Model: Melinda Quesenberry // Photo Credit: Eric Rosso
When I hear someone say “I’m too inflexible to do yoga,” I take it that on some level, they are experiencing fear. Fear is not a bad thing, as long as you recognize its purpose and treat it with compassion. Fear is wonderful for keeping us alive and safe. For me personally, fear is why I didn’t shortcut down that dark alley in Chicago. Fear is why I didn’t hike ‘Olomana on that windy day. Fear has saved my life over and over. But fear can be a little trigger-happy in its enthusiasm to protect me. It’s like a well-meaning guard dog, yet for many, it may be scaring off good stuff. Like yoga.
If you’ve never experienced a yoga class before, there are a lot of things that may scare you. What if you don’t know what to do? What if you hurt yourself? What if you don’t understand what the teacher is saying? What if you can’t keep up? What if you look or move differently from everyone else? What if you fall down? What if you feel like stopping?
The “what ifs” pile up and you might decide at that point to quit before you even start. That’s fear barking, trying its best to keep you in your comfort zone, where no bad happens—and no change, either. When you attend a yoga class, you’re asking your body and mind to enter a space you’ve never visited; to engage in an activity you’ve never done. The unknown is scary. Change is scary. The thought that we might not be up to the task is very, very scary. Woof. Consider the possibility that what you think of as physical inflexibility is actually mental inflexibility. There is no rule book that says you must touch your toes to practice yoga. But you may have decided for yourself that toe-touching is a necessary qualification. I encourage all would-be yogis to stretch their mindsets first, and to imagine that yes, you can practice yoga and be just the way you are right now.
You might hear someone say in protest, “If I do yoga, I’d probably hurt myself.” When I hear statements like this, I understand that the underlying concern is physical safety. To those individuals, I offer this reassurance: Your yoga teacher is dedicated to helping you feel good in your body. The chance to help people is why we got into this yoga teaching thing in the first place (it’s definitely not for money nor prestige). We want you to feel safe, strong and spacious in your body. If you show up to class, we will do everything we know how to support you. If you tell us your limitations, we will work with them. If you share your fears, we will ease them. Different teachers have different approaches and personalities, but I promise that we all want the best for you.
I’ve heard a different response to the “I’m too inflexible to do yoga” statement, and it goes like this: saying you’re too inflexible to do yoga is like saying you’re too dirty to take a shower. This answer is humorous, but here’s where I disagree: If you’ve never taken a shower in your life, then maybe this answer applies. If a shower has ever left you feeling sore, or made you question your ability to live successfully in your body, then that too would make sense. But I find this response avoids addressing the person’s concerns and ridicules it instead.
One of the greatest lessons of the beginning yogi is the fraught journey to your first yoga class. You might feel mountains of doubt, anxiety, inadequacy and confusion, and that’s before even rolling out your yoga mat. I find the best way to ease these feelings is to connect to the deep values underneath. For example, a strong value for integrity might rise up as self-doubt. Your core values of clarity and security might activate your anxiety.
Allowing yourself to recognize and honor these values is a compassionate way to work with uncomfortable feelings. When you give yourself the space to hear the beauty in these underlying values, you let your fear know that you’ve heard its warning and determined it’s okay to proceed. A shift occurs—a softening—an opening to new things. Yoga practice is a safe way to look your fear in the face and say, “I see you. I honor you. I thank you. But I’m doing this for good reasons, and it’s not going to kill me.” In yoga class, with love and consistency, you send a clear message with each new movement and every breath: You can bark all you like, but I’m listening to a deeper voice.
Seeing things from a different perspective can feel like a stretch. When you practice yogāsana, this stretch is literal. Taking a new position is not comfortable nor easy, but the understanding you gain from the effort is worthwhile. As you learn to approach your own edges, you get to know yourself in a way you wouldn’t have otherwise. You may realize that a certain pose is not for you, at least not right now. When you experience the struggle of a new pose or a new angle first-hand, you naturally gain empathy for the struggles of others.
I love this quote from American yoga teacher and physical therapist Judith Hanson Lasater, “Yoga is not about touching your toes. It is about what you learn on the way down.” You will live in your body for your whole life; a lifelong journey to explore the glorious ways down to your toes. I imagine you might enjoy it more if you follow that path even deeper, fear and flexibility (or inflexibility) and all. Yoga classes are a great way to do just that.
Stephanie Keiko Kong
Stephanie Keiko Kong, E-RYT 200, teaches yoga in India, Japan, Australia and the US. Born and raised in Wahiawa, Hawaii, she would love to meet your mom. Catch Stephanie moonlighting as a featured actor with the Hawaii Shakespeare Festival.