Flexibility & Mobility
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We've all felt like we could use a bit more flexibility and mobility right after a one-off gym session with some buddies or an unexpectedly challenging 'casual weekend trek! Regardless of whether you're striving to look invincible in front of your friends, or just simply looking for more freedom in movement in your everyday life, we intrinsically intuit that increasing our range of motion and having more control over that range can make pretty much every form of movement easier. So, just to clarify some terms before we move ahead, when it comes to flexibility we’re largely concerned with the range of motion around a joint. So for instance, it's the ability to put one leg behind your head, but mobility on the other hand is Mobility is less about the total range of motion, but how much control we have over that range. So it's about strength, stability and ability to hold the pose within that stretch..
As someone who was 'born flexible' and double-jointed, I always have clients tell me that they're just not that flexible, as if it some sort of hardened fact. Confused by which part to stretch first and skeptical of actually being able to make lasting improvements, they give up too soon, because they lack three things
An understanding of the Philosophy of Flexibility
An Understanding of the Science of Flexibility
A clear framework with drills to track progress and measure improvements
My hope is that you can apply these principles and incorporate a version of this template, into your own practice to become a more efficient mover, and human being. We can all afford to be more flexible — not just in our bodies, but in our relationships, the way we work, and with ourselves.
Before you gently stretch to any conclusions about this change happening overnight, allow me to set some realistic outcomes from following this plan
The first thing to keep in mind is that : Minor shifts radically change your experience of the day.
When done mindfully, it can potentially:
Release unnecessary tension in the body.
Improve form and posture
Allow for more efficient movement in the gym, on and off the mat
Reduce stress and improve quality of life
Reduce risk of injury
Alright, enough about the benefits, let's get into the philosophy of flexibility
Flexibility isn't something you need to gain, rather, it's a systematic approach of letting go of some tension we're holding, both on the physical as well as inside the heart and psyche, and because we're so identified with it, we're not quite able to realize the micro-adjustment we can make in that moment to create more space that would move us in a direction away from stiffness and habituation and towards a expansion, possibility and ultimately flexibility . I really think it's a state, not a goal to be achieved, or grasped or willed through some sort of effort, but a natural consequence that comes from releasing tension, creating space and then of course re-enforcing that new position though practice.
I see the asanas as only a tool, but they are reflections of our internal state. When you rush through a vinyasa and don't get your chaturangas right, you're body is reflecting your tendency to rush through things with impatience to get to the next thing and do more and more without attending to the immediacy of what each moment calls for. So when you ask me how to get more flexible, the first thing I'd say is to learn how to return to a state of being pliable to change. It's not just to achieve the splits, but it's to bring that same flexibility into our lives, our work, our relationships and our thinking.
Now, does this mean all the Western physiological definitions aren't necessary to improving flexibility?
Not exactly, because knowledge of physiology can help you visualize the inner workings of your body. It can also help you focus on those specific mechanisms that help you stretch in the first place. This will ultimately help you optimize your efforts in getting more flexible, as well as give you indicators on how to diagnose discomfort, and make the intelligent choice between pushing on or backing off.
You see, an anatomy atlas is a helpful tool for learning, but the mistake lies in thinking that humans are actually built that way across the board. What is actually going on under your skin is so different from what’s in those biology textbook pictures.
Speaking of under the skin, did you know that flexibility is born from increasing the elasticity of the connective tissues rather then stretching muscle fibers themselves? This matrix, is known as the fascia is and the most abundant tissue in the body, because it forms an intricate mesh that includes a variety of cell groups and specializes in binding our anatomy into a cohesive whole.
Almost every yoga asana improves the cellular quality of this varied and vital tissue, by stretching and easing this fiber webbing. So in a way it's transmitting movement patterns into this glue like support where the density of the fascia relates to the circulation, or blood flow to this region. So if we're constantly slouched over our laptops, then the fascia hardens in those postures that we're most often re-enforcing in our day to day lives.
So the next time you practice, and you feel like you haven't done enough, or don't feel flexible yet, keep in mind that the more you practice the more you change the substructure of your body, which holds and contains emotional patterns, as well as mechanical and chemical patterns.
The more you repeat these movements, the more you hydrate the gel with lubricants and healing agents and if you're aren't convinced by this point that your physical posture contains deep emotional patterns, then you must try sitting in a stretch silently until you can experience this.
Each time you stretch, you're increasing circulation, stretching and strengthening the fascial network. This in turn gives you more capacity to have space for things that are hidden beneath the surface, to allow them to come up within the safe container so you can hold them with compassion, and watch them arise and pass away.
In this way, the philosophy of flexibility helps you cultivate more resilience in the mind and understanding the science of flexibility helps improve the elasticity in the connective tissues.
So, having seen the contrast between the philosophy and science behind flexibility, which convinces you more to deepen your practice? Are they contrasting or do they have an overlap?
Let me know in the comments below what your thoughts are!
To me it's just a means of self-discovery through movement.
As Bruce Lee one said, “The most important thing to me is, how, in the process of learning how to use my body, can I come to understand myself?”
This is something we can all ask ourselves. When I was 20, I had the chance to try out my very first Awareness Through the Body class in one of Auroville's schools. We were led through a series of fun games and exercises, like an obstacle course, a candle concentration, and even a pillow fight, but gradually came to understand that they were only tools to encourage us to become more aware of our own perceptions, and emotions. I remember feeling like it was the first time a teacher had really understood how to integrate our physical body through direct experience in the process of learning, rather than merely treating the body as a vessel to fill our brains with facts.
Over the years, I followed my teacher, and eventually got certified in ATB, but more importantly gradually I understood how it offers us ways to discover the existing connections between the mind, our emotions and the physical body. Through the simple set of games and activities, we came to learn how to integrate these different parts of ourselves into a single harmonious whole, thereby making us more self-aware and self-directed individuals.
After deepening my own practice, I tried to include these principles in my own teaching, and while I didn't invent them, I continue to refine this framework through my own subjective experience. As someone who enjoys drawing from different philosophies, I borrowed this acronym RAIN, from one my favorite female Buddhist meditation teachers, Tara Brach.
So in a simplified form, it consists of FOUR steps :
I : INVESTIGATE
N : NURTURE
It all starts with bringing ourselves into a state of receptivity, which allows us to better listen to the many and varied inputs that we're continuously receiving from both the inner and outer world.
On a physical level, it looks like running your awareness from head to toe, and then systematically analyzing the movement/position you're in, how is the neck aligned with respect to the shoulders? How are the shoulders aligned with respect to the wrists, how does the torso feel, and so on...
On the mental level, it involves simply observing the internal landscape and meeting any resistance that comes up. The first step is to simply to recognize that we are stuck and subject to painfully constricting beliefs, emotions, and physical sensations.
You want to simply note what has come up. I like to do this on a voice memo on my phone, where I will literally speak out loud how my critical inner voice sounds in that moment, or I will describe the squeeze of anxiety in my diaphragm or I will describe the sensations heaviness and sadness in a particular part of my body.
The key here is to think of this kind of like a CCTV camera, it just records, doesn't point or judge, it's the human behind that's doing that. In this case, the ego that's telling another story about what you’re feeling. So simply, step 1: Meet it. Acknowledge it.
STEP 2 : ALLOW
Once you've identified what you're feeling, next its time to accept and allow them to be included in your experience. Allowing means letting the thoughts, emotions, feelings, or sensations we have recognized simply be there, without trying to fix or avoid anything. Allowing doesn't necessarily mean that you agree with whatever is arising for you in the moment, it just means that we honestly acknowledge what's there, as well as the painful feelings underneath.
Imagine you're in a pigeon pose, and you can feel your inner thigh in a lot of discomfort, you can feel the anger you felt towards your father, but you can also watch it. Allowing means to remind ourselves that whatever is happening is fine, and to see it as an opportunity to watch ourselves, our mental stories, and simply recognize that we are stuck there.
Just know that this method isn't a silverbullet, it may not work the first time, or the second time..as you practice you may only experience partial shift, perhaps a more subtle sense of openness in the body, or a widening of your persepctive, but you have to see this as progress, because every moment offers us a precious possibility to get to know and 'to use our bodies' better and better.
As Aristotle once said "Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom".
And I couldn't agree more. But while you're sitting with it, you can also offer an encouraging word or phrase to yourself. Whisper softly "this too" or "It's okay" just any phrase to help you accept the reality of your experience in this moment.
STEP 3: INVESTIGATE
Once we have recognized and allowed what is arising, we can deepen our attention through investigation. To investigate, call on your natural curiosity - the desire to know truth - and direct a more focused attention to your present experience. You might ask yourself: What most wants attention? How am I experiencing this in my body? What am I believing? What does this vulnerable place want from me? What does it most need? Whatever the inquiry, your investigation will be most transformational if you step away from conceptualizing and bring your primary attention to the felt-sense in the body.
When you're subject to painfully constricting beliefs, emotions, and physical sensations it can feel impossible to dive into it, and investigate where it's coming from. We kind of just have to let it sit for a while before we can do anything about it.
Recently, I was in a lot of pain and couldn't do my Ashtanga practice, I was feeling bloated, and insecure, and I didn't want to try something hard and fail, I wasn't feeling strong and confident at all. I pivoted and did a functional range conditioning move called 'RAILS and PAILS' and after 15 mins of sitting into the discomfort. As I continued to investigate with a more kind attention, I remember the moment when I directly contacted the ache and weight of living with self-hatred, I was finally able to see how it felt like my whole life was being squeezed by suffering because of this one ouch moment.
You see, this is where the deeper work really begins, because you're finally engaging in the most active part of this process. Remember, “It’s not about gaining flexibility; rather, it’s about letting go of some of the tension we hold — that we identify with. Flexibility is a state, meaning it exists always".
You gotta ask yourself : What micro adjustment can I make in this moment to let go of the tension, tightness or pain that I'm experiencing? While I'm in this state of inquiry, I like to grab my journal and ask what's underlying these feelings. What's the deeper need that not being addressed here? I take time to allow my stream of consciousness to really come out with various options until I finally feel like I can put words to something vague and abstract, then it becomes I whole lot easier. When investigating, the most important thing is to approach your experience in a non-judgmental and kind way.
STEP 4 : NURTURE
Once we have recognized and allowed what is arising, we can then deepen our attention through investigation, and finally rest into a space of nurturing ourselves. True change arises with self-compassion, and although this isn't a one time thing, each practice calls for moments where you nurture your inner life with self-care.
Self-compassion begins to naturally arise in the moments that we recognize we are suffering. To do this, try to sense what the wounded, frightened or hurting place inside you most needs, and then offer some gesture of active care that might address this need. Does it need a message of reassurance? Of forgiveness? Of companionship?
This is really where you offer a phrase as a mental whisper, and maybe read an affirmation, or repeat a mantra. When the intention to awaken self-compassion is sincere, the smallest gesture of turning towards love, of offering love - even if initially it feels awkward - will nourish your heart.
On a physical and practical level, nurturing looks like reinforcing that new position with strengthening drills/habits, showing up for yourself consistently, and doing the work every single day.
I want to end this by saying that yoga is a practice for life—a way of transforming stiffness in the body with awareness and a healing presence. Each time you're willing to slow down and recognize the lack of alignment and ease in your body, you're creating more space in the mind..you are poised to de-condition habituated ways of moving, thinking and feeling. Gradually you'll see that the philosophy and science of flexibility converge into the spaciousness of your heart, and you'll feel more flexible, from the inside out.