In the world of yoga, there are those who stress the need to take things easy, be mindful, focus on listening to your body.  Then there are those who see yoga as a demonstration of ability as if it were a Cirque Du Soleil act.  Both approaches lead to problems if you are pretty damn stiff, like me.

The "take is easy" crowd use woolly and unclear phrases like "listen to your body" - what should you be listening too?.  The phrase "be mindful" is equally vague.   If you always take it easy you will never progress.  If you don't get to your edge, your edge will come to you!  By that I mean your joint mobility will decrease.

On the other hand someone with a "Cirque Du Soleil" mindset, is so focused on achieving that perfect idealised form they stop feeling the pinch in their lower spine.  Then 5 years later, they are miffed they have to join the "take it easy" crowd, because their spine has given up the ghost.  A Harley Street Physio once told me "I love the yoga industry, it keeps us physio's employed".  He was talking about all styles of Hatha yoga.

The "take it easy" crowd waft through the motions with no connection to their physical self and certainly not correctly engaging with their physical capacity.  You do need to be mindful, but not in the way most people interpret it.  The word mindful means; aware; conscious; watchful; careful.  Careful of what exactly?  We usually take the term "mindful" to mean, don't over stretch, particularly the outer superficial muscles.  But stretching muscles is just a small part of the physical structure of opening and strengthening the body.  Stretching is just a subset of the physical processes in Hatha Yoga.   Stretching is given way too much air time.  It's very easy to stretch the muscles without opening or strengthening the body.

On the other hand, someone with a "Cirque Du Soleil" mindset, is unaware how much they are damaging their skeletal structure.  The visual form is the prize, regardless of the physical cost.  For those flexible students & teachers with this mindset it's a difficult pill to swallow, when you point out that it's irrelevant how far you go into a posture.  For some, it can take years to come to terms with such a concept.

The "take it easy" crowd are too busy being mindful and the "Cirque Du Soleil" crowd are too focused on getting into that idealised form, none of them are tying to opening the body.

By opening the joints, synovial fluid can get in and heal the core structure of the joint.  The act of opening a joint, also stretches & strengthens the tendons; ligaments and muscles.  If your focus is on stretching the muscles then all you do is, stretch the muscles.  If you focus your mind on opening, not only do you open, but as a consequence, you also stretch every part of the body, not just the outer superficial muscles. You also build incredible strength.  The added bonus is that you do so with the correct alignment and without over thinking the posture.

Hatha yoga is a mindful meditation in which you focus solely on creating space within the body.  You do this by focusing on opening up the joints of the body in various orientations as defined by the posture.  You must focus only on creating space within the joints.  A joint that is under tension cannot open.  If you engage all your muscles at the same time you will not get anywhere. If you focus on stretching you will not get anywhere.

It's a hunting game, seeking out and finding space.  Don't be afraid of play.  Wiggle the various body joints.  If your hips are tight, give them a wiggle while in the posture.  You will find that sweet spot where you know your hips are open and in the best alinement for you.  Remember we are not all built the same.

As an example, this is how I approach 1st Part of Awkward. As I sit down I focus on opening up the hips.  My hips are particularly stubborn so I give them a little wiggle to ensure the hips are as open and square as they can be.  Then I focus on lengthening the spine up out of the waste, opening up in an extension.  Then I relax open my shoulders and keeping my knees back over my ankles as much as I can, I find space in the knee sockets.  Then I find space in my finger tips. Then I double check my lower spine.  I keep searching seeking out what else I can open.  Your hip may not be as tight as mine so wiggling the hips may not help you.  It could be your lower spine, is your predominate weakness.

Next time you practice take a moment to think; what are you focusing on? Are you trying to achieve an idealised picture in your head of where your body parts should be? Are you focusing on feeling the muscles stretching? If the answer is yes, then bring the mind back to creating space within the joints.

If you have a stubborn stiff body like mine focusing all your energy on creating space is the only way to go, otherwise your progress will be annoyingly slow. 

I teach this approach in my workshops to people like me who are not naturally flexible.  In the last workshop one student said "I wish I could redo my past five years of yoga practice with this mindset".  With the right mindset, Hatha yoga is incredibly powerful.

Bill Thwaites




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