When yoga does more harm than good
Giving up on flexibility
I’ve hurt myself more practicing yoga than doing any other physical activity, and that includes ten years of taekwondo. Some of that is on me, but the messages I’ve internalized from contemporary U.S. yoga culture share the blame.
Our yoga practice has a diverse sets of goals, which includes flexibility as well as physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing. As a result, we get a lot of mixed messages. We’re told that yoga is about spirituality rather than stretching, and we’re asked to honor our bodies and to accept ourselves as we are. But almost all the images of yoga in media portray flexible women doing picture-perfect poses. When people who don’t practice yoga find out that I’ve been doing it for many years, they immediately assume that I’m extremely flexible and that I’m just being modest when I say that I’m not. We all know what “real” yoga practitioners look like– slim and extremely flexible (also able-bodied, light skinned, pretty, young, and female).
We get these mixed messages in class as well. Instructors say that we should honor our bodies and accept ourselves as we are, but they also say that if we keep working at it, we’ll be able to do the pose with straight legs. We’ll eventually get our palms to the floor instead of onto a block; we’ll put our forehead down on our shins. This reinforces the already dominant message that yoga is about increasing flexibility and learning to do physically challenging poses. If you’re not there yet, you should continue striving.
I bought into this for a long time. But I kept getting hurt and only got marginally more flexible. 25 years and several pulled hamstrings later, I’m done. I’ll never be very flexible, and I’m OK with that.
I’m OK with it because I’m finally realizing that increasing flexibility is a silly goal for me. I need to be reasonably flexible in order to keep my body healthy, but I’m already reasonably flexible. What I was pursuing in these yoga classes was more flexibility. But since I’m neither a gymnast nor a dancer, the only reason I needed that extra flexibility was to look good on the yoga mat. Success would have gratified my vanity and my ego but nothing else.
That doesn’t mean I’m done with yoga; it means I am ready to do it differently. The focus of flexibility that I absorbed from the culture around me distracted me from the more important physical, mental, and spiritual benefits of yoga.
Let’s replace the focus on flexibility in yoga with increased attention to how the pose feels in our bodies. Is it helping me relax a tight muscle, or is it putting too much pressure on a weak area? Is the pose creating too much tension, or is the challenge just right? How can I adapt the pose to make it work better for me?
Instead of making us feel like we are falling short, I’d like yoga to help us be more comfortable in our bodies. Instead of all these stereotypically perfect bodies, let’s seek out and produce images of people of different shapes and abilities doing poses in the best way for them, using whatever adaptations that they need.
Finding this sort of images is hard. Looking for illustrations for this piece, I googled ‘yoga images’. In the first 100 images I looked at, all except four (4) of the people were slender, unusually flexible, light skinned, pretty, young, and female. There were no visible disabilities and no inflexible people. There were two people of color, one woman over 50, and one who was larger than a size 6.
We’re a long way from where I’d like us to be. Surely we can do better?
Note: There are great sources online challenging the stereotypical images of yoga practitioners. Here are some of my favorites: