was time for Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend), I would offer myself as an example of what it looks like to not put your hands flat on the floor.

I didn’t mind being the example. But as my whimsy began to take shape in my mind, I started to imagine a newer, more limber way forward. I figured a renewed commitment to stretching and my yoga practice would allow me to have that rarest of resolutions: one that is actually attainable.

So I doubled down on the vigor of my Virabhadrasana 1 (Warrior 1 Pose), I attempted to sit in Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose) when reading or watching Netflix  to open my hips, and I followed the advice of Henry David Thoreau during morning stretching sessions with my students and went confidently in the direction of my dreams.

However, I’d inadvertently created an audience for my progress—or my relative lack thereof. As the semester progressed and my students watched me reach for those wiggling protrusions at the other end of my body without bridging the gap, they constantly reminded me that I’d not yet attained this benchmark.

It was maddening to be so close and yet not where I wanted. Was there value in continuing this Sisyphean quest? Was it time to accept that I’d never be able to compete with the silly putty-like flexibility of my students?

The Plausibility of Touching My Toes

That was six years ago. I still can’t touch my toes. And it still bothers me. My identity as a physical educator and yoga practitioner sometimes feels perilously fragile, a house of cards built upon a singular stretch that I can’t do. I’m only 38 and my hamstrings feel so, so old.

If I can’t achieve my resolution, I figured maybe I could at least confirm that my arbitrary resolution isn’t as important as I’d thought. So I reached out to David Behm, who literally wrote the book on stretching. A professor at the Memorial University of Newfoundland’s School of Human Kinetics and Recreation, Behm has spent his career researching sports science and exercise physiology.

“Flexibility is important,” said Behm. At that moment, my house of cards seemed ready to collapse. But he continued. “Everyone needs a functional range of motion around a joint so they can perform activities of daily living, like picking something off the floor, reaching down to tie your shoes, or putting on socks.”

My mood started to lift. Having a four-year-old and a one-year-old means I’m constantly picking something or someone off the floor and bending down to tie my own shoes as well as those on multiple other little legs. Clearly, my range of motion is nothing if not domestically functional.

Still, I needed to know how important it was to touch my toes. I asked Behm.

“Touching your toes is an arbitrary measure of flexibility,” he said, granting me the confirmation I sought. It wasn’t exactly like the Wizard of Oz but perhaps there was the recognition that the flexibility of mind required to be content was within me all along. When I inquired (asking for a friend) what advice he would offer to someone frustrated by an inability to achieve a specific goal, he responded, “Persistence. Everyone can improve their flexibility if they continue to work at it consistently.”

The Crazymaking of Achieving My Goal

It’s good to have goals. They propel us toward action. They create momentum where there was previously inertia. In the year after that resolution, my yoga practice became more consistent. My general stretching game switched from playful to purposeful.

But rather than reaching blithely in the direction of my feet, I started to yearn to grasp them. You could say I became a little obsessed with my hamstrings achieving an elasticity otherwise unbeknownst to them.

Yearning tends to create a binary in which one either achieves or fails. I’m also a Zen practitioner with a few decades of navigating this tension beneath my belt, so I should have been more aware of the trap I’d set for myself.

Like many benchmarks—run a marathon, read 50 books in a year, or give up red meat—the goal might be the propellant. But as many of us have needed to figure out the hard way, it is our relationship with the goal that matters most.

You can run a marathon, plow through 50 books in a year, and give up red meat and still be the same goal-oriented grouch you were to begin with. Or you can run a 5k, read 24 books, and cut out hamburgers and have undergone a radical transformation.

The process can unfold on a spectrum. Even a small shift in behavior can lead to a tremendous change in our personal trajectory. It is not the goal itself that matters but the orientation toward your process and changed perception that takes place in response to the goal.

The longest journey begins with a single stretch. But we must keep putting one foot next to the other and reaching for them. If that journey south is not appreciated as a dynamic undertaking, why even set a goal? Who wants to spend that much time with their toes, anyway?

At present, my toes remain as elusive as they’ve always been. And I’m okay with that. Perhaps recognizing the arbitrary nature of my goal while honoring the persistence it elicited in me is the wiser approach.

RELATED: More Than a Toe Touch

About Our Contributor
Alex Tzelnic is a writer, PE teacher, and Mindfulness Director living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He has an MA in Mindfulness Studies from Lesley University and has written about the intersection of education, mindfulness, and movement for publications including Tricycle Magazine, Slate, The Daily Beast, and Inverse. You can find him on social media @atz840.

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