Can flexibility training provide a counterbalance for our culture and offer a pathway for developing body awareness? Would there be a benefit to adjusting our perspectives on flexibility?
Are we an inflexible culture? Students and professionals sit for 6-8 hours a day. The former are often punished for fidgeting. Why on earth would a youthful creature not perfectly comply with being still for eight hours a day?
Considering our sit-at-a-desk-for-forty-hours-a-week culture, training flexibility can be a really helpful way to counteract stiffness from daily life and prevent injury. Training flexibility is a rewarding way to develop body awareness and strength, and offers a wide variety of benefits, including enhanced oxygen flow to muscles and improved circulation. (Interestingly, because training flexibility can awaken us to our body's needs, we would become less likely to tolerate such work conditions as we proceed in practice.) Flexibility training can help us correct some of our lifestyle imbalances.
I became powerfully drawn to contortion right about the time I started doing full-time work sitting at a desk. Once or twice a week I would power home on my bike after work, lay out the yoga mat, and bend as deeply as I could. The relief was immense. All the pent up energy found a place to go.
Watching the progress was exhilarating. I astonished myself with what I could achieve, and my mind began to open along with spaciousness in my body. And excitingly, I began to open to my body in unprecedented ways. Even though I had been an athlete my whole life and had been practicing yoga for years, contortion significantly deepened my body awareness. Because it brings on very powerful sensations, I could start to feel expressions in parts of my body I was usually dead to. Studying this wordless language became a deeply personal journey within the four walls of my room. There was an emotional side to it--the freeing of locked up energy. I backbended through love and heartbreak. The practice was always there to help me refocus my mind and feel centered again.
About the same time that I was getting into contortion, I was developing my personal meditation practice. The combination was powerful. Rather swiftly, I went from being one of the headiest people I knew to actually being...present in my body. And it felt so good--so meaningful. And suddenly, I had a reliable pathway into clarity and calm. When I curve my spine deeply, the clutter blocking my way to my soul clears out. I feel present and spacious. The release is gratifying.
Of course I love sharing my deepest poses on social media. I fell in love with the crazy deep arcs of beautiful backs, serene countenances, and artfully poised legs I saw in my feed. I longed to express my spine the way contortionists did. I felt a little conflicted about sharing; as a yoga teacher I insisted that the depth of the pose is NOT equivalent to the depth of practice. I didn't want to get anyone on the path for the wrong reasons. But I couldn't resist sharing, as mindfully as I could. I was so inspired. I struggle still with depicting flexibility and contortion without triggering everyone's automatic reactions: "this is impressive;" "this is sexy;" "this is dangerous." I hope to convey a bit of the intimate side of it, the subtlety within the extreme.
I've attracted much applause...and some concern. Contortion freaks people out--you will pinch a nerve, or pull a muscle...right? Or maybe break your neck? We are so very afraid of our spines, I have learned. Those things can happen (well I don't know about breaking your neck), but they didn't. I don't always train perfectly, and sometimes I have to take breaks (true in every sport I've ever practiced). But mostly, contortion makes me feel good, and as I became more flexible, I also became stronger; flexibility is NOT patiently laying in a position until you become like taffy. With the exception of a few passive stretches, you need to HOLD yourself in the position with your own strength! This is why I do not support assisted passive stretching as a primary way to train flexibility, ESPECIALLY in children. When you train active flexibility, you have a self-corrective, holistic practice: as you become more mobile, you also become more stable. Your joints don't become too loose--they are packed snug with muscle.
I started to think more critically about the alarm I generated with my extreme flexibility training. Why are we not alarmed when someone sits for forty hours a week at school and work? Why do we blindly accept that? Contortion MIGHT lead to injury (as with American Football, running, basketball, or other culturally accepted activities). Sitting for forty hours a week WILL lead to injury, and it will also put you at higher risk of depression and other health troubles. The body wants to move, and our muscles want to breathe. Stretching delivers more oxygen into your muscles--that's partly why it feels so so good. Stretching is like deep breathing. Plus, the quality of awareness is critically important. Because risk does rise at your end range, you have to be so so careful. So present. When I train contortion, I am fully with every sensation, and I have learned how to adjust and respond to the sensations that unfold at my flexibility boundaries. I have to keep my ego at bay, understanding that the deepest I can go is not always the deepest I should go.
When we sit for hours, we stop listening to the body. If we listened, we would have to get up too much for most employers' liking. But the body-aware must settle down. Sitting for forty hours a week is justified in our culture because we-must-work (imagine that in a robot voice) and because generally it is difficult for us to recognize the danger of slow-onset injury and disease. We are also biased toward mental development, systematically and institutionally neglecting care for the body for the sake of doing-work (robot voice) and cultivating brain skills. We accept sitting and rationalize the unease it brings us, just as we accept driving and rationalize the trauma and death it brings us. Contortion, of course, is on the fringe. People who do it often highlight its eccentricity, which is fine, but that comes with a lot of false perceptions.
To me, contortion is almost exclusively a personal, private practice. To me, contortion is an intimate ecology of self-study, challenging boundaries of mind and body, discernment, and discipline. Even though it's extreme, it's oh-so-subtle. What I feel in my body from one practice to the next is so slight, yet sometimes so profound. Fundamentally, and to me most excitingly, the practice is an exploration--which means it offers the thrill of new discovery.
Also, I find that deep flexibility can be mysterious, and therefore intriguing. Someone once told me that deep stretching simulates the feeling of somebody touching you--that the brain interprets those sensations in the same way. Sometimes I wonder if this is why I so often associate deep stretching with love. Somehow I feel there is emotional processing during deep stretching. Is something happening on another level? Sometimes I feel like a light or bright energy is patterning through my body, showing me where and how to move next, showing me when my back and my hands begin to communicate noticeably for the first time ever. What is that? Why is it sometimes there and other times not? I also love the feeling of new contact between parts of my body. I get a lot out of feeling my toes against the back of my head, or my elbow on my foot, and I adore the feeling of taking my feet into my hands when I am in cheststand. Is it the novelty? Is it like when we were first encountering the world? I'm enchanted with the questions offered by my practice of flexibility.
Our personal lives and our culture as a whole need corrective practices, rituals, and works of art and literature to help us out of the narrow patterns we slide into. As we carry into the 21st century with a continuing bias toward mental development, we need pathways into body awareness. We need practices to help us draw our shoulders back, strengthen our hamstrings, and lengthen our hip flexors. We need to prioritize proprioception and interoception. We need expansion at the throat and the heart center, and we need to move our joints in all the ways they can move. Flexibility training could be a promising counterbalance, not only because it will work, but because it is attractive enough to generate interest and is tangibly rewarding enough to motivate disciplined practice.
As a woman training contortion, I represent the extreme end of the spectrum. You don't need to go there. But what would happen if you asked your body what mobility it would like? Would you like to be able to comfortably touch your toes? Stop slouching? Reduce back pain? Flexibility training can support you in counterbalancing the habits of movement that, left unchecked, lock you into an ever-shrinking range.
Challenging cultural perceptions of flexibility
Just as we need high-quality, careful, discerning awareness when we practice flexibility in order to train safely, we need to apply a high-quality awareness to our perceptions of and attitudes toward flexibility. Flexibility is a total temptress--it is SUPER easy to just say "I want to be able to do the splits" and in maintaining that narrow mindset, the practitioner bars herself from the true depth and offerings of the process and gets cozy with her ego. To touch into the essence of the practice, I encourage a soft, curious mental approach to training flexibility. I would discourage using it as a way to show off, or pushing too hard to get to some depth before your body is ready. Flexibility training truly tests our self-awareness and restraint. Let's highlight and make honorable these aspects of flexibility, rather than splashing in the shallow waters of vanity and dominance. This isn't about showing off, although sharing learned skills and the joys of the practice is a potentially connective and beautiful thing. We don't need to exclude sexual appeal or sheer impressive athleticism from our cultural perceptions--but wouldn't it be so much more interesting if we placed those legitimate aspects of flexibility in the broader context of the practice, including inner-personal exploration and self-care?
To support an intimate, meaningful practice, I encourage anyone training flexibility to bring meditation into the picture. It doesn't need to be a perfect integration of meditating while stretching, but having a consistent meditation practice greatly supports the practice. Not only does meditation support us in applying quality awareness to the present moment, but it also actually accelerates flexibility training, because as the nervous system learns to relax, our muscles begin to let go, and we gently ease out of our rigid holding patterns.
And finally, can we reconsider the 40-hour sitting-standing workweek? Can we be more creative than that, and systematically implement stretch/movement breaks into our schools and workplaces?
Let us please, please have the wisdom to hold body awareness in the same esteem we hold intellectual acuity--after all, isn't it intelligent to know what's going on within our bodies, and to be able to take action that supports our best health and happiness?
Do you want to get in touch with yourself while encouraging a cultural shift through your own personal process? Get started training flexibility safely and mindfully.
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